One of my all time favorite movies is a relatively unknown film called The Island. It is a Russian film, (Ostrov) though it comes with English subtitles. The film is about a monk named Fr. Anatoly who is either a bit mad, or he is extremely holy. I think of him as a staretz, which in the Russian Orthodox tradition is an elder, renowned for his wisdom and holiness. The staretz often has great spiritual gifts such as prophecy, healing, and wisdom and they are great spiritual directors. (A good example of a staretz is Zossima in the novel The Brothers Karamozov by Dostoevsky.) However, Fr. Anatoly does not have overt leadership in the monastery on the remote island in Siberia where the film takes place. He is a monk with the lowliest position in the monastery by his own choice. There is an abbot, Fr. Filaret, who has much to learn from Anatoly, and to his credit, he does. The true spiritual leader of the community is in fact Fr. Anatoly.
What makes the movie so compelling is the portrait we get of Fr. Anatoly, who though he does indeed have spiritual gifts, sees himself as most unworthy because of a great sin of cowardice he committed when he was a young man which cost his friend, Tikhon, his life. Throughout the film Anatoly is atoning for this great sin, but it is in the atoning that the source of his holiness lies. He has an intense love of the Lord and a deep sense of service to everyone around him, but he is also a source of consternation to many of the monks because they do not understand him or the riddles in which he seems to speak. Upon a careful viewing and re-viewing of this film the meaning of each of the riddles become more and more obvious.
I find this film to be almost haunting in its beauty. One insight that sticks with me is that the one they seem to undervalue the most is the one with the greatest holiness. The one who is willing to be a bit of a holy fool, as Anatoly is in this film, is the one with the most profound message. Anatoly has extreme humilty, but he teaches each of the characters in the film to find the meaning behind his often bizarre behaviors on their own. Only we can do our own inner work. No one can do it for us. Even Anatoly has to do his own work when he is finally offered the chance to heal and to accept forgiveness once and for all of the sin for which he has atoned for so many years. God offers, but we have to respond. God never forces us to do anything, even heal.
Another thing I love about this film is that it reminds us that there is great healing to be had in the act of forgiveness, whether it is our need to forgive others, or our need to beg forgiveness for our transgressions. Forgiveness is a very powerful form of love, maybe the most powerful of all acts of love. It is very difficult to do if we have been hurt badly. It is often more difficult if we are the ones who have caused hurt to someone else or to ourselves. That is, forgiving of ourselves is quite often the hardest act of love there is.
Forgiveness is a process. We can not force ourselves to say we are sorry and truly mean it until we are really at that point. If we rush it, the words and actions will lack meaning and depth, so we will continue to be saddled with the emotions, the shame, guilt, hurt, etc., that was there in the first place. But if we allow ourselves the time and the process to truly forgive, it is a power that can be compared to nothing else in the world. It is the power to set free the captive, and often the captive is our very own self. It is the power of the greatest act of love of all time: the death and resurrection of Jesus.
I do not want to spoil the film, but at the end Anatoly is indeed set free, and this is because he allows himself to be set free. You will have to see the film to see how this is done, and especially the closing event which shows he has the ultimate freedom as a result. But the truth remains: quite often we are harder on ourselves concerning past sins we have committed than anyone else. We do not feel worthy because we can not forgive ourselves or we can not let go of past hurts inflicted upon us. In reality, Christ died in order to forgive us of all our sins and to offer us that forgiveness over and over through the sacraments and prayer. The death and resurrection of the Lord truly gave us the greatest power of love there is: the power of setting people free through forgiveness.
Maybe we need to lay down our grudges, our resentments, and our hurts at the foot of the Cross. Maybe we need to let go of our own bonds from the ways we do not forgive ourselves. It is in this letting go that we rise with Christ. And it is in this acceptance of the freedom that comes with forgiveness that we truly become the holy people we are meant to be. In doing so we will see greater beauty than we ever thought possible all around us. And we will see the great beauty within ourselves which was hidden behind the burdens we once carried. It is the beauty of love, which transfigures everything.
Let us meet in the heart of Christ in that sacrament of the greatest act of love there is: the Eucharist.
Heart Speaks to Heart