“You can’t buy forgiveness. It’s free, but you have to ask for it.”
When scraggly old Felix Bush (Robert Duvall) hears these words from his hometown preacher in the current film Get Low, he picks up his ball of money and goes back home.
You see, Mr. Bush has been a hermit in these here parts of Tennessee for nearly 40 years. Folks across four counties can tell some pretty tall tales about his life, yet nobody really knows what he’s been doing all these years or why he showed up in town today.
Turns out he says it’s time for him to get low – get down to the business of life.
Guilt is a mighty powerful force. It can drive a man to do many things, like living up in the hills so long that people don’t know you no more.
Mr. Bush has been going through the motions – living in a state of self-imposed exile that feels like somewhere between alive and dead. He wants the truth to come out about what really happened the night of the fire. He’s tired of carrying that heavy burden.
He travels to Illinois to ask his preacher friend Charlie Jackson (Bill Cobbs) to come back and tell the story to the town for him. It would be much easier if someone else spoke those awful words. But Reverend Jackson refuses. He knows that true forgiveness only comes when the sinner asks for it himself.
Despite the support of a new and old friend, Mr. Bush starts to run away again. He just can’t face the townspeople and confess what happened that night.
It’s too bad that after all these years, he’s still too stubborn to admit his sins and too proud to humbly open his heart to accept God’s gift of grace and forgiveness.
At every Mass, we have the opportunity to acknowledge our own sins and failings. Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy.
La bella signora Liz Gilbert (Julia Roberts) in the film Eat Pray Love is also running away from her life. Even though she has everything she’s longed for – a loving husband, a beautiful home, a successful writing career, she is mired in a spiritual rut.
When she gives up on her marriage, she runs away like Mr. Bush – not to the lonely hills of Tennessee but to the arms of a younger man. When that relationship doesn’t work, she jets to Rome to find solace and peace in a bowl of pasta Bolognese.
She hopes to regain her appetite for life by enjoying Rome’s finest meals. “I am going for it,” she says. “Food without guilt.” It appears that she wants to live the same, guiltless way – without any concern for commitments and responsibilities.
The next stop on her quest for self-enhancement is India, where she settles in at a sacred ashram. However, she is still burdened by the guilt of her failed marriage and is unable to come to grips with what she’s done.
One of her friends is a tall Texan who gives her some good advice about self-examination: “If you want to get to the castle, you’ve got to swim the moat.”
She works harder at finding time for quiet prayer and self-reflection. When she gets to Bali, she begins to find a balance in her life and admits her past mistakes. “There are cracks in everyone,” she writes, “that’s how the light of God gets in.”
Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the Word and my soul shall be healed.
Mr. Bush and Ms. Gilbert want to live again, but both have trouble acknowledging their own failings and past sins. One retreats inwardly, one flies away. Yet in the end, each finds in themselves the humility to admit their shortcomings and to seek forgiveness.
As Catholics, we are blessed with the sacrament of Reconciliation, an opportunity to come before God’s representative to acknowledge what we have done wrong and what we have failed to do. After this confession, we can humbly ask God for His forgiveness, which he freely gives. This grace washes away our sins and creates a clean heart for our human lives.
With such an opportunity to be unburdened by the guilt and shame of our past sins, why do so many Catholics stay away from the sacrament? Are they scared, like Felix Bush, to speak their past sins out loud? Are they self-indulgent like Liz Gilbert, too worried about feeling guilty that they never start down the path of self-examination?
Rory Cooney’s song “Change Our Hearts” speaks so well to the joy and freedom we experience when we finally let go and let God’s forgiving grace wash over our souls:
Drawn by your promises, still we are lured by the shadows and the chains we leave behind. Change our hearts this time, your Word says it can be, change our minds this time, your life could make us free. We are the people your call set apart. Lord, this time, change our hearts.
We have the opportunity to live more fully in the love of God. Take the first step – get low.
First published in the September 3, 2010 issue of The Tennessee Register.
© 2010 Christopher Fenoglio