While watching Terrance Malick's film The Tree of Life one has time to wonder about the world, a rare feat for a movie in this day and age. There is ephemeral light pulsing from the screen like metallic paint on a canvas. In Hopkins-like beauty and grandeur, as one watches intently, patiently, the anxiety that comes with following the action and plot found in so many films fades, and the stillness beckons us to enter the deeper story of all creation.
In the stillness of the film, the vibrations of creation abound. The light shines in the darkness. It never goes away. It is in the vacuum, searching, caressing, hoping that we would but look up to the heavens "where God lives" and change our ways.
But we are shadows. Fallen. We are of dust, of death, of decay.
Watching the film, in this meditative state, I felt convicted. It was becoming confessional. I felt the rhythm of Eliot's "Choruses on the Rock" being projected onto the screen, the images matching the words:
O perpetual revolution of configured stars,
O perpetual recurrence of determined seasons,
O world of spring and autumn, birth and dying!
The endless cycle of idea and action,
Endless invention, endless experiment,
Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;
Knowledge of speech, but not of silence;
Knowledge of words, and ignorance of The Word.
All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance,
All our ignorance brings us nearer to death,
But nearness to death no nearer to God.
The father (with a little "f") in the story, Brad Pitt's character, toils endlessly to amass some sort of wealth or prestige, trying to grow his job and his patents like Adam working out his many days with the slow toil against the ground, the weed and the thorn. He fails.
And he begins to fail his kids, all boys. They catch on. The oldest gravitates toward the coiled rage of his father, and it weighs on him. It begins to control him. He paraphrases Paul's exasperation at his own sinfulness. He begins to fight the darkness in his soul. He lusts after the musical talents of the youngest boy. Could they be Cain and Abel?
As the tension builds creation stops swirling around them. The cosmic picture fades. This family becomes the first family. As if all the world rests on one family. As if all the world leads up to one moment, one action, one desire, one sin. How could a God of love lead us to this point of despair? Where has he gone?
In the end we must have faith. That is the radical message of the movie. We must have faith. There are no easy answers. During this Advent season, what do we have but faith? How could a child be God? How could any one grow up amongst the darkness of this world and remain sinless? This leads us to the precipices of understanding, and we rely only on our faith. We must believe the light will overcome the darkness.
This is why we put lights on our Christmas trees. It is a symbol to us, that one day the tree will never die, the flower never fade, the light always shine brilliantly. It points to Christ, our tree of life, the human who will never die, and gives this immortality to us.
I cannot help but think of Eliot's "Choruses from the Rock" again, and his explication of our purpose, and our right desire, to fight the shadows, and participate in the light of Christ. It is the same call for everyone, for it is the deep roots of the gospel. It is the story of all creation, calling to us, and especially to artists:
The soul of Man must quicken to creation.
Out of the meaningless practical shapes of all that is living or lifeless
Joined with the artist's eye, new life, new form, new colour.
Out of the sea of sound the life of music,
Out of the slimy mud of words, out of the sleet and hail of verbal imprecisions,
Approximate thoughts and feelings, words that have taken the place of thoughts and feelings,
There spring the perfect order of speech, and the beauty of incantation.
The work of creation is never without travail
The visible reminder of Invisible Light.
O Light Invisible, we praise Thee!
Too bright for mortal vision.
We see the light but see not whence it comes.
O Light Invisible, we glorify Thee!
May we all become visible reminders of the invisible Light.