“Doubt can be a bond as powerful and sustaining as certainty. When you are lost, you are not alone.”
I am watching the movie Doubt tonight. It was a movie that came out when I was deployed to Iraq. I never had seen it before tonight. I purchased it after the death of the lead actor, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, when a friend of mine from my former denomination posted a remembrance about one of the scenes from this film. It was the sermon about gossip. That moved me, so after reading more about the film I purchased it. However, I was not prepared for the opening scene where Hoffman’s character in his homily speaks about doubt.
“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 then 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 real friend.’
‘No one knows I’ve done something wrong.’
Imagine the isolation. Now 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. And only this one sailor survived. He found a lifeboat, rigged a sail…and being of a nautical discipline…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, and 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 way 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 on to 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 certainty. When you are lost, you are not alone.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.”
Since Iraq I have experienced much doubt related to my experiences there, PTSD and Moral Injury. For nearly two years I experienced such a crisis of faith that for all practical intent I was an agnostic, praying to a God that I wasn’t sure existed hoping that there was a God.
When I watched that opening scene, as well as many others I found that I was reduced to tears, uncontrollable, they flooded me. The actors in the film, Hoffman, Meryl Streep, Amy Adams and Viola Davis, brought a power to their performances that made it so real, and powerful. It has been a long time since a film affected me like this, perhaps the last two were We Were Soldiers and Taking Chance, both of which related directly to my military experiences.
The writing of the screenplay, adapted to from a play by John Patrick Shanley,in part based on growing up in a small Catholic School run by the Sisters of Charity. I found it fascinating because of the mystery involved in the story, there is so much uncertainty in the story, a Priest who may be doing something wrong, a Nun who has no proof but is determined to drive him out, young Sister who in her innocence wants to believe the best about both the Priest and her superior, and a mother who just wants her son to survive, despite the abuse of his father and the racial prejudice of the community.
For me the film stuck on two levels, one my logical, suspicious and oft judgmental spirit, and my desire to want to believe the best about people, even me. It is a tension that I live with on a daily basis. In a way I could understand all three of the major characters.
There is a scene where Father Flynn (Hoffman) talks with Sister James (Adams) and he tells her:
“There are people who go after your humanity, Sister, that tell you that the light in your heart is a weakness. Don’t believe it. It’s an old tactic of cruel people to kill kindness in the name of virtue.”
I understand it, because I am both, I am the one who believes the best but is also able to see the same “light” in others as weakness. The juxtaposition was quite stunning, and took me by surprise and perhaps was part of my emotional response to the film.
Another thing that made the film especially pertinent to me were the people, and the parts of the Catholic Church they represented. The Priest played by Hoffman was a man who really believed in the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, like so many Priests who helped me along my way. The Sisters, played by Streep and Adams were from the Sisters of Charity, founded by Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton and headquartered in Emmittsburg Maryland. There was a sister that I met at that location, when I was stationed at Fort Indiantown Gap when I was still an Army Chaplain. Sister Cornelia Colgan, touched my life in a special way and I am sure is still offering prayers for me from heaven. She passed a way an number of years ago, but for about 5 years between 1997 and 2002 we maintained a close correspondence until deployments and war intervened and we lost contact. I still have a couple of mementos that she gave me and I remember her fondly.
At an emotional level the sermons and words of Father Flynn and the final words of the film spoken by Sister Aloysius (Streep) speak to where I am still at in my faith. I believe, but I have such doubt.
Likewise there is a sense of aloneness, that still sometimes haunts me, despite close friendships and relationships. There are many times that I felt that I was alone when I returned from Iraq in 2008, but I have discovered that there are many like me. Some of them like Sister Aloysius who despite her certitude also doubts, having not really gotten over her own grief and loss.
At the end of the film there is a touching scene, Sister Aloysius has succeeded in forcing Father Flynn out of the Parish and Sister James approaches her in the garden and a conversation ensues. Aloysius is alone, and appears quite vulnerable. Crying she admits to Sister James: “I have doubts. I have such doubts.”
I think that is reality for anyone who honestly wrestles with faith. I know that it is for me, for doubt reminds me that I am not alone.