(Check out the wild collection of classic movie posters on finsbry's Flickr photostream)
"Our darkness is never darkness in your sight; the deepest night is clear as the daylight..."
---English translation to Taizé song "La Ténèbre"
(La Ténèbre is based on Psalm 139:12: "Even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.")
It's been a while since I sat down and played with my spiritual imagination in the context of a classic movie. The early Saturday morning fare on Turner Classic Movies is always kind of interesting, and lo and behold, the 1939 film Dark Victory popped up on my TV screen. It had been some time since I watched this one; since I was recovering from a cold, perhaps a story about an incurable brain tumor would help me stop feeling so sorry for myself.
Now, granted, I have a certain amount of "let it go" that I have to always walk through with old movies that revolve around medical diagnoses. I have to remember what we know about certain diseases at the time the movie was made, I have to remember it was an era when Hollywood took certain liberties with the pathophysiology of those diseases to "make a more dramatic story," and I also have to suspend my sensibilities about how we now feel about telling patients the whole truth about their diagnosis vs. the common practice of the 1930's of NOT telling patients they were incurable. (Doctors were much more paternalistic, and it was felt that telling terminally ill people they were going to die would just "depress them further.") Not to mention that, in this movie, Bette Davis learns her diagnosis via a telegram consultation on her doctor's desk from another doctor, which breaks every present HIPAA guideline known on the planet. So, suffice it to say, I have to back up and not let my hyper-critical "medical mind" drive the bus in meditating on this movie, and not get caught up in some of the medical sappiness.
But the overall premise of the movie is much deeper. Judith (Bette Davis) is a wealthy young socialite who embodies everything tail end-Depression, pre-WWII moviegoers would have lacked--the life of a trust fund baby, endless partying, hanging out with the "horsey" set. She begins to have blurry vision, blackout spells, and a spill from a horse.
Enter Dr. Fredrick Steele (George Brent.) Of course, ya gotta love surgeons named "Steele." Even in the 1930's, brain surgery was beginning to be seen as edgy and flashy, and Brent plays the part well. He discovers a malignant glioma (what we'd now call an astrocytoma or oligodendroglioma) that, evidently is resectable but not operable. Granted, Hollywood allows Judith to have a much more genteel end than real life does in this, but the story revolves around her reactions to her diagnosis. Without throwing too many spoilers in this, let's just say you can see the Kübler-Ross in it all. We have the obligatory period of drinking, partying, carousing, and promiscuity before acceptance and a "good death" occur. We have the tension of two men with real love for her in vastly different ways, in vastly different social circles.
But the key line in the movie, near the end--the line where the title comes from--is when Judith tells her housekeeper Martha, (after she tells her dogs goodbye, of course--Boomer and Little Eddie certainly appreciated this touch in the movie) "Nothing can hurt us now. What we have can't be destroyed. That's our victory - our victory over the dark. It is a victory because we're not afraid."
Which, of course, brings us back to Psalm 139.
How often is "darkness" OUR construct--and how often do we fear an illusion?
I think sometimes that is where we need to step backwards from the things we perceive as the "dark" things in our lives and the "dark" things of the world, and ask, "Now, is it really darkness...or do I tend to view it as darkness, because of my own hooks in it?"
Take the recent goings-on in Egypt. Do we see it the chance for real democracy in that country? Or do we see darkness, in for further control and oppression via the military? When we look at U.S. relations in the various countries of the Middle East, do we make our alliances for reasons of "light," or do we form our international relationships because we fear a perceived "darkness?" In world events, is our human nature, via the media, to couch world affairs in terms of "light," or "darkness?" Is our tendency as individuals, absorbing media messages, to see "light?" Or do we prefer to see "dark?"
When we look at the decisions we make in our personal lives, do we choose "light," or do we choose "less dark?" Do we hide from the perceived dark recesses of our mind, or do we light a candle and peer inside? Is our nature to be a person who, when we encounter a perceived "darkness," to stop and carefully look for the light, or one who allows the self to be swallowed up in the enfolding darkness?
But what we often discover in stepping back from all these forms of perceived "darkness" is that they were never all that dark in the eyes of God, but we had chosen to feed ourselves on the Bread of Anxiety rather than the Bread of Heaven. A steady diet of the Bread of Anxiety tends to make our eyesight rather dim. So why do we crave it?
Our relationship with our Creator can't be destroyed. Christ's victory over the tomb and the grave--is our victory, also--a victory over the dark. Regular consumption of the Bread of Heaven, on the other hand--with ingredients like regular prayer, study, contemplation, worship, and the Sacraments--has the ability to see things closer to how God sees them, from the place "where darkness is never darkness in his sight."--the light that darkness cannot overcome.