This Lent: Pray, Fast, and Watch Movies

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Welcome to Lent. It’s a time that brings out, as one young priest told me, all the A&P Catholics.

Ashes and palms.

If you’re Catholic, you know the drill:  Increase prayer, try your hand at fasting, and be more generous.

Let me add another practice:  watch movies.

For now, I will recommend two:  Dead Poets Society and Of Gods and Men, the first for what it lacks, the second for its beauty and truth.

[Spoiler alert. Don’t read any more if you don’t want to know.]

Both movies end in tragedy. But with only one, will you walk away in peace.

Dead Poets Society came out almost 30 years ago (doesn’t that seem long ago?) and starred the brilliant Robin Williams as creative literature teacher John Keating.

Williams is thoroughly entertaining and, as a former teacher, I delighted in his ways of engaging students.

But Mr. Keating comes up short. The famous Carpe Diem scene is inspiring, but incomplete.

In the scene, Keating gathers his students in front of a trophy case, containing old pictures of students and awards. Part of a Robert Herrick poem is read:

     Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
     Old Time is still-a-flying;
     And this same flower that smiles today
     Tomorrow will be dying.

Keating explains that this translates into carpe diem – translated:  “Seize the Day.”

“We are food for worms, lads,” Keating said. “Because, believe it or not, each and every one of us in this room is, one day, going to stop breathing, turn cold and die.”

Keating calls his students to come closer, to look at the pictures in the case, and gaze into the eyes of the former students.

“They believe they’re destined for great things, just like you. Their eyes are full of hope, just like you.”

Keating finally has them pretend to listen to the photos talking to them and, in a whispery voice, he tells them:

“Seize the day. Make your lives extraordinary.”

It is a heartfelt speech. Who can argue with the notion that we should make the most out of our lives?

But what happens when plans change, or if a specific quest is unattainable, or delayed?

Keating’s speech could reflect a Lenten theme:  using one’s eventual death to analyze one’s life.

Still, there are questions. Keating is big on what to do; but why?

Why should we seize the day? Is this a quest to rack up accomplishments before we become food for worms?

The tragic ending comes about when one of the students has his quest derailed by his father. In the movie, the father comes off badly (and, in some ways, he is a putz), although it is Keating who takes the fall – portrayed as the wrongly-accused victim.

Keating is right to tell his students to seize the day. Teachers should also explain that failure is a part of life. How you respond to obstacles says as much as how successful you are.

And, what is success?

For an answer, watch Of Gods and Men. It is a masterpiece depicting the conflict of men, and the depth of faith. The movie’s title comes from Psalm 82.

“You are gods, all of you sons of the Most High; yet like men you shall die, and fall like any prince.”

The movie is based on the true story of the Cistercian monks of Tibehirine in Algeria. Living peacefully with their Muslim neighbors, the monks’ lives are eventually threatened by Islamic insurgents. They decide to stay at the monastery, and are eventually kidnapped and killed.

The movie moves slowly, following the monks’ routine with constant calls to prayer. The monks are hardly one-dimensional, with several initially wanting to leave. There are gripping scenes, underplayed yet dynamic, that show the binding force of community, within the monastery and without. The Muslim villagers do not want the Catholic monks to leave.

“This village grew up with the monastery,” said one man. Added a woman:  “If you go, we lose our footing.”

People of different faiths, not only tolerating each other, but learning from and inspiring one another.

The larger storyline is the purpose of the monks’ life. In their simplicity, they are seizing the day. And, in their death, they professed a greater purpose than mere accomplishments.

Beyond carpe diem.

Ad majorem Dei gloriam.

O joyous Lent.


Kevin Thomas is a writer and former teacher living with his wife and children in Standish, Maine.