Screen – Central Station (Central do Brasil)
This 1998 film directed by Walter Salles is possibly my favorite movie at this stage in my life. It is an easy movie to enjoy (not at all a bitter art-house pill). Yet it can also be seen again and again, gaining much depth every time. When I was saved – how pretentious that sounds, I apologize – a big difference was that all the apparently random elements of my life up to that point fell into a logical order, a pattern, a path. This is also what happens to Dora, the main character in Central Station, played to perfection by Fernanda Montenegro. She is an embittered retired teacher, eking a living as a public scribe in Rio’s main train station. She writes down letters dictated by illiterates, collects their money… and never mails the letters. Instead, she mocks her clients’ misery while reading the letters aloud with her best friend.
When she ends up in charge of Josué, a cheeky little boy whose mother was killed accidentally, she quickly sells him to an orphan broker in order to afford a new TV set. However, at this point something clicks in Dora’s mind, and her outlook on life starts changing. She sneaks the boy out of the squalid apartment where she had abandoned him, and takes him on an arduous journey to find his lost father whose name happens to be Jesus. The landscape becomes arid and pure away from the filthy city. Along the way, Dora and Josué stumble through experiences with alcohol and sexual innuendo, and they lose all their earthly belongings, including the child smuggler’s payment. Just when it appears that they are utterly lost (in every possible way), they come across a religious festival, a colorful, primitive and intense revival. Near-starved, Dora teeters and faints in a crowded sanctuary chock-full of candles and holy images.
(This is exactly how I felt when I approached the altar on my third visit to my church, to offer my Prayer of Salvation. I was near-starved spiritually. Among the faithful who came to the altar to accept me as a brother and placed their generous hands on me, I too fell faint. This is when my life turned around, like a palindrome, causing the past and the future to make sense.)
The following morning, Dora and Josué are revivified. They find Josué’s brothers in a village that looks like the end of the world. The brothers are near-Biblical in their simplicity and their power. Her mission fulfilled, Dora boards a bus back to Rio, having undergone the most amazing change. For years, I so envied Dora’s change, not realizing that it was within my reach. How blessed I am that God loves old fools and is willing to work patiently on them.
Stage – Dialogues des Carmélites
This French opera by Francis Poulenc, premièred in 1957, combines an austere and cerebral libretto with a score of remarkable sensuousness. Translated in several languages, it is one of the most enduring Twentieth Century operas, in part thanks to its harrowing mass execution finale. The opera has two related themes: martyrdom as a remedy for crippling anxiety, and the possibility for an individual to have a peaceful death thanks to another individual’s difficult passing.
Before I found Christ, fear (in French la peur) was part of my daily life. Not many days went by when I wasn’t nagged by fear to a degree. As a result I was always interested in Dialogues’ main character, a young noblewoman paralyzed with fear, who joins a strict Carmélite order as a refuge during the early days of the French revolution.
Blanche quickly becomes the favorite of the dying old Mother Superior. A character of great experience and supreme goodness, the Mother Superior dies a hideous death, ravaged by doubt. After witnessing her mentor’s last moments, Blanche herself traverses much torment when it becomes clear that remaining in the convent will mean certain death. As danger approaches, the sisters agree through a vote that martyrdom will be their fate. Following a temporary absence which brings her no reprieve, Blanche returns to the convent and climbs to the scaffold with the other sisters, having apparently achieved the peace in death that had eluded her all her life.
Just as my fear has decreased since I found Christ, so has my romantic longing for martyrdom or sacrifice. I do not fantasize any longer about jumping in a river to save someone or catching a bullet meant for someone else. In my case at least, such thoughts were badly digested self loathing seasoned with theatrics. Daydreaming about jumping on a live grenade does little good to anyone. In no way is it a substitute for walking a reasonably righteous path day after day. Christ relieves us of some of the anxieties which can lead us to thoughts of self-harming. Let us express our infinite gratitude by furthering his message of love to all.
Page – The Spiral Road
God must have directed me to pick up this yellowed, aged paperback at the second-hand bookstore. I thought I would read it while traveling, then toss it or leave it behind in some guesthouse. Instead, it turned out to be my favorite novel. Jan de Hartog was once a popular Dutch author who moved to America and became a Quaker. Most of his novels have a nautical theme, but the Spiral Road (1957) is a religious novel set in Dutch colonial Batavia (today Indonesia).
It is the story of a young Dutch doctor who leaves two girlfriends behind (Els, the pretty one and Bert, the brainy one) to go practice tropical medicine. He is mentored by two highly contrasted older men: a godless but stalwart doctor, and a saintly missionary who runs a leper colony. As we find out, the missionary was – long ago – a thief in Amsterdam, and his wife was a prostitute before they converted to Christianity. They are Bert’s parents, and the mother, now a terminal leprosy patient, exudes radiant spiritual energy from under her mosquito net. Arrogant at first, the young doctor learns about life from these wonderful characters, and also from his enemy, a tribal medicine man against whom he wages an amazing spiritual battle. If you have a chance to catch this amazing Christian novel, do so and you will not regret it. Unfortunately the movie derived from the novel, starring Rock Hudson, is not good at all.
Ever since childhood I was fascinated by the powerful symbolism of leprosy. My dream was always to care for lepers, and this novel went straight to my heart when I read it in 2003. A few weeks ago, my kindly and perceptive Sunday School teacher asked me which scripture I wanted to study, so I asked to review the story of the thankful leper (Luke 17:11-19). How grateful I was to hear his analysis. There again, knowing Christ has turned me around: where I fantasized about serving lepers, I understand today that I am the thankful leper. I was self-centered and self-important, but my faith has made me well. Glory be to God.
Small Screen – Touched by an Angel
Brazilian cinema, French opera, Dutch literature, how pretentious can one be? Not the kind of guy you would feel comfortable sitting near at next week’s Bible Study. But I saved the best for last, the magnificent American TV series Touched by an Angel. I binged watched it during reruns on the Hallmark channel before the expression binge watching existed. Not all episodes were good, but I cried my eyes out almost every time. Even now I am tearing up as I recall the show’s concept, so simple and so strong. I also remember thinking, every time, if only it were true.
Today, I know that it is true. I have been touched by so many angels over the years. For the longest time I saw my life as a stop-and-go story with a meandering plot and random episodes. Thanks to my angels – who led me to Christ – I now see a logical progression: immigrant, businessman, nonprofit manager, and now servant leader in a truly Christian ministry where every day can be the frame for a blessing. My story isn’t written by me but by God who writes such a better plot for me than I could manage on my own.
I have progressed from feeling utterly unworthy of being touched by any angel (and strongly tempted to write the whole thing off as a result) to tentatively accepting some faint touching, to welcoming the influence of several around me who are agents of pure good. When my heart warmed up, everything happened very fast and today I live for Christ. I am humbled, yet empowered. Finally, I believe I now have what it takes to be someone’s angel in return. I keep my eyes open, in the world, at work and in church. I pray that I can help you in your hour of distress.