In college, I read a book that began to drastically change the way I thought about God and the ways in which God worked in the world. For a young person from a conservative Southern Baptist background, Leslie D. Weatherhead‘s The Will of God was a radical reading experience. Faced with theological inconsistencies during World War II, Weatherhead began re-thinking his concept of the will of God. His text, a series of sermons to victims of the war and their families, resonates decades later with anyone experiencing suffering or, perhaps, a series of debilitating doubts. I recently watched two films that reminded me of Weatherhead’s text. Both Saint Ralph (2004) and The Third Miracle (1999) deal, indirectly, with the will of God through their characters’ pursuit of miracles or interactions with the miraculous.
Directed by Michael McGowan, Saint Ralph tells the story of Ralph Walker (Adam Butcher), a Catholic teenager whose father died in World War II and whose mother is in the hospital, sick with cancer. A typical teenager, prone to the “sins of the flesh,” headmaster Father Fitzpatrick (Gordon Pinsent in another great performance) orders Ralph to join the cross country team to quell his sexual urges. Doctors told Ralph that it would take a miracle for his mother to recover. On the first day of cross country practice, Ralph’s coach, Father George Hibbert (Campbell Scott), mentions in passing that it would be a miracle if anyone from their team won the Boston Marathon. The dreamer that he is, Ralph puts two and two together and believes that if he trains for the marathon and wins that his mother will be healed. Thus begins a spiritual journey of sorts for several of the main characters. Ralph matures spiritually, physically, and emotionally; Father Hibbert re-discovers a long-lost passion; and Father Fitzpatrick embraces a suppressed aspect of his own spirituality.
The Third Miracle, directed by Agnieszka Holland (who also directed three episodes of The Wire), follows Father Frank Shore (Ed Harris), a Catholic postulator who must verify or denounce reports of miracles in the process of canonization. We first meet Father Shore in the slums of Chicago and quickly learn that he has written a popular book on spirituality and has since taken something of a leave from the church. However, bound by vows of obedience, he must undertake the investigation of miraculous accounts of a blood-weeping statue and healings in the name of Helen O’Regan, a faithful layperson who operated an orphanage for children outside Chicago. Father Shore struggles through a personal dark night of the soul, wracked with doubts and uncertainties about miracles and, moreover, the existence of God. Unfortunately, he is not helped by his superiors, Bishop Cahill (Charles Haid) and Archbishop Werner (Armin Mueller-Stahl), who seem all too quick to dispel reports rather than embrace them. Father Shore perseveres and discovers secrets about Helen O’Regan’s life that have direct connections to the life of one of his superiors.
Both Saint Ralph and The Third Miracle are feel-good-movies, of a sort. Yet neither of them offer easy answers or nicely cleaned up endings. Moreover, their main characters, Ralph and Father Shore, are complex people of faith who struggle with that faith, especially in light of restrictive dogma. Ralph suffers from (stereo?)typical Catholic guilt over his adolescent doings while Father Shore faces a much more existential crisis, doubting the very existence of God. Drunk, he visits his friend and fellow priest, Father John Leone (Michael Rispoli), and in a fit of anger and despair cries, “I don’t want it to have all been for nothing! It better be goddamned true!” Both of these characters act out their crises quite powerfully: they cry, scream, curse, and get drunk. Yet they never lose hope.
Both of these films offer up serious theological discussions regarding the will of God, miracles, and our relationship to the two. While the characters in Saint Ralph never claim that Ralph’s mom is sick because of the will of God or that her improvement would be the will of God, Ralph genuinely believes that he can participate in the miraculous…that God will heal her if he wins the marathon. While this, in a way, seems childish, on another level, it signifies the importance, perhaps even the necessity, of our participation in God’s work in the world. Yet Ralph does not win the Boston Marathon, coming in second by only the closest of margins. Three weeks later, his mother emerges from her coma. While this is an unexplainable event to the doctors, at least in the film, some viewers might attribute it to the work of God. Yet such a hypothesis also leads to a hypothetical question of its own: why do other cancer patients die or never emerge from their coma? What has God to do with them?
This scenario finds a direct parallel in The Third Miracle. Before she moved to the United States, Helen O’Regan was a child in Nazi-occupied Slovakia. When allied forces bombed her town, she grabbed a statue of the Virgin Mary, ran to the city center, and prayed fervently for survival. The bombs that the planes dropped never struck the city…a miracle to be sure. As the film draws to a close, we learn that the doubtful, dismissive Archbishop Werner actually witnessed the event and claims that the bombs turned into a flock of pigeons. When he shares this with Father Shore, he becomes angry and cries, “A caprice of god. A capricious God. I would say it to his face if he were here. A wasted miracle to answer the prayers of gypsies while millions were dying!” Indeed, Archbishop Werner, a former German soldier, lost part of his left leg in the war. Where is the will of God in this when one city survives and countless others perish?
There are miracles in Saint Ralph and The Third Miracle, but the directors might have different ones in mind. People emerge from comas in both films, and in The Third Miracle, the lame walk and the injured are healed. Yet there are other “miracles” right there before our eyes. Maria Witkowski (Caterina Scorsone), the young girl healed by praying to Helen O’Regan (the event that started the whole affair), was badly abused as a child. She tells Father Shore, “Helen walked me home from school…she touched me.” These are not miraculous acts, but they certainly had a miraculous effect on Maria as a young child. Ralph’s maturation, Father Fitzpatrick’s recovery of faith, and Father Shore’s return to the ministry are certainly not as exotic as bombs turning into birds or a weeping statue. Therefore, we might look at these events less as miraculous works of God than miraculous journeys of faith for people who believe again not just in God or church dogma but in the power of community and each other.