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John DoughertySeptember 29, 2023
Photo by Ahmed Adly on Unsplash

The Catholic Movie Club is a short weekly essay pulling out spiritual themes in our favorite films. You can discuss the movies with other readers in the comments on this page or in our Facebook group. Find past Catholic Movie Club selections here.

There’s a limit to what we can know. There are aspects of life that remain mysterious even to the most rigorous minds. Many people choose to avoid those mysteries in favor of what can be known and understood by reason alone. But at the end of our lives, we all have to reckon with the ultimate unknown: death and what comes after. In those moments we realize the limits of our accumulated knowledge to solve these mysteries or to calm the fear they provoke. What do we turn to then?

In ‘Wit,‘  Dr. Vivian Bearing uses her formidable intellect as a shield against her existential terror.

This is what Dr. Vivian Bearing (Emma Thompson) wonders in Mike Nichols’ “Wit” (2001), adapted from Margaret Edson’s Pulitzer-winning play of the same title as a teleplay by Nichols and Thompson. She has a lot of time to wonder: She has been diagnosed with advanced ovarian cancer and is participating in an experimental and aggressive eight-round course of chemotherapy. A distinguished professor specializing in the metaphysical poetry of John Donne, Vivian has now become research-material herself. As the chemo ravages her body, she reflects on her life, her achievements as a scholar and her shortcomings as a human being.

It’s natural to shrink away from the inexplicable, to cling only to what we can understand. Vivian doesn’t pray or plead or even mention God except as an epithet or academic subject. Instead, she uses her formidable intellect as a shield against her existential terror. She makes a point of looking up the medical terms that the doctors rattle off: “I want to know what the doctors mean when they anatomize me. My only defense is the acquisition of vocabulary.” I remember doing the same when my daughter received chemotherapy as an infant, the small comfort I found in understanding even a percentage of the jargon tossed out in morning rounds. (“Wit,” as you might imagine, was a very emotional watch for me.)

While Vivian stubbornly clings to the knowable, the viewer begins to realize that she shares her favorite poet’s “salvation anxiety”: worrying whether the promise of eternal life really applies to her. She recites Donne’s sonnets in her hospital bed and keeps an image of St. Sebastian—bristling with arrows just as she is with intravenous lines—beside her. Faced with the unknowable, we put our faith in things we don’t fully understand.

For Vivian, this includes accepting her need for human kindness. She finds it in nurse Susie Monahan (Audra McDonald), whose care makes Vivian feel human even as her doctors make her feel like an anatomy project. Vivian’s initially ashamed. (She glares at the viewer across the fourth wall after accepting Susie’s offer of a popsicle: “It’s something I can digest and it keeps me hydrated. For your information.”) But she learns that connection is what allows us to live, and die, with grace.

Like many of us, Vivian has been hiding for most of her life: hiding from the messiness of human relationships, from the frightening truths of mortality and frailty, from the mysteries of death and eternity. She has barricaded herself with intellect and reason. But as her mentor, E.M. Ashford (Eileen Atkins), says of the soul: “Wherever it hides, God will find it.” There is fear in being powerless before the ultimate mysteries of existence. But when faced with mystery, perhaps our greatest act is to surrender. Our knowledge, like our lives, is limited. We accept that there are things we will never understand in this life. And we offer ourselves in faith and hope that loving hands will guide us into the next.

“Wit” is streaming on Max and DirecTV.

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