Stigmata

21 02 2011

I watched Stigmata again.

It’s a dumb movie, but I find it irresistible. I used to watch it whenever it showed up on t.v., and now that it’s streaming on Netflix, I watch it every few or six months or so.

Okay, so there’s Gabriel Byrne, who is always watchable, with those dark eyes and. . . well, I’ve gone on about Mr. Byrne before, so there’s no need to repeat myself.

Anyway, irresistible: It opens with an old man writing in a notebook, then cuts to Andrew Kiernan (GB) walking through the town of Bel Quinto, Brazil, on the way to a church with a statue weeping blood. The church itself is holding a funeral for the old man we saw in the opening scene: Father Alameida. A kid swipes Alameida’s rosary from the coffin, then sells it the street to an American tourist, who then sends it to her daughter, Frankie.

Frankie (Patricia Arquette) is 23, lives in Pittsburgh, cuts hair, and parties. After receiving the rosary, however, she begins receiving the stigmata: puncture wounds through her wrists, then lashes across her back. A local priest witnesses the lashings and contacts the Vatican. Andrew Kiernan—Father Andrew Kiernan—is sent by his Cardinal (Jonathan Pryce in full evil mode) to investigate, even though Fr. Andrew would prefer to go back to Brazil. No dice; Pittsburgh.

He meets Frankie, finds out she’s an atheist, says whatever it is she has, it can’t be the stigmata, sorry, see ya. Frankie is like, yeah, whatever, screw you, goes out to her clubbing, and ends up collapsing on the dance floor as she bleeds from a crown of thorns. She runs out of the club, pursued by her best friend (Nia Long), nears her apartment, sees Fr Andrew (come to make nice), then takes off. Her friend and Andrew find her scratching something on the hood of a car, then bring her to the church of the priest who first notified Rome.

And on and on. More stigmata, more scratchings and speeches (in Aramaic, natch), more machinations by the cardinal, brief discourses on the non-canonical gospels, and. . . well, watch it yourself to see how it all turns out. Like a said, not a great movie, not by a long shot. Good priest, bad church, gnosticism, gnostic sayings, candles, dripping water, doves, wind—you know, the works. I should be laughing as I watch it.

I don’t.

I don’t believe it. Oh, I mean, I don’t have any problem believing that the Church has gone to extraordinary lengths to protect its power nor that it would suppress any documents which threatened its standing. But I’m not a religious person, and am not particularly inclined to believe in the power of faith.

Actually, it’s better to state that I lack faith. I actually do find it easier to believe in a god of some sort than I do to have faith in that god; I like to joke that on the days I believe, I tend to think of god in nominalist terms: the great and powerful Other who doesn’t have much to do with us. No personal Jesus, no angels, no love. Just god, who does whatever he or she or it sees fit.

When, then, the draw of this movie (besides Gabriel Byrne, I mean)? It’s the gnosticism, the hidden knowledge, the secret sayings of Jesus:

The kingdom of God is inside you and all around you. . . .

Split a piece of wood, and I am there. . . .

These are both from and variations on a theme found in the gnostic Gospel of Thomas (although, it should be said, that not all scholars agree that all non-canonical texts ought to be categorized as gnostic gospels—but that’s another issue). This was among the gospels found in an earthen pot in Nag Hammadi in the mid-1950s; some of the scrolls were burned, but others made their way to market, where they were scooped up and translated.

Elaine Pagels, probably the most well-known of the scholars of these gospels, has written two books on them: The Gnostic Gospels and The Gospel of Thomas. The Nag Hammadi Library, as edited by James Robinson, contains translations of all those surviving Nag Hammadi scrolls: 12 codices, a fragment of a thirteenth, and 52 separate tracts. The Catholic Church and most Christian institutions tend to discount the importance of these texts; as a result, they have not had much of an impact in the institutional church, bible study, or seminaries.

So. The two sayings, as mentioned, are from the Gospel of Thomas (sections 3 and 77, if you want to look them up). More famous, perhaps, is the saying (as translated by Pagels) from sec. 70:

If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.

I would like to dismiss this, but do not. Perhaps I could call this a koan and thus regain my a-gnostic philosophical cred, but, as koan-like as many of the sayings in the G of T are, I don’t think this one is particularly paradoxical.

I think it’s quite clear, and, to me, quite powerful. And I am chagrined that I do find it powerful.

But there it is. I came across this in my endless avoidance of my dissertation, and while losing a battle to despair. This made sense to me then and it makes sense to me now: if I am to live, live, and if I am to die, die.

It doesn’t mean just that to me anymore, but that was and remains the essence of this saying: there is life, and there is not.

This saying didn’t save me, any more than a Beth Orton song or my therapist saved me, but it was with me when I saved myself, and I’ve kept it with me ever since.

Does it matter that the saying begins Jesus said? Perhaps, perhaps not (here’s where my agnosticism comes in handy). Perhaps the kingdom of God was within me that night ten years—oh, man, it was ten years ago this month—that I sighed and said, Okay, I’ll live; perhaps it was just me. I think it was just me, but if not, then. . . okay.

I’m fine with the not-knowing. I prefer the not-knowing—that is kind of the definition of agnosticism, after all—which leaves open the possibility that there is something beyond knowledge, as well as the sense that it’s all right if there is not.

I feel a little silly for admitting this possibility, the possibility of, I guess, faith. Belief, to me, is not necessarily problematic, but faith? I wrinkle my nose; it makes no sense.

This movie, Stigmata, doesn’t really make sense, either. But it doesn’t make sense in a way I understand. I don’t understand why, that night ten years ago, the leaf blew this way rather than that; I see no miracle.

But I am here. Sense or not, I am here. If I am to live, live.

And so I live.


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4 responses

21 02 2011
dmf

have you read kristeva’s tales of love? for me faith, as an animal thing (via santayana) matter of habit, is as undeniable as object permanence. but religious beliefs strike me as gothic ghost tales, works of fantasy/magical-thinking, or science fiction. if you get a chance check out santner’s the psychotheology of everyday life. whatever the spark was i’m thankful that you found a way to be here to share your voice to bear witness to be in communion.

22 02 2011
geekhiker

Wow, interesting post, even though I haven’t seen the film. I’ll have to add it to the list, I ‘spose.

25 02 2011
absurdbeats

@dmf: All the recommendations you give! And all good! I protest! I am grateful, but I protest!

The “psychotheology of everyday life”, see, I don’t know that I’ve fully shed my childhood animist self. I talk to trees and pat stone sculptures and while I don’t believe I nonetheless must admit that I have not yet been fully disenchanted.

@geekhiker: Like I said, it’s really not a good movie, but it is at least less than 2 hours. Don’t watch it when all of your intellectual cylinders are firing. . . .

8 03 2011
The Gnostic (2007) - Movie

The Gnostic (2007) – Movie…

Note 8.9/10. The Gnostic is a Short, Fantasy Movie of 2007 made in USA. Director: Joe McDougallCast: Lisa Baker, Luigi Lopresti, Francesco Quinn…

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