Saturday, January 10, 2009

Slavethink in action

We recently rented The Lilies of the Field, which I hadn't seen since my youth. If you have never watched this 1963 classic starring Sidney Portier, you should, and if it's been a while since you've seen it, find it and watch it again. It's a beautiful, simple story with surprising depth to the characters and forthright expression of faith of the type that could not be found in a modern movie.

Though it's easy to focus on Portier's character, Homer Smith, I found myself paying more attention to the character of the Head Mother of the small convent, Mother Maria. Portrayed as a stiff and imperious dictator, Mother Maria is a severe contrast to the easygoing, down-to-earth Homer - something that causes much of the tension of the story. Their relationship of misunderstanding begins when she's convinced that God has sent her convent a good, strong workman while he's thinking of a pickup day job to earn some spare cash. Things go downhill from there, but somehow the essential goodness of everyone involved comes out and the chapel gets built.

The big question for most people watching the film is, why is Mother Maria so prickly? She's bossy, ungrateful, insensitive, and terribly demanding on those around her. She takes everything for granted, including Homer's generous help, which he is under no obligation to provide. As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that she has alienated everyone else who has tried to help the convent, and she does the same to Homer a couple of times.

When I saw the film in my youth, Mother Maria's rudeness was simply a mystery to me. Why was she, a nun, supposedly a minister of God's grace and love to the world, so mean to Homer and everyone else? I think I have the answer.

Mother Maria saw herself as a slave. God's slave, of course, but a slave nonetheless. She saw her only value to God as being what she did for Him. She did not see herself as a daughter belonging to a family, but rather as a worker whose only value was her function, her productivity. This comes through clearly toward the end of the movie when she brings to the chapel the itinerant priest who serves her region. He's speechless at what Homer and the local parishioners accomplished, and gazes around the humble chapel as if it were the Cathedral of Chartres, grateful that he doesn't have to say Mass out of the back of a pickup any more. But all Mother Maria can mutter is, “there is so much to do, so much to do...” She doesn't take time to appreciate what has been done, she just looks forward to the next task on her list.

She views everyone else through this perceptual lens as well. People are there to be put to work, and once Homer actually refers to her as a slave driver. She's very even-handed, of course – she doesn't treat anyone any better than she treats herself, but it's clear from the story that she treats herself brutally. Why should she show herself – or anyone else – courtesy, consideration, or compassion? She doesn't see herself getting any of that from anyone – especially God. For instance, she never thanks any human for anything. She'll thank God, but never another human, because she doesn't accept any thanks herself.

This story reconfirmed one of the most important lessons that God has taught me in my life – one that He's still teaching me: that He wants people who think like sons and daughters, not slaves. For me, the basis for this lesson is the elder son in the famous story of the Prodigal Son found in Luke 15. Reading the story, most people focus on the Younger Son, the Prodigal, who squanders his inheritance. But the Elder Son is also a critical player in the story, and his self-perception slips out in the furious monologue he unleashes on his father (v.29-30): "All these years I have slaved for you..."

I could (and probably will) unpack in much more detail all the things God has taught me over the years on this topic. It's the central theme of a story of that very name - I Have Slaved For You in my book, The Last Ugly Person. But to focus on Mother Maria as an example of the type, her stiff and prickly personality stems from her perception of herself as a creature valued solely for how much productivity she can pack into a workday. It also causes no end of conflict and misunderstanding with nearly every other character, especially poor Homer.

My biggest emotional memory of Lilies of the Field from my youth is how sad I felt to see Homer's wagon driving away down the road as the closing credits rolled. He'd done so much there, he was so beloved by the sisters and the community! He had an offer of a good job and nowhere better to go - why couldn't he stay? Sadly, the answer is Mother Maria. In the final scene of the film, it slowly becomes clear to him that no matter how fond he is of the little community, and how much he wants a home, he'll never get past the Mother's demanding and thankless personality. That same reality seems to be dawning on Mother Maria as well, as he starts the sisters singing the film's trademark "Amen!" spiritual while he backs out of the room and packs his station wagon. She's sitting at the table, slowly coming to the realization that her brusque ingratitude has driven this man from their lives. The saddest thing is that it didn't need to happen. Had Mother Maria been able to see herself as a beloved daughter in the household of God, she would have been able to view and treat others the same way. Instead, she viewed herself as a slave, an appliance with a pulse, only valued so long as it performed its function. Why should she view those around her any differently?

Am I any different? Do I understand how my self-perception affects my view and treatment of others? Do I see that I can love only to the degree that I understand that I am loved?

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