VIDEO DIVINA: A BENEDICTINE APPROACH TO SPIRITUAL VIEWING
BY FATHER BENEDICT AUER, O.S.B.
Since the 1960's a new generation of Christian has matured which does not find reading
a pleasure, but instead spend hours before a television set. I realize that many
spiritual directors and religious leaders seem to have written these people off as
a lost generation or even as spiritual illiterates. But I disagree with these people
who feel that the only way to a spiritual insight is through the printed word. In
this era of film, I believe that significant spiritual insight can come from viewing
a well-chosen film, and approaching this Video with some preparation reminiscent of
the lectio divina
of Benedictine Spirituality. Since the original term is lectio divina
, I am going to call this Video Divina.
The original idea for pursuing this topic came to me from Matthias Neuman, O.S.B.
in his article "The Contemporary Spirituality of the Monastic Lectio" which appeared
in Review for Religious
(Volume 36, 1977). In his thought provoking article, Father Matthias said:
Beyond the written word, the giant visual image of the modern movie screen
may provide the impetus for an authentic lectio
. With the growing invasion
of electronic media into the monastic enclosure, we need to investigate this
aspect more extensively than ever before. (p. 109).
He uses the example of Ingmar Bergman's film "Cries and Whispers," and the questions
concerning love and care that can be revealed or repressed through authentic or distorted
communications. And if viewed properly how this can challenge the monastic, religious, and people searching for God to explore their lives and apply the film's principles
to their own environment. This article has kept me thinking for those 13 years since,
so recently I wrote Matthias and asked him if I might pursue that topic a bit further.
Most Christians today own a VCR, and almost all religious institutions I know have
one if not two VCR's. Even the Carmel's have not been totally left out of this
media blitz, and even though they have restricted such viewing it is possible to
see film even within the strictest cloister. In this world of technological advancement what
was thought a dream a few years ago is now a reality - namely, a movie can be selected
and played at will, and one does not even have to leave one's community recreation
room to do it. Any evening, a person can select from previously recorded or purchased
videos a film to peruse for that particular evening. The bookcase even in many a
religious community is now the video case. It is filled with the taste of that particular monastery or convent, depending on the religious' taste the bookcase may consist
of anything from mystery flicks to Sci-Fi or even classics in the field of film.
Now in this article I wish to suggest that individuals may choose films that will
help their spiritual growth and development. I personally have found films that have
had a profound spiritual impact on my life, and frequently they were not religious
films per se.In other words, the film may have thoroughly secular, yet for some reason
or particular bent of the film it was able to do for me what I used to get from reading
a spiritual classic. Today with the VCR so readily available I believe that such
a spiritual program, one of Video Divina
, can be set up either by the community or by individual religious. Either the individual
or the community can center an evening or some weekend time around a particular production.
It would normally be a passive situation - most television viewing is - but here I posit an attitude. An attitude which is questioning is no longer passive.
If we set out to watch a particular film intentionally, the effect will be different
from an approach which is helter-skelter - a Shotgun approach which says "I got nothing to do so I'll watch whatever is on the tube." Video Divina
requires a set disposition which says "This evening, I wish to get closer to God
so I think I'm going to watch this film which might give me better insights into
myself or why my neighbor acts as she or he does," or "Sister recommended this film
for its religious implications I think I'll watch it." Does this mean that the movie has
to be made by Disney twenty-five years ago , and be 99 and 100 per cent pure like
the old ivory soap commercial? No.
I have found certain films more profound in their immorality and eventual climax through
a series of conversions or removal of the main character's make -up than films that
claimed to be religious and were steeped in piousness. Recently I viewed again Dangerous Liaisons
a film based on an 18th-century French novel by Choderlos de Laclos. I recalled
one film critic who said "This film is a study in evil," and that it is. The story
does contain a moral, and a forceful one. The Marquise (played by Glenn Close) is
a powerful embodiment of pure evil. There are no excuses for her actions - the Marquise
is cool, clever, and ruthless. Her victims are innocence itself. The story traps
one into the confines of the evil taking place. Slowly one is drawn into the story,
and therefore the ending is even more shocking. The final scene with the Marquise removing
her makeup is one of the most powerful scenes I have ever seen in film, the main
character has been totally disgraced and run-out of society and as she removes her
make-up we see her removing her mask. The face beneath is that of a totally defeated
woman. A woman who is spirituality depraved; a woman unmasked by herself. I found
the moment so spiritually moving that I had the image with me for weeks afterward.
How often I saw that face haunting me, a face unable to be redeemed for it was too
late at least in her own estimation. That kind of impact rarely happens in reading
a book, it does, but is often one dimensional. Some authors - Dostoevsky, Waugh,
Greene, Walker Percy, and more recently Louise Erdrich - can capture the spiritual dimension,
but a film can, if done properly, do as much. A good film can imprint your mind
with an image which may far outlast the printed word. But it has to be a film which
has been done with sensitivity and artistic worth. Dangerous Liaisons
under the direction of Stephen Frears was such a picture.
The problem is what criteria do we use in selecting such films, and then how do you
use a film in the manner of Benedictine lectio
. In the Benedictine method of spiritual reading, the reader reads a section of scripture
and then ruminates the line or section. The word "ruminates" is like a cow chewing
her cud, so a monk or religious would chew on the Scriptures. Father Claude Pieffer, O.S.B. holds firmly to the belief that only Scripture and possibly the Church
Fathers can ever be used for lectio
. I understand as a purest his viewpoint, but I believe in this day and age other
forms of writing and viewing can be utilized. I recall recently reading a short
story entitled "The Graduation" by Andre Dubus which profoundly drew me into the
story, and gave me insights into my own life, my relationship with God, and my dealing with
other people. In the story, Andre Dubus writes: "Then she was sad. Because from
the anxiety and pain of her birth until their own deaths, they had loved her and
would love her without ever knowing who she really was." I used to use a term when I was
teaching 14 year olds English - "munchulate." You won't find it in a dictionary,
at least I don't think so, but the word was a way of capturing what a student should
do when reading or viewing a good book or film - munchulate it. Chew it. Think about it.
Digest it. Let it flow through one's blood. Keep the nourishment from it. That
is what lectio
should do for us. Scripture. Yes. The Church Fathers. Yes. Novels. Yes. Poetry.
Yes. And absolutely in this media age - Film. Yes.
But films which profoundly alter one's life are rare and far between.
But I think there are films which can be mentioned that can be used for spiritual
viewing and well as just enjoyment. I recall one film which helped me through a
lot of problems and can be used with younger people as well. It was a movie entitled
(1985). It is a fantasy flick which makes it for some unacceptable, but I was deeply
moved by the main character portrayed by Matthew Broderick. He is a poor thief who
is religious by instinct, or maybe a better way to put it would be he communicates
with God in a chatty way. In one scene after he has met a man who claims he was sent
by god, the young man replies "I talk to God all the time, but he's never mentioned
you.' And in another scene he gets angry with God, and says, "God, how can I learn
any moral lesson when you keep changing the rules all the time." Shades of Teresa
of Avila when she was knocked off her donkey and looked to heaven , and blurted out,
"God, if this is how you treat your friends no wonder you have so few." Those two
lines in the film plus the fantasy aspect of the film make it a religious experience without
beating one over the head with pious statements. The Church does not come off well
, but it is set in the Middle Ages - there is a corrupt bishop, but a good and holy friar as well. I especially like to use it with young adolescents, and then I sneak
in a view for myself. It certainly could be utilized for discussion, but also gives
some insight into prayer and the relationship we must establish in our intimacy with God.
Two other films which could be used with younger searchers, and even by those of us
who are searching as adults are The Boy Who Could Fly
. In the first film, the hero is an autistic savant. And the insights into his existence,
and his inability to speak are profound and very touching at time. It is not sentimental
in the bad sense, but rather a film that touches the heart with a profound sense of what is right and wrong. E.T.
had probably been over used, but still it has its point - we all wish to go home.
And the relationships in this family are great, and something we all could learn
I would suggest a question for anyone who watches a film with religious or spiritual
implications. First of all, how does God speak to us through this film? That sounds
strange, and possibly not a topic which we would ordinarily ask of a film, but it
worth keeping in mind for one's journal, or discussion with community members, or possibly
touching upon in a class. Just mentioning a movie which one has viewed is often
a passing reference, but saying how it effected you or gave you an insight is important. We tend to say , if not vocally at least mentally, "It's a film !" And that
immediately trivializes the impact the film can have. A film can impact our spiritual
growth and development. And just because it is a film we should not discard its
When I was growing up the Church was portrayed in film so sweetly that if I was a
diabetic, I would have needed a lot of insulin to stabilize. Going My Way,
Green Dolphin Street
(even with its wonderful earthquake in New Zealand) and The Nun's Story
gave a Romantic view of the Church and its religious. So I still tend to stay away
from films that are labeled religious. But a film which is not labeled as such,
for instance, Driving Miss Daisy
or My Left Foot
can impact my religious attitudes and help my on-going conversion.
My Left Foot
which is the story of Christy Brown, the artist and poet, who was thought retarded
as he was growing up but proved inspite of his handicaps that he was a brilliant
and talented person. His struggle with his humanness, and his treatment by the Church
was very revealing. As a priest, it made me much more conscious of how I treat people,
and especially my relationship with the handicapped. It really forced me to ask
"How does God speak to me?" Not just in this film, but in my life, and how do I
accept others. It profoundly effected how I search for my own humanness in the midst of
few handicaps - and made me cognizant of complaining in the face of few odds. Not
many books do that.
I suppose most people would like a beginning list of movies that can alter one's attitude
or help one's ongoing conversion. I have found many films helpful, but that is based
on my own taste and needs. I have found these ten films very helpful: Dominik and Eugene; Distant Voices, Still Lives; Dead Poets Society; Au Revoir, Les Enfants; Driving Miss Daisy; My Left Foot; Lost Horizon;
and a strange film called The Gospel According to Vic , which may be too satirical for some. These all had profound impacts on me , and
may be helpful to you.
may be the answer for some religious who have reached a dark night of the soul, or
just a case of terminal ennui. This may help. It does not replace Scripture or
for that matter even the Church Fathers , but it is an alternative to the doldrums
of the religious life. I find it helpful. And hopefully this will remove some of the guilt
often associated with the television. I personally gave up TV for Lent just to reorder
the fact that at times I am not discerning with regard to what I watch. The VCR
affords us that discernment since we select what we watch and when. Also it allows
us the opportunity to see films which will effect our spirituality, and with discernment
possibly help us grow .
Review for Religious