When confronting someone with depression, Orthodox Christians can be fond of quoting a saying attributed to St. Silouan the Athonite: “Keep your mind in hell and despair not.” Whatever the truth at the heart of the aphorism, any Orthodox Christian who has grappled with depression will tell you that it’s usually deployed too clumsily to be helpful. It can be a very long distance from “despair” to “not,” and few are well-trained to help the suffering traverse it.
Few cinematic protagonists inhabit such despair as memorably as Reverend Ernst Toller, the priest played by Ethan Hawke in Paul Schrader’s new movie First Reformed. Critics have drawn parallels between Toller’s existential dread and similarly angst-ridden characters in the cinema of Ingmar Bergman and Robert Bresson. But Toller’s story can also serve as a cautionary reminder of the difficulties of ministering to the hopeless. When we first meet him, he’s beginning to keep a bedside journal. Through Toller’s voice-over narration, we learn that his tiny parish in upstate New York is more of a historic outpost than a living church; the priest hasn’t been able to pray in a long time. He never makes much progress on that front. When he chastises “those who have never really prayed” for speaking so easily of it, I wonder about what he thinks even happens when you pray.
I’m not a stranger to such struggles. It’s one thing to know that God, in Christ, has taken on all the suffering of the world and known every possible permutation of human anxiety. It’s another to overcome the paralysis that inhibits you from bringing your anxiety to God in prayer—what if God seems not to answer?
While Toller is working out his own salvation with uncertain results, one of his parishioners brings him another tortured soul to tend to. Mary (Amanda Seyfried), who is already several months pregnant and by her own admission “the spiritual one” in the relationship, asks Toller to meet with her husband Michael. He is an environmentalist with a radical activist streak who doesn’t think the world is fit to bring any new life into, and Mary hopes Toller can change his mind. More than a counseling session, though, the meeting becomes an intellectual and theological sparring match, one that exhilarates the otherwise depleted Toller. But for all his verbal dexterity, he doesn’t let Christ have much say in the debate.
About halfway through First Reformed I nearly succumbed to a common temptation I have when watching contemporary films about faith: I supposed I had the world figured out better than the characters—better, indeed, than the filmmaker. Viewed a certain way, the movie is a manifestation of Hazel Motes’ Church Without Christ from Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood. Toller doesn’t talk or think about Christ much (his brand of theological reflection involves reading a lot more Thomas Merton and Kierkegaard than Scripture). And the church down the street, a megachurch winkingly named Abundant Life, is, as Michael not inaccurately puts it, “more of a company than a church.” There are plenty of people in this film who claim to be Christians, but few who have a robust understanding of what it would actually entail to become like Christ—or even recognize that this aim is a significant element of the Christian life.