Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Life of Pi

After a quiet week at the monastery, I came home to a busy few days of catching up and then Bonnie and I were off to visit our daughter and her family in Arkansas, USA.  We flew into Indianapolis, Indiana, rented a car and drove to Terra Haute, Indiana to visit Monk Anthony for half a day.  That was a joyful visit.  Brother Anthony looks so much healthier and happier in his new government home (Federal Correctional Institution).  Brother Anthony has worked his way up to head orderly (we jokingly say that he has been awarded the dignity of Arch-Orderly).  I don't think the FCI has ever been so well cared for.  The other inmates love having a cleaner, less stinky, place to live (one of the changes Br. Anthony made was to get lids for all of the trash cans).  He has even performed exorcisms on some of the haunted cells that no one had previously been able to stay in (his section of the prison had been "death row" for many years before it was converted into a maximum security area in a medium security prison).  And, if all goes well over the next couple of months, there is a good chance Br. Anthony will be reclassified and moved to a medium security prison.  Then when we visit we can actually hug--at this point all of our visits have been through glass on a monitored telephone.

After our visit with Br. Anthony, we jumped in the car and began our eight and a half hour drive to Rodgers, Arkansas.  A snow storm was blowing in, and we hoped that we could stay ahead of it.  No such luck.  We drove right into it.  The trip took eleven hours, but we made it with no incident--Thank God.  This morning is the first quiet time I have had to write since we arrived four days ago.  Bonnie, Rebekah and the kids went to the exercise club (where there is free baby sitting) for a couple of hours.  Because of the snow, the cabin fever has really built up.  Church was cancelled yesterday and schools are closed today--probably tomorrow too: more snow is predicted for tonight and tomorrow.  We've had lots of grandchildren time, which is always good, but can get exhausting without breaks.  We thank God for exercise clubs with babysitting.  

 Last night we watched the movie, Life of Pi.  I have read the book twice.  The movie sticks pretty closely to the book, and is amazingly beautiful.  When I read the book the first time, I was intrigued by the question: which is the true story?  The main story, the colourful story, is the one about Pi's survival on a life boat with a bengal tiger.  The 'other' story is the more reasonable story that he told the insurance agents who came to interview him.  The question nagged at me so much, I read it again.  The second time through, I began to realize that something deeper was there for me, but I couldn't put my finger on it.

After seeing the movie, however, a meaningful interpretation of the book began to become clear to me.  First, the question of true versus not true was resolved for me.  There is a kind of true that we might call the "objective observer" true.  That is, what would an objective observer see were she watching from a satellite.  This is one way to talk about what "really" happens.  However, the problem is that what one sees is limited by all sorts of personal prejudices and assumptions.  As has been shown in court, several people who see a traffic accident each tell a different version of the incident.  Not only is an observer limited by her own mental baggage, she has no way of knowing what is actually going on in the head of the people (and animals) she is observing.  The objective observer's perspective is valuable, but it is not objective and it is skewed by distance.  It is  merely a perspective.  

Fables and myths have received a bum rap over the past few hundred years.   But fables are a powerful way to tell the truth.  I can imagine some of you reading this might be saying to yourself, "Oh, so Fr. Michael thinks that the story given to the insurance agents is the true one and the story with the tiger is just a fable."  That is absolutely wrong.  It is not just anything.  The story with the tiger is a true telling of what happened, a telling that is probably more true than the other because the story with the tiger reveals something of Pi's inner experience, something that Pi wants to impress on his listeners.  In fact, I would go so far as to say that the story with the tiger reveals something Yann Martel (the novel's author) wants to say about human experience.  At least that is what I think now after my third encounter with the story.

Pi is a good boy, a religious seeker who zealously pursues the religious options open to him.  Yet he has a dark side.  Pi's dark side isn't a hidden addiction or rage, but a hidden pride.  This pride is revealed in his willingness to ignore his father's instructions and trust his own instincts in his first encounter with the tiger, Richard Parker.  His father tells him that whatever Pi sees in the tiger's eyes, is merely a reflection of his own emotions.  Pi see's himself in the tiger and trusts in that more than in the instructions of his father and the warnings of his brother and the zookeeper.  

It seems to me that the shipwreck and the first few days in the life boat set up the contest between Pi and his own darkness: the religious, vegetarian young man and his inner, hidden, carnivorous tiger.  In the battle with our inner demons, addictions and darkness of all sorts, there comes a time when--if we are going to battle seriously at all--we must take all that we have learned from others and go to battle with the tiger within ourselves in our own lifeboat.   There is a certain unavoidable loneliness in much spiritual struggle.

Pi's first attempt to control the tiger is one of will and force.  By harnessing the waves to make the tiger sea sick, Pi attempts to force his darkness into submission.  This fire-fighting-fire attempt at control fails because no matter how much bravado Pi shows, the tiger has more.  This is most literally portrayed as a pissing match.  After making the tiger sick, singing a triumphant song and yelling at the tiger, Pi urinates on the canvas tarp covering part of the life boat as a way to demark his territory.    The tiger responds by spraying Pi with his urine.  In the struggle with inner darkness, force and bravado do not succeed.

Pi next attempts to train the tiger, and this method produces a little more success.  through bribery, Pi is able to train the tiger to stay under the tarp.  It is a system that works for a while, but does not solve the problem.  The darkness stays hidden, the darkness is somewhat controlled, but the darkness, like the tiger, can still attack without warning at any time.  

The tiger is not completely subdued until the final storm.  Like the biblical Job, Pi sees God in the storm.  The tiger, however, only suffers.  The tiger cannot see God in the storm.  Pi suffers too, but Pi sees (experiences, knows, and/or encounters) God.  That makes the difference for Pi.  He sees the tiger suffer and asks God why this is necessary.  Why must our dark passions, our tigers, suffer so painfully for us to gain mastery over them?  Why must there be storms and flames and weeping and gnashing of teeth?  Isn't there an easier way?  Apparently not.

Pi, it seems, now sees himself in the tiger.  The tiger's sufferings are his own, and as the tiger lay sick, dehydrated and starving, Pi places the tiger's head on his lap and attempts to comfort it.  Pi calls on God, offering (again) his life to God and saying that now he is at peace.  Then he encounters the miraculous island--a place of rest and peace.  But even this miraculous island of peace and strengthening is itself a carnivorous entity.  It seems, so long as we are in this world, there is no freedom from death.  It reminds me of one of God's questions for Job out of the storm: Who feeds the eagle's fledgelings?  

The island marks the end of fervent struggle between Pi and the tiger.  They are not separated until the end, by a kind of death at the end of the journey, but from this point on there is an understanding between Pi and the tiger.  It is as if the vegetarian Pi is now at peace with his inner, now submissive, carnivore.  Like St. Francis of Assis--who used to refer to his body as "brother ass"--Pi is now at peace with his own animal nature that no amount of religious effort can destroy.  Only by Grace, only God who sees our struggles can bring peace.  

There is no easy way.  The struggle itself is necessary, even though it is not the struggle that brings us peace.  One contemporary elder of Mt. Athos put it this way: by struggle we show God what we want.  And then God gives it to us.  Pi's struggle with his tiger brought him to the place were he could receive as a gift the peace and freedom from fear that only God gives.


M said...

Hi Fr Micheal,

Thanks for the comments about Br Anthony. I have a copy of the icon he did - Extreme Humility. That beautiful presence has seen me through some difficult times!

I read Pi years ago but just watched the movie recently. I began to connect more of the dots as I watched the movie...well done I thought...When Richard Parker was leaving him in an unceremonious manner was when I thought, "It is neither story, it is something else." What I saw reflected in the tigers eyes was fear so it is probably no wonder that my conclusion is that Richard Parker is really fear. I found myself wondering how it will feel when fear takes it's final leave of me.
I should read your posts more often. Thanks

Barbara said...

Dear Fr. Michael,
Your words about myth and objective truth reminded me of another story about a beautiful woman who was noticed and paid attention to by everyone and a young girl dressed in rags and ignored by everyone. The little girl asks if she can hide in the beautiful woman's cloak and walk around with her so that when people paid attention to the beautiful woman, they would also pay attention to her. The beautiful woman agrees and the little girl was noticed and listened to and the town discovered she had many very wise and important things to say. The woman and the girl became best friends and remain so to this day. The name of the poor little girl in rags is called Truth. And her beautiful friend is called Story.

Barbara said...

A few more thoughts...
I haven't actually watched the movie, even though I really loved the book and have given it to several friends. I found parts of the book so difficult to read when I could only imagine the struggle and suffering, that I didn't ever want to see it portrayed in case it was even worse than I was imagining. I have never really liked survival stories - and I think it is because of the alone-ness, even more than the struggle and suffering. Most survival stories are heroic, but the hero is usually alone.

I was reading in Luke about Christ in Gethsemane this morning and noticed (somehow for the first time!) that an angel came to strengthen him. I'm thankful Christ wasn't entirely alone in the garden. Maybe our struggle isn't as lonely as we think. I understand what you are saying about our will and resolve, though.

Fr. Michael said...

Dear Barbara,
I love the story about Truth and Story.
Pi is a survival story, of course, but this time I saw it as a journey story. The movie is very beautiful and you might really enjoy it. You can't be very alone while you are taming a tiger and encountering God.