The Haunting Witness of Virtue
The movie Calvary is haunting. In fact, since watching it, I seem to think about it nearly every day. Scenes creep up on me at random times, dancing around until slowing fading away. The National Catholic Reporter captured this sort of haunting succinctly in their write-up of the movie, conjuring up Flannery O’Connor’s masterful haunting storytelling to parallel the experience of watching this film.
Calvary begins in a confessional with the camera steadily capturing Father James Levelle (played by Brendan Gleeson) hearing the terrifying confession of a man who was repeatedly molested and raped by his priest as a child. Because this man’s abusive priest is dead, and the shock-factor of murdering a bad priest is null, the confessor tells Fr. Levelle that he is going to kill a good priest, Fr. Levelle, the following Sunday in order to get people to take notice. I would encourage you to watch the movie to trace the following week’s events.
During one scene, near the end of the film, Fr. Levelle says to his daughter (he became a priest after his wife’s death) these profound words: “I think there’s too much talk about sins, to be honest…Not enough about virtues.” His daughter asks, which virtue most of all? He answers, forgiveness.
Fr. Levelle’s conviction that there is not enough talk of virtue is made more poignant when one notes that he himself is a recovering alcoholic who knows well the dark corners of his own life and that he is a priest who has heard many confessions of sin ranging from the inconsequential to the devastating. This is not a man who is sheltered from the negative impacts of sin.
But, that which sin corrodes virtue repairs. Fr. Levelle knows this. The film’s title Calvary signals this truth.
The recognition that virtue is what builds up, what perfects, is reflected in the biblical account of the fruits of the Spirit. These fruits are the traits that build up what we so easily tear down.
Love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control like the seven holy virtues of chastity, temperance, charity, diligence, patience, kindness, and humility, build up rather than tear down. The virtuous life, life in the Spirit, is built up through habits and practices that ground a person in Christ and not in the crooked way of sin. These practices are costly and painful. It is hard to choose contemplation, fasting, prayer and self-sacrifice when so much in life comes easily and instantly. We have settled for shortcuts, even in our character formation.
Fr. Levelle has identified one of the most important, most neglected and incredibly difficulty calls to holy life: pursue virtue. Western Christians have frequently missed this call to virtue. We have made sin our focus, both in unreasonable expectations of ourselves that hold us in shame and in confusion, judgment, fear and callousness in our interactions with those we encounter.
This is an important word. There is too much talk of sin and too little of virtue. If the movie Calvary is a sort of foretaste, I can only imagine the kind of haunting graces we can evidence through our lives by focusing on virtue rather than vice.