Most of my readers are probably familiar with this film giving a caricature of the Vatican II reforms in the 1960’s and the following decade, and of the traditionalist reaction. The drama is centred in a monastery on the remote coast of western Ireland.
As the film progresses, we gradually move from a rough bog-Irish traditionalist rebellion to a battle for faith. I see in this film a very interior conflict between a certain form of exterior religion and its inadequacy in dealing with the great existential questions of humanity in the face of God and his own inner consciousness.
Indeed, I always return to the same thought: as religion became more exterior and concerned for very little other than morality, it lost its essential meaning. I see this both with the “modernism” coming from the clerical bureaucrats in Rome and this kind of rough and mechanical Deus ex machina. The rough and untidy appearances of the lay faithful and the monks show a resemblance to our conventional notion of the medieval era shortly before the Reformation, something Romantics tend to idealise. Having studied the period a little, I am ready to believe that medieval Catholicism was very healthy in most places as attested in Duffy’s The Stripping of the Altars, but compromised by superstition and externalist “pharisaism” in other contexts. Several commissions of prelates at the Council of Trent reported some quite serious liturgical abuses as they recommended that the Roman liturgy should be standardised and codified. Here is not the place to go into the details. I touched on this subject in my university work Missa Tridentina, which you can download and read.
The film and its leading actor Trevor Howard playing the part of the Abbot bring us the audience to some fundamental questions about the nature of prayer, whether it is truly a way of communicating with the Divine, the raw existential questions. How do we deal with the challenge of it all coming to an end and being replaced with someone else’s piety and ideology?
Seest thou these great buildings? there shall not be left one stone upon another, that shall not be thrown down – Mark xiii. 2.
In particular, we need to ask ourselves what it all means to us, whether it is just tradition and “what we do”, or whether there is truly a spiritual transfiguration in the liturgical symbolism through initiation and liminality. The questions being asked here are the meaning of the old liturgical rites and the notion of miracles, especially the pilgrimages made to Lourdes by quite materialistic-minded people for the sole purpose of their physical health. The film is remarkably well acted with this understanding in mind.
Whilst I have no sympathy with the 1960’s construction intended to construct a “new orthodoxy” and a religion for modernity, as if we were all as “modern” culturally, I can understand how it all happened in the late 1960’s and the early 70’s. At the time, I claimed not to believe in God though I was a little boy. I was attracted to my native Anglicanism and later to Roman Catholicism through beauty and the notion of a culture that stood away from modern brutalism. My scepticism, or rather my mind to suspend judgement until I would be convinced by the evidence, stayed with me. I could not fit into the mechanism of the well-honed machine or the political ideology of l’intégrisme.
I recently wrote on Facebook:
What we call fundamentalism is above all a literalist interpretation of the written word, where an allegorical, analogical or symbolic interpretation would be more appropriate. We tend to use the word “fundamentalism” like “intégrisme” in French. It is a radicalised attitude admitting no dialogue or healthy doubt or scepticism of the lower “degrees” of truth. Like political fascism, it has to define itself in opposition to its “enemy”. It also reveals a particular personality profile assimilated to “cluster B” disorders.
“Fear prophets, Adso, and those prepared to die for the truth, for as a rule they make many others die with them, often before them, at times instead of them.” ― Umberto Eco, “The Name of the Rose”.
Much of Christ’s teaching against the leaven of the Pharisees needs to be meditated upon to grasp its inner meaning.
But woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye shut up the kingdom of heaven against men: for ye neither go in yourselves, neither suffer ye them that are entering to go in. (…) Ye compass sea and land to make one proselyte, and when he is made, ye make him twofold more the child of hell than yourselves. – Matthew xxiii.
In the end of the film, the Abbot loses the ability to pray the Our Father. The monks behind him are waiting for the firm and fatherly leadership they were used to. But that is now gone. The Abbot reacted as many did in those days and now. What was the use of it all in the face of the challenge from Rome, the collapse of any coherent underpinning of what they believed they stood for? What is the alternative?
There is another meaning which I sense with the current pandemic and the destruction of social life in most of the world. The “progressive Catholic” agenda largely came from a reaction against the totalitarian regimes that caused World War II. We lived a time of individualism, humanism and liberalism. We now arrive at the dystopian spectre of Orwell and Huxley, which they could see in the 1940’s long after the death of Hitler and the defeat of Nazism. That spectre is something typified by the Chinese-style lockdowns to contain the spread of Covid 19. Humanism can and must be sacrificed by those intégristes of medical science.
Our love of tradition and beauty are a double-edged sword, holding us suspended between our aspirations and loyalty to tradition, our love of freedom and our fetish for bondage. I fear much more than insipid ideas of uniting Christian churches and Buddhism. I see the harshness of Russian and Chinese authoritarianism bearing down on the world as our democracy buckles and collapses under the weight of populism. As it happens in exoteric religion, it happens in politics.
The only way is inwards, the quest for God and our own consciousness of the spirit. If liturgy can arise from that vision, then we will have something that nothing could ever break. The producer of that film was remarkably lucid in his time (1973).