These are tough days to be a churchman. Pedophile priests, best-selling critics and barking lawyers biting into bulging tax-free coffers. Then there’s the flock. In a world where the idols now sing and dance, those ubiquitous come home for fleecing ads never stood a chance. If First Father Frank thinks that an increase in foot hygiene is going to get it done, he really needs to talk to Tom Quick.
Tom is a prison chaplain – another tough gig these days. Not that there’s anything new in that. In my time behind bars, prison chaplains have always had to know as much about helicopters and schizophrenia as they do Holy Scripture. But for a generation of cons whose kingdom comes via a Game of Thrones, the Divine can be an extra tough sell. So Tom has taken a page out of the original silver lining’s playbook: when in Rome…
“What’s the movie today, Tom?” The chaplain and I turned our attention from a private conversation into the dark and narrow staircase that snakes down from his second-floor office. Tom is a big believer in open doors. It’s what makes him so popular with the guys.
“C’mon up,” Tom called out to the unseen voice. A moment later a willowy form with a cropped copper mane appeared in the passageway. It was Julien, the young halfbreed who had enlightened me on forgiveness only two weeks before. Tom held up a rented dvd case. “The Life of Pi. It’s a story about a boy and a tiger. The CG is supposed to be incredible – it won an Oscar.”
The meercat-shaped convict pumped his neck once and swivelled my way. “Wow – really? It must be great,” he added for emphasis. In the church of the 21st century, that’s what doubles as faith; What would Oscar do. But like many other loyal Canadian leaders, I too read Yann Martel’s contribution to great Canadian plagiarism ten years ago. And I was curious how a Hollywood treatment could possibly improve on the Giller prize winning novel. I cleared my calendar for the afternoon screening.
If you have not yet seen (or read) Martel’s timeless tale of the tiger who sailed, then this is your first and last chance to abandon ship. Flee all ye with no Netflix! Because what comes next may not kindle your faith in a God, but it could very well threaten what you thought you knew about polite society.
“Hunger can change everything you ever thought you knew about yourself.” From my seat on the stage, I scanned the church’s bursting auditorium to see if anyone had grasped the weight of those words. The movie’s main character, a teenaged Indian national named Pi, had just uttered them — after eating what may (or may not) be regurgitated fish from the belly of a tiger that may (or may not) really exist. I saw two Sierra Leonian lads in the back pew give each other a squeamish and knowing look. Prison may not be the house that Mensa built, but it’s good to know that we can still get a metaphor.
In the end, Pi is a story of the tales we tell ourselves – about ourselves – in order to avoid the anihilation of shame. If ever there was a graveyard of those sorts of sagas, it would be the living mausoleum I call home. In prison, implausible narratives are the soup du jour – seven days per week. One of my favourite examples comes from a man that I call a friend.
Arnie is a polite, university educated Quebecor serving a life sentence for double homicide. Before this he had never even had a speeding ticket. Yet in a moment of inexplicable rage, he murdered a man and woman who had taken him in and treated him as a son. His actions exterminated a family. Robbed children and grandchildren of a future that will never be and left his own parents anguishing at how such an animal could have spawned from their loins. And did I mention inexplicable?
But the human psyche doesn’t do inexplicable very well. Just ask the South African sporting world. Like airborne feet clawing for terra firma, the mind of man needs a story – one it can live with. For Arnie, that story involved masked intruders dragging him from his sleepy bed in the middle of the night, and forcing him at gunpoint to pull the trigger on two people who were family to him. That these beasts left no fingerprints, no footprints – no track of any sort – is hardly a plot spoiler. Neither is the fact that Arnie’s assailants left him without even a scratch. When the only audience you need to convince is yourself, almost every script is Oscar worthy.
I shook Chaplain Quick’s hand and thanked him for the movie. He had gone out of lint-filled pocket for its rental.
“I try to do something for the guys who never come to church,” he said. “I figure if I can pick a move that will help them see God – somehow – then maybe… I don’t know – maybe.” His voiced trailed off.
I thanked the embattled Anglican for trying and told him I’d come again. After all, it’s not always about the story you prefer. Sometimes it’s about the one you can live with.