The Gravity of Prayer

Sandra Bullock and George Clooney star in a scene from the movie "Gravity." (CNS photo/Warner Bros.)
Sandra Bullock and George Clooney star in a scene from the movie “Gravity.” (CNS photo/Warner Bros.)

I’ve got a bone to pick with Gravity, or with its marketing scheme at the very least. The film, a tense walk with Sandra Bullock through the worst space trip since 1979, presents itself as a sci-fi survivalist nightmare (think Open Water in orbit) wherein rookie astronaut Dr. Ryan Stone (Bullock) and veteran spacewalker Matt Kowalski (George Clooney, absolutely stealing the show) are stranded among the stars and have to struggle to survive and make their way home to Earth. I was expecting a cut-and-dry, “How do we get out of this?” thriller with a sense of imminent peril throughout — a notion only emphasized by the posters, previews, and propaganda with the phrase “Don’t let go.” You can almost hear Bullock’s desperate and terrified Dr. Stone pleading the line, as though it’s the only thing between her and certain death. As the debris flew at Stone and Kowalski at the beginning of the film, sending them spinning off into the black void, I was ecstatic — this was the movie I was ready to see.

What I got for the next 90 minutes was far from this, however. Not that it was boring (though the movie did take a slow-build tension approach rather than the pulse-pounding, edge-of-your-seat thrill that I was expecting), but rather it focused much more on the people than the peril. In short, Gravity was a much different film than I had planned for, but also a better one for that.

Rather than aiming for the standard “shock factor” associated with thrillers, writers Alfonso and Jonás Cuarón opted to instead focus on their characters, allowing the audience to really connect and feel the vastness of space and the crushing anxiety of the situation through their eyes. This approach definitely worked for Gravity, as the empathy viewers felt for the characters (particularly Dr. Stone) enhanced our understanding of the desperation that being trapped alone in space would cause. Using stunning visuals to accomplish this feat, it is no surprise that the film is being touted as a Best Picture candidate.

As good a movie as it may have been, I still had a nagging feeling as I left the theater, which brings me back to the movie’s off-the-mark marketing. “Don’t let go,” I thought to myself, seeing the poster outside the theater, could not be further from the point of Gravity if it tried; rather, the movie’s underlying theme strikes as exactly the opposite.

To refrain from spoiling a movie that apparently everyone is seeing (and if you haven’t seen it yet, you definitely should!) I’ll keep this next part generic. Over and over again throughout the movie, Dr. Stone faces moments where her life depends on sheer courage, ingenuity, and quick action, all of which require Dr. Stone to be present in the “now” — to live effectively and bravely in the present rather than letting her insecurities, fears and the past hold her back.

It’s certainly a lesson we could all do well to learn. After all, how often do we find ourselves thinking over past mistakes, or wondering how things would have turned out if we had acted differently or if a loved one was still with us? Yet, as Gravity shows us, we cannot let these things dominate our lives. We must let go of the things that inhibit us, not completely leave them behind, but place them aside and turn our attention instead to the pressing concerns of the here and now. Only then can we truly be our best and do our best.

But how can we do this? One method: prayer. Whether you practice a devout regimen of prayer or you, as Dr. Stone admits in the movie, have never prayed, there are plenty of ways to use prayer to help us overcome our fears. One way that I find particularly helpful (and this may just be the Jesuit education in me coming out) is to pray St. Ignatius’s Daily Examen. The Examen is a form of meditative prayer that asks us to simply reflect on the day we’ve just lived, and use that reflection as a basis for prayer and action in regard to the future. In her own way, Ryan Stone prays a sort of simplified Examen in Gravity (somewhat ironically, after she admits to having never been taught how to pray). We see her taking part, more or less, in each of the Examen’s steps during this sequence: She is aware of God’s presence in her plea that someone pray for her because she’s not sure how to do it herself, she revisits the harrowing events that have befallen her, there is intense emotional awareness of the grave situation at hand, and lastly, she takes all the fear, heartbreak, and strife she has confronted in life to build up her courage and face the future.

Naturally, as this is a film, not every single real-life reflection or prayer of the Examen is going to be as life-changing as the one that Dr. Stone experiences, but nonetheless practicing a meditation or prayer like this certainly has the power to give us the strength and courage we may require in a time of need.