A Time Apart
Some movies have the power to touch us so profoundly that it literally transforms us—we are different people after experiencing such a cinematically emotional medium. It’s akin to a silent retreat.
When I make my annual week-long retreat it is a time to shed the external, electronic world and sit in silence listening to my own heart and God speaking to me in that “whispering sound” (1 Kings 19:12). This contemplative experience allows me to think deeply about my life—where I’ve been and where I’m going spiritually. I reflect upon my relationship with God and others and how I need to grow in serenity, trust and love. It is a time to be alone with God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit in order to assess my mind, heart and soul, and absorb God’s unconditional love for me. Sometimes I struggle with the aching existential questions that plaque every human being—Who am I? Why am I here? What is my life’s purpose? Where is God when I suffer? And often I find myself aching for connection and communion, most especially with my God, yearning for his forgiveness and seeing my need to forgive others. This is the purpose of a retreat—spiritual solitude and Trinitarian intimacy.
The movie, The Shack, based on the book by William P. Young that sold over 10 million copies, is a cinematic retreat. In two hours it leads the viewer to go deeper and examine one’s life, struggles with faith, and relationships. As Tim McGraw says, who plays Mack’s friend and pastor Willie in the film, this story “impacts viscerally.” One cannot but be moved by such a profoundly impactful film. True to the medium, the movie leaves each viewer to enter into the emotion of the characters and come to their own conclusions.
Mackenzie Philips (Sam Worthington) takes his children on a camping trip in the mountains of the Pacific Northwest while his wife Nan (Radha Mitchell) visits family. While Mack rushes to help two of the kids who are on a tipped canoe in the lake, his little daughter, Missy, goes missing. After many hours of anguished searching with the police, Mack discovers that Missy was abducted and murdered. Racked with guilt and depression he shuts out life, his family and God. On a snowy evening he sees a letter in the mailbox addressed to him. Opening it, it reads to meet at the shack (where Missy was murdered), signed “Papa.” Nan always taught the kids about God and calls him Papa. This mysterious letter obsesses Mack and he goes to the shack.
Artistic Image of God
This next part of the film is an artistic interpretation of the Trinitarian God. I consider it a visual poem, which uses lush visual language to convey a deeper truth, to image God who is “I Am who I Am.” When Mack arrives at the shack he encounters an African-American woman named Papa (Octavia Spencer), a young Middle-Eastern carpenter who is Jesus (Avraham Aviv Alush) and an Asian woman named Sarayu (Sumire Matsubara), representing the Holy Spirit. This encounter leads Mack on an unexpected retreat, an inner journey to greater forgiveness, trust and faith. He faces the universal questions: Why do good people suffer? Why is there evil in the world? How does one forgive? Why believe?
The way of imaging God in this film is the same as experiencing art, such as a painting of the Trinity icon by Rublev. God is imaged so that we can understand this mystery in our finite concepts. Icons are windows to the soul and so is film. As author William P. Young says, “Good art creates more space than it uses.” So, it is meant to pass through the senses to be contemplated in the soul. Co-producer, Lani Netter says that the film is “love language to those who do not know God.”
From a theological point of view, this film is not an absolute image of God, since God is immaterial, pure spirit. Yet, it visually expresses God’s attributes to help us understand how God works in our lives generating his goodness and love.
Athanasius, one of the great Eastern Doctors of the Church, expounds a Trinitarian theology that focuses on the eternal essence and relationship of the Three Divine Persons of and within the Godhead. It is in his articulation of the Father’s eternal begetting of the Son and the procession of the Holy Spirit that we have our creed, and ultimately the doctrine of the divinity of the Son. But, we also owe to Athanasius a profound understanding of God’s Goodness and God’s Love because of his theology of the Fatherhood of God. This enunciation allowed the great spiritual masters to fashion a Christian spirituality that has human beings as participants in the eternal communicating love of the Trinity.
In Mark’s Gospel we read, “No one is good but God alone” (10:18) and in the prophet Zechariah, “For what goodness and beauty are his!” (9:17). Then in 1 John 4:8 it says, “Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love” and in the Gospel of John, “The Father loves the Son and shows him all that he himself is doing” (5:20). These Scripture passages, for Athanasius, were his springboard in showing the eternal generativity of the Father because the Father’s very nature is goodness and love, and being good is generative.
For Athanasius, God’s generating of the Son is an act of love, for “God is love” (1 Jn. 4:8) and what God generates is Love. He makes a distinction between the acts of “begetting” and “creating” both of which come from God’s Goodness. Begetting is an ad intra act of God. It is a communication of God’s very essence, perfection, and goodness. Self-dispossession is essential to being perfect. This self-dispossession of God is complete self-gifting that overflows into another eternal divine being to whom is communicated the fullness of being. The Father, in begetting the Son, creates this fullness of being. It is a communication of divine love. This eternal relationship of the Father with the Son “is one of bestowing and receiving a love that is mutually reciprocal in the identity of the love returned.”[i]
As a participant in God’s self-communicating love, Mack receives God’s generative grace as they converse at the shack and in the garden, a symbol of Eden before the fall. He is so immersed in God’s goodness, mercy and unconditional love, represented visually by the three persons of God, that he cannot but contemplate the deeper truths about his life. He receives God’s generativity through simply being in God’s presence, open to receive light and love.
All of Athanasius’ writings in defense of the immanent life of the Trinity have a tremendous impact on Christian spirituality. Without this theology, Christian spirituality could have remained moralistic and maintained a view of God solely as the One who is far removed from our daily experiences and existence. Our relationship with God would have remained distant from the Omniscient and Omnipotent One, while we relate to God as Judge and Ruler. Father Raniero Cantalamessa, in a homily to the papal household, comments that without Athanasius’ understanding of the Trinity and specifically the divinity of Christ:
“God is remote,
Christ remains in his time,
The Gospel is one of many religious books of humanity,
The Church is a simple institution,
Evangelization is propaganda,
The liturgy is evocation of a past that is no longer,
Christian morality is a burden that is anything but light
and a yoke that is anything but gentle.” [ii]
The very heart of communications spirituality would essentially be non-existent. However, with this theology, “God is Emmanuel. God is with us,” says Cantalamessa.
The Shack offers us a poetic visual so we can reflect upon our relationship with God and our understanding of God as One in Three. Most importantly, it provides an artistic image to help us relate to God in a personal way, as a friend. God wants to be in relationship with us. God desires our love.
The crux of a communications spirituality is the eternal, self-giving love of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, a perfect communication of essence within the Triune God and a perfect bond of communion. We are made partakers in the Godhead by the redeeming action of the Son and so brought into this eternal love affair that continually directs our minds and hearts to the goodness and love of God.[iii] If we live in that love we, by necessity, give of ourselves to others in Christian charity and so grow in greater intimacy with God who is Love. This is Paul’s perspective, who says, “If we live by the truth and in love, we shall grow completely into Christ” (Eph. 4:15). In communicating this life of love in the Trinity we give the world the greatest gift—an awareness of God’s Supreme and Eternal Goodness.
Communicative Relationship with God
Communications spirituality is so apt for today’s culture of communications where messages abound and a discerning heart is crucial to maintain a healthy spiritual life. In today’s cultural climate, there is the desire for spirituality but without faith, of the transcendent but without God. Communications spirituality leads us to live within the communion of love in the Trinity and being so imbued with God, we, as faithful witnesses, are to bring others into the life of God. This is fundamentally self-giving communication. We are the instruments. We are the face of God to the world. We are to be way, truth and life for our brothers and sisters.[iv]
The Shack offers us this image through the powerful medium of cinema. Only by entering into our own suffering can we discover the God who sacrificed his only Son to save us from self-destruction. God, creator of all and Love itself, alone understands the human heart. He is there for us to enter into an intimate encounter with Love.
If we did not have Athanasius’ relational Trinitarian theology, then our participation in that life of God would seem presumptuous, and a personal, intimate relationship with God would be unattainable. As Aidan Nichols puts it, “The triumph of the Nicene Symbol vindicated faith in God as the essentially fruitful One—the Father: he whose loving generativity expressed in the eternal procession of the Uncreated Son gives us the key for understanding the basic relation of God to the world.”[v] A right understanding of God’s Fatherhood gives us creatures a relational, communicative connection with God. And sometimes that comes to us in the quiet of a retreat, albeit even one generated by the silver screen.
[i] Behr, John, Formation of Christian Theology, Vol. 2, The Nicene Faith Part 1, (New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2004), 239.
[iii] Cf. Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est, 14.
[iv] Daughters of St. Paul, Constitutions, (Boston: Daughters of St. Paul, 1984), Art. 7