Thursday, May 24, 2007

Famous rays

While staying in a hotel the other night, I switched on the TV — a guilty pleasure while traveling, as I deny myself one at home — and magically caught "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" from the beginning. I had never seen it before —my friends will tell you that I am extremely wary of seeing any film made after the Hays Code was discarded — but had been curious about it since learning that Jim Carrey's character was allegedly inspired by a teenage crush of mine.

I found myself transfixed for the entire film, and duly bawled at the end.

Without spoiling it, I can tell you a couple of things that struck me about it. One was its sharp psychological insight into the age-old subject of the Break-Up — like the way Carrey's character, asked to list the problems he had with his ex-girlfriend, begins with serious criticisms that ultimately devolve into laughably petty complaints (she said "liberry" for "library").

But what really impressed me had to do with the fact that earlier in the day, I had finally finished reading Fulton J. Sheen's Three to Get Married. Although the romantic leads in "Eternal Sunshine" are not married, the film's message seemed to echo Sheen's words towards the end of the book:

The essence of married love is not sex, but consent; not animality, but freedom; not a libido, but a choice. If marriage is a love of "the opposite sex," it is selfishness disguised as love. If marriage is love of a person, it is eternity in the garments of time. ... The free choice of another person, against the idea of attraction for one of the opposite sex, is the difference between a true marriage and an unhappy one. But because freedom is the mark of the Spirit which comes from God, a marriage based on consent partakes of Divinity at its very beginning. More than that, it proves that he who freely chooses is also ready for sacrifice.
Much of "Eternal Sunshine," as with most other romantic films, is about the chase — the rush of intensity that accompanies the start of a relationship. Yet, the film is ultimately not about chase, but rather choice, and the ways in which each choice we make either limits or enhances our freedom.

The great and often difficult truth that Sheen articulates is that, when we make choices with a willingness to sacrifice, it is then that we have the most freedom. When, out of a desire to remain free from obligation to another, we run away from the hard choices, it is then that our options are narrowed.

* * *
I have felt for a long time that I should love more —not just in the romantic relationships I have had, but in every relationship.

When I take in Three to Get Married and other works of his, Sheen seems to seize upon this nagging feeling of mine, pointing to a way to become the more loving person I want to be.

The only problem is, he is pointing to the Cross.

He writes in Three to Get Married:
The pagan, seeing the gold mixed with dross, throws away the treasure because he has no knowledge of how to refine it. The Christian, however, can extract the Divine gold from the dross of suffering and thus add to the wealth of his Christian character. Suffering then becomes assimilable to the soul through the power of the Cross. But to the worldling, it becomes a double-cross; inside as an intellectual complexity incapable of solution, and outside as a violent intrusion and disturbance of one's egotism. The man without faith is no more immune from a cross than the man with faith. The difference is that the Christian has only one Cross, which is so understandable, while the egotist has two crosses, whose names are Rebellion and Suffering. A moment can actually be reached by the Christian when his suffering is felt less and less as coming from the outside, or as being imposed on him, and more and more as a failure to accomplish perfectly within himself the Will of God.
* * *
Once, when I was speaking to an assistant manager at a bank, a young woman from India, I noticed she had on her desk a framed drawing of a fantastic-looking elephantine creature.

I made some benign comment about the image. The young woman answered, "That is my god."

"Ganesha?" I asked.

"That's right," she said.

"What's he like?"

"He is not an easy god," she answered simply. "He is very strict with me."

Something about her tone impressed me. She was fostering a devotion to a god who demanded a higher code of behavior of her, one that required her to overcome some of her natural inclinations. I could admire that, even as I wished I could bring myself to tell her about my God.

* * *
The saints are not gods, but each one represents a way to embody God's love, and some ways appear stricter than others. Reading Fulton J. Sheen and trying to live out his path to loving, I can identify with that assistant manager.

At the same time, there is a reward in challenging oneself to make sacrifices — I mean, not just a future reward, but one that can be experienced now, at this moment. I think it is an increasing feeling that, even when one is undergoing pain, one is not alone.