My seniors begin the second semester by viewing Risen
, an historical fiction film about a Roman Tribune, Clavius, whose job it is to find the stolen body of the dead Jesus. Searching Jerusalem for clues, he makes his way to the Upper Room and sees what he believes to be an impossibility. Clavius leaves behind a note for Pontius Pilate and all who might pursue him after he goes AWOL. Part of the note states, “I have seen two things which cannot reconcile: A man dead without question, and that same man alive again.” In modern psychological parlance the name for this situation is cognitive dissonance.
Cognitive dissonance is something that we all deal with on a daily basis, mostly using small mental tricks to ease ourselves into thinking that all is well. Those of us who are, on the one hand, averse to killing an animal, and, on the other hand, are willing to sit down to a meal with - as my vegetarian daughter is fond of saying - a “dead carcass” on the plate must use some form of mental gymnastics to pass from the disturbing thought of a slaughtered animal to the heavenly vision of a medium rare New York strip.
When it came to the resurrected Jesus, Clavius chose not to convince himself that he should just go back to his ordinary life and forget what he had seen. Instead, he gave up a promising career and began a quest for truth that took him past the boundaries of a 107 minute film. Pilate, on the other hand, after reading the note left by Clavius, said that if Jesus is found alive again then “I’ll kill Him again.”
The answer given by Pilate is no surprise considering his exchange with Jesus during His trial.
So Pilate said to him, “Then you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say I am a king. For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice. Pilate said to him, “What is truth?”
What is truth? In the end, that is the only question worth asking and the only one that will elicit an answer worthy of the human person’s life. Early on in the film Clavius tells Pilate that he longs for a day without death. Near the end of the film Jesus repeats these words to Clavius, thus adding to the mysterious nature of His post-resurrection appearances. But, more importantly for Clavius, it spurs him on to seek the truth, to literally walk away from his past life where, in typical Roman fashion, all that mattered was a selfish pragmatism.
If Jesus did really rise from the dead, as all Christians believe, then seeking the Truth should be the
motivational force of our lives - especially since Jesus declared Himself to be the Truth. This quest forces us to confront the cognitive dissonance in our lives, to ask ourselves what we need to lose in this life in order to gain eternal life. St. Ignatius knew this well, and he, like Clavius, walked away from a military career in search of the Truth.
In his Spiritual Exercises
Ignatius reminds us that we need to get rid of anything that keeps us from the Truth, no matter how much we are attached to it, and to make use of all things that help us to find the Truth, no matter how difficult or unpopular. Walking away from a career as a Roman Tribune would be both difficult and unpopular, and at the end of the film the innkeeper questions Clavius about this choice. Compelled to search for answers that will wipe away his sense of cognitive dissonance, Clavius could only say what anyone who has encountered Jesus Christ could say: “I can never be the same.”