Monday, February 26, 2024

Lent Film Series | Facing Death with Gravity, Prayer and Grace

If Somebody is listening,
they might just save your life.


With the first full week of Lent under way, we get to explore again the ache for meaning and how often life is wild, with many moments including desert spaces and memento morisIn modern storytelling, outer space often captures all these attributes of the human experience listed above. Alfonso Cuarón, one of my favorite storytellers and directors working today, showcases this in one of his science fiction masterpieces, the Academy Award-winning Gravity. (Children of Men, his other science fiction masterpiece, is also one of my favorite films of all time.) Gravity stars Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, and I had the joy of watching this searing film again with one of my sons leaning into the upcoming season of Lent.

Bullock plays Dr. Ryan Stone and Clooney plays Matthew Kowalski, companions in space who face a terrifying destruction of everything that could ground them in believing they will make it back home to earth. Each time there is a glimmer of hope, a seemingly relentless gauntlet of oppositions suffocates their small chance of survival. 

And in each of these harrowing moments, their conversations become more hushed and hallowed, like prayers offered together in conversation before an unknown, yet immanent God.

Conversations and Communion in Alfonso Cuarón's Gravity

Facing Death with the Hope of Somebody

If Somebody is listening,
they might just save your life.

The words above are those Astronaut Matthew Kowalski says to Dr. Ryan Stone when she is ready to give up. In many ways, I think they are similar to the surrender the season of Lent invites us into when we recognize again "from dust you were made and to dust you shall return" as well as "you have died to sin are are alive in Christ Jesus." 

The practices to remind us of these truths are prayer and fasting, which is what Ryan Stone doesn't know how to do as she is terrified of letting go of her fears and grief as well as trying to reach out with hope and survive.

Will you pray for me? 
I mean I’d pray for myself, 
but I’ve never prayed—
nobody ever taught me how.

Ryan learns how when she remembers what Kowalski kept saying to speaking to "Houston in the blind" even when all communication seems cutoff and dead: 

If Somebody is listening,
they might just save your life.

Chas Bogatz shares more about this pivotal moment in the film that reveals all the more how Matthew has become an intercessor and mediator for Ryan in her hour of need (warning: spoilers):

Who is Matt Kowalski? 
The veteran astronaut accompanying 
Dr. Stone on her mission is quick, witty, 
and an endless well of wisdom ... 
lovable and childlike, 
always pointing out 
the wondrous views around them 
while Stone is stuck in a torment of panic.

When he detaches from Stone, 
he accepts his martyrdom 
and focuses only on helping Stone. 
While she wants to go save Kowalski, 
he selflessly accepts his fate, 
even turning it positive toward the end. 
In fact, his last human words are, 
"Wow. Hey Ryan, 
Oh, my God,
you should see the sun on the Ganges. 
It's amazing."

Dwindling Hope and Desperate Prayer Scene in Alfonso Cuarón's Gravity

Facing Death with the Whisper of a Prayer

And right after he says these words, Matt turns on again a song that he had been playing for Ryan before all hell broke loose. Here are some of the words: 

Lord, I'm singing You 
this message up to Heaven,
Asking You to send me 
down another angel.
I've been looking 
for a long time for someone 
to get her off my mind.
But You know, Lord, 
angels are hard to find ...

It's my fault I lost the first one 
You sent to me.
I didn't know 'til she was gone 
how much she meant to me.
She loved me but I was blind, 
I bet I do a whole lot better next time
But I know, Lord, 
angels are hard to find ...

+ Hank Williams
"Angels Are Hard to Find"

These words not only capture Ryan's need for a companion on this journey through space, but also capture the lament of the four-year-old daughter she lost before she was sent into space.

Ryan is surrounded by death.
She is lamenting her loss.
And as one famous science fiction film's
tagline reads,
"In space, no one can hear 
you scream."

Or can Somebody?

Matthew Kowalski's (whose first name means "Gift of God" and last name means "Blacksmith") words continue to echo with Ryan, refining her faith through this fire. 

This moment and this gift from God 
is forging Ryan into who she, 
this human being, 
was intended to be.


Learning how to breathe again. 
Learning how to strive again. 
Learning how to live again.

Kowalski tells Dr. Stone when she needs to hear it most:

You're going to make it.

You're going to make it 
because Somebody 
looked for you in the dark.

You're going to make it 
because Somebody 
tells you the Way of life.

You're going to make it 
because Somebody 
keeps speaking
when you're afraid, 
ready to give up, 
and seemingly alone
with barely any breath left in a world 
that is silent and empty of hope.

And remember, even the last words Matthew Kowalski said to Ryan could be heard as:

"Oh, my God. 
You should see the Son ... 

Facing Death & Life with Gravity & Grace

To close this brief reflection,
Simone Weil, the author and mystic,
near the end of her life,
 focused on two key forces
(one some would say is scientific,
the other many would call theological),
that holding all things together:

understood from physics, 
holds the universe together.

from the heart of God in Christ for us,
 seeds the soil of everything good 
to grow in us and around us. 

Weil sees this scientific force and 
theological understanding
as a way to comprehend
God and the meaning of life.

In Gravity,
Cuarón reveals the hope of a prayer
to a God who is Creator and Sustainer
offering gravity and grace,
in this brilliantly told tale filled with 
humor and pathos,
terror and trauma,
as well as sorrow and solace,
and, ultimately, salvation.

So I invite you to pray during this season of Lent and remember:

If Somebody is listening,
they might just save your life.

A Step of Faith Scene in Alfonso Cuarón's Gravity

Next Lenten posts:

Christ is all,

Rev. Mike “Sully” Sullivan