Epiphanies should be dignified affairs. They should be occasions attended by swarms of angels where the voice of God booms out like the Wizard of Oz. Mine came through a so-so remake of an old comedy that I never found that funny.
It came fifteen years ago, when I was in college; a gradual disenchantment during my teenage years with the church of my youth had turned into belief in nothing, and then into successive belief in just about everything. I sampled Judaism, Buddhism, paganism, and a salad bar of other faiths, swinging wildly from one to another in the desperate need to believe. In anything. But the desire to believe is different from belief.
So I was visiting my parents one weekend, and watching a remake of We’re No Angels with Sean Penn and Robert de Niro. The two actors play two escaped convicts, disguised as priests, hiding out in a monastery and trying to make their way to Canada. During a procession across the border with a statue of the Virgin Mary a scuffle sends the statue and a little girl over a bridge and into a river, where one of our heroes goes after them and begins to drown. The convict is going down, reaches out, and in a moment reminiscent of Michaelangelo’s The Creation of Adam, he reaches out his hand and finds the fingers of the statue of the Virgin, and clambers up on top of it to safety.
When I saw that I broke. All the sorrow that had been building up in me for years poured out of me, and I felt a presence descending on me, and I got down on my knees and wept, and I knew with certainty that not only did I have to return to the church, but that I was supposed to be a priest, despite the fact that I had not considered myself a Christian for many, many years. My epiphany had come not on a mountaintop or in the pews of a church, but on my knees in front of my parents’ television set in Nebraska.
I’ve been a priest for seven years now and this is the one thing I’ve never let go of. I remember it when strong, stoic men are brought to tears before me in the face of loss, or when I visit somebody spending their final moments in a hospital bed, or those times during my spiritual journey when doubt has nearly squeezed the hope out of me. The experience of that moment is what gives me the strength to do my job. It renews me, even now.
I don’t think it was David Mamet’s intention to return me to Jesus Christ through his screenplay, but I’ve found that the most powerful religious films are those that don’t preach. Epiphanies, and belief, can sometimes come from the most unlikely places. And at least a Hollywood epiphany will keep your head from getting too big.
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