Loving from the Inside Out

Pulitzer Prize winner Peggy Noonan in Saturday’s Wall Street Journal critiqued legendary filmmaker Steven Spielberg for considerable historical inaccuracies in The Post, his new movie that tells the story of the capital’s premier newspaper’s risky publication of the Pentagon Papers in the early 70s. Starring Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, with six Oscars between them, the movie promises to grab a fair number of Academy Award nominations, come their announcement on January 23. Noonan’s highlighting the cinematic sin of accuracy error, more than likely, will not weaken the strength of the movie’s success.

Another movie that tackles a slice of recent history—though American church history—is Novitiate, the debut feature film of writer and director Margaret Betts who earned the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. Yes, Betts errs when she has young nuns donning wedding gowns twice in the ritual of religious profession of vows; misrepresents the Second Vatican Council’s teaching on religious life; and unfairly portrays a bishop’s intervention into a local monastery’s life. These shortcomings long for the nuance that Catholic spirituality, church history, and religious life beckons. Like The PostNovitiate, despite the historical flaws, will move a soul, stir a spirit, and stanch a wounded heart.

Betts beautifully depicts a glimpse of the impact and implications of the Second Vatican Council. Her most dramatic presentation is both stark and simple: A person’s insides matter more than the outsides. Shown through the costuming of nuns’ habits, wedding gowns that represent virginal purity, and whips to mortify the flesh, the Council’s de-emphasis on externals and the painful shift from them comprise a major thrust of the film’s attention and intentions.

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Indeed, this movement of Vatican II provides an easy intersection with Salesian spirituality. St. Francis de Sales foreshadowed the council when he championed the universal call to holiness, where all people—not just nuns, priests, and bishops—are called to have a relationship with God. Furthermore, he emphasized the interior life over the exteriors of things like a flowing veil or habit, overly religious practices, and mortifying physical disciplines. In his classic Introduction to the Devout Life, DeSales wrote in 1610: “I have never been able to approve of the method of those, who, to reform a person, begin with the exterior, such as gesture, dress, or hair. I think one ought, on the contrary, to begin with the interior” (Part III, Chapter 23).

If we really want to grow in holiness, we need not cut our hair or wear uncomfortable clothing; rather, we might pierce our heart to be more charitable and patient with those who drive us crazy or challenge our thinking or way of life. This is the way of DeSales...and the church...and Jesus.

Happy New Year!