In case you are weary of my ramblings on “The Tree of Life”, at least skip to the bottom of this post where you will find a transcript of Malick’s stirring sermon from the film.
Terrence Malick writes great sermons; at least he wrote a great sermon for “The Tree of Life.” The Job sermon to which the O’Brien family listen in church on a Sunday morning, is a profound piece of theology, a beautiful piece of poetry, and a deep well of spiritual wisdom and insight.
The sermon is powerfully delivered in the movie by the Rev. Kelly Koonce who is actually a priest in the Episcopal church of the Good Shepherd in Austin, Texas, not a professional actor.
The Book of Job explores the myth that we inhabit a quid pro quo universe in which people who live virtuously inevitably receive blessing, while those who do evil always suffer a painful fate. The story of the tragedies that fell upon virtuous Job, demonstrates that there is nothing in life than can protect us from the possibility of pain.
In “The Tree of Life” Mr. O’Brien is the picture of the “good” man. He is an attentive father to his sons, a good provider for his family, a faithful husband to his wife, a loyal employee at work, a regular church goer, even a generous financial contributor in his parish. Yet, misfortune befalls Mr. O’Brien. He loses his job and, years later, his middle son dies at the age of nineteen.
It is tempting to question the structure of the universe. “Is there some fraud in the scheme of the universe?” Malick asks in his sermon. Is there nowhere we might flee to escape the tragedies of life?
Mr. O’Brien’s oldest son Jack is haunted by the uncertain and unpredictable nature of life. As an adult, looking back over his life, he sifts through memory and imagination in search of something that might answer the deep question to which Malick’s preacher gives voice. “Is there nothing which is deathless? Nothing which does not pass away?”
This question haunts Malick’s entire body of work. “The Tree of Life” offers an answer in the voice of Mrs. O’Brien when she declares, “Unless you love, your life will flash by… Do good, wonder, hope.”
Mrs. O’Brien’s words sound to me like an allusion to the familiar I Corinthians 13 in which Paul assures us that
if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing…. Love never ends.(I Corinthians 13:2,3,8)
Love is the power that permeates “The Tree of Life.” It is the force that brought all creation into existence and flows through all of life like an endless rushing torrent of water cascading out of mystery into the unknown. It is the force that makes the trees grow and paints beauty in every moment of life for those with eyes to see. It is the power behind adolescent sexual awakening and even the anarchic energy unleashed when a group of teenage boys rampage through their neighbourhood. Love is the force that creates the stirring majesty of the music that serves as a major character throughout Malick’s film; it is the driving force that enables an adult to seek reconciliation by apologizing to his father for a hurtful comment.
In the end, it is not the suffering that wins. Cruelty, revenge, retribution, and meaningless violence do not have the final word. Malick’s film aims to guide us to that place within ourselves where we can encounter the ultimate prevailing power of love.
Malick portrays a dimension to life that exists beyond the knowing awareness of the human senses. It is on the further shore of this other dimension that all things are held and resolved.
The only important question for any of us is whether we will open our hearts to the beauty of this love that turns the universe. Will we allow our hearts to be touched and to soften? Will we embrace the struggles of our lives as tools by which the hard protective wall we have built around our hearts can be dismantled releasing the sweet aroma of the love that is the centre of all life?
Terrence Malick’s film invites us to step through the doorway of faith into the presence of that reality that dwells deeper than rational knowing, deeper than emotion in a dimension beyond time and sense. The film invites us into eternity in the present moment, encouraging us to allow our hearts to expand to the point where we begin to experience the reality that all the suffering and anguish of life are simply a crucible for the unfolding beauty that is our true nature and the true nature of all existence.
“The Tree of Life” makes a journey through darkness into the eternity of light. It does not seek to avoid the darkness or diminish the reality of our suffering. But it holds unflinchingly to the promise that there is more to life than the painful brokenness that seems to afflict every dimension of existence. This is a movie radiant with the light of a hope no pain can defeat.
Below are the words of the Terrence Malick Job sermon transcribed from the film with the help of Kelly Koonce the episcopal priest who plays the preacher in the film.
Kelly and I have never met. But, when my wife discovered that the sermon was preached by a real Episcopal priest, she did some internet sleuthing and came up with his name and email address. She encouraged me to email Kelly and see if he might guide me towards the wording of the sermon he preached in the movie.
Kelly responded with a generosity that does credit to the spirit of “The Tree of Life,” enabling me to post the following text of the sermon he preached so powerfully in the film.
Job imagined he might build his nest on high – that the integrity of his behavior would protect him against misfortune. And his friends thought, mistakenly, that the Lord could only have punished him because secretly he’d done something wrong.
But, no, misfortune befalls the good as well. We can’t protect ourselves against it. We can’t protect our children. We can’t say to ourselves, even if I’m not happy, I’m going to make sure they are.
We vanish as a cloud. We wither as the autumn grass, and like a tree are rooted up.
Is there some fraud in the scheme of the universe? Is there nothing which is deathless? Nothing which does not pass away?
We cannot stay where we are. We must journey forth.
We must find that which is greater than fortune or fate. Nothing can bring us peace but that.
Is the body of the wise man, or the just, exempt from any pain? From any disquietude, from the deformity that might blight its beauty, from the weakness that might destroy its health?
Do you trust in God?
Job, too, was close to the Lord. Are your friends and children your security? There is no hiding place in all the world where trouble may not find you. No on knows when sorrow might visit his house, any more than Job did.
The very moment everything was taken away from Job, he knew it was the Lord who’d taken it away. He turned from the passing shows of time. He sought that which is eternal.
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?