Transforming Film into Contemplative Prayer: A Review of Thom Stark’s ‘Who Art in Heaven’

Director Thom Stark summarizes his award-winning film Who Art in Heaven simply: “A Man Prays.”

But don’t let Stark deceive you, because if you do, he will devastate you in the best possible way. There is so much more going on in this eloquent and compact film than its tagline would have you believe, and the meditative layers that Stark weaves into his film might just leave you as it did me in a holy and wonderful silence.

The film runs a little more than 20 minutes, but, if you plan to watch it, give yourself at least 40. And give yourself some space, especially if you get anxious about letting people see you weep. And you will weep — big wracking sobs — especially if you have ever experienced the silence and painful absence and abandonment of God.

And when that last image fades, you will need the extra 20 minutes to process this film, to mediate on its richness, to contemplate its depth, to sink into and puzzle over the film’s prayer.

The film, which stars Stark’s brother Jim, follows a man on his spiritual journey through his praying of the Lord’s Prayer. Again, it is deceptive in its apparent simplicity. In fact, I was more than a little skeptical when Stark first advertised the film. I could not have been more wrong.

Put simply, the film is not only the most profound meditation on prayer and the spiritual life I have experienced, but it is also the best film I have seen in years. I have never had a film make me feel so incredibly naked and exposed. It was as if Stark had peered in to my spiritual life, had eavesdropped on my most intimate prayers, my rawest silences before God, and put them on film. At times, it was completely devastating and soul-shattering to watch.

But, then, in his hands, he made these experiences beautiful and holy and life-giving. In other words, Who Art in Heaven does what some might find implausible: it turns film into a contemplative practice for the viewer.

Now, I could analyze the film and note how remarkable Stark’s grasp of spiritual formation and faith stages are, or how incredible it is that he seems to have adapted for film the work of James Fowler’s Stages of Faith. Or, I could remark on the superb technical aspects and the craft Stark so deftly employs in his filmmaking. I might also remind readers of how easy it would be to be jealous of someone like Stark, a scholar, an author, and an award-winning film maker (He won the prestigious Platinum Remi on his first go-round). And, I should note, Stark is a friend, and I wrote for his blog, Religion at the Margins, a few years back with semi-regularity.

But in Who Art in Heaven, Stark has offered a gift to the spiritual world, a gift that should be savored and reveled in. So, really what I want you to do is just watch the film. Experience it. Let Stark carve open your soul with his film and let the light, and despair, and hope, and prayer flood in. Perhaps Stark’s own spiritual journey is reflected in the film, but when I watch the film, I can’t help but feel as if I am gazing into an icon he has written as it opens the door to a heavenly realm.

And then, at the end, Stark seems to tease us with the notion that as much as we may pray “who art in heaven,” it may just be that we already are there. And the question then to meditate on is how exactly do we begin to see this heavenly realm all around us.

I could think of few better places to begin that meditation than with Stark’s film.

 

About David R. Henson

David Henson received his Master of Arts from Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California, after receiving a Lilly Grant for religious education for journalists. He ordained in the Episcopal Church as a priest. He is a father of two young sons and the husband of a medical school student.

  • Y. A. Warren

    Moving and infuriating. Where are the branches on the vine of this man’s church family that should have him encircled while he cries? Our Father may be in heaven, but The Holy Spirit of Jesus is supposed to be in all the people of the church. We can’t FEEL the arms of God except in the arms of others. When will we begin taking seriously that we must live in the full image and likeness of God to create, “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven?” Suicide is caused by having all the “good” people waiting for heaven instead of creating heaven on earth.

  • Charles Kinnaird

    I know where that man has been. I have been at that point where earnest
    seeking bumps up against the silent barrenness of seeming emptiness. This is
    the process that Kierkegaard speaks of when he says that we must each stand
    before God alone in existential angst. It also speaks to what St. John of the
    Cross referred to in the Dark Night of the Soul in which God is found even in
    god’s absence.

    The other thing I note is that the setting is in an obviously Protestant church and that setting does as much to set the tone as does the actor. Nothing says distance and aloneness better than Protestant Church architecture.

    I said that I have been in that very same spiritual place (and physical space) as portrayed in the film. My spiritual journey has also led me from the Baptist to a sacramental understanding of worship in the Episcopal Church and then in the Catholic Church. Catholic spirituality and church architecture is markedly different. I like what Father Andrew Greely said in The Catholic Myth: “Catholics differ from other Americans in that their imaginations tend to be more ‘sacramental’ (or to use David Tracy’s word, ‘analogical’). By that I mean that Catholics are more likely to imagine God as present in the world and the world as revelatory instead of bleak. Much that is thought to be distinctly Catholic results from this distinctive style of imagining – the importance of community, institution, and hierarchy; the interest in the fine arts; devotion to saints, angels, holy souls, and especially to the Mother of Jesus; reverence for statues and images, the use of blessings, medals, and prayer
    beads.”

    These are two sides of the same reality – one bleak and distant, the other teeming with God’s unavoidable presence. I have known them both. The film seems to show a quiet resolution – a coming to terms with the reality that even though God was not there in that moment, it is okay. The man can still come back and revere God with a more mature understanding.

  • http://blogforthelordjesus.wordpress.com Mike Gantt

    David,

    Please say more about why you found this film edifying. I’m not talking about its cinematic values – it seems to be a a well-made flim. I’m talking about the spiritual message of the film. What did you take it to be, how would you articulate it to someone who had not and would not see the film, and what was it about that message that you seemed to appreciate so much?

    (At your suggestion, I watched the film, and doing so left me with these questions. Thanks.)


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