A great deal has been made of the statement by Mrs. O’Brien in Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” that
The nuns taught us there are two ways through life. The way of Nature and the way of Grace.
Malick has frequently been portrayed as suggesting in “The Tree of Life” that life presents us with a dichotomy; we must choose either Nature or Grace. He is even accused by some commentators of holding a vision of the universe in which Nature and Grace are actually pitted against each other – Nature versus Grace.
The picture is more complex than either of these simple options suggests.
On May 15, 2011 Charles Ealy reported in “The Austin Movie Blog” that
Jessica Chastain, one of the stars of “The Tree of Life,” says that the works of Thomas à Kempis are part of the philosophical underpinning of Terrence Malick’s new movie. Chastain made the comments Sunday at the Cannes Film Festival. (http://www.austin360.com/blogs/content/shared-gen/blogs/austin/austinmovies/entries/2011/05/15/)
The Influence of Thomas à Kempis is pretty clear in Malick’s script. As John McAteer points out in “Video Ut Intellectum” (http://filmphilosopher.wordpress.com/2011/07/21/%E2%80%9Cthe-nuns-taught-us-there-are-two-ways-through-life-the-way-of-nature-and-the-way-of-grace-%E2%80%9D/) Mrs. O’Brien’s description of Grace and Nature is lifted almost word for word from The Imitation of Christ where Thomas writes
Grace doesn’t try to please itself. Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. Accepts insults and injuries. … Nature only wants to please itself. Get others to please it over them. To have its own way. (Book 3, Chapter 54)
But I am not convinced that Malick is offering us a simple distinction or opposition between Nature and Grace.
It is important to notice that Mrs. O’Brien begins her statement saying, “The nuns taught us…” I wonder if Malick necessarily wants us to assume that everyone has always grown up to agree with everything “The nuns taught us,” just as it was received in childhood.
“The Tree of Life” is inviting the viewer into a conversation. We are being encouraged to ask, is life characterized by the dualism of “Nature” or “Grace.” Or, is it possible that “Grace” is present in “Nature”, that these two realities are complementary components of life?
From the early scene, in “”The Tree of Life” when, in the imaginative images of childhood one dinosaur spares another, Malick seems to suggest that, as difficult and as harsh as Nature may often be, the power of Grace has never been absent from Creation. “The Tree of Life” holds out a vision in which, for those with eyes to see, Grace is evident even in the most painful circumstances.
We do not have to join the nuns and choose between “The way of Nature and the way of Grace” as if they are two separate paths through life.
At the end of “The Tree of Life” in the final unitive vision in which Malick draws together all the strands of his story in a symbol of ultimate reconciliation, both Mrs. O’Brien and Mr. O’Brien are present. They are united in the only genuine kiss of the film. Nature and Grace have come together.
In the moving scenes of the O’Brien family that occupy the central section of the film, Mr. O’Brien is frequently portrayed as a stern and demanding disciplinarian. He is a forbidding and frightening presence in his children’s lives. But, he can also reach out to them and demonstrate love with genuine compassion. And, when a boy drowns in the local swimming pool, it is Mr. O’Brien who leaps into action.
Mrs. O’Brien, as seen through the eyes of her children, may appear to be all airy, light, and fun. But, Malick makes it clear that, in the absence of Mr. O’Brien, there remains a need for some boundaries and parameters to define family life and adolescent male conduct. Mrs. O’Brien runs the risk of attempting to shield her children from the realities of life, as she covers her young son’s eyes, to shelter him from the unpleasantness of a man having a seizure on the front lawn.
In Malick’s universe both Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien are essential. They may, as Jack says, “struggle” within us, but you cannot have the one without the other. We all encounter suffering. We all need boundaries and parameters. And yet, even in the midst of the agonizing pain that inevitably occurs when we run up against the impenetrable realities of life, there are always glimmers of beauty and light for those with eyes to see.
Malick’s response to the nuns dualism of Nature and Grace is uttered in the words of the Job sermon that stands at the centre of “The Tree of Life.” The preacher asks,
Does he alone see God’s hand who sees that He gives, or does not also the one see God’s hand who sees that He takes away? Does he alone see God who sees God turn His face towards him? Does not also he see God who sees God turn his back?
Terrence Malick’s project is to teach us to see. When the eye of our heart opens, we discover that God is as present when we experience life as blessing, as when we experience life as a curse. It is possible to see God as much when God’s face seems to be turned away, as when we feel ourselves to be basking in the glory of God’s presence.
Like so many of his themes that appear in more than one film, Malick beautifully captures the idea of the importance of perspective in “The Thin Red Line” when he has Witt say,
One man looks at a dying bird and thinks there’s nothing but unanswered pain. That death’s got the final word, it’s laughing at him. Another man sees that same bird, feels the glory, feels something smiling through it.
It is the same dying bird. For one person it points to an empty, dark, meaningless universe. For another person it is the portal into the eternal. We choose how we see the world and from this choice, everything else follows.
Malick is inviting us to open to the reality of a force in life that is greater than death, a love that can never be defeated. He wants us to discern the reality of a Presence at the heart of existence that sustains us and nurtures us even when we crash into the firm boundaries that are an inevitable part of our lives.
The violence and struggle of the natural world are permeated with the gentleness and goodness of Grace. The cascading power of life-giving water is present throughout the film. There is always someone willing to offer a drink to a convicted man. There is always the possibility of genuine forgiveness, even when your brother betrays your trust by shooting the end of your finger. As long as human beings hurt one another, there will be someone willing to call up on a cell phone and say, “Hey Dad. I’m sorry I said what I said. Yeah I think about him every day. I shouldn’t have said what I said. I‘m sorry.”
There is more light, goodness, truth, and beauty in this twisted old universe we inhabit than can ever be extinguished by all the darkness, terror, and violence that rage through life. The presence of pain, does not defeat the reality of Grace. It invites us to open more deeply to the goodness of life in order that we might share the Light we discover wherever we encounter the darkness that seeks its defeat.
The parameters and boundaries exist, not to break our hearts, but to break open our hearts. The hard edges of life are the tools that have the power to chip away the pattern of resistance we have developed in a futile attempt to sustain the illusion of security in the face of some imagined threat.
The wound at the heart of creation is not bad news. It is the lever to open us to receive the good news of a Love that never goes away, a power that transcends death, a hope that no darkness can ever extinguish. The Tree of Life grows in the soil of a death that has been transformed by the eternal power of Love.