Philomena’s forgiveness softens even the most cynical

I was thankful that Philomena encouraged me. The story of this movie could be so dark (or so sappy), I was thankful there was some light at the end of it. Considering how Hollywood often discourages me, it was a welcomed surprise.

If you don’t know, the latest film from Stephen Frears, starring Judi Dench and Steve Coogan, tells a story that the real-life Martin Sixsmith documented in his book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee. Both Coogan and Dench are amazing leads, and they melted my heart.

They are polar opposites, but they both suffer disillusionment. Martin is faithless and his story is a tough one. He got embroiled in a scandal and ended up being a scape goat after he sent an Email that suggested that to his staff to bury a bad news story amid Sept. 11 coverage. His political career ended there.

Philomena on the other hand, is living at a convent when she has a romantic encounter with a boy and gets pregnant. This is a great shame to her Irish Catholic community. Though they raise the child together, he is eventually shipped off for adoption. Philomena spends her days searching for him.

Martin and Philomena meet and they begin to craft a human interest story (Martin reluctantly agrees—he’s out of work and only has Russian history on his mind). The story is about Philomena’s search for her son. They end up in the U.S. where Martin discovers her son is Michael A. Hess. He served as the chief legal counsel to the RNC. He’s now dead, dying of AIDS.

The story is heart-wrenching and warming at the same time. Philomena’s son is dead, the nuns lied to her face (and lied to Michael’s face when he went searching for her). Philomena and Martin have very different responses to this fact. And for me that is the hope and the beauty of the whole.

Martin, through the despair he feels in his now seemingly pathless life, is focused on the importance of finding Philomena’s son. When he learns of the Catholic deceit, he’s justified in his hatred of faith and his disillusionment with God. He forcefully and readily mocks Philomena’s faith—which from all accounts is the only that that’s sustained her through the pain that the church has caused her.

She keeps the faith. She continues to run the race, to fight the good fight. God bless her. She doesn’t get to meet her son, but she isn’t any more vitriolic for it. She ends up still wanting to go to confession to repent of her sins.

Martin’s meanness doesn’t serve him well. In one scene, he tries to force himself into Martin’s partner’s home (Martin closeted his same-sex attraction) and he fails at doing so. On the other hand, Philomena honestly requests a dialogue so she can meet her son. She watches the video that played at his memorial service.

In the film’s climax, Martin busts his way through the convent ready to confront the nun who burned all of the paperwork about Michael’s whereabouts and he screams at her. Presumably, he does so on behalf of Philomena.

Philomena sees it differently. She’s more gentle and confronts Martin about his misplaced rage. She forgives the nuns and models the Gospels almost perfectly. She turns the other cheek and loves her enemy.

That example softens Martin. He sees God. Philoman witnesses to him, her faith, softness, and ability to forgive, while having every reason in the world not to, changes Martin, changes Martin.

He doesn’t profess faith in Christ at the end of the movie, but you know what? I don’t think he’s that far off.

So that’s what loving Christians do. When they model Christ’s behavior fervently, the world can change. When we’re known for our love—not hate, our grace—not vengeance, the world around us and the people in it can change.

Philomena softened me too.

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