Monday, December 4, 2017

Novitiate (The Movie)

The film Novitiate follows the story of Cathleen, raised in rural Tennessee in the 1950s by an irreligious single mother, and her experience as a postulant and then novice in a cloistered convent in the mid-1960s. It focuses on what was going on inside her and inside the convent - but also on the complicating consequences for religious life of the Second Vatican Council, simultaneously taking place in the world outside. Movies made about religious life by those outside the experience inevitably suffer from secular society's incomprehension and misunderstanding. This film also displays more than its share of historical errors and implausibilities. Still it captures something about the mystery - and romanticism - of discerning a religious vocation in any era and especially in the confusing late 20th-century.

Although irreligious, Cathleen's mother exposes her daughter to religion and eventually sends her to a Catholic girls' school, where she comes under the influence of the good Sisters and discovers a religious vocation - not, however, to a teaching order but to an enclosed contemplative community. Her actual grounding in the faith seems somewhat ambiguous, but she is clearly captivated by the idea pf being in love with God. She is also a loner, from a dysfunctional family, searching for stability and - as she describes her first childhood experience of Mass - peace.

The film portrays Cathleen's mother's reluctance to see her daughter do this as well as the seemingly incomprehensible (to a secular mentality) practices of pre-conciliar religious life. Presumably it serves the plot's purpose to emphasize those aspects and merely to mention - but seldom to illustrate - any of the "joys" of religious life. There are some scenes of "normal" behavior among the postulants, who are, after all, teenage girls, and there are expressions of kindness and care among the Sisters, but they are subordinated to an overall impression of archaic and inhumane religious observance that seems to have become an end in itself - especially in the hands of a difficult Mother Superior. (Likewise, the presentation of the celebration of the community's Mass is consistently inaccurate and reflects little familiarity with how it would have actually been celebrated or much understanding of how it would actually have been experienced by its contemporary participants.)

That said, the Mother Superior's seeming obsession with religious observances provides a distinctive context within which Cathleen (and her sister postulants and novices) struggle to discern their vocation, struggle to translate their natural human neediness and romanticized image of being a "Bride of Christ" into some kind of actual lived reality, which, as the Mother Superior tells them on the first day, requires "work." Like any young person seeking to live a holy life, Cathleen has to struggle with what faith means, what love means, and what community means, while still growing up to become an adult woman - with all that that process entails.

Meanwhile the outside world impinges on the convent's enclosed life through the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. The Mother Superior is portrayed as extremely resistant - to the extent that she tries to hide the Council's prescriptions from the other Sisters. It is only due to the intervention of the local archbishop - unattractively portrayed as a stereotypical ecclesiastical careerist out to enforce what he sees as the company line - that any changes come to the monastery. In fact, however, only two changes actually occur in the course of the movie - Mass celebrated versus populum in English and a significant departure of nuns from the convent - the first not actually prescribed by the Council and the second certainly not intended by it. There is no serious grappling here with the what the Council actually did prescribe or the renewal of religious life which it in fact intended - something that really existing religious communities actually did experience with varying mixtures of good, bad, and confusing consequences. There is certainly a real story that could have been told about the disruptive effect of the Council and its unintended consequences.  But the movie only alludes to that reality. 

In her resistance to the supposed mandates of the Council, however, the Mother Superior's character is more deeply revealed. Her fetishizing of religious observances turns out to reflect her own quest for identity and belonging. She had, she admits in a crucial scene, no family, no home, and had come to the convent in search of precisely those things - an identity and sense of purpose which the seemingly oppressive observances of religious life had given her. So it turns out that she and Cathleen are a lot alike. She is, I suspect, what Cathleen would have been 40 years earlier, and Cathleen is probably what the Mother Superior would have been if she were a novice 40 years later. Both sought in religious life the identity, sense of purpose, and experience of community and belonging that their secular lives failed to provide. In Cathleen's case, the convent was her alternative to her mother's chaotic life. To a modern secularist ideologue, her mother's dysfunctional life may represent liberation. For Cathleen, however, it was something to escape from. The final credit announcing that 90,000 nuns left their convents in the immediate aftermath of the Council may be meant to suggest liberation for Cathleen and many others like her. In fact, if the convent proved to be a different kind of trap for Cathleen from the home life she escaped from, then perhaps the message is not how that dysfunctional home life was any less a trap, but rather how elusive freedom really is - at least for most people in this world.

A better, more nuanced presentation of the pros and cons of traditional religious observances might have better illuminated not only the real and tragic toll which the obsessive preoccupation with religious observances may have imposed on Religious, but also the benefits an ordered, structured, purpose-filled life may have provided them. The movie makes clear the Mother Superior's fear that the letting go of such observances might spell the end of religious life - at least as she knew it - and thus the end of the stability, sense of purpose, and community belonging she had found. The massive departures of nuns and sisters which the film seemingly celebrates would seem to confirm the Mother Superior's intuition. But what of those that remained - or future Cathleen's that might subsequently come in search of something? The movie does not ask or answer that question. If the Mother Superior's model of religious life had made a pagan idol of religious observances, what would eventually take their place? In today's world, an over-obsession with religious observances may be replaced by an over-obsession with work. For some, perhaps, work would fill that gap and replace the idol of religious observances with an alternative, catch-all, alternative idol of "mission."

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