True Grit and the Everlasting ArmsFATHER ROBERT BARRON
True Grit, the 1969 film starring John Wayne, was the first "grown-up" movie I saw as a kid. (warning: spoiler)
The leitmotif is set in the opening moments of the movie, as we hear Mattie, the narrator and principal character, say in voice-over "the only thing in life that's free is the grace of God." The film will unfold as an extended meditation on the play between justice and mercy, between what is owed and what is given as a grace. Fourteen year old Mattie, whose father had been killed in cold blood by a man he had befriended, lives in a world of strict justice, of give and take, of contracts and obligations. Bound and determined to see her father's killer hanged, Mattie hires a wizened old law man named Rooster Cogburn (played with characteristic naturalness by Jeff Bridges) and gives him the charge of tracking down the murderer. We get a delicious taste of Mattie's personality as she, with lawyerly skill and fierce persistance, wrests from an oily horse-trader the money she needs to pay Rooster. And when Cogburn leaves without her, convinced that the teen-aged city slicker would only slow him down, she rides her horse right across a raging river to catch up to him – and then reminds him that he is in breach of contract! Mattie is a mulier fortis, a woman not to be trifled with.
She moves with Rooster and Le Boeuf – a Texas ranger who is also looking for the murderer – into Indian country, a place of lawlessness, where drifters live outside the constraints of polite society. They corner a couple of members of Ned Pepper's gang, for Rooster is convinced that the killer might have joined forces with these desperados. After a shoot-out and a violent interrogation, two men are dead and a third is wounded. The next day, by the bank of a river, Mattie encounters her father's killer and manages to wound him before being captured by Ned Pepper and his men. In the most stirring scene in the film, Rooster manages, single-handedly to take on the entire Pepper gang, holding the reins of his horse in his teeth and firing with both hands. After this encounter, four more men lie dead. Finally, Mattie frees herself and shoots to death her father's murderer, but the recoil on the gun is so strong that she is pushed into a snake pit, where she receives a bite on the hand. I'll get back to the snake pit in a moment, but notice first what this canny fourteen year old girl's lust for vengeance has wrought: eight dead men. She wanted only to bring her father's killer to justice, but the single-mindedness of her pursuit conduced toward a disproportionate, even barbaric, result, something far beyond the requirements of justice. Her excessive and one-sided passion for righteousness kicked her into a den of snakes, and no one with a Biblical sensibility could miss the symbolic overtone of this kind of fall.
As the film comes to a close, we have fast-forwarded many years into the future, and a still prim, unmarried, and somewhat cold Mattie has just learned of the death of Rooster Cogburn. We then see that she has but one arm. Though Rooster's graciousness saved Mattie's life, the doctor, evidently, was not able to save her limb. And as the final credits roll, we hear the beautiful old spiritual "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms," which speaks of the "fellowship and joy divine" which comes from "leaning on the everlasting arms" of God. Rooster had carried Mattie in his two arms, evocative of both justice and mercy, attributes that come together supremely in God. Mattie's tragedy is that she had only justice, only one arm. The same Coen brothers who gave us a powerful image of God in the tornado at the conclusion of A Serious Man and in the pregnant police officer in Fargo have given us still another in the strong arms of Rooster Cogburn.
Father Robert Barron, "True Grit and the Everlasting Arms." Our Sunday Visitor (January 12, 2011).
Reprinted with permission of Father Robert Barron.
Fr. Robert Barron was ordained a priest for the Archdiocese of Chicago in 1986. He has a Masters degree in Philosophy from the Catholic University of America and a Doctorate in Sacred Theology from the Institute Catholique de Paris. He is currently professor of systematic theology at the University of St. Mary of the Lake, Mundelein Seminary. Fr. Barron is the author of, And Now I See: A Theology of Transformation, Thomas Aquinas: Spiritual Master, Heaven in Stone and Glass: Experiencing the Spirituality of the Great Cathedrals, Eucharist (Catholic Spirituality for Adults), Priority of Christ, The: Toward a Postliberal Catholicism, and Word on File: Proclaiming the Power of Christ. He also gives frequent talks, retreats and workshops on issues of theology and spirituality.
Father Barron uses his YouTube channel to reach out to people and bring valuable lessons of faith alive by pointing out things that can be learned by watching popular characters of movies and television shows.
Copyright © 2011 Father Robert Barron
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