When I was 12 years old, I had what I would call an “outer-body experience.” I thought I was in the presence of God. It happened in Mountaindale, New York, in heart of the Catskill Mountains where I was a camper at a religious boys’ camp. We were singing and dancing on Friday night on the holy Sabbath, and suddenly my whole body was tingling. I felt spiritually touched, as if I had gotten an A+ on a final and hit a home run at the same time. It was an exquisite moment.
I also recall that as a very little child, my mother, of blessed memory, encouraged me to say the following prayer when I went to bed: “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.” My mother planted in me a sense of the spiritual life, a sense that God was involved with me. I remember that my earliest conception of God was that of an old man who lived on the top floor of my friend Victor Delgrasso’s house. He had an ancient face and a black moustache; and from my child’s perspective, he possessed a kind of divine mystery.
I share these very early childhood memories because they resurfaced as I watched Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, a one-of-a-kind movie that seriously attempts to give the viewer a notion of what life after death is like, and how love and forgiveness can enable us to cope with the inevitable inconsistencies and adversities that are part of existence.
Tree of Life takes place in the 1950s and recounts the story of a loving Texas family whose faith is tested in the crucible of life experience. The parents, played by Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain, experience the tragic death of two children, the father’s loss of his job, and the growing-up tensions between father and son that threaten to destroy their inherent love for one another. Life, which begins with hope and innocence, brings inconsistencies, loss, suffering, and death to the forefront, echoing the Book of Job which is quoted at several points in the film.
The story is told through the eyes of the 11-year-old son Jack and through the eyes of the adult Jack, a successful architect who seeks to discover meaning in a contemporary world where wealth is the measure of the man, not his spiritual sensitivity. The film is filled with images of doorways and ladders, as if to suggest that we need to enter another world to comprehend the one in which we are living.
The climax of the movie takes us through one of those doorways. As we cross the threshold, we glimpse the afterlife, an ethereal place where we are all reconciled with one another and where forgiveness is the operative emotion. Freed from the constraints of the real world, we can make peace with parents with whom we have had deep disagreements and create eternal bonds of love with people in our lives, both past and present, all of which makes our present life more bearable, meaningful, and spiritually satisfying. The Ethics of the Fathers tells us that one moment in the afterlife is more blissful than all of life in this world, suggesting that it is only from the aspect of eternity that we can truly transcend present adversities and appreciate the everyday miracles of life.
The Tree of Life, suffused with poetic images of beauty from all facets of creation, affirms that within one’s family are nurtured the seeds of love that allow us to endure and come to terms with the mysteries and tragedies of life.