"We are such stuff as dreams are made on." Shakespeare, The Tempest

Saturday, July 19, 2014


In the film, Philomena (2013), the audience is confronted with the spectacle of unjustifiable cruelty committed under religious auspices. Philomena is this victim, and she must struggle to come to terms with her past ordeal as a young mother at an Abbey as she goes on a search for her son in America. Her traveling companion, Martin, is a journalist writing the story from his perspective as an ex-Catholic. Philomena defends her faith against Martin’s sarcasm even as she comes to terms with just how cruel the nuns had been to her. In the end, she and Martin confront the nuns. The question is how, by which I mean, from what direction? The answer has value in demonstrating how outwardly religious hypocrites can be put in their place.  

In the true story, pregnant girls were taken to an Abbey. The woman had to pay the Abbey 100 pounds to leave after having given birth. Not having such money, the women had to remain for at least four years, working seven days a week to repay the Abbey. The woman could see their children only an hour a day. The nuns sold them to Americans, and had the girls sign away any rights to know of their respective children’s whereabouts. The girls willingly signed, the nuns having convinced them that they did not deserve the pleasure of seeing their kids on account of the dire sinfulness of having had sex outside of marriage. Even into adulthood, the women did not realize that a contract with a minor is unenforceable, as is a contract made under pressure.

In a flashback, with one of the younger sisters screeching for a physician as Philomena is about to give birth, the older nun in the room replies, “It’s in God’s hands now. The pain is her penance.” Later on, Philomena stands crying, looking out from a courtyard—clutching at metal bars—as a rich American couple drove her boy away, an old nun stands out in front, waving goodbye to the car and ignoring Philomena’s arduous cries, as if the pain of separation were part of the penance. Meanwhile, the Abbey profited from such sales, as well as from the work of the young mothers.

“I think what they did to you was evil,” Philomena’s daughter Jane remarks after hearing her mother recount the events.

“No, no, I don’t like that word,” Philomena replies, rebuffing Jane’s judgment.

“No, no. Evil’s good,” Martin, the journalist, says as he is still writing, “story-wise, I mean.” Yet later, in confronting one of the old nuns who had kept Philomena’s son from finding her, Martin would admit that he just couldn’t forgive the nuns. For not only had they refused the son visiting from America any information on Philomena even though he was dying of AIDs, the nuns had also burned the records listing the adoptive parents while conveniently retaining the contracts that the young women had signed. When Philomena approached the nuns later in life for information on her son, they lied to her, saying they would try and trace his location—knowingly giving her false hope.

While it is easy to find much evil in such cruelty and lying, the evil in the anger that keeps forgiveness at bay is much less transparent. That Philomena would forgive the sisters is anticipated in her response to Martin. “Some of the nuns were very nice,” she said as she put her hand on Martin’s wrist. Perhaps believing that her mother was letting the nuns get away with too much (she was, after all, too gullible in respect to them), Jane informs Martin that the nuns had refused to give her mother any painkillers in what was a breech birth—the nuns having decided that the pain was penance.

Rather than enabling the nuns, Martin confronts one of the culprits, Hildegarde, who is then an old lady. As he does so, the priest in the room tells Martin, “I think your whole manner is absolutely disgusting.” In protecting the other “religious,” the old priest presumes the nuns to be innocent and Martin to be culpable. “I’ll tell you what is disgusting,“ Martin replies, “lying to a dying man.” It is up to Martin to get at the truth—to train a light where the “religious” conveniently refuse to look. Looking directly into the old nun’s eyes, Martin asks her, “When you knew [Philomena and her son] were looking for each other, why did you keep them apart? You could have given him a few precious moments with his mother before he passed away, but you chose not to. That’s disgusting. . . . Not very Christian, now is it?” The old woman could not let that one go! Martin had just called her a hypocrite concerning the domain that was ostensibly most important to Hildegarde.

“I have kept my vow of chastity, my whole life,” the old nun replied. “Self-denial and mortification of the flesh, that’s what brings us closer to God.” Those girls have nobody to blame but themselves and their own carnal incontinence.” These last two words are riveted with anger and resentment that spew out like darts of spit. So sure of her knowledge of God, Hildegarde doubtlessly assumed she could not be wrong. No other ways exist. The girls had sinned such that they are unredeemable. Such is the mind of God, rather than a mere mortal. Yet there was Hildegarde, standing vicariously for us all in our various religious convictions. God wants this. That guy is going to hell. I’m here to save you. That’s just an opinion you have there.

Hildegarde is assuming, problematically, that the vow taken by every monk and nun in a Catholic religious order implies that a layperson having sex outside of marriage evinces carnal incontinence. The sister is forgetting that different standards pertain to religious orders and the laity. To understand this, a little history is necessary. Part of the price Christianity paid for being legalized then favored by Rome was the infusion of nominal Christians who were going alone to get along, rather than out of any specifically Christian or even religious fervor. The monasticism of the fourth and fifth centuries came as a reaction against the lower standards of discipleship being acceptable to the Church. Based on a bifurcation or split of Jesus’s ethical preaching into those that are necessary for salvation and others that are oriented to perfection, only the religious orders oriented themselves to both.[1] The laity, including the young women under Hildegarde’s care, are thus not duty-bound to comply with the more exacting measures geared to religious perfection. Hence the nun’s association of sex outside of marriage with breaking a religious vow is erroneous from a Catholic standpoint. Put another way, Hildegarde and the other sisters have been too exacting on the girls—even punishing them for not measuring up!

Concerning the presumed value of self-denial, Nietzsche argues that making oneself weak voluntarily is to reduce the strength a person needs to overcome the hegemony of one’s most intractable urge. Hence Hildegarde cannot overcome her hatred, or even her sense of omniscience. Furthermore, the place of penance in Christianity as it has come down to us may be exaggerated. The Renaissance scholar Lorenzo Valla has pointed out that “the summons with which the preaching of Jesus began did not say, as medieval misreading had supposed, ‘Do penance [Poenitentiam agite],’ but ‘Repent,’ that is, ‘Turn your mind around.’”[2] Hildegarde is quite resolute in respect to holding her mind firm where it is, putting insufferable penance above all else in her religion.

Martin, rather than the victim herself, demands an apology from the old nun, but none would be forthcoming from such a cold heart. In fact, the nun goes on to say that Philomena’s suffering, and that of the other mothers, “was atonement for their sins”—for having had sex once. At this, Martin has heard enough. “One of the mothers was 14 years-old!” Rejecting Martin’s criticism, the nun announces, “The Lord Jesus Christ will be my judge, not the likes of you.” Not only did the old woman know this, she also doubtlessly knew how He would judge her. Cruelty, in other words, defends itself with assumed omniscience, or self-idolatry.

Interestingly, it is not Martin’s anger at the Church that succeeds in stopping the old nun in her tracks; rather, her stupefied quandary comes from a surprising, and indeed very ironic direction—from her own religion, as evinced in Philomena’s instantiation of Jesus’s basic preachment to forgive one another. Taking the initiative, Philomena looks down at the nun in a wheelchair and calmly yet with active determination says, “Sister Hildegarde, I want you to know that I forgive you.” Suddenly it is Philomena who exhibits religious perfection, and the sister is like a layperson—and a nominal Christian at that. I don’t see an expression of “how dare you;” rather, Hildegarde may actually look a bit vulnerable—at least the anger is gone (likely replaced by astonishment).

As the nun sits in her wheelchair stunned, looking up at the inferior laywoman now somehow in unfamiliar territory above, Martin misses the subtle spiritual dynamic entirely at first; he assumes that Philomena has unilaterally disarmed in letting the old woman get away with all her past atrocities. Philomena meets this criticism that she would let such words suffice by arguing that forgiveness is not just words, “That’s hard; that’s hard for me.” Forgiving cruelty that refuses even to apologize is indeed hard, for the injury from the emotional abuse stings long after the infliction and forgiveness is unmerited. Yet in the long scheme of things, anger is harder, and mortifies the injury as if poking at the wound.

“I don’t want to hate people. I don’t want to be like you,” Philomena adds—with Hildegarde obviously witnessing the push-back against the secularized critic. Indirectly, this enhances the credibility, and thus force, of the forgiveness.

“I’m angry,” Martin admits. I would be too.

“Well, it must be exhausting.” With this, Philomena asks a younger nun to escort her to her son’s grave. As a viewer, I find myself reflecting on how exhausting even righteous causes against injustices are.

As Martin then leaves the room, he looks back at the old woman and says almost in a defeatist tone, “Well, I couldn’t forgive you.” Owing to Hildegarde’s hatred even years after having refused the dying son his wish, Martin’s line even now resonates with me, even as I side with Philomena.

Interestingly, before leaving the building, Martin buys Philomena a small Heart-of-Jesus plastic statue. In this gesture, Martin acknowledges his newly found respect for the true religious standpoint, which is far more valuable and powerful than either his anti-religion banter or Hildegarde’s brand of Catholicism.  Generally speaking, the best critique of so-called religious practice, sentiment, or belief is from religion’s own unearthed and forgotten spirit, rather than from an extrinsic or exogenous standpoint. Philomena represents the former whereas Martin instantiates the latter. In the end, although Martin still refuses to forgive the nuns (and Catholicism more generally)—and indeed they are not worthy of it—yet he does pivot 180 degrees regarding Philomena’s faith, going from sarcastic put-downs to pro-active respect. Like Francis of Assisi, Philomena is one who I suspect Jesus would resolutely say, “She is one of mine.”

I suspect that Hildegarde came away from her encounter with Philomena feeling less sure of herself with respect to Jesus Christ being her judge; perhaps she would fare better under Martin’s wrath. Lest we be too harsh on the old gal, I suspect that the human brain itself contains an over-reaching proclivity when it comes to what we assume we know for sure concerning religious matters. None of us are immune, and yet the inexorable denial in this brain sickness tells each one of us that we are.

1. Jaroslav Pelikan, Jesus Through the Centuries: His Place in the History of Culture (Harper and Row: New York, 1987), p. 114.
2. Ibid., p. 153.See Valla’s text, Annotations on the New Testament.