A Sacred Look: Cultural Mysticism
With Sr. Nancy Usselmann. on January 11, 2017

Each month throughout 2016, we featured regular articles from two of the most spiritually aware and keen thinkers in the discipline of theology and film we know – Sr. Nancy Usselmann and Avril Speaks. We commissioned both of them to write new series considering particular questions pertinent to those of us who are interested in how Christians can contribute positively to the world of cinema. In the third and fourth weeks of each month of this year, we featured the next article in each of their series. These articles remained on our website throughout 2016, but at the end of the year, we remove all of them and except for one in preparation of publishing a reworked, edited version of their series in a pair of books available soon for purchase.

Sr. Nancy Usselmann is the newly appointed director of the Pauline Center for Media Studies in Culver City, CA, a position formerly held by Sr. Rose Pacatte. Believing Christians of all catechisms can learn from each other, we're excited to feature Sr. Nancy's distinctly Catholic vision for how we can all become more spiritually aware movie-goers and how we can share that experience with the world.

This article includes SPOILERS for Silence.

Cultural Transcendence

Watching a Martin Scorsese film one cannot but be moved to question oneself on life’s deeper meanings. Silence has penetrated me so deeply as to make me examine what I believe about God, faith, suffering, and hope. I have been challenged by life’s situations and world events, but this film somehow cut through all my pretenses and imagined spiritual affectations and made me probe the core of my beliefs. As a woman of faith and fully dedicated to the Church and evangelization, I found myself wondering how I would act if persecuted for everything I have staked my life on as a religious woman, just as the Jesuit priests in this affecting tale based on the book of the same title by Shūsaku Endō. Would I seek that “glorious martyrdom” as they and so many missionaries before them desired? Or would I instead deny my faith before incomparable suffering as a way to save others who are being tortured because of me? It required some deep soul-searching and mystical prayer before God, Creator of all.

How can a film have such a transcendent impact on my soul? And for that matter on the souls of so many who have seen and experienced this tale of faith and doubt, hope, and despair? I believe it is because cinema and television have that unique artistic quality to go deeper than words, dissertations and arguments to concretize humanity’s longings for understanding, purpose and meaning and make them real in everyday circumstances. We go to the movies to learn about life and to help us question our living out of the path that has been offered to us. Movies can even make us live our faith better and challenge the culture’s nihilistic attitudes.

It takes a mystical understanding to watch a movie such as Silence and be questioned by it. This mysticism is direct communion with ultimate reality—with Being Itself. Rooting oneself in God and transcendence is what can ground us as Christians in an increasingly atheistic world seeking to trample upon our beliefs and religious practices. So much of the popular culture purports this perspective even to the point of ridiculing people of faith. Yet, at the same time, this very culture hungers and craves for something this world cannot satisfy, something that will fill up the cavernous hole in the soul that offers empathy and spiritual connection. It requires taking a sacred look upon these cultural artifacts to dissect their meaning, sift through the darkness, sin and gore in order to find those elements of light through which God ‘s beauty is radiating.

This cultural mysticism that I propose begins with a profound understanding of the human person, a theological anthropology that presents grace building on nature. It dwells on a humanistic perspective that holds human beings in proper order of metaphysical being. We are not the end and beginning all of existence. Human beings are creatures, beings that have material bodies and immortal souls. This precise combination of natural and supernatural positions us not be satisfied with the material universe as the answer to all our questions. Fulfillment in life is not found in perfecting our humanity alone, but in transcending this material existence to the supernatural. This is what Christianity proposes to the culture.

Penetrating the Silence

Martin Scorsese’s film Silence questions this very core belief. Two young Portuguese Jesuits, Sebastian Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Francisco Garrupe (Adam Driver) seek permission to go to the mission territory of Japan where Christian persecution rages in order to find their former mentor and teacher, Christovao Ferreira (Liam Neeson), of whom rumors aboud that he apostatized and is living as a Japanese layman. With the help of a Japanese defector, Kichijiro (Yosuke Kubozuka), they are able to sail from Macao to slip into Japan undetected. They come upon the Christian residents of a small farming village called Tomogi and there discover the how truly dangerous it is to be Christian in this land. They remain in hiding during the day and at nighttime teach the villagers and offer the sacraments of baptism, confession, and Eucharist. They hear about the Governor Inspector of Chikugo, Inoue, who famously convinces Christians and priests in particular to apostatize by stepping on an image of Jesus, referred to as fumie.

Rodrigues and Garrupe watch from a distance as villagers are arrested and tortured because they were betrayed as hiding priests. Their very presence in Japan tests the Japanese Christians who have held onto their beliefs regardless and in spite of the horrifying and squalid conditions in which they live. For safety reasons, the priests separate and leave that village to seek out other Christian communities. Once again betrayed by Kichijiro, Rodrigues is captured and questioned by Governor Inoue, who uses cleverly concocted arguments to trap the priest into confessing and apostatizing. Rodrigues resists through his own philosophical declarations all the while praying to God who remains painfully silent. After being in a prison where he is treated well with three meals a day, clothing, and the ability to visit the other prisoners to pray with them, he realizes they are weakening his resolve by strengthening his body.

At last, Inoue sends the disgraced Ferriera to him to convince him to surrender his faith in order to save the Christians being tortured because of his presence in Japan. Ferriera calls Japan a swamp where saplings cannot take root. Such is Christianity within this culture of proud and intelligent peoples entwined to their traditions and customs. He says they uphold the humanist values and any understanding of a Christian God is distorted and twisted to their natural values, so Christianity will never take root in Japan. Rodrigues does not believe this and argues against Ferriera’s distorted reasoning. Yet, when Rodrigues is imprisoned before being sent to the pit—an excruciating torture of being tied and lowered upside down into a pit of excrement until one dies slowly from the blood that drips from a slash from behind the ears—he hears the moans and screams of some Christian peasants in the pit. Ferriera convinces him that unless he apostatizes by stepping on the fumie they will die and so will many more. If he denies his faith the peasants will be saved. Rodrigues struggles with God’s silence in the midst of insufferable torments. Yet, he loves Christ and as he often expresses in the story, the face of Christ is what has always strengthened him along in his life’s journey.

With terrifying anguish Rodrigues denies everything his life has been up until that point. When he steps on the fumie he hears Christ say to him, “Trample! Trample! I am here with you now!” Does he do it out of self-giving love for the persecuted Christians so they will be set free? Or is he deluded in his faith in Christ? We are left to make our own conclusions. He is given a life under house arrest, a wife and children from a deceased citizen and made to reiterate his recantation annually. He lives in veritable peace, externally without Christianity, but interiorly conflicted and perhaps with a secret but persistent faith in God. Scorsese’s final scene leaves that to our own imaginations. After thirty years in Japan, Rodrigues dies a seeming agnostic. Yet, in his coffin we see hidden in his cupped hands a small wooden crucifix that one of the peasants gave him long ago. Did he believe or did he not? Did he as Peter deny Christ and then repent or not? Does his ability to transcend the material world offer him salvation at the point of death or not? We will never know. We only know that regardless of the limitations of the religious beliefs of the Japanese Christians, they kept the faith alive for centuries without the presence of priests. Their determination to die rather than step on the image of Christ is a testimony to their tenacity in the face of utter horror. Thus grace builds on nature.

The paradox of living in a culture that mocks faith and at the same time yearns for salvation that transcends this natural world is indicative of these persecuted Christians. It is also our current cultural situation with regard to faith and belief. The popular culture often mocks people of faith, especially those who adhere to the institutional Church and way of life. Yet, even in their mockery every human person longs for a savior and redeemer, one who saves us from our own sinful tendencies and leads us to a paradise free from pain, suffering, and oppression. We long for love. But as human beings we cannot save ourselves. Our savior cannot be a weak, sinful human being such as ourselves. Only what is beyond this world can save us with unconditional love.

Belief in God - The Incarnation

An understanding of nature and grace leads us to consider the One who is above and beyond all human knowledge and intellectual experience. As the Apostles Creed states, “We believe in one God, Father Almighty.” This declaration of faith is the basis for our life as Christians. Not only the belief in God, but in God as Triune—Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This very belief in God is often a question raised in the media culture, as is occasionally brought up in the television series The Simpsons, such as the episode of “Homer the Heretic” in its fourth season. In it, Homer avoids going to church on Sunday and stays home enjoying his time alone but later experiences a series of dreams in which God speaks to him, first through wrath but later through a discussion on the meaning of life. Even though God is somewhat misrepresented here, there is an element that shows how belief in God is a core human need and desire. We worship not to appease God but to respond to his loving invitation for a relationship. We are happier the more we enter into that relationship.

The Trinitarian doctrine supports our understanding of the profound human desire for intimacy and communion. It is within this Trinitarian communicative relationship of love that a theology of communications develops. As theologians Matthias Scharer and Bernd Hilberath write, “Theology is a communicative event.”[1] God the Father utters the Word who becomes flesh in the physical human body of the Virgin Mary. This mysterious incarnation of the Son of God become man in Jesus Christ is how a communications theology becomes tangible in popular culture. God comes to be one of us, truly human yet also truly divine. In his humanity, Jesus Christ shows us what it means to be authentically human. He does this through his consistent self-giving love, to his mother, to his disciples, to his enemies, to the world. Jesus’ entire life is a communication of God’s overflowing love and intense desire for human beings’ love in return. Through the incarnation we come to know God. Through Jesus Christ we enter into a relationship with the Father through the Holy Spirit. It is here where the questions of popular culture take root: what does it mean to be human? Jesus Christ is the perfect answer.

An incarnational communications theology such as this does not remain at the recognition of God become man in Christ through the communicative self-giving love of God, but is one that takes root in the faith life of the believer. It becomes a communicative faith,[2] a faith that pours itself out in self-giving love. Through God’s self-revelation, human beings are called to faith and in freedom can accept or not. When human persons accept the gift of God’s self-communicative love in faith this gift is then received in the whole community of the church becoming a communicative faith,[3] because it is a lived faith that draws others into the Trinitarian love of God. In and through the sacraments, where this communicative faith is tangibly experienced, the faith community is built up in a holistic way, through the involvement of the mind, will, heart and actions of each believer. It is, “through communicative actions,” such as present in the Church’s sacramental life, that, “people help one another to become truly human.”[4]

Sacramentality/Sacramental Imagination    

For Christians, the sacramental life expresses the presence of God in the concrete and material universe. Grace comes to use in the symbols and signs of water, oil, incense, bread, wine, gestures, ritual, and word. These symbols signify some of the most profound spiritual truths—transcendent realities that marry the human with the divine, the natural with the supernatural. Our sacramental imaginations then provide a lens for our understanding of cultural artifacts.

This sacramental imagination is present in contemporary popular stories, perhaps unconsciously, through the seeking of salvation, redemption, purpose, meaning and hope and through the use of everyday symbols to convey meaning. It is visible in the healing balm, like in the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick, given to Katniss to heal Peeta’s wounds in The Hunger Games. This sacramental imagination is present in the sign of people gathered in communion for a meal that is experienced like Eucharist in the film Big Night, or in how Matrimony is powerfully portrayed in The Vow. Reconciliation through sacramental forgiveness is expressed in The Fighter. Vocation and calling as in Confirmation and Ordination is represented in The Giver, The Amazing Spider-Man, and overtly in Keeping the Faith. Some popular cultural artifacts have all or most of the sacraments symbolically represented either explicitly, such as in Silence and The Godfather or implicitly as in Spitfire Grill. Andrew Greeley says, “The objects, events and persons of ordinary existence hit at the nature of God and indeed make God in some fashion present to us. God is sufficiently like creation that creation not only tells us something about God but, by so doing, also makes God present among us.”[5]

In Scorsese’s Silence, symbols and sacramental signs are explicitly present in the small grass crosses the priests offer to the suffering Japanese Christians, or in the celebration of the Sacraments of Confession, Eucharist and Baptism for the poor peasants. These signs are also implicitly portrayed as in the sacrificial offering of the Christians’ lives who do not deny their faith, in the brief moments of sunshine amid the drenching rains that give hope and healing, in the simple gesture of the sign of the cross by the priest as a blessing. All of these signs communicate belief, assurance and hope—the very presence of God with his people. They convey a meaning that guides us to the mystery of God become incarnate in man, God who redeems humanity through becoming human, “tempted in every way that we are yet without sin.”[6]

Developing a Theology of Popular Culture

A theology of popular culture begins with the foundation of a Christian anthropology that looks at the common human experience and views grace building upon nature. Not superseding it, not destroying it, but building upon it, fulfilling it to its greatest potential. By doing so, an incarnational approach is established that delineates the great mystery of God becoming human in the person of Jesus Christ, who is the complete human being, and shows us what humanity looks like. A Christian perspective provides a lens through which the ultimate human struggles are transformed and renewed. Through this lens human beings cannot be seen as overwhelmed or crushed by darkness and confusion because in the end there is a way out. Jesus Christ, God Incarnate, shows that way out through his acceptance of living the limits of pain, suffering, desolation, loneliness, abandonment and finally, the ultimate separation of death itself. Only through his passion and death do we know that all human suffering is captured and transformed in and through his suffering. Only through his experience of darkness is all human evil and sin destroyed. Christ’s defiance of death through the resurrection offers humanity hope that darkness does not have the last word, pain is not final and sin can be overcome.   

This ultimate act of redemption provides another view to human living: human beings can seek the supernatural and actually attain it. We do not grasp onto God who is Infinite but we can enter into an intimate relationship with the One, True God, Immanent Creator and Divine Lover of all. Our pursuit of the supernatural existential that creates a continual angst within us is this desire for faith in a God who redeems and saves humanity from its own darkness and death. I contend that this is what most of the arts of popular culture seek to convey. Humanity desperately wants to make sense of human existence, and sometimes we find that only God can provide the answers. At times popular culture remains stubbornly anchored on the questions, unwilling or unable to make that leap of faith in a Loving God who redeems through suffering and death, such as in Interstellar, Life of Pi, and Stephen Hawking’s character in The Theory of Everything. At other times it stays with the darkness because it is conditioned through philosophical nihilism, which negates all human and moral principles, to remove meaning from all of human existence and supernatural desires, such as in Fight Club when the narrator says, “I found freedom. Losing all hope was freedom.”

Through the sacramental symbols and liturgical worship we touch the reality of supernatural grace in a material world. This thread of mystery and sacramentality provides a key to opening up the meaning of human hungers and angst revealed through popular culture. They are the longings of human beings from every time and place. As God speaks through the prophet Jeremiah, he says, “More tortuous than all else is the human heart, beyond remedy; who can understand it?” Yet, God continues, “I, the LORD, alone probe the mind and test the heart, to reward everyone according to his ways, according to the merit of his deeds.”[7] When we touch upon what is authentically human, the whole person, we reach for the divine. The liturgy and sacraments provide a way of reading the culture’s artifacts to discover grace present and the depths of meaning they seek to uncover and discover.

If one can read in the many cultural symbols the elements of self-sacrifice, self-giving love and a search for truth, beauty and goodness or the struggle with existential darkness, then grace is present. These ideals are what give humanity hope. Despite the sinful tendencies of human beings to lie, kill, cheat, betray and destroy, there is always a glimmer of hope in the soul that cannot be extinguished. Perhaps this is what we see in Padre Rodrigues in Scorcese’s Silence. It is that supernatural existential that burns in each human person leading them to desire union with the Divine, God, who is Being Itself and Creator of all that is, and who communicates himself to humanity. God’s self-communication is grace. It is God’s eternal love bestowed on humanity offering the possibility to live in the freedom of the children of God.[8]

It takes cultural mystics who through a sacred look and attuned to grace indicate those very existential longings present in the popular culture. They are those who struggle with their own humanity and so can speak to people’s pains, struggles, and dreams unsanctimoniously. They are those who have been through the fire of doubt and have come out existentially free. They are those who see God’s grace present in and through the cultural artifacts’ symbols and signs and humanity’s hungering for the more than what this world can offer. These cultural mystics proclaim that it is God alone who can fill that void, and ultimately “he rewards those who seek him.”[9]

[1] Matthias Scharer and Bernd Jochen Hilberath, The Practice of Communicative Theology: An Introduction to a New Theological Culture, (New York: Crossroad Publishing, 2008), 13.
[2] Ibid., 17.
[3] Cf. Ibid., 80.
[4] Ibid., 17.
[5] Greeley, The Catholic Imagination, 6.
[6] Hebrews 4:15
[7] Jeremiah 17:9-10 (New American Bible)
[8] cf. Romans 8:21
[9] Hebrews 11:6

Sr. Nancy Usselmann is a Daughter of St. Paul and the Director of the Pauline Center for Media Studies in Culver City, CA. She has over twenty-five years experience leading retreats, teaching workshops, and giving presentations helping spiritually-minded media creators and consumers understand media relative to their faith and vice versa. You can follow her on Twitter and read her regular musings on media on her website.

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