Recently I watched the film Ida with a movie buddy. It's artistically an extremely beautiful film, perfectly shot in black and white.
The film tells the story of a young Polish novitiate nun who, on the verge of taking her vows, is told by her Mother Superior that she must first go and visit her only living relative, her Aunt Wanda. When she arrives, she receives the shocking revelation that she is actually a Jew and that her family was killed during the war. She and her aunt go on a journey to try to uncover the truth of how they died and where they are buried, and in the process, young Ida also discovers herself.
The aunt and the would-be nun are a study in contrasts. Jaded, cynical, and bitter, Wanda has a series of one-night stands, drinks too much, smokes incessantly, and mocks her niece's religious commitment. Ida wears the nun's habit, prays faithfully, and tries to keep her distance from her aunt, by whom she is clearly shocked. In one climactic scene, a drunken Wanda protests that her niece's Jesus “loved people like me” and that she feels judged by Ida.
But the niece's severe modesty soon proves to be a thin cover for more worldly desires. Liberated from the convent atmosphere, she eventually sheds her piety and religious rituals to embrace the vices she has seen in her aunt: drinking, smoking, and illicit sex. Will she continue on that way, or will she return to the convent and take her vows? The film leaves us in ambiguity.
This dynamic of the film was what struck me most strongly. It reflects the popular view that there are basically two ways to live: repressive, rigid, unthinking, judgemental religious morality; or a life of unbridled “freedom” that embraces following one's desires, whatever they might be. The film (and society at large) clearly favours the latter. Ida, who was brought up in the convent and knows nothing else, is “liberated” from the shackles of her religion to do whatever she pleases.
Those of us who have been in both camps often discover that neither is ultimately satisfying and that there is a third and better way to live.
This way of life involves discovering an allegiance to a Person who liberates us both from mechanical, formal religion offered from an empty heart; and from blind enslavement to our bodily desires which only bring emptiness and destruction in the end.
That Person's name is Jesus, and that liberation to follow him is exactly what he offered when here on earth, and still offers.
Jesus offered this way both to notorious sinners, and to the highly religious. However, he showed the most compassion to the “sinners”, because they were the ones most likely to recognize and admit their need. Blinded by their “goodness”, the religious people could not see their moral emptiness, their judgementalism, their lack of love, and their distance from God. The “sinners”, people like Wanda who did not hide their emptiness and pain and who knew they didn't have it together, were the ones who joyfully accepted Jesus' forgiveness and healing. As he himself said, those who have been forgiven much, love much.
Jesus offered a notorious social outcast, the woman of Samaria, the “living water” that would satisfy all her needs. She no longer needed to look to serial romantic relationships to try to fill the void. She, and so many others who met Jesus, went away changed. They discovered there was something far better than the things they had been using to try to numb their pain and give their lives meaning. They discovered Someone who loved them and who was worth living for and leaving those things behind.
Sadly, most of the religious leaders never recognized their need. They had too much to lose and nothing to gain, or so they thought. They were the ones who, as a whole, rejected Jesus and eventually crucified him.
Ida is caught between her dutiful commitment to her religion, and her natural desires to experience the pleasures of life. For her aunt, those pleasures become a trap which destroy her. Both of them are desperately in need of a third way: living, loving relationship with a Saviour whose grace and goodness are so compelling and unparalleled that they cause us to leave everything behind to follow him, whether our “thing” is duty-bound religion or unbridled hedonism. In this third way, obedience becomes a joyful offering of gratitude to the one who's liberated us from things we could not liberate ourselves and given us a life we couldn't have imagined.