What is Cinema Divina?
By Sister Rose Pacatte
is drawn from the ancient practice of lectio divina
. This spiritual practice is a firm portal by which we can engage our noisy, over-stimulating, and technologically mediated world. Lectio divina
, and by extension, cinema divina
, can lead us to spiritual growth and sharing our light with the world.
The basic principle of lectio divina
is that it is an authentic encounter with God through the Scriptures. Lectio divina
means spiritual reading, but is more than meditation.
Many people of all traditions throughout the Christian community practice lectio
daily; religious who live in community may practice lectio
as shared prayer on a regular basis. When communities share lectio,
the Holy Spirit opens minds and hearts allowing genuine spiritual growth to happen.
Practitioners general recognize the following steps of lectio divina:
. It involves a basic literary analysis; that is, one looks at the context, words and images, characters, form, genre, and structure of the Scriptures for the day or the coming Sunday.
takes account of both the content of the passage and the present dispositions of the reader; instead of the reader choosing the verse he or she likes best, the reader is grasped by the themes that emerge.
, spontaneous prayer, flows from reading and meditating on the text.
means relishing the spiritual experience and praising God for it.
is discerning a course of action beyond oneself into the world. The central aspect of lectio divina
is that it puts us in a different relationship to the Scriptures.
We are used to choosing the verses that we like; in lectio divina
, the Scripture chooses us
Whereas lectio divina
is rooted in medieval monasticism and continues to be one of the most valid and universal of spiritual exercises, the concept of cinema divina
emerged from contemporary monasticism. In 1977 Matthias Neuman, OSB, expanded the meaning of lectio
from the printed text of God’s word in the Scriptures to finding God in modern media stories. He wrote, “Beyond the written word, the giant visual image of the modern movie screen may provide the impetus for an authentic lectio
.” (“The Contemporary Spirituality of the Monastic Lectio,” Review for Religious
, Volume 36, 1977). Benedict Auer, OSB, takes this a step further in his 1991 article, “Video Divina: A Benedictine Approach to Spiritual Viewing
” (Review for Religious
, Mar/April 1991): “Video [cinema
requires a set disposition which says ‘This evening, I wish to get closer to God so I think I’m going to watch this film which might give me better insights into myself or why my neighbor acts as she or he does….’”
A Theoretical Matrix for Cinema Divina
The National Directory for Catechesis
(USCCB, 2005) addresses the influence and role of media and popular culture comprehensively for us: Especially in the U.S., ‘the very evangelization of modern culture depends to a great extent on the influence of the media.’ In fact, the mass media are so influential that they have a culture all their own, which has its own language, customs, and values. Heralds of the Gospel must enter the world of the mass media, learn as much as possible about that culture, evangelize that culture, and determine how best to employ the media to serve the Christian message….
Thus, we are called to engage critically with the media using our faith lenses and discern the media—the movies—we consume. This means that once we choose to see a film we seek to make meaning in that “space” created by the filmmaker between his or her intentions and the education, faith formation, life experience, and expectations that we bring to the cinema story. To engage
is the operative word here because this is how we will grow and develop spiritually. To engage with movies does not mean to accommodate them. It means to make informed choices; to watch what we choose mindfully; and to reflect and enter into dialogue, prayer, and action about the cinematic experience.
, then, requires a positive yet critical attitude toward media—in this case movies—a willingness to emerge from our cultural comfort zone to love the world today, and the disposition to embrace cinema as a spiritual experience according to the model of lectio divina
. Creation is the first medium of God’s self-communication to us. The person of Jesus Christ, God’s inspired Word in the Scriptures, and the teachings of the Church continue this communication. Through stories old and new, and through cinema in a particular way, God speaks to us. As famed Jesuit Anthony De Mello used to say, “The shortest distance between the truth and the human person is a story.”
Some films that are ideally suited to cinema divina,
though they may deal with difficult themes, are the new film Gravity
and older films such as The Help
, Into the Wild; The Shawshank Redemption; Babette’s Feast; Millions; Chocolat; Big Fish; About Schmidt; Life as a House; Bowling for Columbine; Pay It Forward; Field of Dreams; Cry, the Beloved Country; Remember the Titans; Finding Forrester; Steel Magnolias; Enchanted April; Volver. Mostly Martha, The Impossible, Les Miserables (2012), Life of Pi, Where Do We Go Now? The Odd Life of Timothy Green, The Station Agent, Chasing Mavericks, Rise of the Guardians, The Help, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, The Tree of Life, How to Train Your Dragon, Henry Poole was Here, Avatar, Julie & Julia, Big Night, Crazy Heart, The Soloist, Knowing, Where the Wild Things Are, Beasts of the Southern Wild, The Blind Side, Up, Nine
Cinema Divina: The Lives of Others
The German movie The Lives of Others
(Das Leben der Anderen
) won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 2007. Now available on DVD with English subtitles, The Lives of Others
is the best film I have seen in ten years. Like the Biblical books of Esther and The Song of Songs, the name of God is not in the film, yet the reality of God is present in the artistry of the film itself and the narrative about the selfless actions of people who are willing to risk their lives for others.
A Cinema Divina Guide
The Lives of Others is an ideal film for cinema divina for adults and older teens. As with lectio divina, the steps of cinema divina can flow from one to the other and back again; Scripture texts may come spontaneously to mind. If you can, see the film before finishing this article. If this is not possible, I hope the following cinema divina guide will be a practical introduction for individuals and groups into new ways of encountering God through the motion pictures you choose to see.
Lectio: Reading the film
What is the story? What words and images, characters, form, genre, and structure does the filmmaker use to tell the story? If a group is gathered, watch the film and then talk about these elements. A plot summary of The Lives of Others appears below. If you have not seen the film but plan to, you may want to skip reading the summary.
Meditatio: Reflection and resolution
Meditation is a form of mental or unspoken prayer in which a person lets a scene or sequence from the film chose him or her; after quiet reflection, the person resolves to become more God-like. For a group, after some reflection time, each person shares the part of the film that chose him or her and why.
Leaving the preoccupations and anxieties of the day aside, I reflect that The Lives of Others is a history of oppression and inhumanity told through the lives of artists; at the same time it is about the power of art to transcend inhumanity and transform people to move beyond what is safe and sure to risk their lives for others. The part of the film that “chose” me was Weisler’s reaction when Dreyman played “Sonata for a Good Man” and asked Christa-Maria, “Can anyone who has heard this music, I mean really heard it, be a bad person?” I resolve to slow down and listen, really listen, to what God may be saying to me through the people with whom I live and share faith; through music, film, paintings, photography and literature, both fiction and non-fiction, and through the news.
Oratio: spontaneous prayer
The spontaneous prayer flows from reading and meditating on the film. For a group, allow some more quiet time and allow each one to share a prayer from the heart. Here’s my prayer:
Dear God, you see that I am in tears and that I have goose bumps from watching the transformation of this Stasi agent from an unfeeling man following orders to a man who is aware of art and humanity as if encountering his own soul for the first time. When he learns to feel by listening and seeing art and creativity in the lives of others it is like an invitation to me to do the same, and for once, to become meaningful in other’s lives. I feel that all is grace when the characters speak of hope, the soul, faith, love, and even though it was just an archaic cliché for them, a guardian angel, because this is who Weisler became for them. Though they did not mention you, Lord, beauty and art are powerful because their source is in your creation and your self-communicating love. A psalm comes to mind and I bless you Lord for this story and the people who made it: “Praise the Lord, O my soul; all my inmost being, praise his holy name. Praise the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits, who forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the pit and crowns you with love and compassion, who satisfies your desires with good things, so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.” (Ps 103: 1-5).
Contemplatio: Unspoken prayer
To contemplate is an unspoken form of prayer in which a person rests with God and converses with God as the Spirit moves within. For a group, allow more quiet time to savor the moments. This is my favorite part of the practice of cinema divina. To contemplate means to rest with the film; to relish it; to savor the memory of the film as a spiritual experience, especially the part that “chose” me as it played back in my imagination, and to praise God for it.
To discern some course of action beyond oneself into the world is the fruit of the practice of cinema divina as prayer. For a group, after contemplatio the leader invites the group to consider action; after a few moments, invite them to share one way they will carry the fruit of cinema divina into the world.
By moving beyond individual, personal prayer through action, we can grow spiritually and meaningfully and love the world as it is, even as we seek to transform it in and through Christ. As state and federal budgets for the arts for elementary, middle, junior, and high schools continue to be cut, I will write a letter, make a phone call or donation to lobby and support for the arts in education because the arts promote peace; I will acknowledge the validity of the arts by thinking of creative ways to integrate film clips or music into the curriculum and my teaching; I will research more on what the Church teaches about art, artists, communication, and media; I will talk about this film experience with my family and colleagues.
Cinema Divina, bringing the medium of major motion pictures that tell stories together with the scriptures, invites us to be aware of the human family and God’s presence and action in the world. We become aware, listen, reflect, dialogue, pray and act as individuals and as community. Cinema Divina is a spiritual practice that is also educational. Cinema Divina involves the whole person.
We have been holding Cinema Divina nights for folks 18 and up once a month at our Pauline Center for Media Studies for almost ten years, though we used to call them “Movie Bible Nights”. If this is something you would like to do, check out the four books by Peter Malone and I, the Lights, Camera, Faith series
, that places major motion pictures in dialogue with scripture. For the last three years we have had “Meeting Jesus at the Movies” on Saturday afternoon for kids 10-14 and their parents. To screen movies legally be sure to obtain the proper license from Christian Video Licensing International: www.cvli.com
This article is just a sample of the ministry Pauline Books and Media carries out all year to help catechists, parents, and people in ministry discover the "seeds of the Gospel" in contemporary media publications through the Pauline Center for Media Studies led by Sr. Rose. If you would like to take an active part in supporting this mission activity of the Church we invite you to support us in this Novena Webathon.
Originally published in Today’s Catholic Teacher Jan/Feb 2008; abridged and revised in 2013. Reprinted with permission.
Rose Pacatte, FSP, is a Daughter of St. Paul and the Director of the Pauline Center for Media Studies in Culver City, CA. Abridged and reprinted from Today’s Catholic Teacher