Wednesday, May 12, 2010

05-16-2010: Seventh Sunday of Easter

Seventh Sunday of Easter
Acts of the Apostles 7:55-60 / Psalm 97 / Revelation 22:12-14,16-17,20 / John 17:20-26
One of the great things about fiction is its ability to focus exclusively on one particular trait found in any given character; something we can’t do in “real” life, simply because we are too harried by its haphazard complexities. In some works of fiction that particular trait can, itself, take on characterization. So it happens in the recently released film, Mother and Child, written and directed by Rodrigo Garcia.

The plot is a simple one: a fourteen year old girl gets pregnant by her boyfriend and must relinquish her daughter to a closed adoption. The film explores how that one particular experience affects the interconnecting lives of others in the near four decades that follow. The story explores how this one act is the abiding thread in the life of that birthmother who admits to a persistent suitor that everything she has done over the course of forty years always leads her back to that unalterable decision. We are taken into the fast-lane life of the adoptee, a high-powered lawyer, who uses sex as an instrument of power and an expression of anger. We enter the lives of an infertile couple seeking to adopt a child but who must swallow their pride and woo the prospective birthmother to choose them as the prospective parents of her unborn child. But none of these players is the protagonist of the story. The central character is not a person but an experience. And the experience is not one easily defined, but nonetheless concretized in the characters’ actions. Actions, not pleasant to witness, and ones we might determine selfish, cruel and downright ugly. Actions, and reactions, we might judge, at best, pathetic.

Pathetic is a word that possesses a sufficiently pejorative connotation to account for our negative judgments but still retains a sense of profound sadness that belies our rush to such a judgment. Although not cognate, the Greek word pathos is akin to pothos and gives an insight into its complex meaning. Pothos connotes desire, yearning. It’s used in ancient texts to describe the feeling Alexander the Great experienced which sent him halfway round the world in a kind of restless quest, resulting in conquest. Pothos has an erotic side, possessing a sense of yearning that could be translated as a “crying out for" or “pining for,” as when a young man cries out for his beloved to pine for him in return. Seen in this way, we might understand why the fifty-something birthmother in the film has hardened her heart over the years; or why the adoptee is so seemingly cruel and contradictory in using intimate things to avoid intimacy; or the apparent madness overcoming an infertile woman desperate to become a mother. Pathetic actions are understood in a different light when we see that anger is not so much an expression of hatred but of sadness, the reaction to a wound that never quite heals, a hurt that can never be totally locked away.

Perhaps that’s what we “celebrate” on this pivotal Sunday in the liturgical calendar, this Sunday between the Ascension of the Lord and Pentecost, when the Lord has vanished, physically disappeared from the lives of those who loved him and who are left with a rather vague promise of return sometime in the undisclosed future. In the last lines of the Bible, in St. John’s Revelation, the feeling is described as a thirst: a shared human experience that informs all truly religious experience.

Mother and Child doesn’t have a classic happy Hollywood ending, but it’s fundamentally positive in its resolution. While none of the characters gets what he initially thinks she wants, the film reveals to us by very graphic depictions, that there are certain things we have no control over - we cannot alter the past no matter how hard we try. The pathetic actions of each character remind us that, although absence might make the heart grow fonder, it often makes the heart grow cold as well, and bitter to its very core. But this pathos and pothos is the beginning of redemption. Realizing that something is missing from deep inside, that we all have a hole in our heart, that there’s a sadness at the very core of human experience is the first step in turning bitterness into something life-affirming; that, despite the vagaries of life - the cards we seem to have been randomly dealt - we ultimately do have a choice.

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