This blessed Easter period has been particularly blessed for me. A group of friends greatly encouraged me to watch the great Russian film The Island, or остров (Ostrov) in Russian.
The plot of this 2006 film, is very revealing. It goes back at the heart of World War II, precisely in Russia. A Russian coal barge worker, Anatoly (Petr Mamonov), at point blank is given the hardest choice of his life: either shooting his captain Thikon and live or else be neutralised with him. Out of fear and panic Anatoly opts for the first choice. Subsequently, the Germans destroy the boat and Anatoly falls unconscious.
Then the film takes us back to three decades later, exactly in 1976. Here it makes us meet Anatoly again who is living an ascetic life at a monastery on a solitary island. Father Anatoly abides in a boiler house. His job in the community is that of carrying coal from the broken boat to nourish the furnaces which warm the monastic buildings. He spends his days working and praying The Jesus Prayer (“Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me a sinner”) and begging Thikon to pray for his soul.
With much effort the monks have to put up with his strange behaviour. His way of doing practical jokes and acts unpredictably upsets his brethren in the community. Anatoly is, in fact, a “holy fool”. Furthermore, God has endowed him with special gifts such as the charism of healing, prophecy and exorcism. The people, who felt God’s holiness in this strange monk, came to the monastery to meet him. Certain monks, like Father Job (Dmitriy Dyuzhev), became jealous and resentful of Anatoly’s tomfoolery. Father Filaret (Viktor Sukhorukov), Father Anatoly’s superior, even if puzzled, is encouraged by the awkard pranks of this particular brother, to overcome his personal excessive ties.
The more one watches this film the more one is infused with its profound spirituality. As we know Russian filmmakers excel in this ability. The inner depths of this magnificent film remind us that embracing a life of atonement is, indeed, a great grace to live. Anatoly’s life is a case in point. His whole life was practically dominated by the third verse of Psalm 51, know as the Miserere: For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me (Ps 51:3). Contrary to what may happen to me and you when we sin, instead of closing up in himself Anatoly goes and meets the pain of those who suffer. And this he does in a direct and salvific manner.
Father Anatoly’s story recalls into my mind and heart Pope Francis’ morning meditation at the chapel of the Domus Sanctae Marthae of Tuesday 21 March 2017 on the grace of shame. The Holy Father said these powerful words: “We must ask God for the ‘grace of shame’, because ‘it is a great grace to be ashamed of our sins and thus receive forgiveness and the generosity to give it to others’… [In each person], ‘there is always the attitude of wanting to settle accounts with others. Forgiveness is complete. But it can only be done when I feel my sin’, [when] ‘I feel shame’; [when] ‘I feel ashamed and ask God for his forgiveness, and I feel forgiven by the Father. And in this way, I can forgive. Otherwise, it is not possible to forgive; we are incapable of it. This is why forgiveness is a mystery”.
Father Anatoly’s way of responding to his shame was by acknowledging his sin, felt ashamed about it, had it always before his eyes and, out of that grace of shame, he helped those who needed him. Thus, in doing so, he was absolutely fulfilling what the Bible says: “Let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins (Jas 5:20). Above all hold unfailing your love for one another, since love covers a multitude of sins (1 Pet 4:8).
It was his unfailing love, which was the result of his repentant humility, which oftentimes manifested in his unpredictable pranks, that was the driving force of Father Anatoly’s holiness. As Jesus said to Saint Faustina: True greatness of the soul is in loving God and in humility (no. 427).