Faith, Sacrifice, Spiritual Journeys and the Oscars

Finding inspiration in the faith journeys described in two classic movies.

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Guideposts Editor-in-Chief Edward Grinnan

Insomniac that I am and this week being Academy Awards week as well as the first week of Lent, I was taken hostage by the Turner Classic Movies channel, which was showing inspirational and faith-filled movies that had won or been nominated for an Oscar.

I was about to go to bed the other night when I overheard the voice of TCM host Robert Osborne say, “ ... starring Jennifer Jones, Charles Bickford, Lee.J.Cobb and a young Vincent Price.”

Ah! It could be none other than 1943’s The Song of Bernadette, about the simple, happy-go-lucky French peasant girl who has visions of the Virgin Mary that eventually leads to discovering the healing spring that feeds the Fountain of Lourdes.

Dramatic tension is created by the suspicion that the young and untutored Bernadette falls under. Is she faking? Are her visions of Mary actually hallucinations brought on by mental illness? And why would God choose this simple—some say silly—peasant girl as the object of divine attention?

As actually occurred in 1862, an exhaustive and sometimes cruel investigation is undertaken by church authorities. Bernadette never wavers in her faith or her recounting of her visions of Mary. She is true to her experience with “The Lady” as she calls her. Eventually, as word of the healing waters at Lourdes spreads worldwide, Bernadette is compelled to join a cloistered order of nuns in the French countryside. where she meets a superior nun who cannot understand why God chose a foolish young girl to glorify him rather than choose her, who has spent a lifetime of sacrifice and suffering in honor of him. And it is this theme of mental and physical torment as a spiritual vector for growing intimate with Jesus that truly gives the story its spiritual and dramatic power, and is what won Jennifer Jones an Oscar for her role as Bernadette.

At this point of conflict in the story, when the older nun lashes out at Bernadette, an appalling and at once miraculous truth is revealed about Bernadette. In case you haven’t seen the movie, I won’t ruin it for you. But the one thing she is denied to cure or even ease her suffering is the very waters of Lourdes. It is not for you, my child, God tells her.

It was the middle of the night by now but again the voice of Robert Osborne, like a siren’s song, captured me. This time the movie was The Razor’s Edge, starring Tyrone Power and the gorgeous Gene Tierney in W. Somerset Maugham’s celebrated story about a traumatized young World War I vet who returns to civilian life seeking some transcendent spiritual experience that will help him process the horrors of war. He rejects the comfortable professional position offered to him by friends, refuses to settle into a bourgeois lifestyle with his fiancée and instead flees Chicago for Paris, where he lives as a bohemian on a modest inheritance, learning and seeking.

His journey takes him to a Benedictine monastery and an ashram high in the Himalayas, where he finally experiences the oneness with God he so ardently seeks. Eventually he makes his way back to Paris and then Chicago. His fiancée, who has inherited a great fortune, makes another desperate play for him. Again he is offered a cushy position on the stock exchange. Instead, Larry Darrell, our faith-filled protagonist, decides to lead the life of a simple laborer and immerse himself in spiritual study.

Both Bernadette and Larry are challenged and mocked. Larry is called a loafer, and Bernadette a kook and heretic. Yet both are stubbornly faithful to the religious desire that drives their quest for a deeper relationship with the divine. And in the end, both are happy in a way that is contrary to our typical notions of contentment. What makes them so is not materialism or the externals of life, but their transcendent interior lives.

Well, by then it was time to go to work. Ash Wednesday morning. I saw the people passing me on the street, the cruciform ashes on their foreheads. And I thought of the two lessons the movies had taught: Bernadette’s embrace of sacrifice and Larry’s of humility. An apt message on this holy first day of Lent.

So do you have a favorite faith-filled or inspirational movie, especially an oldie? Post below.

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