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 through it.
And love is smiling through all things.
- Terrence Malick (The Tree of Life)
Which to choose, Grace or Nature? This question has been at the forefront of philosophical debate as far back as we can see. If one accepts Nature, the strong animal wins over the smaller one. Nature will sacrifice being good in order to be great. Nature yields no mercy on its victims because mercy is not in its definition. Power is the currency of Nature, and it is not afraid to use it. Nature wants to be loved because it is great.
The way of Grace is patient; It serves for the sake of serving. It gives for the sake of giving. It is the spiritual mother of the soul, while Nature is the wrathful Father. Grace is dead to itself, while Nature is dead to love. Grace accepts slander and torment. Grace knows that it is weaker physically but stronger spiritually.
The movie, The Tree of Life shows the story of three young boys growing up in 1950s Texas. Their Father, played by Brad Pitt, demonstrates the ways of Nature. He let the Grace in him die when he chose the stability of working in a power plant over the passion of being a concert pianist. He teaches the boys that the world is brutal. That money and power are the only things that will move them along. He shows love by instilling discipline and competence in the boys. However, the Father fails to laugh with his sons; he struggles to celebrate their lives and demands from them until they are too fearful of him to love him.
On the other hand, the boy’s mother is the embodiment of Grace. You cannot always put your finger on what brings this Grace. It does not always make sense, but it is in her. She cannot control the boys like their Father can, but on the other hand, she does not try to. The mother lets the boys be as they are naturally, without care or restraint. She allows them to be children in the world. Grace does not try to explain the injustices and terrors of the world but believes, as Dostoevsky put it in, The Idiot, that, “The world will be saved by beauty.”
At the beginning of the movie, there is a quote from Job 38:4,7, “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth … when the morning stars sang together?” This was God’s response to Job, as he wondered why God was taking everything he had. In the movie, the middle son is killed in the war. It show’s the tears of the mother and her questions to God.
“Where were you?”
“Did you know?”
“Who are we to you?”
It also shows the whispers of the eldest son, who is now middle-aged and depressed, asking God reflectively,
“How did mother bear it?”
Then, the movie zooms into the cosmos at the beginning of the universe. The majestic space field in which God created the sun, the moon, and the stars. All things are made beautiful. God made the volcanoes of the earth. He made the ocean, and its jellyfish moved with Grace to its surface. He made meteor showers that light up the night sky in splendor. God created human beings and life itself with beauty.
But which do we choose? The beauty of Grace or the practicality of Nature. I feel that this is the central question of our time. My heart tells me that Grace is the only way. Loving for the sake of love is the remedy. The more we feed Grace, the more we can love, and the more we feed Nature, the more capacity we have for shame.
As Dostoevsky states, “Above all, do not be so ashamed of yourself, for that is the root of it all.”
In the classic, The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky paints the picture of a depraved father, Fyodor Karamazov, trapped in a life of falsehood and lies. Fyodor makes a buffoon of himself to a beautiful Orthodox Monk named Father Zossima. Fyodor mockingly asks Zossima,
“What should I do to inherit eternal life?”
Father Zossima responds in sincerity, saying,
“Above all, don’t lie to yourself. The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to such a pass that he cannot distinguish the truth within him or around him and so loses all respect for himself for others. And having no respect he ceases to love, and in order to occupy and distract himself without love, he gives way to passions and coarse pleasures and sinks to bestiality in his vices, all from continual lying to other men and to himself.”
Later in the text, as Zossima lays out his thoughts on what hell is, the capacity for love remains at the center.
“Fathers and teachers, I ponder, “What is hell?” I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love. Once in infinite existence, immeasurable in time and space, a spiritual creature was given on his coming to earth the power of saying, “I am, and I love.” Once, only once, there was given him a moment of active living love, and for that was earthly life given him, and with it times and seasons. And that happy creature rejected the priceless gift, prized it and loved it not, scorned it and remained callous.“
Dostoevsky writes so eloquently of the different roads that man can traverse. However, man is damned to suffer without truth and love. In the Tree of Life, the Father’s wrath was brought on by shame. Shame was the root of it all, and after his son’s death, he was in agony, saying to God,
“I put my shame on him.”
As the movie continues, the Father’s powerplant downsized, and all of the strivings were for not. The Father sees the flaws in his ways and says,
“I wanted to be loved because I was great. A Big man. Now I’m nothing. Look everywhere around us. Trees and birds, I lived in shame. I dishonored it all and didn’t notice the glory. I’m a foolish man.”
On the other hand, the mother is quoted saying,
“The only way to be happy is to love. Unless you love, your life will flash by.”
This is the truth that I have come to. That when all is over, only love will be. The only worthwhile pursuit is love. To live in fullness is to say, I am and I love. Maybe love can be heard in the whistling of the wind or the crashing of the waves. Maybe love is found in the laughter of the babe or the sun shining through the canopy. Perhaps if we seek it in all things, we will hear its whispers and join it in its infinite happiness.
Maybe, the mother’s weeping will not be in vain, and one day, only tears of joy will remain.
“The world will be saved by Beauty.” – The Idiot