Through a Lens Darkly
Processing Towards Calvary: Lent as Self-Fulfilling Prophecy
The Lenten Lull seems to have hit a bit early this year—that moment when the emotional high of Ash Wednesday has been exhausted, and I look at my Lenten resolutions with weary familiarity and wonder "I've promised these same mortifications for years now, and nothing's changed. Am I just going through the motions?"
Thankfully, I stumbled upon the perfect cinematic antidote for my self-pitying malaise: The Mill and the Cross, a Polish-Swedish film that follows Flemish painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder through the creation of his masterpiece, "The Procession to Calvary."
Rejecting the threadbare biopic approach, the film brings Bruegel and his work to life by imagining his subjects as real people rather than mere allegorical archetypes. Focusing on a handful of these subjects in the hours prior to their appearance on his canvas—the amorous young couple whose mistreatment at the hands of the Spanish mercenaries foreshadows the events to come; the humble woodchoppers, carefully (almost prayerfully) selecting the tree that will later serve as the instrument of Christ's death; the young housewife whose innocent excursion with her children ends at the foot of the cross; the Mill and its omniscient curator, looking down from their towering vantage point upon the sufferings of those below; Mary, Mother of the condemned Man, struggling to reconcile her son's rejection at the hands of his captors with the recent acclaim of Palm Sunday—the film weaves together these disparate threads into a coherent whole, showing "The Procession" as but a single frame in a much larger reality.
Bruegel, however, is more than just an observer of that reality. The passive role of "cataloguer" proves too restrictive for his artistic vision, and he find himself interacting with his creations, orchestrating and manipulating the actions before him in pursuit of a more meaningful representation. At first his influence is subtle, but as the painting nears completion, he finds himself drawn more deeply into the turbulent streams of their lives, forced to recognize the suffering and complexity of their existence even as he struggles to capture a single, frozen moment in time. The procession is no longer an abstract artistic exercise; it has become a true spiritual journey, and one which he must undertake if his work is to be completed. No longer permitted to catalogue the suffering before him from the safety of his God-like perch, Bruegel now walks his own personal Road to Calvary even as he captures the painful procession of his subjects.
The film is rich with Lenten imagery—the procession through everyday life towards Calvary which we must all undertake; the relentless grinding of human suffering that wears us down into fit material for the Divine baker; the Mill, a strikingly visual reminder of the Cross and the essential role it plays in the life of those at its feet --but for me, already deep in my Lenten doldrums, the most timely image was that of the artist and his creation, and the reminder that the more of oneself one puts into a thing, the more alive it becomes. Bruegel, consumed by his efforts to capture an external reality, finds himself as profoundly shaped by his painting as it is by him. The more he pours into his work, the more alive it becomes, blurring the lines between reality and concept until the artist is nearly indistinguishable from the artifact.
This emptying of oneself is the perfect antidote to the "compartmentalizing" of Lent that annually dogs my footsteps. It is easy for me to consider my Lenten resolutions in the abstract—things I do because I am called to do them, but which are often more deeply rooted in obligation than in any desire for sanctification.
But what if I thought of Lent as my "Procession to Calvary"—as a work that profoundly influences me through the very actions that seem so frustratingly ineffective? Bruegel's story reminds that it is impossible to truly exhaust oneself in the creation of something without animating it. The more of myself I put into my Lenten observances, the more alive they will become.
Just as Pieter's singleness of vision wore down the boundaries between the world in which he lived and that he sought to portray, so too we—by diligent adherence to our Lenten observances—will narrow the gap between the person we are and that which we wish to be. Eventually, the rediscovery of our Lenten selves will cease to be an annual exercise in frustration, becoming instead a reflection of our true selves.
With prayer and sacrifice (and quite a few more Lents, I suspect), we will find ourselves in a perpetual Lenten state—waiting, fasting, and praying for the coming of our Savior.
(The Mill and the Cross is available here from Netflix's Watch Instantly channel. It is unrated, but contains some violent and disturbing imagery, and a few scenes of nonsexualized nudity.)
Joseph Susanka has been doing development work for institutions of Catholic higher education since his graduation from Thomas Aquinas College in 1999. He blogs at Crisis Magazine, where he also contributes feature articles on a variety of topics.