For my mother-in-law, Jeanne, sometimes, it's as if the Second Vatican Council had never taken place. She attends mass sung in Latin, still, at a Carmelite monastery just down the street from the church where my father preaches. Elements of an old-world understanding of God resonate in her daily life. When my husband and I were selling our house, she buried a statue of Saint Joseph upside down in our front garden (Saint Joseph is the patron of selling houses, and by inverting him and burying him facing the street, you can attract buyers.) My mother-in-law once took a pilgrimage to the Kansas border to witness the apparition of the Virgin on some one's living room wall. A photograph of her kissing the apparition appeared in the Rocky Mountain News. When they were young girls, St. Bernadette visited Jeanne's sister as she lay in her bed saying her nightly prayers. Aunt Judy later said that she had been mistaken, and that her visitor was Mother Mary herself. Jeanne's own sons, my husband included, all of whom were educated in Catholic schools and universities, think of their mother's interest in visions and apparitions as bordering on the hysterical. Jeanne has taken to speaking of these things in a half self-mocking-way—so as to lessen the eye-rolling that tends to occur when she brings up the subject.
By no means think of my lovely mother-in-law as theologically simple. When I said that sometimes I think of a chronic illness I have as a demon possessing me, my own mother thought I'd finally lost it. She got a very frightened look on her face that betrayed her disappointment in having raised such an irrational child and exclaimed, incredulously, "You're not trying to cure it by turning around three times and bathing in holy water are you?" But Jeanne just said that she could understand how I might see things that way, indicating that she understood me to mean that my struggle is religious and spiritual as well as psychological and physical. Though I admired Elaine Showalter's Hystories, I do not roll my eyes when Jeanne mentions that she has tickets to hear a talk about children's visions of Mary in the former Yugoslavia. When her picture appeared in the News, I asked her what she finds in apparitions. She told me that she feels privileged to be able to see them, and that they help to calm her fears, serving as a reminder to her that God is with her and protects her.
Having been raised by my aforementioned mother, my Lutheran minister father, and educated at a university dedicated to its particularly Lutheran character, I learned to trust only words, for in the Lutheran church, we are taught that only from study of the holy scripture can one know the Word. Ours is an iconoclastic tradition, mostly because of politics rather than theology. Jeanne's experience of the Roman Catholic tradition includes image as well as word, enough to allow her to worship in a language she does not know and find the message of God's constancy in an apparition. (I should note here that the Roman Catholic Church itself rarely authenticates or sanctions visions and apparitions; these images tend to have a life of their own separate from official church doctrine and practice.) Jeanne—and even her incredulous sons—are capable of experiencing God in a way that escapes me completely. For example, in our kitchen we have an image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus that Jeanne gave my husband when he moved into his first house, years before he knew me. Chris passes it every day but I have never seen him give it a second look. For him it represents a constant—for me, an alien presence. I can only respond to it on an intellectual level. I have some icons, too, but they're artifacts, gifts from family members who traveled to foreign countries. But the Sacred Heart has meaning for half our household, and it is in that meaning that I find the mystery and the power of the image.
These questions I have about the mystery and power inherent in the still image lead naturally to a question about the mystery and power inherent in moving images. Recently I have been asking myself, can moving images function iconically? Can they aid in worship? Can they promote faith?
The film farthest from anyone's mind when considering this question may be Harold Ramis's delightful 1992 comedy Groundhog Day, but as an artifact it shares with Jeanne's apparitions and inverted saints a certain popular acceptance. Starring a model and the gopher-obsessed groundskeeper from Caddyshack, it has none of the stigma attached to foreign or "art house" films. No one would claim that Groundhog Day belongs only to intellectuals, nerds, or people who wear black a lot. Recently, my rental of Groundhog Day elicited this response from a clerk at my local video store: "A classic film." He said nothing when I rented Chloe in the Afternoon, however.
Furthermore, Groundhog Day enjoys a special currency during Lent, when Christians engage in a season of preparation. Groundhog Day, the story of a man who must relive the same February 2 over and over again until he gets it right, speaks to the person engaged in the daily examination of his or her life through fast. The continual repetition of even the most incidental aspects of Phil's (Bill Murray) life stress alternately the meaninglessness of the trivial and its potential to take on meaning when Phil approaches it from a different perspective. Like a person keeping a fast, Phil must rearrange his life to find a new perspective. In this way, the film's interest in the banal prompts Groundhog Day to explore territory beyond that of daily human endeavour. When Rita (Andie McDowell) asks Phil, "Is this how you spend eternity?" the film wonders how we can embrace our free will while we are seemingly sentenced to a life like Phil's, "stuck in one place, and every day.. .exactly the same and nothing that you [do matters]."
Though the film operates on an intellectual level as it demonstrates Phil's ability to break free of destiny to find that which matters in his daily life, the key to Groundhog Day's function as an icon also resides in its constant reiteration of one day of its protagonist's life. In Groundhog Day, save for the opening scenes that set the narrative into action, we see the same day repeated over and over again, sometimes verbatim. Though the early, expositive scenes have hinted this way, it is only through this constant retelling of one day that the film illustrates the vast wasteland of Phil's soul. The same repetition re-enforces the values that the film holds preeminent: self-improvement, self-examination, compassion. An icon serves almost as a quick-reference reminder of our faith; it occupies a constant space on a wall or an altar, and often it is portable. It delivers one message. In contrast, a Bible, though it is portable and can be considered to contain one message, is in reality a collection of many messages all piled on top of each other, all of which we cannot access in one sitting.
But consider my own icons—my artifacts. Two-thirds of them portray Saint Catherine of Alexandria. Why? Because I enjoyed studying Raphael's St. Catherine of Alexandria. Because I read her story in The Lives of the Saints and I liked it. Because when my father went to Sinai and climbed to the top I asked him to bring me back an icon from St. Catherine's monastery. My collection grew from there.
The parable of which Groundhog Day reminds me the most is The Parable of the Pounds. In Groundhog Day, the property with which Phil is entrusted is time, America's most valuable commodity. But cinematic convention allows this story to operate on a plane separate from the parable's allegorical model. Film, with its ability to represent the passing of one day in only one scene, one exchange of dialogue, or a single shot, is the medium uniquely capable of both representing the master in The Parable of the Pounds and acting as the agent of Phil's redemption. Though Phil muses about God's omniscience, cinema's ability to twist reality gives Phil all the time in the world to develop his soul, and also responds with patience when he fails. During one sequence in the film, Phil commits suicide numerous times, only to wake up again the following morning to face the same day. The film forces spiritual growth on Phil by refusing to allow Phil's life the pattern of the standard narrative—the pattern in which death means the end. Instead, this narrative places death squarely in the middle of life. This film envisions no end. Phil tries in vain to stay awake to force an end to the cycle of Groundhog Days, but again and again the film refuses to let him do it. The script requires him to wake up and face the day he faced the day before—it envisions only beginnings.
Rita, the object of Phil's eternal desire, acts as an icon in her own right. The second commandment forbids the creation of graven images, but in some ways it is a useless commandment, for who can imagine the face of God? Because they refer to certain reverential figures whose works and lives represent the values of our faith, icons give us pictures of God's characteristics. Phil's pursuit of Rita in the first half of the film is no mere contrast between the sweet and decent Rita and the spiritually bereft Phil, nor is it only an illustration of the wrong way to go about trying to release oneself from such a predicament as Phil's. Rather, in the first part of the film, as Phil gets to know everything about Rita, he begins to use her as a model to shape his own life. As he grows, he searches for the good in life using a map he creates with her history, her dreams, her values, and her passions. When he finally gets to woo her successfully, it is because he has become her spiritual equal. Part of Phil's courtship includes his sculpting an image of her face in ice. As he does so, he tells her how he has spent days on end studying her face. Like an icon, Rita's face is an image of the holy.
The love story that propels Phil's spiritual growth mimics the love story that propels our life of faith. Groundhog Day also reminds me of the parable of the woman who loses a coin and sweeps her whole house to find it. We may search for God, but God also searches for us. Rita returns to Phil no matter how often or how brutally he insults her. When he finally shows himself worthy of her, it is she who spends all the money she has to buy him at the bachelor auction rather than he who seduces her with his knowledge of her most intimate feelings. Icons are things that we can approach actively, outfitted with our desires to use their subject as examples or as objects of study. They are also things that approach us. They catch our eyes. They beckon us. We look at them searchingly, the way we might look at our beloved.
The moving images that represent Phil's days compare and contrast the damage he can do and the beauty in which he can participate. The linear way in which the film presents these images emphasizes Phil's growth, and portrays his life as an example to those of us who tend to live the same day over every day. It promotes both faith and worship by emphasizing discipline through its example of the work that Phil must do daily for the narrative to release him. Its examination of such discipline focuses us to concentrate on our interaction with God and others in daily life. It reminds us that we do interact daily with God. Oddly enough, it comes to us by way of entertainment. When we watch Bill Murray slouch, we don't expect to see the divine, but of course, surprise is the surest of divinity's distinguishing marks.