Editor’s Note: The following is Part 2 of a 2-part essay. You can read Part 1 here.
Terrence Malick’s depiction of grace throughout his film, The Tree of Life, is magnificent. He uses the beauty of nature, an incredibly powerful scene of God’s creation of the universe, and the foundation of his story – Mrs. O’Brien – to tell his story of nature and grace.
Mrs. O’Brien is the epitome of grace from the first to the last scene. As a child she smiles brightly at the world, is intertwined with creation and its creatures, holds on tightly to her father’s neck. In her first scene as a grown woman she is celebrating the newly discovered baby in her womb with her husband. Throughout the movie I see a woman who is forgiving, free, trusting, serene, brimming with joy yet always pensive. Even in her sadness she wrestles quietly with her suffering. She chooses the way of grace, even when challenged by the death of her son. “No one who chooses the way of grace,” said the nuns, “ever comes to a bad end.” Yet her most beloved son, who mirrored her grace, is taken from her by death.
I have sought this same peace and tranquility for nearly two decades. As I look back I remind myself of Mr. O’Brien who is pious and devoted in the practice of his faith, always on his knees in prayer, gifted in many ways, yet always wanting his own way.
As hard as he tried, Mr. O’Brien could not find peace. He did not trust the world and told his sons, “You can’t succeed in this world and be too good.” Mr. O’Brien chose the way of nature and it was hard on him. Mrs. O’Brien knew that her son’s death was a part of her story while Mr. O’Brien chose to blame the world for his many disappointments.
“Since it is the most perfect act of charity and the most pleasing and acceptable sacrifice that is given to man to offer to God, there can be no doubt that whoever practices entire submission to His will lays up inestimable treasures at every moment and amasses more riches in a few days than others are able to acquire in many years and with great labor. To remain indifferent to good fortune or to adversity by accepting it all from the hand of God without questioning, not to ask for things to be done as we would like them but as God wishes, to make the intention of all our prayers that God’s will should be perfectly accomplished in ourselves and in all creatures is to find the secret of happiness and content.” (p. 39)
What I discovered in The Tree of Life and Trustful Surrender had been staring me in the face since I began reading the Bible and hearing the Word proclaimed week after week for my entire life. I realized that it is the tenets and practice of our faith that show us the way of grace which leads to the peace we desire. Choosing the way of grace is an act of will; peace is a result of acting obediently in ALL aspects of our lives. The way of grace cannot be compartmentalized. Mr. O’Brien was a most religious man when at mass and on his knees. Yet on the way home from mass he cursed the world as unfair.
The opening screen shot foreshadows the movie’s message. It is Malick’s depiction of God as a flame and then this quote from Job 38:4, 7. “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation… while the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” I think that Mr. O’Brien believed that God created the earth but did not place faith in the promises that he is ever living, ever present, and continues to rule the universe of which we are His most magnificiant creation. If we let Him, he will rule us with love and wisdom.
Even while struggling with her grief and questioning God, Mrs. O’Brien runs to Him and not away from Him. She is angry but keeps her arms around Him and it is there that she seeks her answers. Malick depicts her long struggle while she walks through the woods and tall trees. She ultimately ends her walk on the beach. In the one of the most poignant scenes toward the end, Mrs. O’Brien is on her knees in prayer with an angelic figure behind who has led her there, and her young self in front of her. She lifts her cupped hands to heaven and says, “I give my son to you.” It is touching and to me, evocative of Mary as she endured the Passion. Once she surrenders, she is once again at peace and the joy from the earlier scenes returns to her face.
What a lesson for me and for all of us. Hold nothing back; money, time, work, desires, talent, and our very own will. There is true freedom in obedience and conformity to God’s will for our lives. In Matthew 6 Jesus clearly tells us that we are not to worry and that if we seek his kingdom first, the rest of our life will fall into its rightful place.