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John DoughertyNovember 10, 2023
Sidney Poitier and Lilia Skala in Lilies of the Field (1963). Photo courtesy of IMDb.

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.

God can be a real pain. An example: Recently I was walking down a busy street in Philadelphia with my 7-year-old when I saw an older man with a walker trying to board a city bus. Because of the number of cars parked on the street, the bus couldn’t pull up to the curb, meaning the man would have to step down and cross the bus lane to board.

I felt bad, but also thought, Not my problem, I need to get on the road before traffic gets too bad, I need to get my daughter home. Then, two steps later, I thought—as I inconveniently do in these situations—about Matthew 25: Lord, when did we see you struggling to catch a bus and refuse to help you?

I wish I could tell you that in that moment of conscience, I smiled up at the sky and thought, Thank you, Lord, for giving me this opportunity to be of service. My actual reaction was something more like “Ugh, FINE.” I went back, then helped him navigate the curb and board the bus.

We find great joy and meaning in aligning ourselves with God’s plan, but often that means first overcoming our resistance to altering, or abandoning, our own plans.

“Do you know him?” my daughter asked, as she always does when we interact with a stranger. “No,” I said, “but that was the right thing to do.”

We find great joy and meaning in aligning ourselves with God’s plan, but often that means first overcoming our resistance to altering, or abandoning, our own plans. God doesn’t just call when it’s convenient for us. God, as I said, can be a real pain.

I think Homer Smith, the protagonist of “Lilies of the Field” (1963; directed by Ralph Nelson, written by James Poe, based on the novel by William Edmund Barrett) would agree. Homer (Sidney Poitier, in the performance that made him the first Black actor to win an Oscar for a leading role) is a charming and itinerant handyman crossing the American Southwest in a Plymouth Suburban.

When Smith stops at a farm owned by a small community of nuns for water, he plans for it to be a short visit. But God—and the formidable Mother Maria (Lilia Skala)—have other plans. Maria has been praying for someone to build them a chapel, and she believes Smith was sent by divine providence. Despite his initial resistance, Smith finds himself unable to abandon the chapel project even as it becomes clear the sisters have no way of paying him. In the end, he receives a reward greater than money and leaves the sisters with something more meaningful than a building.

None of this is in Homer’s plans: All things being equal, he and the sisters would never cross paths. They are refugees from East Germany who speak very little English. Their lives are orderly and rigorous, their meals and lifestyle simple. Smith is African-American, go-with-the-flow, and enjoys a hearty meal. Even their shared Christian faith is a point of divergence: Smith comes from a vibrant Black Baptist tradition, whereas the sisters are rooted in a traditional and highly-ritualized Catholicism.

While it’s natural to resent when God calls us to change our plans, often that’s exactly what we need.

But the more time they spend together, the more they discover surprising commonalities. Smith clashes most with Mother Maria, but that is because they’re so similar. Both are stubborn believers in the value of hard work, unwilling to accept what others tell them is impossible. In one of my favorite scenes, they volley Scripture at each other—Maria reads from an enormous hardcover Bible, Smith from a handheld pocket edition. Their methods might look different, but they’re drawing from the same toolbox. In time, they come to appreciate this, as well as the other’s unique style. It’s an unlikely friendship, and one that only becomes possible when they are open to following God’s call in unexpected directions.

Ideally, we’d always respond to God’s call with joy and openness. More often, we are as reluctant as Homer—or I am, anyway. But if we are willing to follow where God leads, we soon realize that it has been the right way all along, even if it wasn’t what we would have chosen on our own. What seems like a distraction or a detour ends up being an opportunity to do good or to connect with people we might not ever have met otherwise. Those encounters are how we draw closer to God and put our faith into action.

And while it’s natural to resent when God calls us to change our plans, often that’s exactly what we need. Those moments serve as a reminder that we don’t always know what’s best, and that sometimes what discipleship really requires is the humility to be inconvenienced.

“Lilies of the Field” is streaming on the Hoopla and Kanopy apps (available through many public libraries), and free with ads on the Roku Channel and Tubi.

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