what the water gave me

So I picked up Atonement at the library for the weekend. And watched it last night. I knew it would be beautiful and lush; I’d read the raves regarding its cinematography so prettily capturing what was beautiful of the ’30’s era, one which I love. And I knew it was some sort of tragedy; a four hanky weeper. So I steeled myself up. I would not, would NOT cry. I would not be manipulated by a fiction. Nuh-uh.

It delivered the goods. All of them. I sat in the darkness, melting under my resolve. Anticipating the moment when my heart would be broken beneath the weight of the tragedy of it all. Oh no…. here it is. Here it comes. NO. I will not! Not. Drat, here I go. Buggar!!!

But it’s not a love story, in soul. And I’m not sure that I was reacting entirely to it as such. Behind the flourishes of romance, it’s actually a religious story, in the manner that the best of Graham Greene’s novels are. Thus its title. “Well duh“, I told myself; “for what other reason would a love story be called Atonement?”

And though when I hear the word atonement Judaism actually comes to mind, I felt myself unearthing buried emotions of my Catholic upbringing, which I’ve resented and railed against privately (Roz, Dear Mom, would be so deflated. Only one of us stuck to the faith. It wasn’t me. We’ve never really spoken about it directly. I don’t have the heart to throw her into the fits of the exasperation she gets into when confronted by this issue. But that’s another story.).

I don’t resent my Catholic religion entirely. I like Jesus very much. I miss my saints; the ones I’d arranged and rearranged on my stand in a tiny bedroom and spoke to in private every day at a certain elementary age. I’d reasoned that they knew what it was to suffer excruciating, terrible torture. I did too. I told only them.

But beyond the nostalgia and comfort of this certain past, I recognized, as I took in the imagery of water and its symbolic properties of birth, renewal, purification, and destruction; as I recognized the figures of Jesus, Mary Magdalene, Mary, and Judas and their experiences, that there were remnants of the old religion that perhaps contributed to, or supported, my nature. That gave me something. I was not prepared for that little revelation.

Briony/Judas taught me the most; the main characters are your straight forward versions of Christ and Magdalene (I adore her too. What amazing characters and stories the Bible has.). Though I’d felt a savage desire to reach through the tube and brutally strangle her after I’d clawed her face to a pulp; though I’d hoped she’d endure a terrible, disfiguring disease or meet her doom in a freak accident, it was her voluntary atonement among all the other atonements in the story, and her character development that shed the most light.

Although a pampered member of the upper class, armed with a freakishly precocious imagination, and clearly a writing talent, she forgoes Cambridge to become a nurse, like her betrayed sister Cee. Of course. There it is. Cleansing wounds, cleansing, over and over again; the unrelenting evidence of cruelty and its senseless acts (here, the war; before, her betrayal), that soil the world, repeatedly, inevitably. Perhaps healing. Mightily attempting, above all, to salvage what is precious, even if in the end, we cannot (think Christ). What better can we do?

I have quibbles with atonement. Too much guilt glued to it. What is called sin I see as lessons. Do better when you know better, as my sister says. I’ve felt through experience that the church of my childhood focused too much upon the dirt of sin, but I can now understand, on a personal level (don’t get me started on the early “washing” of a notorious scandal that the church was responsible for), the impulse, even need, to wash what hurts too much; what doesn’t make sense, in the world or inside of our natures. To set to right. White. Clean. The way my family does, figuratively and literally, when we experience such things. For better or worse.

Above all, I wished fervently as I stared at the huge, grotesque crucifixion placed reverently in the center of the church, that they’d take Jesus off of the damned cross. Even if he died for the sins of us all. Since when, ever, did blood solve neatly, the problems and weaknesses of existence? He had a life (quite similar to Buddha’s, heh), that though short, was thick with inspiration. So much to love. But where was the love? Or, for that matter, the light? I never did find that.

So I took him off the cross and I’ve kept him with me, and, in closing here, probably I have kept much more of my early spiritual experience than I realize.

In a good way.


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May 2008
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