Spirit still alive in “shaky situations”

Spirit still alive in “shaky situations”

By Fr. Conall O’Cuinn S.J.

In the 1997 movie, The Postman, Kevin Costner wrestles with his own calling and with inviting another to his mission.

IN HIS 1997 MOVIE, The Postman, Kevin Costner plays the role of a wandering actor accompanied by a mule, symbol for stubborn and barren, in a post-apocalyptic world. Some sort of war has happened, with massive climatic consequence.

All public institutions, including government, have collapsed. The country is prey to warlord armies. Townspeople have returned in selfdefense to the medieval practice of the palisade and town gate. We hear internal voices, memories of past family and friends who reveal to us this man has been wounded emotionally and spiritually. Alone, with only his mule as company, he journeys with a maxim: “avoid civilization at all costs, but you’ve got to eat.”

Then one day when trying to escape from a slave camp, the wanderer stumbles upon a call to become a postman. This will eventually lead to the restoration of the defunct U.S. Postal Service. It happens during a storm when he takes shelter in a crashed post-office van. Within is a dead postman’s skeleton, which becomes his new companion (his mule has been killed). To pass the time he begins to read letters aloud from the dead postman’s bag. His voice is cynical, mocking, but he allows himself to be moved by the personal content of the undelivered letters. Next day, as a result, he dons the postman’s uniform and heads off to deliver the letters.

His first delivery is to an Irene Marsh, a blind woman, whose daughter reads the letter aloud in the presence of the townspeople. This is the first news in 15 years Irene has received of her family: they have survived the war. “You’re a godsend, you’re a savior,” she proclaims to the messenger. His response: “No, I am just the postman.” He has not yet embraced his identity as mediator of communication and bringer of good news.

We’ve all probably had that experience of having an inner call affirmed from the outside. It may have come as a confirmation by others who spotted a gift, maybe even before we recognized it ourselves. We may well have needed that confirmation before we could accept the new mission. This call comes to us in the ways of incarnation. It arises in the life of a concrete person in whom an idea, a desire, or a vision develops towards a concrete plan, which may or may not be put into practice. If carried out, it is often accomplished in fits and starts, as in the case of the Postman.

Back to the movie: the Postman is still very unsure of his call. The townspeople have taken to him big time. With the energy of enthusiasm [the word literally means possessed by a god] he offers to deliver any new mail, an impossible and naive offer. Irene Marsh brings him a letter with no address, just a name, and expects him to deliver it, somewhere. He feels overwhelmed and declares to himself, “I’ve got to get outta here.” While looking to steal a horse—remember there are no automobiles anymore—an old man asks him what he is looking for, and before he can answer points him in the direction of a derelict building which turns out to be the town’s defunct Post Office, the setting for the next encounter and confirmation.

Inside he finds the Mission Statement of the U.S. Post Office: “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”

A young man, Ford Lincoln Mercury, startles him:

“I knew you’d come here,” he says. They engage in a dialogue, whose genre we might classify as vocational discernment:

FORD: How do you get to be a postman, anyhow?

THE POSTMAN: You have to be in the right place.

FORD: How could I do it?

THE POSTMAN: I thought you wanted to drive cars.

FORD: Not anymore. That was kid’s stuff. This is real. So, where’s the right place?

THE POSTMAN: Could be anywhere. Anytime. Only another postman can make you a postman.

FORD: Kinda like vampires, right?

THE POSTMAN: Something like that. You have to be sworn in. The organization’s kinda shaky. It might not last. You’d meet a lot of people who don’t believe in you.

FORD: I’ll set them straight.

THE POSTMAN: It’s a lonely job.

FORD: I’ve been lonely all my life.

THE POSTMAN: So have I, Ford. So have I.

Without knowing what he is really doing, the Postman effectively ordains Ford by getting him to repeat the mission statement on the wall. He then declares him postman. Newly ordained Postman Ford astounds the Postman with this ardent declaration: “I’d give my life to get a letter through.” He is shocked by the enthusiasm of this young man, not just by his courage but also by how the young man mirrors back to the Postman his own ardor: at the gates of the town he had risked his life to deliver the letters to Irene Marsh.

We see in the dialogue above that the Postman has tried to dissuade Ford a number of times from offering himself. We might surmise that he is projecting his own reticence and fear onto young Ford. As he tries to nip Ford’s enthusiasm in the bud, he is confronted by his own lack of faith in his emerging mission. Through Ford he is forced to see that his call is about a movement that is far bigger than him. He still has to choose to go with that call or not. Like him, we too have choices to make.

Perhaps our fear of what the future might bring prevents us from taking the step which leads us to action and to faith in a future that is bigger than ourselves. Our desire to control or contain the loving energy of God may very well cause us unconsciously to block Spirit-movement in those who come to us seeking.

The Postman puts a final obstacle in Ford’s way, this time more personal: “It’s a lonely life,” to which Ford immediately replies, “I’ve been lonely all my life.” The Postman recognizes himself in this response, “So have I,” he admits, “So have I.” A starting point for a deeper dialogue between two humanities, no longer a clash of ideologies. Ford has opened the Postman up to himself. He points him to the next stage in his odyssey, toward full leadership.

The young lead the old, and the old are listening, a further sign that the Spirit, which blows where it wills, is bringing out something new from God’s storehouse. Out of a “shaky” situation, both personal and communal, even cosmic, a new community, mission and service has begun that is in continuity with and different from the old.

Father Conall O’Cuinn, SJ is in his eighth year as vocations director for the Irish Jesuits, as well as rector of a large Jesuit community. He spent 17 years in three African countries, mostly in formation. He completed the Associate Program at the Cambridge MA’s Centre for Religious Development while also working in a parish.


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