Madeleine Davies

Archive for July, 2018|Monthly archive page

A priest in the garden: review of First Reformed

In Uncategorized on July 16, 2018 at 5:00 pm


Bathrooms appear frequently in First Reformed. In an opening scene, a priest is informed that a leak in the men’s restrooms has returned. Later, the same priest is shown inserting a plunger, vomiting, and peeing blood into the loo in his own home, in the glow of a single, exposed bulb. This is a film about waste and pollutants, and their relation to the heavens.

The priest, played by Ethan Hawke, is the Revd Ernst Toller, the 46-year-old minister of First Reformed, a very white, picturesque church built in the Dutch colonial style in 1757, as he informs a family on the tourist trail. On Sundays he looks out over neat pews containing a handful of worshippers. Down the road is Abundant Life, a mega-church with a sanctuary than can hold 5000 people, led by Pastor Jeffers, and boasting numerous ministries and a young, preppy choir that hymns “Are you washed in the blood of the lamb” in pitch-perfect close harmony.

Here are two manifestations of the Church in the United States: old and new. Yet expectations of resentment on the part of Toller are swiftly confounded. When a young woman asks him to talk to her husband, his first thought is to point her to Abundant Life, where they have “a whole team of counsellors”. Pastor Jeffers is not just helping to keep First Reformed afloat financially. He considers it his duty to keep an eye on the wellbeing of his co-labourer, dispensing fatherly advice from the leather chesterfield sofa in his office. In the complex’s canteen, Toller eats his lunch against a wall inscribed with the words of Acts: “And all who believed were together and had all things in common.”

Nevertheless, as the film progresses, the tension between the two rises, as Toller senses a priestly call to speak out against forces he increasingly recognises as evil. Although reviews have described it as bleak and austere, this is ultimately the story of a faith rekindled.

The catalyst for this is Michael. In the Bible, he’s the archangel who leads an angelic army against Satan’s forces. In First Reformed he’s a radical climate activist, recently released from jail and urging his young wife, Mary, to have an abortion rather than bring a child into a world he sees plunging towards the apocalypse. In the conversation that takes place during Toller’s pastoral visit, it’s the parishioner, not the priest, who warns of an impending judgement day, sounding not unlike a Millenarian preacher. In one of a number of Biblical allusions, Mary and Michael’s child will be 33 in 2050, the date when a climate catastrophe is forecast.

Toller’s diagnosis is existential despair. Throughout history, he counsels Michael, people have awoken in the middle of the night gripped by the “sickness unto death”. The rational holds no answers, he advises. “Courage is the solution to despair” and wisdom is holding hope and despair simultaneously, living in the tension. When asked whether God will forgive us for what we have done to his creation, his reply is that “grace covers us all”.

It’s an impressive display of pastoral care, and a vindication of Mary’s decision to seek his counsel, rather than send for Abundant Life (dismissed by Michael as a company rather than a church). In a later scene, we are shown Pastor Jeffers recording a daily meditation in which he advises that worry is a sign of rebellion, of wickedness. Jesus never fretted, he preaches.

Toller is an effective pastor because he’s been plunged into the blackness himself; for much of the film he’s stuck himself in Bunyan’s slough of despond. There is a certain authority that comes with having suffered and he draws on it judiciously, letting his flock know that he speaks whereof he knows. Some priests are called for their loneliness, he reflects later, while returning a fallen gravestone in his churchyard to an upright position. They can “hold beating hearts in their hands”; they know the “all-consuming emptiness of all things”.

He isn’t drained by his encounter with Michael, comparing it to Jacob’s wrestling with the angel. It was, he recounts, “exhilarating”. In fact, despite his worry that, perhaps, he shouldn’t care whether or not people like him, there is evidence that he is held in esteem, even affection, locally, that the empty pews are no indication of a lack of gifts. In one scene we see him teach a group of children about the church’s history as a station on the Underground Railroad, holding their rapt attention. The queue for the Eucharist may be short, but we are left in no doubt that Toller has found his vocation.

Yet despite the skill with which he conveys love and grace to his flock, there is little sense that he considers himself worthy of it. Rather, there are echoes of the anguish of the priest at the centre of Scorsese’s Silence. “If only I could pray,” he observes at one point. “How easy the talk about prayer, those who have never really prayed”. His entries in his daily journal tend towards admonishments for the sins of pride and self-pity. His vow to burn the pages speaks to a desire to forget the past, to erase the shame it arouses in him.

Yet it would be wrong to place Toller in the same family as the unbelieving priests typified by Iris Murdoch’s Carel Fisher. God is not dead, even if he’s silent. Toller’s theology has room for suffering, pain, despair. One of the few possessions we see in his austere home is the works of Thomas Merton. It’s enough to cause Pastor Jeffers to lose patience with a colleague “always in the garden . . . sweating blood”.

“Jesus does not want you to suffer; he suffered for you”, he remonstrates, before commanding Toller to “live in the real world”. How the Church does this becomes one of the pivot points of this film. If the “real world” is being destroyed by humanity, then isn’t a priest’s job to speak out, to marshal its forces against the destroyers? For Toller, “the whole world is a manifestation of his holy presence” and the failure of the Church to confront its polluters a sin.

I imagine that many priests will take comfort from this film, which serves as a reminder that good pastors may not look out over packed pews. That they can be found serving alongside the emergency services; that God’s work can include packing up a deceased person’s possessions and praying with their bereaved spouse. Some of the most invigorating scenes show Toller drawing on Scripture – deploying the sword the Bible describes as double-edged. In a youth group meeting, where a teenage girl puzzles over why her devout father has lost his job, he gently rejects the Prosperity Gospel, reminding his audience that “there is no dollar sign in the pulpit. There’s no American flag either”. Here is a priest who strives for integrity, for moral probity.

It’s also a beautiful film, with austere, carefully composed interiors reminiscent of Vermeer and a haunting soundtrack with sub-aquatic sounds portending the rising seas prophesised by Michael.

These are frightening times, Pastor Jeffers reminds Toller. Children are frightened. Adults are too. The film isn’t uncritical of Toller’s outlook, particularly his desire to cut himself off from human affection, even take it upon himself to wreak vengeance. But in such times, it’s good to have a reminder that our churches hold priests well-versed in the darkness.