“He’s dead because of me. And I’m trying to… been trying to get me head around it, but I can’t. I will have always have killed that little boy. That ain’t ever going away. Ever. Unless… maybe I go away.” -Ray, In Bruges
This line from Martin McDonagh’s film In Bruges sums up one of its central struggles: the search for value in a life that has been corrupted by sin. Ray is a hitman, played by Colin Farrell, who, while assassinating a priest, accidentally kills a little boy waiting to make his confession. Sent to hide in Bruges (it’s in Belgium) with his partner-in-crime Ken, played by Brendan Gleeson, Ray doesn’t know how he can continue to live after he has ended an innocent life. He’s overwhelmed with his own guilt and eventually puts a gun to his head, intending to commit suicide.
While these characters are by no means saints, the film of which they are a part vividly and shrewdly depicts how Ray’s sin leads to despair. This can be one of the great adversities of the Christian life: not losing hope in God’s forgiveness. Sin itself already is a rupture in one’s relationship with God, and once this rupture has been made, one might find it easy to feel that, because one is impure and corrupt, one is unfit to approach God, or that one cannot pray or go to
Mass in the same way that after having committed the first sin, Adam and Eve hid themselves from God in the Garden because they were ashamed and afraid. The despair deepens the rupture.
This is not, of course, to dismiss the feeling of guilt as bad because it may lead to other failures. On the contrary, it is very good to be able to aware of one’s failure with respect to God. It’s like the pain that tells us of bodily injury, but, as In Bruges demonstrates, one can’t allow this guilt to become overwhelming. One must always be aware of the remedy. As an obvious example, the examination of conscience is almost invariably tied to the Sacrament of Reconciliation; a healthy awareness of sin properly leads to repentance and restoration of one’s relationship with God.
Similarly, while Adam and Eve were cast out from the Garden to live a life of labour and adversity, God also at that moment gave them hope in the promise that their tempter, the serpent, will be crushed. In his encyclical Spe Salvi, Pope Benedict XVI defines the remedy to despair as being the “great hope” which allows one to say, ‘“I am definitively loved and whatever happens to me—I am awaited by this Love. And so my life is good.”’ The theological virtue of hope isn’t merely an optimistic perspective, or a naïve belief that present things will turn out all right. Rather, it’s more specifically the faith in God’s final triumph. It acknowledges that there may be dark times and suffering, but does not believe that this suffering is the sum and total of life. This hope has a very concrete effect on how we live our present lives; as Pope Benedict says in that encyclical, “Only when the future is certain as a positive reality does it become possible to live the present as well.” If, like Ray, we believe that we are corrupt to the point of damnable worthlessness, that adversity triumphs, than there is nothing to be gained from continuing to live, or from continuing to struggle for that which is good if we can never again be good. If we know that are still loved, however, and that this love is unconditional, we know that we aren’t worthless, and life continues to have value.
Ray receives this love from Ken, who puts his own life at risk not simply to save Ray’s, but to give Ray a chance for absolution. He prevents Ray from shooting himself, and ultimately sacrifices his own life by jumping off a tower in order to warn Ray that their boss, Harry, is coming to kill Ray. Although Harry does eventually shoot Ray, Ken’s sacrifice isn’t in vain, because Ray no longer despairs or wishes to die. Instead, he wants the boy’s parents to be able to
receive justice for the wrong he has done them. He has moved outside of his preoccupation with his own sins and is concerned with the suffering of others. He no longer sees himself as living in a type of Hell.
Ray doesn’t overcome the adversity of despair through his own strength. Instead, the hope he needs arises when he is presented with Ken’s incredible and self-sacrificial love. It’s easy to despair when we are faced with our own sin and the suffering of the world and realise that these are problems too immense for us to resolve. While we are certainly not called to be indifferent to these evils, and must live in such a way that we do not rupture our relationship with God, we
must also know the limits of our abilities to remedy evil. We aren’t meant to seek salvation through our own power, as Dante portrays the damned Ulysses as having attempted in his Inferno. Along these lines, I once had a priest instruct me not to promise to “sin no more,” but to “amend my life,” as the first was a promise that I cannot keep. As much as I intend to sin no more, I appreciate that breaking this promise over and over again can engender an attitude that
there is little point in trying to keep it.
These limits, however, don’t render hope futile. Though there may be burdens we can’t bear, we can hope in Christ, Who can bear our infirmities and carry our diseases. Therefore, it’s important to understand how our faith involves personal relationships, especially in that we must be aware of how God sees us with love and desires that we reach out to Him, asking for His help. This is how the Catholic response to adversity differs from mere superstition: we Catholics offer up control over our worries to Christ, with Whom we have a relationship, accepting our limits, while superstition is an attempt to overreach our limits and gain power over the mysterious and uncontrollable through little rituals and actions.
This superstitious attitude, which is parallel to blind faith in the salvific power of technological advancement, ultimately evades the question of right relationship with God, which one’s daily living of the Catholic faith must bring to the forefront. The Catholic faith is a response not to the question of, as some would put it, how the world came to be, as a primitive attempt at modern science, but is first and foremost a response to the adversity of the person’s alienation from God. It offers us hope in response to the despair wrought by sin, allowing us to see the present value of our lives, and while it certainly asks much of us, such as adopting a lifestyle that others may disdain, the hope that is offers us is not in our fallible power.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Patrick Malone has a BA (Honours) in English from Campion College at the University of Regina, where he was involved with various Catholic student groups, contributed to the student newspaper The Carillon, and was able to study the works of Gerard Manley Hopkins, T.S. Eliot, and Evelyn Waugh, who have become only a few of his favourite writers.