As I watched the movie Fences recently, two previous experiences came to mind. The first was seeing grace and nature play out in the film The Tree of Life. The second was a seminar titled “Gender & the Spiritual Journey” presented by Adele Calhoun during my spiritual direction training. So I’ve decided to write about those experiences to absorb the lessons they offer for myself and others.
In the first scene of The Tree of Life, Mrs. O’Brien describes grace and nature this way.
The nuns taught us there are two ways through life, the way of nature and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you’ll follow. 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 too. Likes to lord it over them. To have its own way. It finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shining around it. And love is smiling through all things. They taught us that no one who walks the way of grace ever comes to a bad end. I will be true to you whatever comes.
The film shows Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien, small-town-dwellers during the 1950s, taking separate paths especially with their three school-age children. Mr. O’Brien, a power-plant manager who regrets leaving behind his music career, takes the path of nature: He demands that his sons call him sir, he expects immediate obedience, and he exacts penance for small offences. As an example, he orders his oldest son, Jack, to close the screen door quietly fifty times for having allowed it to slam once. In contrast, Mrs. O’Brien, a firm yet loving mom, takes the path of grace. Once, when Mr. O’Brien is away on a business trip, she blissfully plays along with her sons’ boyish behavior as they celebrate their father’s absence.
The movie Fences, a remake of the Broadway play, presents those two paths taken by Troy and Rose Maxson, an urban couple in the 1950s. Troy, a former baseball star in the Negro leagues, is an illiterate garbageman. His path is evident as he relates to his sons, Lyons and Cory. Lyons, born of a previous marriage, is a struggling self-employed musician in his thirties. Cory, a high school football player, is being recruited by a college team and needs his father’s approval.
One Friday afternoon, Lyons stops by to ask his father to loan him ten dollars. Troy rebuffs him: “I’ll be damned! I’ll die and go to hell and play blackjack with the devil before I give you ten dollars.” When Troy stalls with a silly story fueled by the gin he has been drinking, Rose brings him back to reality: “Let the boy have ten dollars, Troy.” At that, he reaches into his pocket and gives Rose the envelope with his weekly wages: seventy-six dollars and forty-two cents. Rose hands Lyons a ten dollar bill, so he thanks her. But Troy complains, “Wait a minute. You gonna say, ‘thanks, Rose’ and ain’t gonna look to see where she got that ten dollars from?”
Troy’s relationship with Cory is even more heart-rending. A third of the way through the story, Cory asks his father, “How come you ain’t never liked me?” Troy counters,
Liked you? Who the hell say I got to like you? What law is there say I got to like you? Wanna stand up in my face and ask a damn fool-ass question like that. Talking about liking somebody. Come here, boy, when I talk to you.
Troy contends that he feeds, clothes, and allows Cory to live in his house because it’s his responsibility.
A man got to take care of his family. You live in my house . . . sleep you behind on my bedclothes . . . fill you belly up with my food . . . cause you my son. You my flesh and blood. Not ‘cause I like you! Cause it’s my duty to take care of you. I owe a responsibility to you!
Even that speech reveals that Troy has commendable qualities; he’s fully a three-dimensional character. As an example, he’s been watching over his brother, Gabe, whose head injury during the war rendered him childlike. Late in the story, Rose tries to help Cory see Troy’s better side.
Your daddy wanted you to be everything he wasn’t . . . and at the same time he tried to make you into everything he was. I don’t know if he was right or wrong . . . but I do know he meant to do more good than he meant to do harm.
I still refer to her handout, a diagram adapted from lectures given by Richard Rohr titled Men and Women: Journey of Spiritual Transformation.
Rohr and Calhoun point out that in traditional cultures men and women began life on different trajectories. Boys engaged in an upward heroic journey; they were initiated to become wise warriors. Thus, they entered manhood with a solid self identity. Typically a crisis of limitation challenged their aspirations. Their response to the crisis determined whether they would pursue wisdom or become bitter old men.
In traditional cultures, girls descended and developed a permeable self identity that typically led to marriage and motherhood. When a woman’s midlife crisis came, she could ascend to a position of power and become either a wise matriarch or an embittered old woman.
The Gospels reflect those paths. Thus Jesus routinely calls men to descend, but he invites women to ascend. Recall that Jesus urged the rich ruler to sell everything he had and give to the poor (Luke 18:17-29). Yet he summoned the woman at Jacob’s well to drink from the spring of living water that wells up to eternal life (John 4:10, 14).
Richard Rohr points out that men typically struggle with crucifixion (movement downward). The obvious example is Peter’s response to Jesus’ prediction of his own suffering and death: “God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you” (Matthew 16:22). Thus, Peter, along with all but one of the Twelve, scattered when Jesus was arrested, condemned, tortured and crucified. Peter was so frightened that he denied even knowing Jesus. But our Lord restored him, indicating that he too would glorify God through suffering and death (cf. John 21:15-19).
In contrast, Rohr observes that women at that time didn’t believe they could rise above their circumstances (movement upward). So in God’s providence, women were the first to hear the good news that Jesus had been raised from the dead. Mark’s Gospel shows Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome overwhelmed: “Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid” (Mark 16:8). But their hope was restored by repeated revelations. Certainly Jesus’ conversation with Mary Magdalene outside his empty tomb is one of our cherished memories (John 20:14-18).
Rohr’s observations about men and women play out in the movie Fences: Troy’s identity is solidly centered on baseball. In fact, he often uses baseball metaphors to deal with life’s conundrums. He ascended to power through the sport; but racism curtailed his career. It makes sense that he would shield his younger son from a similar fate. But Rose challenges his assumptions: “Times have changed since you was playing baseball, Troy. That was before the war. Times have changed a lot since then.” When Troy disagrees, she says, “They got lots of colored boys playing ball now. Baseball and football.”
Troy’s friend, Bono, tells him that he came along too early. But Troy rejects that as an excuse: “There ought not never have been no time called too early!” He points to a player for the Yankees (Selkirk) who batted .269. “What kind of sense that make? I was hitting .432 with thirty-seven home runs! Man batting .269 and playing right field for the Yankees!” But Rose reminds him, “They got a lot of colored baseball players now. Jackie Robinson was the first. Folks had to wait for Jackie Robinson.” But Troy is unbowed:
Jackie Robinson wasn’t nobody. I’m talking about if you could play ball then they ought to have let you play. Don’t care what color you were. Come telling me I came along too early. If you could play . . . then they ought to have let you play.
And Troy is adamant about Cory’s aspirations:
The white man ain’t gonna let you get nowhere with that football noway. You go on and get your book-learning so you can work yourself up in that A&P or learn how to fix cars or build houses or something, get you a trade.
Rose’s identity, on the other hand, has been what Rohr calls permeable: As a young woman, she invested totally in Troy. “I took on his life as mine and mixed up the pieces so that you couldn't hardly tell which was which anymore.” As a consequence, when a crisis threatens to blow apart their eighteen-year marriage, she tells her husband:
I took all my feelings, my wants and needs, my dreams . . . and I buried them inside you. I planted myself inside you and waited to bloom. And it didn’t take no eighteen years to find out the soil was hard and rocky and it wasn’t never gonna bloom.
Yet in time, as a result of Rose’s decision to act graciously toward Troy, she rises to a position of power. A latent aspiration becomes a reality for Rose, so she lives out her days as a wise and resourceful woman who freely gives to others.
Apparently Troy never rose above his bitterness. That’s in contrast to Mr. O’Brien in The Tree of Life, who was able to admit his failure and seek forgiveness. Early on, Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien receive word that their middle (adult) son, R.L., suddenly and tragically died. They both grieve profoundly; but Mr. O’Brien, weighed down by sorrow and guilt, humbly bows. And he laments,
I never got a chance to tell him how sorry I was. One night he punched him . . . himself in the face for no reason. He was sitting next to me at the piano and I criticized the way he turned the pages. I made him feel shame. My shame. That poor boy. That poor boy.
Thus, I want my decisions to be grace-filled. I want to be on a journey toward wisdom such that, by God’s grace, I become what Rohr and Calhoun call a “holy fool.” I also want to help others pursue the way of grace and to seek wisdom’s path. May it ever be.
© Stan Bohall, April 17, 2017