Sunday, January 08, 2012

The Way: Its Truth and Its Life

Now there's a way and I know that I have to go away. I know I have to go.
- Cat Stevens, from the song Father and Son

The story line was richly textured, the cinematography was beautiful, and the acting refreshing and inspired. The only change would be to add another great tune to the already excellent soundtrack of this “journey” film; Cat Steven’s Father and Son. For that is what lies at the heart of The Way.


The path one must take to discover the meaning of life takes literal form in this new movie written and directed by Emilio Estevez. It stars himself as Daniel, the son, in brief flashes throughout the film, and his father, Martin Sheen, who plays Tom, Daniel’s father. Filmed entirely in Spain and France along the Camino de Santiago, or Way of St. James, The Way tells the tale of their falling out as a father and son, and ultimately their reconciliation via Tom’s epic walk. The path he takes has been walked for 1000 years, ending at the very cathedral where it’s believed the body of St. James, the Apostle, rests. The journey is multi-layered. It is spiritual, emotional, physical.

Early on we see the tension that exists between Tom’s character and his son’s. It's a cool relationship, and one given distance by the fathers's desire for security, stability, and control. His son, as is often the case, rebels against all these steadies and seeks a life on the edge. His desire to experience the world and to travel and learn wisdom more than knowledge for a profession taps into the deepest desires of the heart.

Tom has trouble letting his son go, letting him move through the world without, seemingly, a plan. And what parent doesn’t struggle with that? “Be safe kid,” I can still her my own father say. But life to be lived must have that precariousness, that vulnerability, and that risk that when taken can make a person whole. The risk, however, might mean leaving just that - a hole in the heart.

A phone call brings Tom the tragic news; Daniel’s pilgrimage in Spain was cut short even as it began. So he finds himself (through a series of events) walking the Way of St. James himself! The adventure begins. The Father becomes the son, and the son becomes the father (mentoring dad in apparitions along the way, through smiles, nods and encouragement). Tom must face his own fears and inadequacies. His own philosophy of life too must come into question, and he must learn that the journey itself has much to teach us. As Shakespeare once wrote, the attentive man “finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in everything.” (As You Like It, II.i.1–17)

Tom is joined along the way by a cast of characters each bearing their own crosses through the crossroads of the Camino. A tall and lovable Dutchman by the name of Joost remains Tom’s sidekick throughout the Way, his own story being one of reclaimed self-worth and self-confidence. His comic relief gives a wonderful spirit to the movie. A woman appears at a hostel where Tom stays overnight; Sarah is bitter and sardonic towards him, having assumed by his physical appearance that she knows him and can neatly box him up and put him on a shelf with all of the “baby boomers” of his time. But after a stretch of miles, and on hearing of Tom’s deep wounds, she unpacks her heart too. She had an abortion years ago, and still she says “I think I can her my baby’s voice.” She thirsts for a peace that men stole from her, and owns the fact now that she made a deeper valley of pain by her choice. But the Camino and the companionship it affords has become a healer for her. (We found it so powerful that the tragedy of abortion was revealed for what it is in this film, and that the child was seen as such... a voice silenced, but which we can still hear, and will hear again in eternity).

And finally the Poet, an Irishman named Jack who is nearly losing his mind in an attempt to capture life in a novel. He has writer’s block and has taken to the Camino for inspiration. He learns along the way, however, that life first must be experienced. Words will come only after the heart listens and allows itself to be filled.
Watching The Way was a pure delight, and each step drew our hearts more and more into the stories of these souls. In the words of St. Columban, “A life unlike your own can be your teacher.” A timeless truth ran through it all and was quickly identified as we watched; Life itself is the Way, and walking  it patiently can bring the answers we seek. If we try to plan too much, if we latch onto control or cling to the past we’re doomed to stagnate, wither, and fade. We must move, we must climb, we must ascend. 
We see a moment of catharsis in the end, as the walkers enter the cathedral of St. James. The massive and legendary thurible, filled with incense, swings to and fro, lifted and spun by nearly half a dozen men. It fills the sanctuary and wraps the travelers in a holy silence. The film ends with the sea, beckoning them to lay down their burdens, each of a different size and shape in the mind and heart. The sea with its salty tears washes over the cold, hard rocks and makes them smooth. This is the effect of water on everything, just as this is the effect of grace on everything. All they ever had to do was be open to it, and let it wash them clean. This surrender in effect is the Way. And it remains for us just the same; it’s the only way!

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Originally published in Phaith Magazine, Archdiocese of Philadelphia
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