I love my grandmother, and I love the British actress Judi Dench. So when Grandma mentioned her desire to see the dame’s new movie, Philomena, I gladly accompanied her to the theater. After the movie, my Catholic grandmother left the theater very disturbed by the story. I did as well.
But for different reasons.
You see, the movie takes us back to a time when young, unwed mothers in Ireland were sent to a remote convent to give birth to their children and do penance by serving the sisters for four years without pay. In a heartless grab for money, the sisters allowed wealthy American couples to pay to adopt the children of the unwed servant-mothers. The frantic mothers had no choice in the matter, and the sisters refused to give them any information that might lead them to re-connect with their lost children.
Philomena was one of these young mothers who lost her little boy. The movie begins with her as a 70-year-old, enlisting the help of a reporter to search for her child. The search takes a shocking turn when it becomes plain that the same leading nun who had separated Philomena from her child had vigilantly kept the two of them apart through the years. A wizened, crippled old lady, this leading sister responds with venomous self-righteousness when confronted. “ I have kept my vow of chastity my entire life. And these girls did not.” In stark contrast to this angry, cloistered nun, Philomena is a woman who has actually lived a life connected to the human race, and she has loved, and she also possesses the capacity to forgive.
This contrast disturbed me as I looked around the theater and discovered that I was the only one in the audience who was not a grandparent. The awareness of being single and in a season of transition threatened to choke me. The grandmothers milling around me broke my heart. Here I am, and what am I? An unwilling nun without a convent? A tumbleweed in the desert? And when I am silver haired and using a cane, will I have any memories that establish me as someone who has been loved? Will I have anyone who connects me to the un-cloistered life? I don’t anticipate becoming a vengeful nun, but what if I grow old as a nice person who has always been alone?
The nun in the movie was cold and wizened; I feel my heart is alive, reaching for warmth, yet trapped by the designs of Providence. Philomena’s choices brought her grief, but they also brought her life and an identity outside of herself. I considered the grandmothers all around me, representing family networks with roots in the ground, identities, direction. Philomena, with memories and a grown son. Me, with nothing but a pile of boxed books, the open road, and questions.
It’s an interesting thing how the heart’s deepest fears surface when one feels uprooted and transient. We thrive in connections, roots and plans; without those things, we feel like floating will-o’-the-wisps, soon to disappear. And then if we think about growing old without people to call our very own, we may feel pretty dispensable. 2 Samuel 18:18 (ESV) states that Absalom built a pillar and named it after himself because he had no son “to keep [his] name in remembrance.” He wasn’t simply longing for a boy; he wanted to feel rooted, remembered, relevant.
And that is what was getting to me. It’s not that I wanted to be Philomena. I just didn’t want to be this tumbleweed, this roaming, irrelevant gypsy that can live anywhere but is rooted nowhere because she is attached to no one. I didn’t want to be a tree that dies without blossoming, a tree that withers unnoticed.
When my thoughts are darkest, the prophet Isaiah usually has a word just for me. I stumbled upon Isaiah chapter 56 (ESV) and read: “Let not the eunuch say, Behold, I am a dry tree. For thus says the Lord; To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give in my house and within my walls a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.”
I was amazed. God understands this fear of irrelevance that accompanies chaste singleness, and He doesn’t discount it. And He promises that my connection to him gives me roots that will last, and memories that matter, even though they might not appear as tangible as others. And if my memory, my name, my connection is set securely in His house, I can take comfort in Psalm 23’s assertion that God’s house is the most permanent, pertinent place of all, because it lasts forever.
What a lovely promise: God Himself is looking out for my relevance, my legacy, my mattering. And on days when faith is low and tumbleweeds blow in the wind, this prayer from The Valley of Vision seems fitting: Help me to honor Thee by believing before I feel.