The Catholic Imagination of John Ford

The richness of any religion is that it is more than a set of doctrines, beliefs, and practices; it also provides a cultural framework by which we can view and make sense of the world.  How we make this sense manifests itself in a variety of ways, including through art.  In fact, the cultural influence of religion can remain even when one decides to leave its practice or reject its tenants.  Scholars refer to it as the religious imagination.  In American Catholic Arts and Fictions Paul Giles writes that this imagination serves “as a residual cultural determinant and one aspect of the social context within which various … artists … have been working” (1).  Thus, in the 1990s American film director John Sayles listed his religion as “Catholic atheist” in his entry in Contemporary Theatre, Film and Television.  By this he meant, “We were raised Catholic, which is definitely an influence.  We went to church every Sunday.  It’s a belief system, a mythology that you’re given. . . . I still think of myself as a Catholic, as an ethnicity” (Sayles on Sayles, 1).  In Sayles’ case, he is referring to what Fr. Andrew Greely called the Catholic imagination: the contention that Catholicism has provided identifiable culture patterns that have shaped artists and their works, sometimes in spite of their personal relationship to the faith.  

Among Catholicism’s several cultural legacies is an affinity for visual culture as a form of storytelling.  Thus, we can appreciate one of the many purposes of stained glass windows in cathedrals and churches.  They were the world’s first movie theaters.  It should come as no surprise, then, that many of the great American film directors are products of his theo-visual heritage: among them are Frank Capra, Alfred Hitchcok, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Paul Thomas Anderson, and one other very important figure.  In 1912, when the Sisters of Mercy founded Saint Joseph’s College in Portland, Maine, John Martin Feeney, the son of staunch Irish Catholic immigrants living in the working-class neighborhood of Munjoy Hill in Portland, was likely attending Mass at his home parish of Saint Dominic’s.  In 1914 young John left Portland for Southern California to seek a career in the movies.   We know him better as John Ford, arguably, America’s greatest filmmaker.   

Between 1917 and 1970 he directed over 130 films, and he won the academy award four times for best director: the most of any director in film history.  Yet, were we to survey his films for overt expressions of his Catholic upbringing (e.g., portrayals of priests, images of statues, etc.), we would be hard-pressed to find them (although 3 Godfathers is a fun Western retelling of the biblical magi story).  Rather, is it in their recurrent themes, regardless of genre, that we encounter his Irish Catholic imagination.   

The Irish immigrant experience in America was one of feeling in exile due to circumstances beyond one’s control (e.g., the potato famine).  Consequently, for Ford’s parents and his generation there was a strong longing of returning to or finding a sense of home and belonging.  For Irish American Catholics, the neighborhood parish provided that sense of home as well as protection from what they felt were hostile Protestant forces that viewed them with suspicion (fittingly, Ford’s own parish now houses the Maine Irish Heritage Center).  It is no surprise then that Ford’s films are filled with characters who restlessly wander seeking security and a place to settle.  This theme manifests itself in nearly every one of his Westerns.  Moreover, it is explicit in Ford’s most popular film, The Quiet Man, where an American son of Irish immigrants returns to his ancestral land to escape his past and forge connections with this heritage.  What he finds is a community willing to welcome him and provide him the peace he seeks if he is willing to accept their customs and relinquish his destructive self-reliance.

It is the theme of community that also betrays Ford’s Catholic imagination.  As Fr. Richard Blake writes in Afterimage: The Indelible Catholic Imagination of Six American Filmmakers, “The notion of belonging to a community is crucial to one’s salvation in Catholic thought.” Redemption “is not worked out through a solitary search for God, but in collaboration with others” (14).  The “Cavalry Trilogy” (Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Rio Grande) illustrates this value well by presenting the military as more than a collection of soldiers.  It is also a family that provides larger purpose for its members, and those who find themselves apart from it and on their own lose direction and meaning.  As the American-born son of Catholic immigrants, Ford would certainly have been sensitive to the tensions between his religion’s focus on community and his country’s emphasis on individualism.  Few films in his oeuvre portray this existential struggle better than The Searchers.  In it Ethan Edwards’ (John Wayne) racist thirst for vengeance prevents him from ever fully joining the community he seeks to protect.  In the film’s famous final shot, Ethan stands alone with the dark frame of a doorway around him metaphorically (Catholics are also attracted to analogies) emphasizing his isolation from others and, therefore, his inability to be fully human.  He turns and walks away into the harsh landscape as the door closes and the scene fades to black.

Another important attribute of the Catholic imagination to appreciate in Ford’s films is what Fr. Blake calls sacramentality.  It is a distinctively Catholic worldview that sees the potential for a grace-filled encounter with God through the material world just as our liturgical sacraments are rooted in bread, wine, oil, and water.  As Fr. Andrew Greeley writes in The Catholic Imagination, “As Catholics, we find our houses and our world haunted by a sense that the objects, the events, and persons of daily life are revelations of grace” (1).  Indeed, in Catholic tradition both the book of scripture (liber scripturae) and the “great book” of nature (liber naturae) are sources of God’s self-revelation to humanity.  

This proclivity toward the sacramental manifests itself in the ways that Catholic directors place objects in the frame to signify “value and meaning beyond their immediate material surface” (Blake 13).  Thus, the stagecoach in Stagecoach comes to mean more to its occupants (and, thereby, to the viewer) than its convenience as a mode of transportation.  In a particular way, Ford’s sacramental Catholic imagination most clearly expresses itself in his use of landscapes.  They are shot with such careful and loving detail that they serve as characters in their own right.  In Maria Elena de las Carreras Kuntz captures the weight of the visual beauty of Ford’s landscapes, especially Monument Valley which he features in many of his Westerns.  She writes that “Ford conveys a unique sense of beauty and mystery, establishing a sacramental relationship between man and landscape. Ford turns it into a primordial space where the children of God are faced with the basic issues of life: family, community, justice, solidarity, repentance, forgiveness, and mercy.”

At public events Ford was fond of introducing himself in the following  manner, “My name’s John Ford. I make Westerns.”  It was his self-deprecating way of claiming that his work amounted to little more than entertainment, and his entire career was directing Hollywood studio films for popular consumption.  However, repeated viewings of his many and various movies reveals a body of work much deeper than what appears at first glance.  In their exploration of the themes of belonging, community, and sacramentality, Ford’s films reveal an artist indebted to his Irish Catholic imagination, and the world of cinema is richer for it.

Christopher Fuller, Ph.D., is the Vice President, Chief Sponsorship and Mission Integration Officer at Saint Joseph’s College of Maine.  Prior to coming to Saint Joseph’s, he was an Associate Professor of Theology at Carroll College in Montana for fifteen years.  While there he taught courses in scripture, Catholic Social Teaching, and film, including “American Cinema and the Catholic Imagination.”

Book Review: Remembering God’s Mercy: Redeem the Past and Free Yourself from Painful Memories

As a cradle Byzantine Catholic I am well acquainted with the word “mercy.” I once counted the number of times priest and people intoned the words mercy, merciful or mercies in the Divine Liturgy. It’s fifty-four: 54 times in the course of an hour in which we beseech God’s mercy on ourselves and others. Fifty-four uses of the word mercy, not counting the particular propers, verses, and other special prayers of the day. In my lifetime, worshiping in the Liturgy alone, I’ve asked for God’s mercy hundreds of thousands of times – and, God willing, I’ll continue to seek His mercy for hundreds of thousands more. Despite all of this familiarity with mercy from my spiritual tradition, it took Pope Francis’ proclamation of a Jubilee of Mercy to get my attention and prod me to deep contemplation of not just the word mercy, but what it means for my relationship with God and others, and its vital role in my spiritual and emotional well-being. My journey into the heart of mercy has only just begun, and I now understand it’s meant to be a lifelong work. This summer I found a companion for this journey, one that opened me to new avenues of accessing and understanding not only God’s limitless font of mercy, but His enduring and immeasurable love for me.

“I wrote this book to share the good news that Jesus Christ heals our memories.” The opening line of Dawn Eden’s latest book, Remembering God’s Mercy: Redeem the Past and Free Yourself From Painful Memories, sets the stage for a spiritual journey written in the simple and effective language of a daughter of God inviting her readers to join in the search for His mercy. What we learn from reading is that the search isn’t really ours at all; rather, God looks for us, invites us, and waits for us to enter into the protection of His merciful love. Despite the emphasis on mercy in the Divine Liturgy, I needed to remember (or perhaps truly learn) that God’s mercy is not a concept, or a “thing” to be acquired, but God’s offering of Himself to me. Remembering God’s Mercy is that reminder – and much more.

I first encountered Dawn Eden when I read The Thrill of the Chaste.  Though I’m a “cradle Catholic,” I was in my post-metanoia phase, having undergone a serious re-conversion a few years earlier. At the time Dawn was a fairly new Catholic herself, and I was drawn to her zeal for Christ, and her poetic yet eminently readable style and good humor. I followed her exploits via her blog, and eventually we met, collaborated, and became friends. Her journey to finding the Faith, finding her vocation, and finding healing through God’s mercy is something I could relate to – especially in acknowledging that it’s not a journey with an end (not in this life, anyway) but a pilgrimage with ever-new and wonderful beginnings.

In some ways Remembering God’s Mercy picks up where Dawn’s second book, My Peace I Give You: Healing Sexual Wounds with the Help of the Saints ends. In that book she gods-mercy-edenreveals her painful memories of sexual abuse and its fall out: from a loss of belief in God to the questionable lifestyle choices that exacerbated her pain instead of alleviating it. My Peace is her story of conversion and healing, told through the example of saints who experienced trauma and abuse, lived through it and became, well…saints! The book is a personal story of hope, but also a primer on the Church’s teaching on the communion of Saints. Sure, they’re in heaven now – but they know all too well our struggles here in the trenches because they struggled too, and they’ve become our companions, intercessors and advocates.

In Remembering God’s Mercy, Dawn turns to Pope Francis’ pastoral sensitivity and emphasis on God’s mercy for inspiration – and the continuation of her pilgrimage of healing. For me, personally, the Pope’s call to embrace God’s mercy has been a profound learning experience. Perhaps my own tendency toward judgment and mercilessness toward others is due (not unlike the man in the parable) to my lack of appreciating the great mercy that has been freely given to me – to each of us. Acknowledging this weakness and learning from it is a big step toward seeking and accepting God’s mercy toward us, and being merciful to others in turn. Using the words of Pope Francis, as well as the particular example of SS. Ignatius Loyola and Peter Faber, Dawn invites readers to bring their personal experience, doubts, and pain to the well of God’s mercy and jump in. It isn’t easy – as Dawn’s story testifies – but it’s a risk we don’t take on our own. Grace is the life preserver that weak and frightened spiritual swimmers (like me) need in order to dive into the ocean of His mercy. “Grace,” says Dawn, quoting Francis, “enables us ‘to enter into dialogue with God, to be embraced by his mercy and then to bring that mercy to others.’”

Obviously for Dawn healing memory has a particular meaning relevant to her past experience of sexual abuse. But don’t let that deter you from reading the book. I admit to having been a little wary myself at the start, wondering if I’d be able to relate to an experience of memory (and mercy) so different from my own. It didn’t take long to realize that this isn’t a book exclusively – or primarily – for sexual abuse survivors. As I read I became aware that my own memory, while not filled with similar traumatic events, is also wounded and in need of healing. I can recall criticisms received when I was a child, embarrassing events from more than 30 years ago, and mistakes ranging from little boo-boos to producing life-altering consequences. Many of these memories are tightly bound and held in my consciousness, popping out in times of anxiety, change, and spiritual unease. I hadn’t realized how spiritually damaging such memories are – not to mention the toll they take on my self-esteem. Nor had I ever considered that God, in His infinite love for me, desired to heal these memories by an outpouring of His mercy. Worse yet, I never thought to ask. This revelation alone made reading the book provided unexpected comfort and hope.

Remembering God’s Mercy is a mini-retreat, an invitation to deep contemplation as well as an instruction on mercy through Scripture and the example of the saints. My favorite parts of the book are those where Dawn asks questions for personal reflection, and when she invites the reader to pray with her. (Her reflection on the Seven Sorrows in chapter 4 particularly touched me, and I will surely use it for further contemplation.) I was also moved by her recollection of being introduced to the Jesus Prayer by her friend and fellow convert Jeffry Hendrix, who later succumbed to kidney cancer. This simple yet powerful prayer – Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner – comes easily to my lips as an Eastern Catholic; perhaps too easily. Dawn recounts her discomfort with the prayer, believing it to be more a recitation of her wretchedness than a form of praise and supplication. It seems that trying to say the prayer was a fruitless effort. Only when faced with desperation (Dawn recounts an incident of where a painful memory from her past overtook her, causing great anxiety) did the words of the Jesus Prayer spontaneously arise from deep inside her:

“I said it again. And again. And, as I did, something happened…. The prayer was not leading me to self-pity. It was opening my heart to the purifying love of God.”

This is the beauty of God’s mercy in action, and the lesson we must learn in order to be embraced by it: to simply let go and be loved. Of course, God’s mercy comes with the charge to be formed by it, to be changed. But I must first know that God’s mercy is available to me, that He wants to give it to me, and that I am worthy of receiving it. It doesn’t matter if that knowledge comes as a result of the desperation Dawn describes, or if we can only weakly or even skeptically cry out to Him. God is there in our desperation and weakness and skepticism. As Pope Francis says, God “waits for us to concede him only the smallest glimmer of space so he can enact his forgiveness and his charity within us.”

Remembering God’s Mercy is a book one doesn’t simply read; it is to be contemplated. Dawn generously invites us into her heart and her faith, but the book isn’t a memoir; nor is it a “how-to” on surviving trauma. It is a call to personal reflection and an invitation to prayer. It is a book for everyone because it speaks to that longing in our hearts to be known by God, loved by Him, and held in His heart. Most importantly, the book is Dawn’s (and, if we join her, the reader’s) hymn of praise to the God who will never forget us, “for his mercy endures forever”!

*Final note – In her previous life, Dawn Eden was a rock and roll journalist, and music remains an important part of her life. A song she wrote for The Anderson Council lit up the airwaves on XM Radio this summer, and it’s worth a listen!

Ann Koshute teaches theology for the Saint Joseph’s College Online Theology Program.