Monthly Archives: April 2014

Movies and the Spiritual Life

Get out the popcorn,“Monk’s Way, Sannyasi Way, Human Way” goes to the movies!  There’s a couple of movies I would like to talk about, but first let us consider movies in general as relating to the spiritual journey.  At the deeper levels of the spiritual life it must be said that things like movies are purely a diversion and a distraction and can simply get in the way.  At the deepest level it won’t really matter but there is a bit of a journey before one gets there.  But mostly it is like all of societal life, a feeble substitute for what the spiritual life opens up for us.  Go out into the midst of society, into the streets, the stores, the homes, the gathering places and look and listen to what people are doing and saying and what they are concerned about and what interests them; and you will find it’s all Plato’s Cave.  Recall: a group of people trapped in a deep, dark cave, sitting facing a wall watching the shadows dancing on the wall cast by a fire behind them.  They believe these shadows are reality.  This was Plato’s comment on our condition.  Very apt still, perhaps even more so.  The shadows are simply more technically sophisticated, but they are still shadows.  If one person happens to liberate himself and make it out of this dark cave and emerge into the sunlight, he/she will then see Reality and if that person goes back to tell his/her fellow “prisoners” about this, he will not be believed.  There is no other reality for these people.  Such is the condition of most of societal life, and it is easy to see this if you just look around you.  Thus the spiritual journey is very difficult in the midst of society, and thus so many who have gotten a sense that there is way out of this cave tend to remove themselves to a certain degree from “business as usual” society.


Movies more often than not are simply just another aspect of this “life in the cave of shadows.”  But there is one significant difference.  Before one reaches the deeper levels of the spiritual life when in fact you should just simply put away such diversions, some movies—very few, but some—can give you a sense of what is deeper than the mere surface reality.  There are movies that can indicate that there is more to “here” than this “cave of shadows.”  That is a true function of all great art, and some movies can play the same role.  Now some people might point out that there is this thing called “religious movies.”  What they mean are movies whose very content is emphatically and clearly “very religious”–Biblical movies for example.   With very few exceptions these are to be avoided at all costs(like a lot of religious art)!!  These are mostly the products of very distorted hearts  which project their distortions onto the movie screen.  Of course the whole process starts by a profound misreading of the Biblical text (which is problematic in itself and not as fundamentalists claim: “the truth, nothing but the truth, the whole truth”!) as if it were history or science or biography and then taking that narrative and using it as a vehicle for their own distortions.  Actually Christianity and Judaism have done a lot of that long before there were movies, but now we are talking about movies.  There are a few notable exceptions, and one would be Pasolini’s Gospel of Matthew which was done in the early ‘60s and is still very timely and not out of date.   For many, this movie was a surprise because Pasolini was an unbeliever, a homosexual and a Marxist—so this quiet, poetic, austere, ultrasimple presentation of Jesus in the simple unembellished words of the Gospel came as a total surprise.  Pasolini wanted to make a move about Jesus truthfully, and he used the Gospel of Matthew as his script.  So actually it is very faithful to the Gospel text in a very unusual way—you see the words in a representation of how that world would have looked and sounded.  It is done in the style of Italian neorealism with no established big actors in any role.  He used “real people.” This was not to be some distorted pious holy-card world.    A remarkable portrayal of Jesus that you usually don’t meet in Church!   Also this is not the “mystic Jesus” of Abhishiktananda, for example; nor the Risen Christ of true Christian theology; but it was and still is a very important aspect of Jesus’s life, this portrayal of a gritty, poor Jesus who is not “soft and meek” but a champion of the underclass.  Not someone who simply comes to rubber-stamp your own desires for success, especially if you are rich.  So a movie like this can serve a good purpose if it leads you to question a kind of surface piety and starts you searching for something deeper. A good religious movie can be a launching point for “spiritual depth” but not necessarily so and certainly not very often either.


Now most Biblical movies, whether you call them religious or not, are actually a block to any real spirituality.  Like I said, they are mostly a misreading and misrepresentation of the Biblical text and its many problems and difficulties in interpretation and on top of that they become projections of the moviemakers own distortions which in turn feeds on the distortions of the movie viewers.  (In that regard movies are only carrying on what fundamentalist ministers, priests and rabbis have been doing for centuries.)  A very good example of that is the new movie “Noah.”  A truly horrible movie.   It shows a gross misunderstanding of that Biblical story and furthermore it adds all kinds of elements to “enhance” the story making it simply another Hollywood disaster flick of which there have been many in recent years (one wonders what is going on in our collective unconscious!).  I was curious what some movie reviewers did with that movie and what kind of impact it might have, so I consulted one reviewer and what I found confirmed my worst fears and expectations.  This was written by Bob Grimm, and I will quote extensively:  “I did my share of Bible reading when I was a kid and teen.  In fact, I read it multiple times from cover to cover….  Of all the literature I read as an impressionable youth, none was more violent and more insane than the Bible.  Actually, I will go as far as to say the Bible is the sickest book ever written when it comes to death and destruction.  If you count the predicted Apocalypse, the whole world dies more than once in that particular piece of literature.  That’s a huge body count.  Whether you are religious or not, the Bible is, no doubt, a pretty sweet platform for over-the-top cinema.  With “Noah”, director Darren Aronfsky has concocted a totally crazy, darkly nasty disaster film befitting those few pages in the book of Genesis.”  And so on…!


But there are “spiritual movies” that are not at all at first glance religious or spiritual, certainly not “Biblical,” and these are the ones which are the most interesting, have the deepest impact and bring us to the edge of a real spiritual journey.  I would like to consider two such movies.  The first one is the “Life of Pi,” an award winning movie with an incredible story and very popular both because of the inherent interest in the unusual story and remarkable photography, and also something much deeper….  It is a truly spiritual movie but not in an obvious way—even though it has quite a few overt references to religion in it.  It is a truly spiritual movie in a way that probably makes conservative, orthodox believers in all religions feel a bit uncomfortable even if they don’t quite get the real point of the story.


So what do we make of the “Life of Pi”?  It is an incredible tale of survival of a young Indian man by the name of Piscine Molitor Patel—shortened to Pi.  A would-be writer visits him in his adult home in Canada and requests to hear his strange story of survival.  Pi tells him his whole life story from his childhood.  He asks the writer if he believes in God.  The question is not irrelevant because the whole childhood of Pi is enveloped by the “story of God.”  The writer professes a kind of agnosticism, so Pi tells him that one needs a story to introduce one to the reality of God.  And each and every religion presents a kind of story that introduces one to that Reality.  Pi of course begins his life with the “story” of Hinduism in the person of Krishna, but he is a young man with an open and deep heart (and monks would say, a pure heart) so he is open to learning the other great stories that lead to God.  And so when he learns about Christ he is deeply puzzled and troubled but drawn deeper and deeper into that story.  Then comes the story of Islam.  He takes on each story without abandoning the previous one.  His father chides him about that.  His father is committed to the “story” of science and rationalism.  It is a powerful story that makes things happen, where you control the world, etc.  His father is not interested in any other story.   So this is the first part of the movie and sets the stage for what is to come.

The next part is what most people get interested in—this incredible tale of survival on a large lifeboat with a wild tiger in the middle of the Pacific.  He spends months on this lifeboat with this tiger and a few other animals that get eaten early on.  Pi has quite a few adventures during these months at sea, but when he is finally rescued and the investigators come to talk to him about the shipwreck that killed everyone, including his family, they do not believe his story—it is so incredible.  Thus he begins to tell them a story that they might believe, a very rational, logical but grim account of how his family and a few crew members fought against each other for survival and the use of the few survival resources.  So the investigators are left to believe or to accept either story—they have a choice between these two stories.  At first they choose the obvious, the more rational story that fits their limits of understanding and imagination.  It makes “sense” within their limited perspective.  But it turns out that ultimately they write down the “incredible tiger story” as the true explanation of what happened.  They choose the more wondrous story.  And then Pi asks his visitor, “which  story of the two do you prefer?”  And the young writer also says, the one with the tiger.  And Pi then gives the main line in the whole movie: “And so it is with God.”  The young writer is struggling with his unbelief, with his agnosticism, but Pi points out to him that he is not compelled to believe anything, but of the stories he has heard, the various ones about God and the logical rational scientific one, of these which one would he prefer as the “ground story” of this world, the basis of it all.   The writer does not answer but you can see the smile on his face, a smile of relief.  So, first of all faith is not compulsion and there is no “proof” of anything in the spiritual world.  What we have is a different explanation for the meaning of it all, and that is a start.  But then, and this is what makes the conservative movie viewer very uneasy, the movie seems to be saying that all “stories of God” lead to God.  Here too you have a choice—no compulsion—you will NOT have made a mistake if you choose the “wrong one.”  There is no wrong choice.  Pi somehow absorbs all the stories of God into himself even as he seems to be an Indian Christian.  How can he do that? How can he hold in his heart the “story” of Hinduism, the “story” of Christianity, and the “story” of Islam all at the same time?  God is a Reality so far beyond any story that this Reality is totally beyond our understanding, but we Christians find that we best approach this Reality through the person of Jesus; but that doesn’t mean that we cannot at the same time learn much from the stories of Islam and Hinduism and others and approach God with the greatest intimacy through these stories.     So this is a movie that opens one on a long spiritual journey which transcends the logical rational world both of science and of theology.


Finally there is another movie I would like to consider, one that is even less “religious” than the “Life of Pi.”  This is a short little piece called “Return to Balance: A Climber’s Journey.”  This is not a major movie but a small production that you can probably pick up at your local library on a DVD.  It features world-class rock climber Ron Kauk and it is set in Yosemite.  The movie has no explicit talk of God, of religion, of spirituality, etc., but it is a deeply spiritual movie with a fundamental tone of Taoism and Native American spirituality.  First of all just the scenery itself evokes “something wonderful” underlying all our lives.  It is a beauty and an evocation right from the Chinese Taoist and Buddhist scroll paintings.  It is a picture of a world that Han-shan knew quite well.  And then there is the story of Ron Kauk.  He began his young climbing life in a very competitive spirit, in attempts to “conquer” the mountain, in impressing people, etc.  But climbing turned out to be a spiritual path that transformed his heart.  Now he dwells in the wilds and on the rock walls in a way that very few can appreciate.  He is in a very different space now than where he began, and that’s a true sign of a spiritual journey.  He uses that word “connected” a lot in this movie.  I thought of all those young people in our cities who are constantly texting trying to feel connected, and here is a man who is so deeply connected that they have not a clue about this reality.  “Connectedness” does not come from some gadget but from the heart.  Anyway, this is a very simple, understated movie with few words and no “special effects,” but one with a deeply penetrating insight into the real need of your heart.

The Homeless Christ

In the past few months there have been several news stories about this piece of sculpture by the Canadian sculptor, Timothy Schmalz.  The title of this work of art is “The Homeless Jesus,” and it depicts a figure lying on a park bench all wrapped in a cloak or blanket of sorts, all covered, even the head, so you can’t tell who the figure is except that the feet are partially sticking out and you can see the marks of crucified legs, the nail-scarred feet.  You can see the photo of this sculpture in the news stories that I link to below.

As you can well imagine this work of religious art shook up a lot of people.  This is not a depiction of Jesus like on the holy cards, Easter Greetings, Hollywood movies, etc.  This is not a Jesus that the “Gospel of prosperity” people can even begin to recognize.  Not even the baroque Crucified Christ found in many Catholic Churches disturbs as much as this vision—for the baroque image is often surrounded by a plethora of gold and decorations and seems strangely “removed” and distant from peoples’ everyday struggles and suffering.  This is the Homeless One we see every day.  In fact Schmalz was inspired by seeing a homeless person sleeping on a park bench.  A subtle but important point is that there is enough room on the park bench for you to sit down next to it.  It is not “enshrined” on some altar.


Schmalz offered the sculpture to two Catholic cathedrals: St. Michael’s in Toronto and St. Patrick’s in New York City.  Both churches turned it down because it was “unsuitable.”  Indeed!  This is not the image of Jesus that fits their “comfort zone” perhaps!  The sculpture finally found its place in front of Regis College, the Jesuit theologate associated with the University of Toronto.    And Pope Francis apparently has blessed an image of this sculpture.  But there is even more to this story.  Somehow a small Episcopal church in North Carolina acquired a replica of this sculpture as a gift and the pastor put it in front of his church, and that has caused a bit of a controversy.  The church is St. Alban’s in Davidson, a very upscale parish in a small college town, Davidson College, a very liberal parish from all indications.  But the image is a bit too much for some of the parishioners.  One of them called it “creepy” and “macabre.”  Another was just patronizing saying that “it reminds us of those who are not as fortunate as we are.”  Truly!  I hope it does more than that!

Here are the links to two news stories and images of the sculpture:


Now I would like to share some reflections that this sculpture invites us to.  Like any true work of art, it can take us in several different directions and touch us at several different levels of our heart and mind—seemingly all at the same time also!


  1. It feels embarrassing to say this because it is so obvious but the sculpture is a radical indictment of the inhumanity of a socioeconomic system that allows this kind of homelessness.  We live in a world that has almost become numb to such human degradation and cruelty.  Whether it be war and famine or being driven out as a refugee, whether it be financial disaster, or whether it be even personal failing and personal weakness, whatever be the cause, no society can be said to be just and humane and civilized that allows such human suffering.  And the solution is of course not the proverbial soup kitchen or overnight shelter—these are merely there to keep someone alive for the moment—but the solution lies in a real and deep revising of our great social priorities and our own way of life.
  2. Now all this is on the socioeconomic level, but there is naturally the underlying foundation for all this which is religious and spiritual.  Many churches favor and encourage “acts of charity”—like the soup kitchen, etc—but few address the actual problem that causes such an attack on the children of God.  And if they do it usually is in some bland generic form like “greed.”  All the large religious institutions are not known for their prophetic voice!  So one thinks of some of the Old Testament prophets and their sharp words, their call for a kind of “deconstruction” of the social structures that oppressed the poor.  Of course the solution lies much deeper even than that.  One has to turn to the Gospels to even begin to get there.  Consider the parable that Jesus tells about Lazarus (Luke 16: 19-31):

“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores……”

The parable points to “chasms” that we create in the way we view our fellow human beings—the chasm of a kind of “duality” as Abhishiktananda would put it, where we and “our brother” are two, not one—and the social consequences of that are disastrous.  And this “chasm” that we put between ourselves and our brother is the very same chasm that we then put between ourselves and God.  We live within this delusion of “twoness” with really bad consequences.  This is at the heart of the Gospel message.


  1.  But now that we have entered the spiritual and religious significance of this sculpture, let us push even further.  It is clear that the homeless one is of special significance with regard to the Reality of God.  Of course this kind of suffering draws the infinite mercy and compassion of God into special attendance as it were.  But there is more to this.  The homeless one is also a special manifestation of that Ultimate Reality we call God.  The great paradox and mystery is that when we truly see this homeless one we see something of that Ultimate Mystery or we see “into it,” or into its depths.  Thus there are people who deliberately and voluntarily take on this state of being homeless, take on this burden.  Because in it they are immersed in the manifestation of the Divine Mystery. They embrace a true homelessness, physical and/or psychological/spiritual because they are One with the One who is Absolute Homelessness because nothing can be that limitation for the Absolute Reality which is called “home.”  They embrace their namelessness because they are one with the Absolutely Nameless One.  Jesus called him “Father,” “abba,” but this is only an indication of intimate relationality, of infinite closeness.  But there is no name for this Reality.  It is beyond all Names and all limitations, all homes, because in effect this Reality is “all in all.”  Their heart cries out for this Reality and only this Reality.  There is no other home for them but homelessness.  In some cultures, like India, the homeless one is culturally supported in a sense because he has a recognizable “place” within the social cosmos.  This is of course the profound reality of sannyasa.  In Old Russia there was the phenomenon of The Pilgrim.  Then there are people who are simply thrown into this homelessness not out of choice, but then they find within it that Reality which makes them not want to leave it; they find not dereliction but blessedness.  It is as if within homelessness they discover their true home–examples would be the Western saints, Benedict Joseph Labre or Alexius of Rome.  There is one other religious paradigm of chosen homelessness that we need to look at: in ancient Syria, at the beginnings of Christianity.


  1.  In early Christianity, in Syria, about the 2nd Century, there arose a vision of being a disciple of Christ that made homelessness a norm, not an exception.  It was a radical Christianity to say the least.  Radical in its asceticism; radical in its demands for being a “true Christian.”  Baptism was an extremely profound moment, and from that moment when you came out of the water (like in the initiation into sannyasa) you became a homeless wandering monk.  We will have to ponder this Syriac Christianity at some point later, but for now let us just focus on this point.  Baptism meant a kind of uprooting at various levels of your being.  By the way, its radical nature meant that for all practical purposes many put off being baptized until they felt they were “ready” to take this step.  To be sure, when you were baptized you did not simply go home and pick up your life as before.  Gabriele Winkler, a scholar of early Christianity, puts it this way(after having quoted a poem by Tagore to illustrate a similar sentiment):  “In the Gospel Jesus invites those who have this great power of love to stake all they have, and having staked their last penny, to stake themselves—here we find ourselves at the heart of early Syrian asceticism.  The ‘game of undoing’ finds its equivalent in Jesus’ challenge to become utterly uprooted and newly grounded.  Such radical poverty means: 1. Uprootedness from any comfort, let alone wealth; 2. Uprootedness from past origins and present ties; 3. Uprootedness from whatever could be considered as home or familiar surroundings; 4. Uprootedness from the essence of the ‘I’.  These four conditions are particularly emphasized in Luke”(which comes from Syria).  In both Luke 9:58 and Matthew 8:20 we find those overly familiar words to whose radical nature we have become numb: “Foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of man has nowhere to lay his head.”  A would-be disciple has just told Jesus that he will follow him, and Jesus basically tells him that this will entail utter homelessness.  We hear no more of that would-be disciple.


  1. Consider this then.  What does “home” mean?  What does it mean to be “at home,” or to “have a home.”  It is an “address” of some kind, a part of an identity-making mechanism that is constantly churning:  I am this…I am that….  And multiplied a thousand times with statements and actions that society will recognize and approve.  Having a home means one has some handle on this process, one is in control, one is thoroughly integrated in the mechanisms of society.   To be homeless is then to be “lost” in a sense.  To be homeless is also to be nameless.  You really become almost invisible to the larger society—unless of course you are culturally “marked” as homeless and given that as your identity.   The sculpture of the homeless one is almost without identity—we cannot even see his face; there is just the lump of a covered body, with the scarred feet sticking out.  The only credentials the Homeless One has are the marks of the Crucifixion.  It is striking that this Ultimate Reality which we call God would choose that as his only identity among us.  We need to see that.


  1.  But, furthermore, “home” means a “comfort zone” of sorts.  This seems to be a basic human need.    It’s a very deep satisfaction that we seek, but ultimately it is a satisfaction we never quite reach—and some expend much money and much effort to reach that “comfort zone” in the illusion that lavish houses, power and praise, possessions, etc. will produce that “comfort zone” of being.  The great fact and the great paradox is that at the core of our being we are truly and profoundly homeless in the sense that nothing of that which is out there—wealth, power, sex, possessions, credentials, etc.—nothing will render our self as being “at home” within itself as this limited isolated self always feeling desire for this or that. (Buddhism speaks eloquently about that.)  Our true home is the Reality of God, the Ultimate Mystery, the Absolute Reality.  The Great Paradox and the Great Mystery is that the Christ who manifests this Absolute Reality has identified himself with the homeless ones to the extent that they and he are not “two” but “one” (“Whatsoever you do to the least… do to me.”) And this sacrament of non-duality invites us to discover and to plunge into the true and profound homelessness of our own hearts and to accept it because it is His Homelessness which is out paradoxical abode.  And then we discover our true namelessness because it is also His Namelessness.   Oneness beyond oneness.   Only the truly homeless will ever be at home in this cosmos.  Only the nameless one will really know who he/she truly is.