I have talked about Terrence Malick’s poetic masterpiece The Tree of Life elsewhere on this blog. When it was released in 2011 I was totally baffled by it. I can recall riding home in complete silence, stricken dumb by its beauty. At first I couldn’t even decide whether I liked it or not. But then I realized with regards to a movie like The Tree of Life, opinion somehow doesn’t matter. It objectively is. It is art for its own sake, but with higher purposes in mind, which is the measure of all great art. I consider it one of the best movies ever made.
As you probably already know, the movie is related in some way to the Book of Job. It begins with a quote from the thirty-eigth chapter:
“Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? When the morning stars sang together, and all the songs of God shouted for joy?” (Job 38:4,7)
A family mourns for their dead son. The paralysis of grief sets in. A mother cries out, as Job does, why me? And then Malick takes us on an expansive tour of the universe, from the outer regions of space, to the beginning of life in the depths of the oceans, to the emergence of the dinosaurs. It is also reminiscent of the tenth book of St. Augustine’s Confessions in which the Father and Doctor of the Church travels the cosmos, showing that indeed the heavens do proclaim the glory of God, and yet at the same time are not God.
Confessions, along with St. Teresa’s Interior Castle and Thomas Merton’s The Seven Story Mountain, represents the pinnacle of Western Christian mysticism. Eastern Christians, in their hubris, frequently disparage the West for its apparent lack of mystical theology, and even mock as infantile the works of St. Teresa, St. Francis, and St. Thomas Aquinas. Such criticisms are seldom born of anything but pride. It matters not what method of prayer these spiritual giants used, the point is that they were holy, that should be enough. The Tree of Life inherits all of this wisdom. It is impossible to tell what Terrence Malick’s beliefs are. He is fiercely private, never giving interviews and seldom even captured in a picture. That said, he seems well-informed regarding spirituality. Likely people of any religious persuasion can find something of themselves in his work.
For my part, I think it safe to say that if more Western Catholics viewed the world as their spiritual forefathers did, and as Malick seems to, the West would be a far more Christian place to live. The Tree of Life oozes with grace. In the West, grace is a share of the divine life, in the East it is one of the uncreated energies of God – not God in and of himself, but God in his operations. It professes a kind of panentheism unique to Christianity, portraying a God wholly transcendent yet wholly imminent as well. Always separate from creation by essence, but one with it by energy. Thus all created things are potential sacraments, all of nature is a channel of divinity, not by the conversion of the Godhead into creation, but by the assumption of creation into God, to paraphrase the Athanasian Creed.
This past Sunday was the Sunday of St. Gregory Palamas on the Byzantine calendar. St. Gregory was an early-medieval monk and bishop who taught the ancient practice of Hesychasm – an Eastern Christian method of prayer centered on the Jesus Prayer. It is from his teachings that the Byzantine Churches received the doctrine of the real distinction between God’s essence and God’s energies. The teaching is this: God is “ineffable, inconceivable, invisible, incomprehensible, always existing and ever the same”. As mere mortals we can never comprehend or even experience God as he is in his essence, in his innermost self. And yet we know that at various times in history God revealed himself to his people in what are called Theophanies, most importantly in the Transfiguration on Mt. Tabor. We also know that God communicates himself to us in the Holy Mysteries, there fore the theologians posit a distinction between God as he is in himself (his essence), and God in his operations (energies).
His uncreated energies would be Light, Mercy, Grace, etc. They are at the same time God himself, neither temporal creations nor independent from him, and channels of God, never allowing us to experience God directly. Thus when the monks of Mt. Athos experience the uncreated Light, what they experience is God in his energies. In the Mystery of the Eucharist, God in his essence is present on the altar, but the divinity communicated to us is God in his energies. In Heaven we become God, but only in his energies, never by conversion of our being into his. It is a real distinction, but one which exists only in relation to creation. God in himself is wholly simple, and without any creatures with which to interact, the distinction becomes immaterial.
The act of creation is an uncreated energy of God. “All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made” (St. John 1:3). The aforementioned quote which appears at the beginning of The Tree of Life is the beginning of an extensive recitation by God of his power and wisdom in creation, his forming of the heavens and his fashioning of the deep, the creation of the angels and of man, his power over all the cosmos. It is this discourse in words which Malick tries to capture on film. By it we are humbled by the majesty and might of creation. God’s rebuke of the haughtiness of Job who thought he could reason with God is a Theophany, a revelation of the divine which Malick does his very best to bring to the screen. When it is over, if we have been receptive to the director’s guiding hand throughout, we are left speechless by the wonder of the handiwork of God. And thus we are moved to say as Job did, and as Malick’s characters must:
“I know that thou canst do all things, and that no purpose of thine can be thwarted.
‘Who is this that hides councel without knowledge?’
Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.
‘Hear, and I will speak; I will question you, and you declare to me.’
I had heard of thee by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees thee; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.” (Job 42:2-6)
It is only by realizing how vastly ignorant we are that we can ever achieve spiritual enlightenment.
It is a testament to the power of art that a film can evoke such a response form anyone, especially one as cynical and jaded as myself. Wonder is a rare thing these days. In many ways film is the medium best suited to sacramental realities (dare I say even more so than the holy icons?) because it engages the most senses of all media. The screen is the glass through which we see darkly. It is the only sacrament the secular world can understand. It comes in the form of smut and trash yet reveals its true nature once or twice a year. The Tree of Life was and still is a movie for the ages. Thousands of years from now they will look back on it like we look at The Divine Comedy, or The Iliad. Such is the nature of smut. No prophet is welcomed in his own land.