Into the Desert: Lent, Fasting and Film

The traditional forty days of Lent, Popes Benedict XVI and John Paul II have reminded us, recall our Lord’s forty days of fasting in the desert. In Lent we are invited to join Christ in the desert, to recapitulate Israel’s forty years of wilderness wandering.

Lent is a penitential season, but also an invitation to a closer intimacy with God. The Pentateuch presents the forty years of wilderness wandering as a punishment for unbelief, but the prophets offer a startling complementary vision of the desert as a privileged time of intimacy between God and Israel, a romantic season in which God wooed Israel as his bride (Jeremiah 2:2, Hosea 2:16).

The two aspects are inseparable; the time of privileged closeness to God must also be a penitential experience of wilderness wandering. Pope Benedict has recently reminded us of the three specific practices the Church proposes especially during Lent: prayer, fasting and almsgiving.

All three are important and even inseparable; fasting can’t be abstracted from prayer, nor prayer from active charity for one’s neighbor in need. That said, in his address above Pope Benedict focuses on almsgiving in particular. I’ve written in the past about fasting (see A Short Primer on Fasting; More on Fasting … More), a discipline sadly neglected in the Christian West.

In my second post above I ventured with trepidation to lament that the Latin Church’s current discipline on fasting and abstinence seems mere token ascesis. I was gratified by the confirming comment of canon law professor Ed Peters, who opined that the current law of fast “does not even get to the level of token: it is purely legalistic. And I think THAT breeds contempt for law.”

As a point of contrast, our Eastern Catholic and Eastern Orthodox brethren observe regimen that includes (but is not limited to) completely eschewing meat and all animal products (eggs, dairy, etc.) throughout all of Lent. I have to admit that strikes me as dauntingly severe, but my hat’s off to them. Of course, many Catholics go far beyond the official requirements, but many others don’t, and I’m saddened that the bar is set so low.

A few words about film and media.

Many Catholics observe Lent with a discipline of withdrawal, in whole or in part, from mass communications media: movies, television, Internet, radio, music, newspapers. This is an admirable discipline, and one I recommend.

Short of withdrawal, I recommend limiting and altering one’s media use in keeping with the spirit of the season. For example, if you typically have, say, U2 or Taylor Swift CDs in your car, or if you listen to talk radio, try exchanging your usual listening for some Gregorian chant. (If you usually listen to chant, try holy silence, or maybe CDs of the Bible or something.)

My work doesn’t permit me not to watch movies at all. I could try to cut back to the bare minimum of movies necessary to do my job, but I find it helpful to make a practice of spiritual viewing during Lent, just as many make a practice of spiritual reading.

For those inclined to consider this practice, here are six suggestions for the six weeks of Lent, with links to reviews at Decent Films.

Week 1: Into Great Silence. My #1 “into the desert” film. If you can set aside two and a half hours to spend with the Carthusian monks of the Grand Chartreuse, ideally in one sitting, definitely do so. (Besides the review above, see also my interview with the director.)

Week 2: The Face: Jesus in Art. The riches of Christian art, above all the art of Christ, are a spiritual treasure trove. This documentary is a treasure map.

Week 3: Diary of a Country Priest. Bresson’s adaptation of Georges Bernanos’s novel is a transcendent portrait of a dark night of the soul.

Week 4: The Flowers of St. Francis: Laetare Sunday, with its rose vestments, anticipates the joy of Easter. Rossellini’s cinematic homage to Franciscan “perfect joy” is a beautiful film for this week.

Week 5: The Passion of Joan of Arc. No film makes a better preparation for Holy Week and Good Friday than Dreyer’s silent masterpiece of Joan’s via dolorosa.

Holy Week: The Miracle Maker. My favorite Easter film, The Miracle Maker the only Jesus film I have seen that does justice to the resurrection accounts. Ideal for family viewing.

Not the most imaginative suggestions, I admit, but a good place to start.