Sorry, just sorry – a reflection at the start of Lent

It was one of those emails that I’d rather not have had to send. I’m not very good at raising difficult issues at the best of times, and doing so by email is not a helpful way to do it. But the issue was playing on my mind, and I needed to say something about it. I wasn’t expecting to see the person concerned for a while; I knew if I let this run until then my bad habit of assuming the worst would kick in and it would get out of control. So I sent an email that explained what I had heard had happened, and asked for clarification.

The response was swift, and helpful. The person concerned gave a better insight into what had happened, explained the intention hadn’t been to hurt or make life difficult for me, and said sorry. That was kind, and appreciated. Before I had the chance to reply, another email came in from the same sender. The person took it further – it didn’t matter, came the explanation, what the intention had been. What mattered was that wrong had been done, and that the wrong was owned and addressed. If the first email had been helpful, this second one caused my shoulders to lighten  – and I hadn’t even realised I’d been carrying something. I felt even warmer towards the person concerned than I had before this whole thing started; I knew that next time I saw the person concerned I would feel no anxiety.

This caused me to think about how I say sorry – which I’m called on to do every day. My sorry does not measure up to the one I have just related. My sorry is not as powerful, as life-giving as the one I received. What marked this one from which I benefitted as special and good? For me two things stood out – which are rarely features of my apologies.

First, the person owned responsibility. There was no prevarication with what the intention had been, there was no asking me to bear my side of the fault (though as I discovered, I did need to take some responsibility myself). There was an explanation offered – but that was by way of reason and shared insight, not excuse. Responsibility was owned, and it was unequivocal.

Second, the person didn’t use intention as a get-out. If your leg is broken by a bad car driver, it doesn’t matter that the driver didn’t mean to drive badly. What matters is that your leg was broken – it’s not going to get any better because it was an accident. No, your leg needs to be mended; and in this instance the one who broke it can help it mend.

The fact that the apology I received contained both of these elements (and more besides) meant that hurt was addressed, and relationship restored. It also enabled me to apologise too, as I discovered I needed to. What started as potentially awkward and could have spiralled out of control was nipped in the bud, and transfigured into something refreshing and life-giving.

A lesson there that will be good for me to employ in my marriage, my parenting, my friendships, my church. I have much to learn on saying sorry.

Today is Ash Wednesday, the start of the Christian season of Lent. This is a time for reflection. A time to recognise our faults and inadequacies and harmful dependencies, admit them before God, receive forgiveness for them and turn away from them to something new and better.

I thought about the way I say sorry to God. Too often it’s like my sorry to people – qualified, hesitant, blame-shifting, self-pitying. Something changes when I do it well. I realise how needy I am, how shallow I am, how much of a failure I am; my hands are emptied and I’m ready to receive what I need. My Christian tradition  – the Anglican tradition  – uses liturgy (prepared prayers) to help me do that. Those prayers put in my mouth words which express my failure, need and utter dependence on God. There is no talk of intention, blame or self-pity. I am forced to take responsibility, and turn away from the behaviour. I’m then free to receive spoken over me words of freedom, forgiveness and refreshing. Saying sorry to God, called confession; and repentance, turning away from the wrong, are often thought of as sad, miserable, life-crushing things to do. Bad for the self-esteem, we may think.

Not so. Quite the opposite, in fact. We find ourselves released from burdens we’re not designed to carry, relationships are restored and hurt is replaced by healing. Make it a choice to do this well – maybe start over Lent, but allow it to become a way of life.

The road to life is marked by a sign marked ‘Sorry, just sorry’. Follow it.


Philomena: Forgiveness in miniature

Ordinariness is under-rated; and Philomena is  a film which gives us the true story of a resolutely ordinary person finding it within herself to do something genuinely extraordinary. Steve Coogan is Martin Sixsmith, a BBC journalist turned new Labour spin doctor who’d found himself taking the fall for a mess not entirely of his own making. Suddenly at a loose end, he resolves to write books about Russian history, until he finds himself presented with a tempting possibility in his least favourite area of journalism: the human interest story. The human in question is Philomena (Judi Dench), now an old woman who as a teenager in Ireland had fallen pregnant to an older man and had been sent to a convent to learn some morals. The regime at the convent was strict; the young mothers were only allowed an hour a day with their children, the rest of the day taken up with religious, school and physical work. Philomena’s son is eventually sold to an American couple looking for a child to adopt; birth-mother and son seem destined to never meet again. In old age Philomena wants to find out once and for all what has happened, and Martin Sixsmith seems the man with the contacts to use and the ability to tell her story as it unfolds.

The film plays out as a portrait in miniature. It’s a portrait of elderly working class encountering middle-aged upper middle-class; of tertiary education meeting the school of life; of cynical atheism meeting obedient faith. As you’d expect with Steve Coogan involved as both male lead and writer, light comedy is key here and the two leads are perfect. Some of the banter is delightful, even if at times it jars with the emotional weight of what’s unfolding. With Stephen Frears as director (High Fidelity, The Queen, Dangerous Liaisons) the small-scale focus works well, the small inter-personal relating between the two leads working with a natural ease, so much so that at times we’re intruding behind doors that we’re tempted to feel should have remained closed to public viewing.

Where the film falls slightly short is that in that very compression we feel that we lose some perspective. Philomena’s story is told in flashback,  and though other young women are around and their stories touched on we never really get a sense of the truth that the title character’s pain is multiplied through disturbing numbers of other lives. Key plot revelations feel ever so slightly rushed and predictable. More time on the back story and context, a little more sense of the hard work of the search for answers would have given the film an even greater emotional and thematic punch. Despite all the strengths it ends up feeling slightly perfunctory.

Which is a shame because the film’s final moments hinge around a moment of remarkable forgiveness. It seems too easy for a character who tells us it was hard; not because of the performance but because we haven’t had quite enough time to feel the drawn out pain and frustration that has led to this point of remarkable grace. The audience is in no doubt of the sincerity or power of the deed; a little more time spent earlier in the piece would have allowed us to feel it in the guts and heart as much as we know it in our heads. That same compression means we also what could have been a fascinating and challenging parallel to the main story: Sixsmith has suffered his own, very different wrongs. What does this journey mean for him? Does the challenge resonate and reverberate, or does he file it under human interest? We don’t know, which means the story loses a powerful opportunity.

Still, when all is said and done we’re left with an inescapable question. Can I do that? Not in the character’s shoes, but in my own life. I have been wronged – as we all have. Not in the same way as Philomena has been, but in ways large and small. Forgiveness is offered and required of each of us. This film presents us with a gentle, but no less uncomfortable for it, challenge to both receive it and give it. For a portrait in miniature that’s no small achievement.

I rated this film 7/10 on and 4/5 on

The Way Back

Christians sometimes talk about the life of faith in terms of journey, of walking, of traveling. It’s a helpful and Biblical image. From Adam and Eve walking in the garden in the cool of the day, to the desert wanderings of a whole nation, to a man who embodies God walking amongst us, to the missionary journeys of Paul, and on into the centuries of Christian spirituality writing, the image of the Christian life as a long walk with a faithful and sometimes mysterious and companion is a fruitful one. Walk with God, and in doing so learn more of Him and His ways.

The Way Back, released in 2010 and directed by Australia’s Peter Weir (amongst his other work: The Truman ShowDead Poets SocietyMaster And Commander) is a film about a long walk. A very long walk, in fact – from Siberia to India. In telling a simple story, it entertains and provokes – as well as informing the Christian imagery of the journey in helpful ways. Christian imagery is not unusual in Weir’s films – watch Gallipoli or the brilliant Witness if you don’t believe me. The latter is a perceptively intelligent examination of a belief system that initially looks so culturally alien and distant, all wrapped around the kernel of a gripping murder-mystery/thriller. Then there’s The Truman Show, replete with religious overtones if you choose to see them. Maybe they’re subconscious, maybe not – personally I think there’s just too much of it in Weir’s work to suggest that it’s accidental.

The Way Back is taken from a true story; it’s 1941, and we follow a group of escapees from a Russian gulag whose long journey (Siberia to India, remember…that’s 4000 miles) on foot takes them through all manner of terrain and up against all sorts of difficulties. Given that we know from on-screen narration at the start of the film how many will make it to journey’s end alive, there’s not a great deal of suspense here. Instead it’s more of a question of who will make it and how the journey will proceed. That could make for a dull if worthy film – but it’s helped by two things. The first is a fine cast  – Colin Farrell, Mark Strong, Saoirse Ronan, Jim Sturgess and Ed Harris all turning in performances which are less about stealing a scene and more about building a believable group dynamic. Secondly, Weir is an intelligent director; though not a flashy one. He tells his story with an appealing simplicity and a sure touch in when to apply something more showy. Here that’s limited to moments of water-deprived hallucination (or is it reality masquerading as hallucination?); and the rest of the time allowing the unselfish performances and beautifully coloured cinematography to do the heavy lifting.

We’re left with a group-oriented character study. Their journey has conscious and deliberate spiritual overtones. One character is seeking forgiveness; another is desperate to get to his wife to tell her of his forgiveness of her for implicating him as disloyal to Stalin’s regime and hence provoking his imprisonment in the gulag. He’s convinced she wouldn’t be able to live with herself, though he knows well the pressure she was under. We all know the journey to forgive or know forgiveness is one taking us through some difficult terrain. Even those of us who say we know we’re forgiven find it hard to believe or live sometimes, and even harder to express to others. As we hear from the lips of one of the pilgrims (a label the travellers appropriate willingly when they find themselves in a moment of danger) “You pray too much for an innocent man”.  Yes indeed. We know it’s true, and often it is too good for us to live as if it is true. So we keep praying when in fact we should just keep walking, the source of forgiveness faithfully at our side.

The pilgrims/escapees/travellers know they’re free when they reach a mountain-top bedecked in Buddhist prayer flags, signalling a freedom they can’t quite believe is theirs. It only sinks in as they sit together in a barn that night: “Only a few mountains to go, and we’re there”. A few mountains indeed. The Buddhist flags redolent of a belief and life system which depends on work and achievement. Left to our own devices and acheivements, forgiveness is daunting mountain-range indeed. The journey has taught them much, but not yet do they know if the forgiveness they long to receive or express will make any difference.

We never find out for certain if the one was able to be convinced of his own forgiveness, if his long walk showed him truth; we see glimpses of the reunited husband and wife – and implications of forgiveness understood there. Or is it a hallucination? We’re not quite sure; as if to reinforce that human forgiveness is never quite enough to be sure of, that there’s a need for something else. The film loses the courage of its convictions in its final frames with a brief overview of European Communism’s growth and downfall, lending an unnecessary wider perspective clearly lacking in the rest of the film. It would have been better, and braver, to trust in the power of the simple story.

Given what’s gone before, we can forgive the director that. True forgiveness, after all, doesn’t wait for us to get there. It travels with us in the form of a sometimes hard to recognise fellow traveller.

I rated this movie 4/5 on and 7/10 on