A few weeks ago Fr Ioan Badilita, Romanian priest and Dogmatic professor at the Theological Seminary in Iasi, encouraged me to watch The Island. I immediately ordered it from Amazon. This past Friday evening my wife and I sat down and watched it.
I loved it … no … that is not the right word. I was moved and inspired by it. It touched my soul. I know I will watch it again. It is a movie that I need to watch once a year. Lent would be the right time.
The Island presents the story of a man who commits a terrible act of betrayal and violence, becomes a monk, and spends the rest of his life offering penance and tears to God. And to his surprise, irritation, and bewilderment, God makes him a fool for Christ and worker of miracles. Fr Anatoly does not wander the streets nor does he prophesy to emperors, as did St Basil the Blessed. His life is restricted to a small monastery and a nearby island. Nor does he serve the faithful as a venerated starets, in the mode of St Seraphim of Sarov. His fellow monks see him not as a confessor and spiritual guide but as a sower of confusion and disorder within the community—that is Fr Anatoly’s charism. Through his eccentric witness and queer behavior, lives are changed, the lame are healed, devils are cast out, sins are forgiven.
When the movie begins, we see the protagonist prostrate on the ground, fervently praying the Jesus Prayer. The substance of this prayer becomes the encompassing theme of the movie. The Island is the Jesus Prayer.
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me, a sinner.
I know very little about Russian monasticism. I cannot tell you whether The Island accurately represents its spirit. Nor am I particularly sympathetic to Russian religious life. I have never read The Brothers Karamazov and am not tempted to add Laurus to my novels-I-must-read-before-I-die list. I do not secretly yearn to immerse myself in the ascetical life of Trinity Lavra. I was once told that I have the soul of a Russian poet, yet I have never been particularly drawn to Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, or Pushkin. (I did fall in love with Julie Christie when I watched Doctor Zhivago at the Glebe Theater in 1965; but so did every other 13 year-old boy back then.) My heart lies with the Elves in Rivendell, not in Holy Russia.
None of that matters.
What matters is that while watching The Island I was drawn into prayer.