Clearing the Heart to See the Truth
When I was a young retourner to the Catholic faith, I was struggling with desires to revisit a former way of life. Further, I wondered why I should put forth the effort to be good, or, at least, to try to keep the Commandments. This was my ongoing struggle. In an odd way, it was the cause of my apostasy. I fell away while in the military in Panama because I was tired of experiencing alienation. ‘Why’, I asked myself, ‘can’t I just fit in and do what everyone else is doing? Why do I have to feel so guilty about doing what I knew to be bad?’ And there was the rub: I knew in my conscience what was good and bad. My parents did an excellent job of instilling that sense in me, much to my apparent demise. This caused me undo harm, I believed, because it meant that I couldn’t do what everybody else was doing and live with myself. Hence, the alienation. The solution, I wrongly assumed, was to just forget my conscience and party and chase ladies like my buddies. I was simply tired of being the only one (so I perceived) who recognized good from bad, and feeling terribly guilty when indulging in the bad.
So, around Christmas of 1990, I was having a repeat of some of these same feelings—desires to return to a former way of life I had renounced upon a recent return to the Church- and feeling the of anxiety about trying to live a good life. I noticed a movie advertised without commercial interruption highly recommended from the announcers on the local PBS station. The movie—It’s a Wonderful Life. I had seen this movie advertised before, even tried watching it once on Christmas day many years earlier. An old black & white movie without shooting and actual WWII footage left me cold, and so my interest lasted about 5 minutes…until this particular evening.
I began watching out of simple curiosity. What could be so riveting about an old movie that lacked John Wayne and combat footage, I wondered? After about 20 minutes, I was hooked. By the time the movie was finished, and after utilizing half of a box of Kleenex, I discovered what was so riveting. This film (or rather the Lord through this film) spoke to me like no other, and at a time when I needed it the most. It targeted precisely the source of my anxiety. I asked ‘why be good,’ and George Bailey answered it for me.
Subsequent to that first viewing of this great movie (I have viewed it perhaps 12 or 15 times since), I saw interviews with Frank Capra, the legendary Hollywood movie director of this great film. He mentioned how Jimmy Stewart was totally transformed in this movie, becoming George Bailey. He specifically mentioned the scene when George is in Martini’s bar praying to God for help. Jimmy Stewart became George Bailey at that moment, according to Capra, as the character completely enveloped him to the point where he no longer acted but responded. This was beyond coincidental I thought, as at that same point in the movie, George was praying/speaking for me, too. Why, I wondered, were my prayers always answered with a punch in the mouth? This incomprehensible response of God, I suddenly realized, lay at the root of my angst. Why be good when God doesn’t seem to care about my plight?
The short-sighted vision of such a question quickly became the theme of the remainder of the movie, as George was about to find out just how beautifully his prayers would be answered; how beautifully his prayers had always been answered, had he the eyes to see. Despite George’s goodness, his own flaws of self-centeredness prevented him from seeing just how God used him to reach an entire town. I could relate to those flaws!
Clarence, his guardian angel ( I don’t think Capra was seeking to make a theological statement on humans and angels according to Catholic doctrine), enabled him to witness his influence first hand by showing him Bedford Falls, er, rather, Pottersville, as if he never existed. “Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?” Clarence’s advice to George spoke right to me. It answered half of the riddle I struggled with, why be good. Seeing Pottersville answered the other riddle, whether or not I should return to my former way of life. The scene where George sees Violet being forcibly removed from a cheap floozy bar by some cops, coupled with the seedy reality of what was once a peaceful and friendly main street for Bedford Falls was Capra’s way of ‘slipping me his left for a convincer.’ Why should I be good, and why should I not return to my former way of life? Because that is not a wonderful life; that is a despicable life! Did I want a wonderful life or a despicable one? The answer was patently clear to me as it was to George.
Uncle Billy: Mary did it, George! Mary did it! She told a few people you were in trouble and they scattered all over town collecting money. They didn’t ask any questions. They just said: “If George is in trouble, count on me.” You never saw anything like it.
Harry Bailey: A toast to my big brother George: The richest man in town!
It’s a Wonderful Life stands as a timeless testimony to the elements necessary to enjoying a wonderful life—goodness and self-sacrifice. This lesson has never left me, and why I enjoy watching this movie over and over again. What is even more special, God has never ceased speaking to me through this movie after twenty years of viewing! It’s a wonderful movie!