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The Tree of Life

Sr. Rose Pacatte, F.S.P.

When director/writer Terrence Malick’s new film opens we hear the quiet voice of 1950’s wife and mother Mrs. Obrien (Jessica Chastain): “The nuns always taught us that there is the way of nature and the way of grace; it is up to us to choose.”

Actually, it’s not that simple, as we discern during the roll out of Malick’s cinematic epic overflowing with color, sights, sounds, and realize we are witnessing the artist’s rendition of God’s creative act. We move through the ages and see aggression played out between dinosaurs. Then we are with the O’Brien’s in a small Texas town where their three sons are born, baptized and confirmed in their parish church.

Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt) is an inventor, disappointed that his creations do not succeed. He takes out his frustrations on his wife and children, especially Jack (Hunter McCracken as a child; Sean Penn later). Mrs. O’Brien is kind and protective of her children.

The threads the film weaves together often comes in pairs: nature and grace; nature and nurture; stern, intimidating father and sweet, strong mother; the astonishing beauty of God’s creation entwined with cement and steel, creations of humans.

We realize that the tapestry shows how twisted life can be – and that grace builds on nature if we nurture it. Scriptural allusions and motifs are abundant. Think the Garden of Eden and the river that ran through it, the narrow gate, and life after death.

To me, the film seemed deeply personal, almost autobiographical, though the production notes provided to film critics do not mention this. I felt the tense family dynamic, I could feel the hot, dry summer breezes that blew through the home in days before air conditioning; I, too, wandered the streets in the summer with my siblings and friends, looking for something to do.

“The Tree of Life” is a man’s story, however, and it seemed a man’s world. I felt like an onlooker, just as I did when I tried to figure out the behavior and thinking of my own three brothers in the 1950s.

“The Tree of Life” is about mystery and about grace, about certainty and the questions, and about the complexity of human freedom in relation to the Creator, to creation, and to one another.

You always have to take your time with a Terrence Malick film, and he has only made five in his forty-year career. If he finds an image that attracts him, he stays with it, and seems unable to edit it out. He asks us to marvel with him, as he did in “The Thin Red Line” (1998; a film about World War II), or more recently “The New World” (2005): Who are we to You, God? Who are you to us? What does this life, this creation mean?

“The Tree of Life” requires intentionality on the part of the audience: this is a film you choose because you are ready to slow down and journey with the filmmaker, to find God in the darkness of the theater and let the light of grace wash over you. This is a film that commands a big screen because the ideas and images – and the questions - are so huge.

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Francis of Assisi: Francis of Assisi was a poor little man who astounded and inspired the Church by taking the gospel literally—not in a narrow fundamentalist sense, but by actually following all that Jesus said and did, joyfully, without limit and without a sense of self-importance. 
<p>Serious illness brought the young Francis to see the emptiness of his frolicking life as leader of Assisi's youth. Prayer—lengthy and difficult—led him to a self-emptying like that of Christ, climaxed by embracing a leper he met on the road. It symbolized his complete obedience to what he had heard in prayer: "Francis! Everything you have loved and desired in the flesh it is your duty to despise and hate, if you wish to know my will. And when you have begun this, all that now seems sweet and lovely to you will become intolerable and bitter, but all that you used to avoid will turn itself to great sweetness and exceeding joy." </p><p>From the cross in the neglected field-chapel of San Damiano, Christ told him, "Francis, go out and build up my house, for it is nearly falling down." Francis became the totally poor and humble workman. </p><p>He must have suspected a deeper meaning to "build up my house." But he would have been content to be for the rest of his life the poor "nothing" man actually putting brick on brick in abandoned chapels. He gave up all his possessions, piling even his clothes before his earthly father (who was demanding restitution for Francis' "gifts" to the poor) so that he would be totally free to say, "Our Father in heaven." He was, for a time, considered to be a religious fanatic, begging from door to door when he could not get money for his work, evokng sadness or disgust to the hearts of his former friends, ridicule from the unthinking. </p><p>But genuineness will tell. A few people began to realize that this man was actually trying to be Christian. He really believed what Jesus said: "Announce the kingdom! Possess no gold or silver or copper in your purses, no traveling bag, no sandals, no staff" (Luke 9:1-3). </p><p>Francis' first rule for his followers was a collection of texts from the Gospels. He had no idea of founding an order, but once it began he protected it and accepted all the legal structures needed to support it. His devotion and loyalty to the Church were absolute and highly exemplary at a time when various movements of reform tended to break the Church's unity. </p><p>He was torn between a life devoted entirely to prayer and a life of active preaching of the Good News. He decided in favor of the latter, but always returned to solitude when he could. He wanted to be a missionary in Syria or in Africa, but was prevented by shipwreck and illness in both cases. He did try to convert the sultan of Egypt during the Fifth Crusade. </p><p>During the last years of his relatively short life (he died at 44), he was half blind and seriously ill. Two years before his death, he received the stigmata, the real and painful wounds of Christ in his hands, feet and side. </p><p>On his deathbed, he said over and over again the last addition to his Canticle of the Sun, "Be praised, O Lord, for our Sister Death." He sang Psalm 141, and at the end asked his superior to have his clothes removed when the last hour came and for permission to expire lying naked on the earth, in imitation of his Lord.</p> American Catholic Blog The joy of the Gospel is not just any joy. It consists in knowing one is welcomed and loved by God…. And so we are able to open our eyes again, to overcome sadness and mourning to strike up a new song. And this true joy remains even amid trial, even amid suffering, for it is not a superficial joy: it permeates the depths of the person who entrusts himself to the Lord and confides in him.


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