Andrew Garfield played a Jesuit in Silence, but he didn't expect to fall in love with Jesus.
People make the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola for a variety of reasons. Preparing to play a featured role in a Martin Scorsese film is not one you hear often, but it's probably not the worst reason. Men and women often make retreats to find some clarity about who they are or who they’re called to be. I suppose it was so for Andrew Garfield when he asked America’s James Martin, S.J., to guide him through the Exercises as he prepared to play the lead role in Mr. Scorsese’s new film, “Silence.”
Father Martin was hesitant at first. But Garfield was looking for something. Or someone. And that’s not a bad reason at all. In the end, it was enough for Jim. And more than enough for God.
It was a rainy day in Los Angeles when I had lunch with Garfield to talk about his experience of the Exercises. We met in a small bustling restaurant in Los Feliz, an old L.A. neighborhood that sits below the iconic Griffith Observatory just east of Hollywood. I was early. He was on time. We were both hungry.
Garfield seemed weary. It was just past noon when we met, and he was tired.
He had been working for weeks, promoting two movies, filming a third and preparing to return to London for an upcoming stage production. He carried a small collection of notebooks and a phone. Add a laptop and cup of coffee and you might have confused him for a grad student. It was New Year's Eve, and he was having lunch with a spiritually curious Jesuit whom he had never met before. Not exactly the glamorous Hollywood life one would expect. More like an awkward religious blind date. I could appreciate the weariness.
Yet even in his fatigue he was exceedingly kind, generous with his time and thoughtful in his conversation. He made sure we were going to eat. He ordered the polenta, and I the blueberry pancakes. He was tired but grateful—grateful for the chance to recall his year-long experience of making the Exercises with Father Martin, grateful to get back into a place of greater depth and consolation than he was in at the moment—a place of Hollywood self-promotion. “This is like the marketplace of ‘riches, honor and pride,’” he said, referencing, unprompted, a key meditation from the Spiritual Exercises. It was a keen insight and a nice touch. He was speaking my language. He made me feel at home.
After getting to know one another briefly, we began to talk about how he came to acting as a vocation and what kind of spiritual experience he brought to the Exercises. “Films were really my church,” he said. “As a young kid it was movies and books; it was nothing remarkable really, just that is where I felt soothed, that is where I felt most myself...safest.”
Perhaps, as he noted, a childhood love of story is not that remarkable, but then he added something that seemed to me a very Ignatian insight: “In books and movies, I was transported into myself, into the vast inner landscape of myself.”
St. Ignatius Loyola was similarly transported when he began writing the Spiritual Exercises. After a grave failure, wounded while foolishly trying to play the hero during a hopeless battle, with nothing like an endless newsfeed to occupy his time during a long and painful recovery, Ignatius began to read. He soon came to realize that the consolation he was looking for, the healing he needed, was not to be found in the fantasies of chivalrous fiction but rather in the lives of the saints. Moreover, he came to realize that a deeper and more satisfying life was being revealed not only in their saintly example but in the intricacies of his own passions. The wounded reality of his inner life became a place of graced imagination. Ignatius’ conversion began when he became sensitive to the complexity of his own interiority.
In my conversation with Garfield, it became abundantly clear that he shares this Ignatian sensitivity. It was also clear that his “vast inner landscape” is, like many of ours, full of wounds and vulnerability. He knows well the longing for love, and at times, it is a torturous longing.
“I have been drawn to stories that are attempting to turn suffering into beauty,” he said. “I feel like I’ve been gifted and cursed with a closeness to some grief...the grief of living….” He paused as if gathering strength to say what he really meant, and then the source of the weariness I had sensed earlier was revealed: “...the grief of living in a time and a place where a life of joy and love is f--ing impossible.”
He repeated this thought at various moments in the few hours we were together. His life has been taken up by the burdens of love, by the possibility, or impossibility, of real love.
Andrew Garfield was, for lack of a better word, successful in the Exercises. “There were so many things in the Exercises that changed me and transformed me, that showed me who I was...and where I believe God wants me to be,” he told me. That’s about as good a retreat outcome as one can hope for. And his success should not surprise us.
His training as an actor prepared him well for the dynamics of Ignatian prayer, whereby one imagines oneself within a series of biblical scenes in order to attain “interior knowledge” of God and to articulate that knowledge in a life of compassionate action and generous service. What was more surprising, what surprises him still, was falling in love.
When I asked what stood out in the Exercises, he fixed his eyes vaguely on a point in the near distance, wandering off into a place of memory. Then, as if the question had brought him back into the experience itself, he smiled widely and said: “What was really easy was falling in love with this person, was falling in love with Jesus Christ. That was the most surprising thing.”
He fell silent at the thought of it, clearly moved to emotion. He clutched his chest, just below the sternum, somewhere between his gut and his heart, and what he said next came out through bursts of laughter: “God! That was the most remarkable thing—falling in love, and how easy it was to fall in love with Jesus.”
I suddenly came to appreciate the authenticity with which he experiences the joy of love and the sorrow of its frustration, the pain of its absence. “I felt so bad for [Jesus] and angry on his behalf when I finally did meet him, because everyone has given him such a bad name. So many people have given him such a s--- f--ing name. And he has been used for so many dark things.”
When I say that Garfield was successful in the Exercises, it is exactly this profession of love that proves the point: He falls in love with Jesus. He suffers with and for the beloved. And his compassionate suffering is given over in a vocation that intends to help others into love and out of its absence. “That’s for me the beautiful agony of creating,” he continued, “the beautiful agony of never being able to fully express the possibility of love and the possibility of loving as he teaches, and living as he wants us to live. My compulsion to work is this longing to express that very thing.”
The experience of falling in love with Jesus was most surprising, perhaps, because Garfield, like many people, came to the Exercises asking for something else. What he brought to the Exercises was not an explicit desire to know Christ but rather a painful and persistent sense of his own “not-enough-ness.”
Like Ignatius before him, Garfield was a young person looking for his own place in the world. And, like many of us, beneath this longing he carried a deep fear, a fear that he wasn’t good enough. “The main thing that I wanted to heal, that I brought to Jesus, that I brought to the Exercises, was this feeling of not-enough-ness,” he said. “This feeling of that forever longing for the perfect expression of this thing that is inside each of us. That wound of not-enough-ness. That wound of feeling like what I have to offer is never enough.”
Many of us live with a fear of failure, but what we don’t often realize is that it is not the failure that bothers us; it’s the exposure. It’s not hard to fail; we do it all the time. It’s that people will see us failing. It’s that we will be recognized as a failure that really pains us. When all we want is appreciation, being seen is what we long for; if we fear we’re not worthy of it, it’s being seen that terrifies us the most. This tension is something that Andrew Garfield understands very well.
The moment he remembers as the deepest experience of God’s presence in his life happened just before his first public performance upon finishing drama school. He was to play Ophelia in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” at the Globe Theater in London. “It’s about two hours before and suddenly, I feel like I’m going to die,” he remembered. “I genuinely feel that if I step on the stage I’m going to burn up from the inside out. I’ve never felt so much terror, like mortal dread, not-enough-ness, self doubt. Terror at being seen. Terror at revealing and offering my heart. Exposing myself, saying, ‘look at me.’”
To calm his nerves he walked up and down the South Bank of the Thames. It was an overcast day and his thoughts turned to escape: “I begin thinking of throwing myself into the river. I have nothing to give, I have nothing to offer, I’m a fraud.” He understands it now as a moment of prayer: “I’m asking for something. I’m asking for help.”
And then he heard a street performer singing, rather imperfectly, a familiar song, “Vincent,” by Don MacLean. It was the imperfection of the performance that he remembers most. “If that guy had stayed in bed saying ‘I have nothing to offer, my voice isn’t that good, I’m not ready to perform in public, I’m not enough.’ If he had listened to those voices, I wouldn’t have been given what I needed,” he said. “His willingness to be vulnerable really changed my life. I think I understood for the first time how art makes meaning, how art changes people’s lives. It changed my life.”
This shared moment of artistic imperfection saved him: “And literally the clouds parted and the sun came out and shone on me and this guy and I was just weeping uncontrollably. And it was like God was grabbing my by the scruff of the neck and saying, ‘You’ve been thinking that if you go on stage you’re going to die. But actually, if you don’t you’re going to die.’”
He has lived ever since with this same creative tension—with a deep fear of being seen and an even deeper need of it. If it is being seen in our imperfection that terrifies us, it is being held in our vulnerability that will redeem us.
Among the most moving parts of the Exercises for Garfield were the contemplations on the so-called “hidden life” of Jesus. “That felt very important,” he recalled. “Where I’m tempted constantly to be producing, to be seen, to be appreciated, etc., I was shown the beauty of living a hidden life, of retreating in order to offer myself in a deeper way to my art, to my life, to the world.” Considering his evident discomfort with the trappings of celebrity, an attraction to a hidden life is not surprising. And yet, these meditations on the childhood of Christ also revealed a desire to enter into the hidden parts of his own life—into his wounds of not-enough-ness, into the desolate places we all carry with us, but don’t often find a way into or out of.
Yet perhaps the most critical exercise for Garfield was not about the hidden life, and not about his own woundedness, but rather about something sacred being revealed, about the vulnerability of God. During the meditation on the Nativity, he imagined himself, as Ignatius recommends, a nurse during the birth of Christ: “I felt at home there. I felt like that was where I was meant to be. In service of this woman doing this profound act.” He began to appreciate how the antidote to humiliation might just be humility. “God, I wish I could feel like that all the time, in humble service,” he said. “If I can make storytelling a service, if I can be of service, and be as humble as I possibly can while doing it...” He loses himself again in the memory of the moment. And I don’t blame him. This is no small thing.
Actors have been understood as midwives from the beginning of time. The actor, as with all priestly people, stands before the truth and participates in its telling by way of their words and gestures, by enacting our sacred stories of redemption and love. In contemplating the birth of Christ, Garfield came to know something that other midwifing actors and mystics have known for a long time—that it is by our personification of love, by our humble service, that we become the love for which we long.
The experience of the Exercises is sacred because it is a place where we come to know the truth of love, where the personification of love is revealed in Christ. Feeling yourself participate in the labor of birthing into the world the love you long for is a mystical moment for any of us. It is not easy. It is in every sense an exercise and more. But it is without a doubt the greatest gift.
Yet this midwifing of love into the world does not excuse us from the pain of labor. It is not the possibility of love that remedies its impossibility, but rather, it is the personification of love that redeems us in the end. It is the labor of love that saves us. It is, in every sense, a work in progress.
“I was brought to my knees by these Exercises,” Garfield said, “and yet I sit here before you, struggling with the same s---. The act of making the film was secondary to the act of going through the Exercises, and the act of the film coming out is third to those things...and the depth of experience follows suit. The depth of the experience of the Exercises was enough. And then making the film felt very, very deep, deeper than any other artistic experience I’ve ever had, but it wasn’t as deep as the experience of the Exercises, but it was still by all intents and purposes very damn deep. And now the film is coming out and I’m back in Shallow-ville. And I’m trying to reconcile that.”
Staying in love is not easy, just as staying in the graceful space of a retreat or a moving moment of prayer is not easy. The world comes back to us and we to it. But when I asked whether he still trusts the authenticity of his falling in love, he smiled again, made eye-contact and assured me: “Oh my goodness...this, this was enough. If I hadn’t made the film that would’ve been fine. But the one experience that I wouldn’t want to sacrifice, if I had to choose...it would have been going through those Exercises. It brings me so much consolation. It’s such a humbling thing because it shows me that you can devote a year of your life to spiritual transformation, sincerely longing and putting that longing into action, to creating relationship with Christ and with God, you can then lose 40 pounds of weight, sacrifice for your art, pray every day, live celibate for six months, make all these sacrifices in service of God, in service of what you believe God is calling you into, and even after all of that heart and soul, that humble offering...that humility...even after all of that someone is going to throw a stone and dismiss it. It’s a wonderful, wonderful grace to be given, to be shown. And it’s a huge consolation to know that no matter how hard I work someone is not going to like me. There is going to be at least one person that says that I’m worthless. It’s wonderful!”
If Garfield seemed weary when we first met, he’s far from weary now. As he recounts these graces received he is visibly joyful, laughing out loud. Even as he acknowledges that some will think him “worthless” he seems radiant and free.
“This is my sincere prayer,” he said. “I’m praying that I’m freer to offer myself vulnerably...and that these other voices, whether they’re internal or external, don’t have the same power over that flame, over the ability to offer that purest, vulnerable, cracked open heart...in service of God, in service of the greater good, in service of love, in service of the divine. I feel like this is what God is showing me. And it hurts when I feel misunderstood or not seen...but I’m longing for it to hurt less so that I can keep offering myself vulnerably.”
At their core, the Spiritual Exercises are about the personification of love, not the possibility of it. The possibility of love, or its impossibility, paralyzes us. But the personification of love, the vulnerable, wounded, beaten love that I saw in the heart of Andrew Garfield, the personification of love that he experienced as a midwife to Mary, the love he guards in his “hidden life,” the love that lives in his longing to be seen deeply and appreciated fully, the falling in love that he continues to struggle with in his own relationships to God and others—that personification of love is what redeems us all in the end. If the impossibility of love leaves us longing, it is in the personification of love that we will find our satisfaction. It is in the personification of love where we will discover our enoughness.
When I arrived back to Madrid, I noticed again, as if for the first time, a paperweight that my father had given me a year ago on my birthday. It is a simple aluminum block that reads in bold letters, “I AM ENOUGH.” This seems to be the grace that God had in mind for Andrew Garfield, the grace all parents want for their children: that we might come to know ourselves as nothing more or less than the personification of their love. And that this knowledge be enough. It is the final prayer Ignatius recommends we make in the Exercises: “Take everything, God. Give me only your love and your grace. That is enough for me.”