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.
“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.