October 2009 archive

Doubt

Last night I watched the film, Doubt, wherein Meryl Streep plays the role of Sister Aloysius, the principle of an inner suburban Catholic primary school, maybe more a middle school because most of the students look to be around ten, twelve, thirteen years of age. The local priest, Father Flynn starts the film with a sermon on the nature of doubt and how it is linked to despair and how it binds us.

‘Set in 1964, Doubt centers on a nun who confronts a priest after suspecting him of abusing a black student. He denies the charges, and much of the play’s quick-fire dialogue tackles themes of religion, morality, and authority.’

I’ve transcribed some quotes from the film because I found them awe inspiring.

Reading them here on the page may not work so well, but it’s worth reading them in any case.

The film opens in a full church. The popular parish priest of Saint Nicholas Church and school, Father Flynn gives his sermon:

‘What do you do when you’re not sure? That’s the topic of my sermon today. Last year when President Kennedy was assassinated, who among us did not experience the most profound disorientation, despair?

‘Which way? What now? What do I say to my kids? What do I tell myself? It was a time of people sitting together, bound together by a common feeling of hopelessness. But think of that. Your bond with your fellow being was your despair. It was a public experience. It was awful but we were in it together.

‘How much worse is it for the lone man, the lone woman stricken by a private calamity? No one knows I’m sick. No one knows I’ve lost my last friend. No one knows I’ve done something wrong. Imagine the isolation. You see the world as through a window. On one side of the glass, happy untroubled people, and on the other side, you.

‘I want to tell you a story. A cargo ship sank one night. It caught fire and went down. Only this one sailor survived. He found a lifeboat, rigged a sail, and being of a nautical disposition, turned his eyes to the heavens and read the stars. He set a course for his home and exhausted fell asleep. Clouds rolled in and for the next twenty nights he could no longer see the stars. He thought he was on course, but there was no way to be certain, and as the days rolled on, the sailor wasted away.

‘He began to have doubts. Had he set his course right? Was he still going on towards his home or was he horribly lost and doomed to a terrible death? No one to know the message of the constellations. Had he imagined it because of his desperate circumstance? Or had he seen truth once and now had to hold onto it without further reassurance?

‘There are those of you in church today who know exactly the crisis of faith I describe and I want to say to you: doubt can be a bond as powerful and sustaining as certainly. When you are lost, you are not alone.’

In the middle of the film, after he becomes aware of Sister Aloysius’s campaign to discredit and get rid of him Father Flynn preaches another sermon.

‘A woman was gossiping with a friend about a man she hardly knew. I know none of you have ever done this. That night she had a dream a great hand appeared over her and pointed down at her. She was immediately seized with an overwhelming sense of guilt. The next day she went to confession. She got the old parish priest, Father O’Rourke. She told him the whole thing.
“Is gossiping a sin?’ she asked the old man. “Was that the hand of God Almighty pointing his finger at me? Should I be asking for absolution, Father? Tell me, have I done something wrong?”
“Yes,” Father O’Rourke answered her. “Yes, you ignorant, badly brought up female, you’ve borne false witness against your neighbor. You’ve played fast and loose with his reputation and you should be heartily ashamed.”
So the woman said she was sorry and asked for forgiveness.
“Not so fast,” says O’Rourke. “I want you to go home, take a pillow up on your roof, cut it open with a knife and return here to me.”
So the woman went home, took a pillow off her bed, a knife from the drawer, went up the fire escape to her roof and stabbed the pillow, then went back to the old parish priest as instructed.
“Did you gut the pillow with a knife?” he says.
“Yes, Father.”
“And what was the result?”
“Feathers,” she said.
“Feathers,” he repeated.
“Feathers everywhere, Father.”
“Now I want you to go back and gather up every last feather that flew out on the wind.”
“Well,” she said. “It can’t be done. I don’t know where they went. The wind took them all over.”
“And that,” said Father O’Rourke, is gossip.

Then towards the end of the film we have a dialogue between the priest, Father Flynn and Sister James, the young nun.

Father Flynn is speaking about Sister Aloysius Beauvoir’s campaign against him.

Father Flynn: I’m not going to let her keep this parish in the dark ages and I’m not going to let her destroy my spirit of compassion.

Sister James: I’m sure that’s not her intent.

Father Flynn: That I care about this congregation.

Sister James: I know you do.

Father: You care about your class. You love them, don’t you?

Sister James: Yes.

Father Flynn: And that’s natural. How else would you relate to children? I can look at your face and know your philosophy, its kindness.

Sister James: I don’t know. I mean, of course.

Father: There are people who go after your humanity, Sister, to tell you that the light in your heart is weakness. Don’t believe it – it’s an old tactic of cruel people – to kill kindness in the name of virtue. There’s nothing wrong with love.
Have you forgotten the message of our Saviour, love of the people?

Sister James: I just feel as if everything is upside down.

Father: There are these times in our life when we feel lost. It happens and it’s a bond…

I’ll leave the film here. Needless to say it ends and we the audience are left in a state of doubt.

My right from my left

You’re phobic about driving,’ my instructor says as I fail to line up the car at a close enough angle to the kerb to reverse park.
‘Do you know what a phobia is?’
‘Yes,‘ I say. I do not tell him I have done three years of psychology at university. We spent a couple of sessions in third year learning de-sensitisation techniques. If a person is phobic about spiders then you gradually re-introduce him.
First a picture of a spider, next maybe a soft toy spider, a rubber spider and so on. You let the spider sneak up on the person, at each step he masters, you inch up the degree of reality, eventually exposing him to a real spider. Alternatively you can try flooding. Sit the person in a room full of spiders. It will either free him of his phobia or it will drive him mad.

I have been learning to drive for at least a year and a half, two lessons a week, paid for out of my earnings as a second year social worker. I am ashamed of my slowness but there is no one who can take me out for practice, so I try to practise on paper.

My instructor, Marvin, is of Maori extraction. He has a mop of wiry hair very in keeping with the afro look that is now coming into fashion, only Marvin does not care. Fashion is not one of his great concerns. Not that I know what they are. He is teaching me to drive, that is his concern, and he is sick of my slowness in getting hold of the ideas.

Marvin drives a turquoise Datsun Y, a sleek hatchback with a suede blue interior. Marvin has controls on his side of the car, which perhaps accounts for his easygoing approach to riding out with me.

I, on the other hand am terrified. I clench the wheel as if to hold myself together. If I let go I imagine the car will take on a life of its own instantly. My previous instructor told me I had to keep my eyes on the road all the time. He demonstrated by getting me to look at a clump of birds and as I did so he pointed out the way in which I had turned the wheel in the direction of what I was looking at, the birds. If he had not righted the wheel we would be into a post.

I am phobic about driving.
‘You aren’t coordinated,’ Marvin says. ‘It’s not unusual for women to lack co-ordination. It’s the way you’re built.’ He hesitates as if deciding whether or not to go on. And you have a very bad case of it.’

I am not good at guessing my right from my left. In my last year of school when I wrote page after page of notes for history and English I developed a writing lump on my third right finger, my long finger. I rub it with my thumb and I can tell where I am. My lump tells me my right from my left.

I also have trouble stopping. I do not like to stop. I have trouble working out what I should do with the clutch. I would like to put my foot on the brake and push it down and that be enough but I think there is more to it. Something about the clutch and going down the gears. All this coordination is too much for me. And I must remember too that every twenty seconds I must look in the rear vision mirror. I must look behind me.

Today we are diving in the streets around the Caulfield Race Course. The billboards are full of images of women in big hats holding champagne glasses with long stems. Not a horse in sight though I know everyone looks forward to the Melbourne Cup if only for the holiday and I am looking forward to the holiday too.

I took this job with the promise that I would be getting my driver’s licence in a matter of weeks. That was five months ago. The job required a current licence. I said it blithely to the interviewer when he had asked.
‘Oh I’m about to go for my licence,’ I said. ‘I’m ready,’ I said and almost believed it but then I remembered I am phobic.

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