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The Spark in The Thin Red Line: Why I Remain Catholic

February 9, AD2017

One of my favorite movies, if not my favorite of all time, is Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line. I watched this movie in my senior year of college, with my beautiful wife (we had been married for about three months at that point) and my fellow classmates, for a class on Terrence Malick’s films. I sat back waiting to be enamored as a theologian and philosopher studying the beauty of this film. Instead, I was looking at myself in the mirror.

To Give an Account

The characters Witt (Jim Caviezel) and Welsh (Sean Penn) talk to each other throughout the movie, one seeing the “immortality,” or, “the spark,” while the other only sees death and destruction. There are a few questions throughout the movie, including the meaning of life and the possibility of seeing the glory in a world that seems to be so destructive.

I came back home to the Catholic Church in high school after an encounter with Jesus through a priest during a very dark time of my life. My life was filled with addictions and seeming meaninglessness. I attended college to study theology and philosophy to follow in the footsteps of the man who helped me come home; eventually, I wanted to teach the faith to others who were in similar situations as I had been.

I wanted to know the truths of the faith, not just that Jesus loves me — which is important, mind you — what truth is. I took philosophy just as seriously as I took theology. I wanted to be able to give “an account for the hope within,” as St. Peter instructs us (1 Peter 3:15). After much reflection of my time in college, where I asked myself frequently the prompted question, “Why do I remain Catholic?”, I have come to three reasons taken from The Thin Red Line: 1) death and suffering, 2) the “spark” in others, and 3) the Eucharist.

The Ultimate Question

There is immeasurable death and suffering that is seen in the world day to day. One will find it if he turns on the news. Seeing these things, death and suffering, spark a question in everyone: why is there something rather than nothing?

This is what has been on my mind since the death of my grandmother when I was a child. I was confronted with the reality of death at a very young age. In my mind, this is not something that is depressing or saddening. This is the ultimate question of our life: why are we here? I do not think about these things because I am an existential French philosopher smoking a cigarette in a black and white movie, calling into question the meaning of everything. Rather, in my mind, it is a hopeful thought.

The Supreme Danger

Witt begins the movie by reflecting on his mother’s death. He states, “I couldn’t find nothing beautiful or uplifting … about her going back to God. I hear people talk about immortality. But I ain’t seen it.” There seems to be no hope in seeing a loved one passing from this world, but Witt reflects further in his mother’s reaction to death, “I just hope I can meet it the same way she did, with the same calm. Because that’s where it’s hidden, the immortality I hadn’t seen.”

This shows the truth that we all want to be ready to meet death. Not being prepared for death is something that bothers us. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI says it this way, “To be taken away suddenly, without being able to make oneself ready, without having had time to prepare — this is the supreme danger from which man wants to be saved” (Joseph Ratzinger, Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life, p. 71) The metaphysical (beyond the physical world) becomes real in death. Man wants to be prepared for death because there is something beyond this world for us to meet.

It is no coincidence that there are numerous death bed conversions. It causes one to look hard at reality and to see what is beyond what we see here. I think the truth of death making us reflect on something beyond ourselves and the questions of why is there something rather than not point that we all have this understanding that there is, as Benedict says, “[A] more authentic life than this” (ibid., 79; emphasis added).

Human Suffering Becomes Redemptive

Back to The Thin Red Line: Another character, Train (John Dee Smith), points out, “One man looks at a dying bird and thinks there’s nothing but unanswered pain. But death’s got the final word. It’s laughing at him. Another man sees that same bird, feels the glory. Feels something smiling through it.”

Something is behind all this suffering and death; there is something smiling at us through it all. We see this in the Book of Job and most especially through Jesus’ death and resurrection. God’s answer to Job about why an innocent man like Job is suffering is just that he is God. God infinitely loves, he made this world for Job to know who he is: a child of God.

As we know, in the Garden of Eden, where Man fell, the sin that caused Man to fall is distrust in God. The serpent cunningly persuades Eve to think that God is withholding some good from her by restricting eating the fruit of the tree. Eve now thinks she knows what is better for herself over what God knows is best for her. Before Christ came, we were called to trust that God has always done what is good for us.

With Jesus’ death and resurrection, we now know that God is doing what is good for us. Jesus made the one thing we are trying to get away from suffering — the means of our salvation. Man can now participate in the sufferings of Christ, as Paul points out: “Now I rejoice in my suffering for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body that is the Church” (Colossians 1:24). Human suffering is elevated to a new level, redemptive suffering, through Christ’s death and resurrection (cf. St. John Paul II, Salvifici Doloris, § 19). It is through this suffering of Christ that we see that true love is a choice to die to self in order to rise to new life. We get to participate in the saving act of Christ for others!

Seeing the Spark in Others

This leads me to my next point of seeing the “spark” in others. Throughout most of Terrence Malick’s films, he mentions the word spark somewhere. In The Thin Red Line, during a pivotal scene we hear this word during a conversation between Witt and Welsh:

Welsh: “Why are you such a troublemaker?”

Witt: “You care about me, don’t you, Sarge? Why do you always make yourself out like a rock? Do you ever get lonely?”

Welsh: “Only around people. You still a believer in the great light, are you? How do you do that? You’re a magician to me.”

Witt: “I still see a spark in you.”

Time and time again I am shown Christ through other people. This spark that Witt sees in Welsh is Witt seeing reality for what it is: a love story between Man and God. A relationship is all about love, it affects every aspect of your life. The conversation I have with my wife in the morning sets the mood for the rest of the day. Either I chose to love her or I chose not to love her. It could also be that she chose not to love me that morning or we each did not accept the love of the other.

Unlike Witt, Welsh sees no hope in this world. But Welsh does see in Witt something that he cannot grasp. This is why at Witt’s death, Welsh asks, “Where is your spark now?” Welsh does not fully comprehend why Witt would sacrifice himself for those men. At the end of the movie, though, it seems that Welsh has found it. That immortality. Welsh says, “If I never meet you in this life, let me feel the lack. A glance from your eyes and my life will be yours.” Welsh sees the glory shining, he sees it within the memory of Witt’s eyes.

It is through people that we get to experience the person of Christ or experience a lack of Christ. St. John Paul the Great was amazing in his ministry of reemphasizing the fundamental importance of our relationship with each other in order to become closer to Jesus. The love that I was shown by mentors, family, my college rugby team, and other friends reinforced my faith tenfold. They showed me the glory; they showed me God smiling through everything.

Touching the Glory

For those who have seen The Thin Red Line, the comments will probably be that the Eucharist is nowhere to be found in the movie. They would be right. I wrote of this desire of something beyond what we see; this is what we get in the Eucharist. The entire film is Witt reaching for the “immortality.” But in the Eucharist, we are not only reminded of God coming down as a human in order to redeem us but we get to experience it. The infinite dwells “within” a three-inch space. Part of this immortality that Witt was speaking of in the movie has a communal aspect to it. Witt says:

We were a family. How’d it break up and come apart, so that now we’re turned against each other? Each standing in the other’s light. How’d we lose that good that was given us? Let it slip away. Scattered it, careless. What’s keepin’ us from reaching out, touching the glory?

Witt understands that there is some form of communion that man had at one point and now it is lost. In the Christian life, we speak about the fall of man and how Christ came down from heaven to reunite that relationship between nature and grace. Through Christ’s death and resurrection, we are able to come back as a family through baptism.

It was through this familial aspect of Catholicism that not only brought me into the Church but keeps me here. Growing up I never felt part of a group. I played several sports but I never felt a part of those teams. It was not until I started playing rugby in college that I felt a part of something. Through the camaraderie of the team, I saw how the members of Christ’s body are my brothers and sisters leading me closer to Christ. One day I was literally picked up by two of my teammates and taken down to the chapel for Mass. They took me in and showed me what a brotherhood looked like, what true communion looks like. This communal aspect is ultimately realized with the Eucharist. God becoming man bridges the infinite so that we can touch the glory.

The Truth is a Person

Why do I remain Catholic? God made this world for me to know him, even in the midst of suffering, and he desires to know me. Everyone in this world is an image of God Himself, through many people I get to behold his face every day. I get to touch the glory even in this life! The Eucharist is the source of happiness that we are all looking for.

These are all interrelated and hard to separate enough to distinguish because to have one without the other is not to have the whole picture. Catholicism is to affect our entire being, which is why the phrase, “The truth is a person, and that person is Jesus Christ,” fits so well. We encounter truth with Jesus. This takes all that we are in order to see it through the eyes of faith.

Photography: See our Photographers page.

About the Author:

Alexander Wolke is a happily married Kansas boy who attempts to live a life of balance, love, and holiness. He studied Theology and Philosophy at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas (Go Ravens!). He loves to read, write, play rugby, watch his siblings grow up, and take part in strength sports. His favorite thing to do though is be with his wife who shows him everyday what it means to be a saint.

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  • Patrick Malone

    Malick really understands the pointlessness of evil and death. As Welsh says, the whole war’s “about property.” Woody Harrelson’s character’s death is memorable because of how pitifully banal it is. Nolte’s character is cavalier with others’ lives.

    Witt is so important because in his acceptance of suffering and death, motivated by his seeing another world, it is no longer pointless, at least in that instance. Malick – wisely – never explains why there is evil in the world, but he does show how one can respond to it, and he does that again in The Tree of Life.

    Malick is also wise enough to ask why there is good in the world. He asks why there is love in the world. He does not take the good for granted, which is easy to do when exploring the problem of suffering.

    • Alex Wolke

      I would say the pointlessness is aimed at war but through Witt, which I believe you point out in your second paragraph, shows that evil and death are not pointless. There is something more to take from evil and death than most would acknowledge. As I pointed out in the essay, Welsh seems to see this immortality, even if he does not want to accept it. I agree that Malick does well to not try to answer why there is evil. I could not be more in agreement that he does take equal weight to both questions, “why is there good?”, and, “why is there evil?”. That is one of the many reasons I love watching Malick films. He does not just throw the questions out there, he takes the time to see things as a whole rather than just parts. It is great to hear from another Malick fan!