One of my favorite passages from the Bible is the Emmaus Road story. I've always thought that it encompasses the faith experience. At times, our hearts are burning within us. Other times, we're lost and afraid. And sometimes we feel as though our God has left us. But Christ is present at our side - even when we can't see him or recognize him - and it is in the breaking of the bread that Christ is revealed to us and strengthens us and sets our hearts on fire anew.
The Emmaus Road journey is the ultimate roadtrip experience. I have often felt in my ministry that some of the best catechesis, the best conversations, and the best explorations of faith happen on the road… walking, driving, flying. I've had profoundly deep conversations with people on pilgrimage in Germany for World Youth Day or on the streets of Baltimore at the gateway of Holy Week. Driving to and from retreats, where the "small group" discussions that happen in the car often surpass any session that may happen in the course of a weekend. Hiking in the woods, where the glories and subtleties of God's creation serve as an ideal backdrop for any conversation about God's presence in our lives.
My love of movies and background in film production got me thinking about the expression of the roadtrip experience - and spirituality - that is often portrayed on the big screen. While many might immediately think of more recent films such as the comedy "Road Trip" or culturally-ingrained excursions such as "Thelma and Louise" I gravitated more towards films that presented the roadtrip as an experience of learning and discovery rather than debauchery and intense drama.
Roadtrip films have long been a favorite of moviegoers. From the moment Dorothy stepped onto the yellow brick road until the flinging of the ring of power into the lava of Mount Doom the roadtrip experience has fascinated and engaged the viewer with tales of courage, adventure and escape. And the message - be it "there's no place like home" or true friends will stand by us when the forces of darkness are aligned against us - is revealed not in moments of triumph but in the journey itself. The journey of enlightenment.
Considering the spirituality of the roadtrip experience, I focused on four films which I built a retreat around for young adults. Each film I chose because they reflected different types of journey, different forms of spiritual enlightenment.
Our First Journey with Friends on the Road - "Stand By Me"
I have always loved this film. It captures the essence of the transition from childhood to adolescence incredibly well. It's about the indelible stamp that friends make on our soul for a lifetime, and that in spite of adulthood and distance we still feel their presence at our sides. Director Rob Reiner - whose other "roadtrip" films include "The Princess Bride," "This is Spinal Tap" and "The Bucket List" - creates a mood in this film anyone can identify with, regardless of where or when they grew up. Because the truths of that time in our lives transcend time and space.
On Pilgrimage with Others - "Heart and Souls"
This is a great undiscovered film. It pains me that so few people are aware of it. I hope that it's re-release on DVD earlier this year (driven, I'd guess by star Robert Downey Jr.'s recent high-profile films) will help this lovely little film find a new audience. Some have said it mirrors "The Wizard of Oz" in the way it brings together a diverse group of people on journey together and how they support one another and ultimately come to love one another. It's funny, joyful, and at times heart-rending. But the presence of God is woven into the fabric of this story, and it becomes clear this isn't just a film about friendship or reaching a destination. Most of all, it's about trust. Trust that there is a plan. Trust that in the end we will understand what God has in store for us.
The Family Roadtrip Experience - "Little Miss Sunshine"
I don't know that the dysfunctional family experience has been portrayed in a roadtrip film as well as this one. It has broad moments of laughter and pain that seem real and identifiable (as opposed to films such as "National Lampoon's Vacation" or "Are We There Yet?" where the comedy crosses from the familiar to the ridiculous, the pain from profound to slapstick). From the pre-tween Olive to aging Grandpa we see the spectrum of what it means to be a family and how difficult it can be to spend time with people you love but often don't like very much. And ultimately how the bonds of family can be stronger than any difficulty life may throw our way.
The Personal Journey - "Elizabethtown"
Sometimes we need to make the journey alone. We may receive guidance or assistance from others, but ultimately exorcising our personal demons comes down to standing our ground and facing who we are and how we are and what we are alone. Alone, except for the faith and strength we have been given by God and the people who care for us. "Elizabethtown" is about the journey of running away from one tragedy full into the face of another, and the cathartic experience we can have when we allow ourselves to be humbled and spent so that in the master's hands we can be forged so the fire burns brightly within our hearts once again.
As I reflected on these four films with others I realized that - completely unintentionally - I chose films that shared a theme other than the roadtrip experience. Death. Each of these films has death as an important component of the story. I began to wonder if it was the presence of death, the claustrophobia of mortality that makes a good roadtrip story better. I began to think of times driving from funeral to cemetery and all that ran through my own mind. Times when I wanted to comfort another and knew deep down there really wasn't much I could do to alleviate their suffering, but that being present to them had great value. The times in my life when I've been lost and alone and afraid and wandering my own Emmaus Road.
Even under the most difficult of circumstances there is joy in the journey. And that joy often doesn't come until we can step away from the experience, look back and see the whole picture. When we come to realize the presence of Christ that was with us when we didn't know it. The times when we have reflected Christ to others and didn't know it. The times when we came around the table and it was in the breaking of the bread that Christ became amazingly present to us once again.
Roadtrip spirituality. Taking joy in the journey. Opening ourselves to the experience. Opening ourselves to Christ's presence and having our hearts burn brightly within us again and again.