"What was really easy was falling in love with this person, was falling in love with Jesus Christ. That was the most surprising thing."
- Andrew Garfield, interviewed in America magazine.
Andrew Garfield, lead actor of Martin Scorsese's Christian persecution epic Silence, has been widely quoted as suggesting that he experienced a profound encounter with Jesus through playing a Catholic priest. Yet it doesn't seem that it was the process of identifying with his devout character which led Garfield to this, but rather the way that he prepared for the role. In the article quoted above, Father James Martin explains how Garfield approached him to become his guide through a set of ancient monastic exercises, familiar to priests and members of religious orders worldwide: the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius of Loyola.
The Exercises have been practised by millions of Christians over the course of the last five centuries. Developed by Jesuit founding father St Ignatius, they represent a significant commitment for anyone who undertakes them; a 28 to 30 day journey of silent activity, prayer, meditation and mental exercises. Originally intended for use on retreats, and under the guidance of a Jesuit spiritual director, they're also often practised over a longer period as a 'retreat in daily life' – spread out over as much as one to two years – and not only by Catholics. In fact, Ignatius himself designed the process so that it could be practised by regular people in daily life, in chunks of around an hour a day.
Broadly speaking, the contemplative process is spread over four distinct 'weeks'. The first focuses on mercy and therefore also sin; the second on Christ's life, and how to follow him as a disciple. The third week looks directly at the 'passion' and death of Jesus, and how the love of God is manifested through it, and the final week provides a meditation on resurrection and our response to it. Participants will explore these themes through five exercises per 'day', each of an hour or more in length, and will also spend regular time working through the Examen and taking the Eucharist. The exercises themselves are usually creative prayer and mediation activities designed to deepen the participant's understanding of and connection with God.
Garfield himself did the exercises over the course of a year with Father Martin, and found the experience profound. He told America's Brendan Busse that he has become weary with "the grief of living in a time and a place where a life of joy and love is f--ing impossible," and therefore found huge comfort in the exercises; as Busse puts it, he was "successful" in them. "There were so many things in the exercises that changed me and transformed me," Garfield says, "that showed me who I was... and where I believe God wants me to be." And as, quite remarkably, he says twice in the course of the interview, he experienced "falling in love with Jesus" as a result.
There's a huge danger that as a high-profile celebrity (not to mention magnificent actor), Garfield will now become a focus of hype and excitement among Christians who – perhaps naturally in a culture which so values fame and profile – love to see such a person professing faith. And while it's possible that eventually that's what Garfield will do, for now it would be great if we could allow him to peacefully continue his journey of exploration without burdening him with labels or expectations. Aside from what he has said in the promotion of Silence, his private faith should really be none of our business.
Instead, perhaps we can see this fascinating interview, and the insights brought by both Garfield and Busse, as a stimulus for exploring meditative practices, such as and including the Exercises of St Ignatius. All of us who call ourselves Christians could definitely benefit from spending a little more time in silent contemplation, but there's perhaps another application to consider. The power of giving people an opportunity to explore the power and presence of God before they even have to say they believe in him is also a fascinating challenge to the way we generally approach evangelism. Does Andrew Garfield's unexpected discovery of a Jesus who's so easy to fall in love with, offer a tantalising roadmap to how we could invite others to do the same?