"Wake Up the City" is the theme of a film series being shown at the Paulist Mother Church this weekend in observance of this Year of Consecrated Life. In town today to attend my 50th High School Reunion, I took advantage of this morning's showing of The Nun's Story, the 1959 movie, starring Audrey Hepburn, based on a 1956 novel of that name, which was in turn based on the real-life vocation story of a Belgian nun who served in the Congo but then left the convent during the 1940s German occupation of Belgium. My understanding is that the movie follows the book fairly faithfully, although the motive for her leaving religious life at the end may be more political in the book than in the movie, where the occupation seems more like a crisis that precipitates a long simmering resolution.
I don't really remember ever actually seeing the movie in the theater, although I may have. I have certainly at least seen some scenes of it on TV over the years. So I sort of knew the story but didn't know it completely, one reason why I took advantage of the chance to see it this morning.
It's a wonderful film, well made and beautifully filmed both in Belgium and in the Congo - the Belgian Congo, as it then was. It portrays religious life, as it was then lived, very faithfully - and sympathetically. There are no stereotypically mean or pathological nuns, indeed the nuns are generally portrayed as being committed both to their religious calling and to their ministry as nurses and similarly as being compassionate and kind to those they serve and to one another. Sister Luke (Hepburn), although consistently portrayed as struggling with obedience, is likewise competent and compassionate and sincerely dedicated to her religious calling. And her superiors are likewise portrayed as compassionate, caring, and supportive of her in her struggles.
The story may be based on a real-life vocational journey, the authenticity of which deserves our respect; but frankly I personally found the portrayal of Sister Luke's inner conflict somewhat overdone. Everyone who sincerely embraces religious life experiences inner conflicts. Some resolve them by not persevering, which may be the right decision for them. But those who do persevere learn to live with their inner conflicts as good religious, even if not quite meeting an abstract standard of perfection. In Sister Luke's case, she excelled at her nursing ministry, for which she was loved and respected. In real life, such a person probably would have been tapped for leadership in her community. Certainly I suspect avenues would have been found for her effective use of her talents and strengths within the mission of the community. I understand what the film is trying to get at in harping on the difference between being a good nurse and being a truly perfect nun. But in the real world, most of us learn not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good, or at least not to let it de completely decisive in resolving the conflict. And that is precisely how one could interpret what went wrong in Sister Luke's life.
In the Congo, Dr. Fortunati discerned how her perfectionism was taking its toll on her health. The story seems to suggest that, while the strain on one's physical health could be healed, that on her emotional and spiritual life could not be. But why should that be so? What this otherwise wonderful evocation of religious life and missionary life seems unable to do is to recognize how sincerely striving for perfection can still be compatible with never quite completely achieving it, and that in this world religious life lived faithfully in that in-between may be itself a true form of witness.