A movie moment

March 27, 2024 in Uncategorized

BRENDAN McMANUS SJ :: Up on the cliffs above Larne, Co. Antrim, I was absolutely beside myself, in floods of tears and unable to control it. I had just come out of a film, The Bodyguard with Whitney Houston and Kevin Costner, in the local cinema. It is a quite unremarkable movie, except for … Houston’s singing, but something in it had touched me deeply….

It all began with a retreat, the Spiritual Exercises, that I was doing as part of the initial training to be a Jesuit. You have a lot of different experiences like working with special needs, in an inner city youth club, a 30-day walking pilgrimage across Spain with no money, etc., but this was the big one: a 30-day silent retreat in this convent in Larne.

In the beginning I didn’t mind it at all, the peace and quiet was a welcome relief for an introvert and a dreamer. The meals in silence were a bit weird mind you, a room full of people eating dinner in quiet reflection, the only noise the rattle of cutlery and the chink of plates. The way it works is that you have a series of meditations on the life of Christ, starting from birth through his crucifixion and resurrection. I was big into meditation so there was no hardship there. In fact, I really got into it, spending hours reflecting on my own life experience and communing with the invisible God in an effortless, natural way that surprised even me!

I had been the proverbial Prodigal Son before I joined the Jesuits, living the high life over in England, great job, lots of money, sports car, social life etc., when I suddenly lost meaning and momentum, falling into a hole that no amount of partying or drinking could fix. I was forced to address the fact that I wasn’t happy and that my life was not satisfying on a deeper level. I found solace in a Benedictine monastery on the south coast of England and subsequently packed in the job. I emigrated to Australia for a new start, working to live this time (as opposed to living to work). I pursued the meditation thing, spending more time in the Jesuit retreat those in Sydney.

Then unexpectedly, my life started taking off again, I had a good job, great friends, super social life, and some peace of mind. It was a lovely sense of a second chance, a new beginning, and a chance to be more real..the only problem was, while I continued to get closer to the Jesuits on one hand, I also got fond of my independence and the Ozzie buzz. I felt like I was living a secret life at one stage, and I knew that i was going to have to choose.

One night, we were on a yacht on the Barrier Reef, tied up at sunset in a little bay, and I got this moment of clarity that i did not want to know about. It was the Jesuit thing, that’s where I belonged in my heart. It was unmistakeable and i knew i was going to have to tell my friends and family.

Back in the retreat house in Larne, i was wondering had i done the right thing, was i throwing away my life? I was to review my entire life those 30 days and get some insights and clarity but these vocational issues continued to plague me.

On the retreat you meet with a spiritual guide once a day to discuss your reflections and meditations. I had been doing fine up until day 20 when it started to get really tough. This coincided with the series of meditations on the Passion of Christ, the agony in the garden and the crown of thorns etc., that really is a painful episode. It seemed to me as though all the pain in my life coalesced at that point, all the loss and grief and disappointments that had festered over the years spilled out in a flood of resentment and feeling sorry for myself.

This went on for the best part of a week, day after day of wallowing in this pit of pain and missery, it was sapping and immensely discouraging. I wanted to pack in the retreat and escape from this inner torture. My guide, a wise and compassionate Jesuit, was concerned about me too as we neared the end of the retreat and so sign of resurrection in sight. After trying several different things, eventually he said to me, “Look, just do whatever it is that you have to do to get out of this.”

I took him at his word, though it wouldn’t normally feature in a retreat, and went to the local cinema. To be honest I just wanted to escape and get away from the intensity and pressure of the retreat. ‘The Bodyguard’ was showing, so I sat down to watch Kevin and Whitney do their thing in this unlikely and corny romance, enjoying it nonetheless. I was well into it by the time one scene came around which really grabbed my attention.

Whitney and Kevin are in a diner and she is asking him how far would he go to protect her as bodyguard. With unmistakeably romantic overtones, he says that he would take a bullet for her, that he would die for her.

Well, I tell you, something moved inside of me then as my heart connected with the selfless love of one person for another and the line from scripture where Jesus says, “There is no greater love than to give up your life for another”. I had my own little epiphany in that grotty cinema as life, love and spirit fused together in a tangible depth charge. The dam of emotion that i had held within, tottered and collapsed, and I was a wreck of sobbing, cathartic release.

The next thing I was on the cliff path, and inconsolable, continued to weep and hold two things clear, I was loved by God in a personal way i hadn’t understood before. I don’t know how long I was out there and I was glad that there was no one to see me, but it was the single most important experience of my Jesuit training. The Jesuit slogan ‘Finding God in all things’ took on new meaning for me!

It has left me open to the wonder of God in the world, the amazing love that there is iin people, that death is not the end, that love is stronger than hate, and that there will be a final meeting with our loved ones. I continue to love cinema of course, doing film reviews for a religious magazine and using movie clips in my teaching or religion..

I also have an attachment to the film’s song, ‘I will always love you’, so that I can’t hear it without evoking this memory!