When I first began discerning a call to religious life three years ago, I did as any reluctant servant might: I recklessly tore through the recesses of YouTube, watching anything and everything related to discernment.
From high-quality promotional videos to nap-inducing question and answer sessions, I filled my hesitant brain with all the digital-spiritual guidance it could contain. While I felt that God was calling me to consecrated life, an element of apprehension still remained.
[See also: The Amazing Young Nuns that Blew Oprah Away]
Then one August day, only a few weeks before I was scheduled to report to rural Pennsylvania to begin my nine-month postulancy, I flipped through the movie channels on my home television. I stopped on Spider-Man 2, one of my all-time favorites, and watched it from beginning to end. By the time the credits rolled down the screen, I knew that God was calling me to be a priest. No multi-part catechetical series or motivational talk from a well-known priest was necessary—just the Holy Spirit working, as it often does, in the ordinary.
This event got me thinking: what other Hollywood Blockbusters are loaded with themes of discernment? After doing some of my own brainstorming, as well as talking over this very important matter with my friar brothers, I have put together a list of five films that I believe are “must-see” material for anyone discerning a religious vocation. And, as I am dealing with film synopses, a SPOILER ALERT goes without saying!
1) Men in Black
I don’t know if Men in Black director Barry Sonnenfeld set out to make a sci-fi movie about religious life, but yeah, he totally made a sci-fi movie about religious life.
The film’s plot is as follows. After a life-changing encounter with the unexplainable, a loose-cannon police-officer (Will Smith) is confronted with the reality that the universe may not be as it appears. Ceding to a deeper calling, he leaves behind the world he once knew to join the ranks of an organization that spends its days quietly and humbly defending Earth from evil enemies which most people don’t believe exist.
As if the religious-life parallels weren’t yet uncanny enough, our quick-witted hero cannot attain full initiation into the mysterious “Men in Black” until he is vested by his superior with “the last suit [he] will ever wear” (his habit). Oh, and he also receives a new name, J, which I’m like 90% sure stands for either Jerome or Jeremiah. In the end, Smith’s character leads an obscure and often thankless life as a man who, while part of the world, certainly does not belong to it.
2) Spider-Man 2
In this critically-acclaimed 2004 Marvel sequel, Peter Parker, a.k.a. Spider-Man, faces a common dilemma: he discovers that it is way easier to be a normal guy than to be a superhero. Who would’ve thought?
After a fancy-free montage in which the-hero-formerly-known-as-Spider-Man literally eats a hot dog instead of combatting crime, Parker realizes that the eight-appendaged villains of the world aren’t exactly going to fight themselves. While normal life had its perks—namely climbing the ladder of academic prestige and flirting with Kirsten Dunst—it is way cooler to be the man he was born to be.
If nothing else, Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 reminds us that it is not we who choose the vocation; it is the vocation—err, radioactive super spider—that chooses us. As Aunt May says: “I believe there’s a hero in all of us, that keeps us honest, gives us strength, makes us noble, and finally allows us to die with pride, even though sometimes we have to be steady, and give up the thing we want the most. Even our dreams.”
3) The Fellowship of the Ring
Catholic literary legend J.R.R. Tolkien deserves immeasurable credit for crafting a fictional universe so subtly Christocentric that even non-believers have wandered through it utterly captivated. But for those of us too lazy to read the books (that’s like 1,500 pages, at least!), New Zealand filmmaker Peter Jackson’s corresponding Lord of the Rings film trilogy brings the same world to life on the television screen.
And who doesn’t love those hobbits? Just like us, they enjoy a warm fire place, a lively party, and a second breakfast. Perhaps this is what makes the journey of Frodo Baggins so strangely relatable. Given the remarkable task of carrying the Ring of Power all the way into Mordor, Frodo laments the fact that he must now spend his days fighting orcs and giant spiders when he could have been taking it easy in the Shire.
In this regard, the young Hobbit illustrates the most fantastic reality of discernment: our quest to follow God’s will oftentimes leads us far from home, but the adventures we face along the way never fail to make the journey worthwhile. Perhaps the most decisive moment of Frodo’s epic voyage comes at the end of The Fellowship of the Ring. Faced with the decision of whether or not to continue towards Mount Doom, Frodo recalls an earlier conversation with his wizard friend, Gandalf:
“I wish the ring had never come to me; I wish none of this had happened,” Frodo says.
Gandalf replies: “So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All you have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to you.” (Queue awesome Howard Shore soundtrack.)
4) The Matrix
Anyone who has ever felt a call to the priesthood, deaconate, or consecrated life has undoubtedly held a common thought: there is something more to this world than what we can perceive with our senses. In the 1999 neo-noir science-fiction masterpiece The Matrix, computer-programmer Thomas Anderson finds himself pondering this same truth, which ultimately results in a 136 minute-long battle against the super-intelligent humanoid computer programs which police his fake reality in order to prevent him from discovering that humanity is being harvested by cyborgs. We’ve all been there.
But what makes Neo (as he comes to be known) so interesting is that, well, he’s pretty sure that this isn’t his battle to fight. As a matter of fact, a few of his fellow freedom-fighter comrades agree that they picked the wrong guy for the job. But a few thousand turbo face-punches and slow-motion bullet-dodges later, Neo decides that there is no way he can go back to his normal existence now that he knows the truth.
With humanity’s future at stake, he pushes forward, eventually coming to realize that he is, indeed, The One—the man prophesied to overthrow the evil Matrix. Good thing he didn’t keep his desk job.
5) Star Wars: The Force Awakens
What is a Jedi if not a monk with a lightsaber? They’re even wearing habits!
My secret hope is that the next Star Wars installment might just take the next logical step and feature a Jedi wearing a cord with three knots to represent vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. For the amount of times I’ve been mistaken for a Star Wars character in public, it would only be right and just. Anyway, I digress.
The newest Star Wars film is a story of discernment through and through. Will full-time scavenger, Rey, heed the influence of the Force within her, or will she deny its power? Will she pursue her true identity as a powerful Jedi, or reject the responsibility? Will Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber receive its rightful heir, or will it go unused as the New Republic is systematically annihilated?
Spoiler alert: everything turns out okay; the Force—a.k.a. the Holy Spirit—is always at work, even in a galaxy far, far away. And as for Rey, she never fails to display complete humility. After realizing the great power of the Force within her, a character inquires as to her name. Rey simply replies: “I’m no one.”
What movie would you add to this list? Let us know in the comments!
Br. Zachary Burns is a simply professed friar of the Third Order Regular of St. Francis, Province of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus. He is currently in his first year of seminary studies at the Catholic University of America.
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