You’re probably familiar with scriptures that advise us how to pray. I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I sometimes read those passages as if they were the troubleshooting page of a user’s manual, hoping I might find I’ve overlooked a step, a secret, a keystroke that would provoke God’s response.
“Is it me?” I ask myself. “Is there a loose connection in my prayer wiring that will spark if I poke at it? Will good behavior improve my chances? Do I need to ask for this enough times that God knows I really mean it? If I remember to express gratitude for God’s blessings, will that put him in a generous mood?”
Childish questions, I know, but I suspect I’m not the only one who’s stumbled into them during God’s long silences.
Lourdes complicates matters by asking us if we’re really serious. It asks us if we’ve considered the possible consequences. It asks us how we’ll recognize an answer from the Lord.
In this 2009 feature directed by Jessica Hausner, Sylvie Testud plays Christine, a wheelchair-bound woman who, nearly paralyzed by multiple sclerosis for years, has good reason to pray. She embarks on one “prayer pilgrimage” after another to destinations where healings are said to have occurred.
Will God touch her if she is bathed in the right water? If she stands on the right holy ground? If the right priest or nun prays over her? If the right prayer is said? If she lays awake, listening?
Christine may say very little out loud, but her face is as eloquent in prayer as any I’ve seen since The Passion of Joan of Arc. Her longing, her fears, her doubts—she brings them all on a tour of Lourdes, a small French town where many have testified that the Virgin Mary healed them.
Organized by the Order of Malta—an ancient Catholic order devoted to serving the elderly, disabled, homeless, and terminally ill—the visit is overseen by a nurse named Cécile, a weary servant who seems more concerned with order and propriety than the possibility of grace. The best advice she can muster for a desperate pilgrim is to “accept your fate with humility.” Then she adds, “The suffering you bear can have a deep meaning.”
Elina Löwensohn, best known for comical turns in Hal Hartley’s films, powerfully conveys Cécile’s spiritual turmoil—the deep disillusionment that sometimes flares into rage.
One of Cécile’s most fickle helpers, young Maria, is in charge of caring for Christine on this trip. But Maria (Léa Seydoux of Midnight in Paris) is so distracted by the effect of her own beauty on handsome ambulance officers that she often fails to meet Christine’s needs, which are taxing and sometimes messy.
So it often falls to Christine’s roommate, an elderly woman with afflictions of her own, to offer faithful friendship and tenderness. One of the old woman’s afflictions might be naïveté—she seems to be the ideal customer for the exploitative Lourdes marketplace. She buys cheap Virgin Mary statues, and even kneels at the one with the neon halo that stands outside a tacky souvenir shop. Her pilgrimage name-tag might as well say “Holy Fool.”
Hausner’s imaginative images sharpen her film’s questions. She frequently composes pictures in which our view is cut off by a wall, a pillar, or another pilgrim. We lean, trying to see the full picture of the scene, but like God’s silence, these obstructions remain impenetrable, unmoving.
If this were a “Christian movie” about an afflicted woman who devoted herself to years of prayer, we’d have no reason to suspect anything more than a miracle followed by rejoicing and the promise that her testimony would bring others to faith. Thank God—Hausner’s film gives us something more truthful, stubbornly refusing to deliver the feel-good conclusions that we’ve come to expect from “miracle stories.”
Some of these pilgrims experience wondrous things at Lourdes… events that confound doctors, priests, and pilgrims alike. And yet, Hausner’s observant movie reveals more than the shock of the miraculous. It takes us beyond this, into the hard questions that a genuine miracle would raise.
What happens when a seeker finds? How much is actually resolved? Do doubts dissolve? Can a blessing, once granted, be withdrawn? Is it conditional? And what happens when a seeker, having received the blessing, becomes the object of other seekers’ attention? What if a miracle for one sends many spiraling downward in jealous resentment?
Lourdes may cause viewers to see miracle stories of the ancient past or the skeptical present in a whole new light. It may make us more reluctant to ask for miracles, or at least more aware of what we might be inviting.
And it’s likely to send most moviegoers away more frustrated than pleased. Film critic Michael Leary nailed it when he called Lourdes “a theological Chinese finger trap.” (He meant it as a compliment.)
Hausner reminds us how little we understand about the ways, thoughts, and purposes of God. Her film stands as a caution: Be careful what you ask for.
It also reminds us that even miracles cannot resolve the challenge of faith. Remember how quickly the fickle, self-centered masses turned against the same teacher who astonished them with wonders. A Gospel that sells itself on the promise that God answers prayers is no Gospel at all.
As I watch Lourdes again, it isn’t the wonder of pilgrims transformed—by miracle or chance—that moves me. Sure, it’s exciting to see incurable diseases cured, but that isn’t this movie’s strongest evidence of some great grace at work in the world.
Rather, I’m stunned by the sight of Frau Hartl, weary and unloved, praying in the glow of a cheap Virgin Mary lamp, and then selflessly bearing Christine’s burdens when others fail her, asking nothing in return, even as the silence goes on swallowing her prayers.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Written by: Jeffrey Overstreet
Jeffrey Overstreet has been recognized for his writing on cinema in The New Yorker, Time, The Seattle Times, and Image, and spent an award-winning decade as film reviewer for Christianity Today. Overstreet writes fiction, memoir, reviews, and arts journalism. He is an international public speaker and teacher of creative writing, film studies, and cultural engagement for people of faith, including a term as Writer-in-Residence at Covenant College in Georgia. Random House’s WaterBrook Press has published four of his novels including Auralia’s Colors. Through a Screen Darkly, his “memoir of dangerous moviegoing” is available from Baker Books. He lives in Seattle with his wife, the poet Anne M. Doe Overstreet, and serves as contributing editor to Response magazine at Seattle Pacific University (SPU), where he works as a Communications Specialist. He is currently writing two novels, a book about film, and is enrolled in SPU’s MFA in Creative Writing program. He blogs at Looking Closer.