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(An Oscar Night) Following the Light: Philomena, a Recovered Catholic

My special Oscar night post in  my Following the Light series. These are blogs that point to the bright spots where I see renewal and rebirth in the world of religion and spirituality. The series will continue through the Christian season of Epiphany (which ends this Ash Wednesday, March 6).

Ugly plaid school uniforms were the least of her issues with the Catholic church.

Philomena Lee, a salt-of-the-earth Irish woman with a storied past, anchors the Oscar-nominated movie, Philomena. Through flashbacks, you see this retired Irish nurse as a teenager. She becomes  pregnant after a tryst with a young man at a local fair. Based on social convention of the day, (fueled by the strong influence of the Roman Catholic Church), her family disowns her and sends her to a convent. Her caretakers then pressure her to give her son up up for adoption and forces her to pay off the debt for her care by working in the convent for four years.

With only a contraband photo of her in hand, Lee (played by Judi Dench) spends her whole life secretly searching for her adopted son. (She had since married and had more children.) Nuns at the convent refuse to unseal the adoption records and are no help to her. Fast forward 50 years after the adoption and she finally tells her daughter about the adopted son and they team up with BBC reporter Michael Sixsmith (played by Steve Coogan) to help find him. They follow the trail to the U.S. There they discover that, after his adoption, the boy grew up to become a prominent lawyer for the Republican National Committee and had died of AIDS 8 years before they found him.

Some have criticized the movie for being anti-Catholic. The movie certainly does not let the institutional church off the hook for their often cruel treatment of these young, unwed mothers; but it does not paint a one-dimensional portrait either. Some of the nuns at Roscrea convent are very kind; one even gave Lee the secretly taken photo of her son, which later helps her find him.

Still, the heart and faith of the story, is Lee herself. Still a practicing Catholic after all these years, she refuses to succumb to hurt, anger and bitterness toward God and the church. In the pinnacle scene in the movie, the journalist, Sixsmith, is overwhelmed by the injustice perpetrated against Philomena and these young girls.

“I’m angry,” he shouts. Philomena replies pointedly, “It must be exhausting.”

This woman who has so much to be bitter and angry about,  never gives into it. She reclaims the beautiful parts of her faith — forgiveness, love and grace. She lives those principles in utter simplicity and with unfailing humor, acknowledging that forgiving the unforgivable is incredibly difficult.

This film (and the woman behind it) is a bright beacon of light. She shows us that moving through the pain is better spiritually than throwing angry balls of bitterness against the walls of the church.

Lots of people have justified gripes with the church (of all varieties) and are justified in their pain and anger toward it. I was one of them for a long time. But, the pain festers into long-term bitterness and is often thrown back towards the rather anonymous “institutional church” or toward God. In my experience, throwing stones outward only turns hurt feelings into disease in our own hearts. The only remedy is to move through the pain, coming to a new understanding of our faith and God.

So, my hope and prayer is that the light of this movie might inspire a few “Recovering Catholics,” (or Southern Baptists, or Methodists or Presbyterians) to become “Recovered.” Move through the pain of the wrongs perpetrated by the church and discover the blessed and beautiful parts of faith, perhaps even reclaiming for yourself a new kind of faith. Or at least letting go of the pain, anger and skepticism that weighs down your heart.

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