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Mr. Ives' Christmas.

The quality of mercy is not strained. It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath. It is twice blest: It blesses him that gives and him that takes. ... It is an attribute of God himself, and earthly power doth then show likest God's when mercy seasons justice.

- Portia's speech in Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice" (Act IV, Scene 1)

Portia may be right when she says that the quality of mercy is not strained, that it falls like a gentle, Godly rain upon our hearts. Still, contemporary popular culture doesn't usually flood us with intelligent and impassioned treatments of our need for forgiveness. Instead, the weekly fare at the octiplex, cable's movie-of-the-week, and the blockbuster thrillers on the best-seller list normally provide us with a steady downpour of righteous enemy bashing. In films, fiction, and political ads we are regularly showered with an escalating torrent of avenging angels, wronged (and often nasty) innocents venting their - and supposedly our - indignation and firepower on all the usual suspects. And even when forgiveness does make an occasional appearance in a film or novel, it's so often portrayed as a piece of sentimental piety that we end up dismissing it as an utterly romantic notion, unfit for the real world.

But the recent appearance of two riveting and artistically crafted pieces of work not only wrestle with the notion of forgiveness but force us to take a long, hard look at what may well be the most radical demand of the gospel - Christ's call to love our enemy. The protagonist in Pulitzer Prize-winning author Oscar Hijuelos' fourth novel Mr. Ives' Christmas (Harper Collins, 1995) is a man whose faith and compassion have been stretched to the breaking point by the senseless murder of his son. Unlike Jack Nicholson's character in Sean Penn's recent film "The Crossing Guard," or Sally Field's vengeful mother in John Schlessinger's bloodbath "An Eye for an Eye," Edward Ives does not descend into an inferno of rage or try to lash out at his child's killer, even when prompted by well-meaning friends. Nonetheless, Hijuelos' story reveals a man shattered by his grief and anger, a father in desperate need of some of Portia's gentle rain.

Meanwhile, Tim Robbins'latest directorial effort, "Dead Man Walking," casts Susan Sarandon as a New Orleans nun trying to help a convicted killer and his victims' parents come to grips with a heinous crime. The film is based on the book with the same title (Random House, 1993) by Sister Helen Prejean, C.S.J., who worked with death-row inmates and their victims' families. Robbins' film argues that for both the killer and the victims, forgiveness may be the only way to recover a fractured humanity.

In Mr. Ives' Christmas, both Ives and Hijuelos have clearly been visited by the spirit of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. Ives, whose tale as an adopted foundling is reminiscent of many a Dickens waif, is just the sort of decent, pious, and generous husband and father Tiny Tim might well have grown into. He and his wife Annie don't just pour lovingly over their cherished copies of Oliver Twist, The Pickwick Papers, and A Christmas Carol, reading them to their children and students, they actually live by the moral of Scrooge's tale - that "there can be no greater reward than goodness to your fellow man."

Hijuelos has fashioned a novel that, like Dickens' story, is haunted by the spirits of Christmases past and also confronts the sobering specter of a human being stripped of compassion. In a disturbing passage that evokes Scrooge's own insight into how greed and selfishness had poisoned his soul, Hijuelos writes, "Trying to make sense of what had happened, he awaited a revelation but over the years had been let down often enough so that, after so many years, Mr. Ives, formerly of Brooklyn, New York, and Madison Avenue, had gradually turned into a stone: a civil, good-hearted man, but one made of stone all the same."

Still, there are differences between Dickens' and Hijuelos' novels and between Scrooge and Ives. The ghosts haunting Scrooge's sleep challenge him to show Christian charity toward the unfortunate, to share his wealth with the destitute widows, orphans, and sickly poor crowded into London's workhouses and tenements. Scrooge is, after all, a villain. The Simon Legree of liberal capitalism, he is a man made monstrous by his own all-consuming greed.

But in Mr. Ives' Christmas, Hijuelos has given us a protagonist who is already decent, generous, and deeply spiritual. Ives is a gentle, prayerful soul who spends his life struggling to be a good husband, father, and neighbor. Resisting the bigotry of his in-laws and the temptations of urban flight, he and Annie continuously reach out to others, valiantly struggling to light candles against the darkness encroaching on their lives and the city they have tried to love. Ives is not wrestling with Christ's command to care for those in need but grappling instead with the demand that he love the enemy who has thoughtlessly and brutally murdered his son. Here the Christian charity being called for is forgiveness.

Ives tries with all his might to feel compassion for Daniel Gomez, the man who has killed his son, to move beyond his grief and anger and find some forgiveness for an act that has broken his heart. He visits the boy's mother, reaches out to help other children, wears out his knees praying endless hours in church for such forgiveness, and even begins to write to the young man in prison, offering him kindness and help. But still, more than a quarter century after his son's murder, Gomez remains for him "a kid, now a man, whom Ives should have forgiven, but couldn't, even when he tried to - Lord, that was impossible - so filled was his heart with a bitterness and confusion of spirit that had never gone away."

In spite of all his best efforts and devout prayers, Ives found that "the very mention of Gomez had the effect of spilling a poisonous gas into the room.... And although his face still had a pious cast, the years of longing and of missing his son, without being able to forget or forgive, had taken their toll on him. He'd turned into stone."

Miraculously, forgiveness does finally come to Ives, arriving as a grace long sought but no longer expected, a grace irrigating the stony soil of Ives' heart with a nearly forgotten sweetness. Perhaps that is the dual message of Hijuelos' novel - that forgiveness is a gift just beyond our grasp, and yet a gift we must have to live.

What Ives ultimately discovers is that as much as we try to forgive, such mercy always comes to us from God. It is never of our own making. We can prepare for it, wait upon it, and open our hearts to it, but it always arrives as a gift. And yet without this mercy even the best of us would die. Not because - like the unforgiving servant in the Gospel of Matthew (18:23-35) - we will be punished for our failure to forgive but because such a failure will turn us to stone. Mercy, when it comes, blesses and saves Ives.

In "Dead Man Walking" Robbins and Prejean force us to take a long, unblinking look at the grisly reality of capital punishment, bringing the camera in, close and personal, and slowing the pace until we can feel the tightening winch of the second hand clacking its way to midnight. That discomfort is clearly the point. As Terrence Rafferty writes in the New Yorker article "Amazing Grace," "The hope of the movie, as of the book, is that familiarity with the death house ... will finally breed contempt for the idea of premeditated, state-sponsored killing." Quoting from Albert Camus' essay "Reflections on the Guillotine," Rafferty adds, "If people are shown the machine, made to touch the wood and steel and to hear the sound of a head falling, then public imagination, suddenly awakened, will repudiate both the vocabulary and the penalty."

The real power of Prejean's and Robbins' argument, however, flows from the forced, even claustrophobic acquaintance with death-row inmate Matthew Poncelet, a convicted rapist and murderer with approximately one week left to live. In Penn's well-crafted performance of this small-time jailhouse tough, at turns both engrossing and repellent, we are brought face-to-face with the kind of person we normally prefer to treat as an abstraction or statistic. In the process, we are forced to see this criminal through the eyes of a rather extraordinary nun, perhaps even through the eyes of Christ.

Just the same, there's no attempt to beautify Poncelet. Instead, Prejean and Robbins have introduced us to a particularly nasty and self-serving hood, a singularly unattractive killer lacking any shred of introspection or remorse. Poncelet is no wayward innocent caught up in a corrupt system but a bitter, spiteful man capable of brutal, horrifying violence. And yet, as we are forced to recognize from his conversations with Prejean and his anguished last meeting with his mother and brothers, this convicted murderer is also, in some inexplicable fashion, a human being. Unlike all those one-dimensional psychopathic fiends populating much of our entertainment, Penn's performance is too rich, too nuanced for us to let ourselves off the hook by claiming that Poncelet is not a man or that his execution does not diminish us. No matter how we dress it up, our methodical and calculated destruction of even this despicable human being remains barbaric.

"Dead Man Walking" is not satisfied with merely opposing the death penalty. It wants to recommend forgiveness. Prejean not only believes that we shouldn't murder Poncelet, but contends that this convicted murderer is not a monster but a fellow human being. Behind his heinous crimes, his racist braggadocio, and his jailhouse tattoos, Prejean claims to see the soul of a child of God, the very same kind of broken and sinful soul for whom Christ died on a cross. The incredible and nearly outlandish belief that Prejean seems to bring to her encounters with Poncelet and his victims' families is that even in the scorched earth of this felon's soul there is a treasure worth saving. She is arguing that Poncelet, convicted and unrepentant killer that he is, can, and must be loved.

Not that she finds him likeable, thinks him innocent or misunderstood, or believes that he should be released. Not that she doesn't get angry, upset, and exasperated with his alternating arrogance, self-pity, and racist paranoia. Not that she is not horrified by the gruesome brutality of his crimes or the senseless suffering he has inflicted. But, she argues, in Christ's eyes, "every person is worth more than his worst act." Prejean acts out of a conviction that even a man who could do the things Poncelet has done can still be touched, even saved, by the compassion of God. Like the narrator in Francis Thompson's poem "The Hound of Heaven," Prejean believes that no human being is outside the pale of forgiveness.

Often to the scorn of those around her, she offers Christ's love and forgiveness to a man who claims no interest in either, in a place where mercy seems a wicked joke. Slowly, haltingly, but tenaciously, the social-worker nun lays siege to the killer's jailhouse facade, treating Poncelet with respect and compassion, challenging him again and again to respond to her, not as a calloused monster, but as a human being. Unbelievably, something eventually begins to happen. In the final, heartbreaking moments of his life, Prejean helps Poncelet acknowledge and repent of his horrifying guilt, open his terrified soul to a torrent of God's forgiving grace, and apologize to the parents of his victims. In what are certainly the most poignant scenes of an extraordinarily moving film, we witness the incredible transfiguration of Penn's character as God's mercy works its miracle in Poncelet's withered and nearly moribund heart. As this convicted murderer is being shuffled down to the execution chamber and strapped into his deathbed, Poncelet suddenly discovers within himself a humanity that only his mother and Prejean had dared believe in. To paraphrase Saint Paul, in the very place where sin abounded, grace abounds all the more.

It is, of course, the film's darkest irony that Poncelet should recover his humanity in that very moment when the state can no longer contain its own inhumanity, a point Robbins and Prejean certainly do not intend us to miss. Still, there is some hope in "Dead Man Walking," for at least one of the parents of Poncelet's victims, Earl Delacroix, is affected by the condemned man's confession and finds little satisfaction in either the execution or his own torturous rage. Delacroix, like Ives, is a man deeply wronged, who cannot imagine forgiving the monster who murdered his child but who nonetheless finds it increasingly difficult to live in the confinement of such wrath. Perhaps that is why it struck me as the film's greatest miracle when "Dead Man Walking" ends with Delacroix kneeling next to Prejean in an empty country church, praying for the grace to forgive the unforgivable, hoping against hope for a mercy he cannot imagine feeling, but cannot live without.

Curiously, it is this last scene with Delacroix that has haunted me in the weeks since I saw "Dead Man Walking," a scene that captures the heart of the film's disturbing and yet profoundly hopeful message. In the end, I don't find it so hard to believe that God could forgive Poncelet, or even that a saintly and compassionate nun like Prejean could find some compassion for this murderer. But it is unsettling to think that ordinary folks like Delacroix (and therefore, you and I) need to find such forgiveness in their hearts. That would mean Christ's command to love our enemies is in earnest, a thought I find more than just a little intimidating.

Because this sort of love seems so incredibly hard - indeed, impossible without God's grace - most of the time we try to let ourselves off the hook. Either we tell ourselves that enemy love is a lofty ideal to which God holds only those few saintly souls like Prejean or Francis of Assisi, or we excuse ourselves by nurturing old grudges and mining past offenses on the grounds that we were so badly wronged. But, as we, see from Ives and Delacroix, the inability to forgive does in time become its own kind of hell, and, whatever the justification, a life stripped of compassion is really a sort of walking death.

That may be why the sight of Delacroix on his knees is ultimately hopeful. It is a promise that we will not be left to our own devices, that the God who would forgive Poncelet, the God who would give Delacroix the grace to ask for compassion, would not ignore our prayers for that same mercy. In the end, both Mr. Ives' Christmas and "Dead Man Walking" assure us that we will be given the grace we cannot live without, that "the quality of mercy is not strained. It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath."
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Author:McCormick, Patrick
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Article Type:Book Review
Date:May 1, 1996
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