Cinema divina is a way of prayer that uses films as a way to engage with Scripture. It is based on lectio divina, a traditional way of praying with Scripture that is rooted in early monasticism, but is encouraged by the Church for all Catholics as a way to more deeply enter in the Word of God. Like cinema divina, visio divina is also based on lectio divina. Visio divina is a way of prayer that uses visual art as an entryway to prayer, something that Sr. Wendy Beckett has made popular and accessible.
Lectio divina can be prayed in a variety of ways, but the traditional four steps are:
Lectio: attentive, prayerful reading of the text. We may re-read the Scripture passage again, even several times. We are focused on listening to what God’s Word says.
Meditatio: letting the Word enter our minds, engaging with it, and delving deep into its meaning. Perhaps a word or phrase from the reading “chooses” us. Perhaps we have a question about the reading for which we can ask for light from the Lord. We receive the Word in the context of our daily life.
Oratio: praying with the Word, entering into a conversation with God about what the Word means for my daily life. Our prayer can take many forms—praise, thanksgiving, adoration, intercession—it’s a personal conversation with God, a dialog, opening ourselves to God’s grace, asking for the grace to be able to live the Word in my daily life. All of lectio divina is prayer, but oratio is our response to God in the Word.
Contemplatio: staying with the text and allowing God’s Word to transform me. This may be a very quiet “deeper listening” for the Holy Spirit’s whisper in us, or a time of reflecting how the meaning of the text invites me to grow or challenges how I’m living. It could even be a simple, prayerful repetition of the word or phrase that the Lord “has chosen” for us from the reading. It is a time to let the Word transform me.
Many people (including Pope Benedict XVI) find it helpful to add a fifth step to lectio divina because is not complete until we live what we have prayed. This fifth step is actio, where we choose a concrete way to live the Word in our life this day, or from now on.
So, how do we apply this beautiful and profound way of praying with the Word to watching a film?
Films that are truthful and of a higher quality (as any well-made art form) can reveal or express something about the human experience. Because we are created in the image of God, and we each have a place in the plan of God, any true reflection on the human experience can help us to begin to paying attention to our own human experience. Powerful films often provide us with insight or emotional clarity about a past or current experience; they can connect us to our own inner life. When we are connected to our inner selves—our minds, hearts, and souls—this opens us up to connecting with others, and often—if we have eyes of faith—with God.
In cinema divina, we choose to approach films that have a certain level of authenticity and quality with attentiveness and eyes of faith. Carefully choosing a Scripture passage to pray with, the film becomes one of the “lens” through which we reflect on Scripture. (We always reflect on the Word of God through the “lens” of our own lives; the film gives us another way of entering into the Scripture.) We see if we can use the film somehow to begin a dialogue with a particular Scripture passage, so that the film can become a doorway for us to enter into deeper prayer, an experience of God.
Some films are a “wider” doorway than others. I think that Risen is a wonderful example of how the choice of a sacred Biblical story, combined with fine storytelling and fidelity to genuine human experience, can become an entry way through which we can be disposed to encounter Christ and the gift of faith.
Additional Resources for Watching Risen
Sr. Rose Pacatte’s insightful review of the film “A moving contribution to the canon of biblical movies”
The cast’s reaction to meeting Pope Francis
RISEN Discussion Guide (provided by Download Youth Ministry)
Risen filmmakers and others have provided many resources with which people of faith can build on their experience of watching the film. The guide that I’m providing for cinema divina below is a bit different because it focuses on how to enter into prayer with this film. The cinema divina guide can be used personally or with a group.
You can continue reading the guide below, or download it here for later use:
CINEMA DIVINA GUIDE – RISEN
Introduction to the Film
Set in the biblical world, RISEN is a fictional story centered around Jesus’ Resurrection. Ambitious soldier Clavius (Joseph Fiennes) is a Tribune under Pontius Pilate, a powerful role in the military. Clavius witnesses the end of the Crucifixion—after Jesus (Cliff Curtis) has died on the cross. When word spreads that Jesus has risen from the dead, Clavius is charged by Pilate to find the body of Jesus in order to satisfy the Jewish leaders in dispelling the “rumors.” Clavius searches relentlessly for Jesus’ body, but gradually his motives change as he senses something different about Jesus. Of course it it is impossible to recover Jesus’ body and when Clavius realizes this, his life is changed forever.
The filmmakers rise wonderfully to the challenge of visualizing Clavius’s journey towards faith, especially through the powerful and moving performance of Joseph Fiennes. The external story of the hunt for Jesus’ body is a wonderful metaphor for the inner “search” for faith: both coming to faith, and renewing or maturing faith in times of doubt and darkness.
Scriptural Key to Cinema Divina
Before you begin to watch the film, pray to receive the light of the Holy Spirit and then read the following Scripture passage from the Gospel of John:
But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’
A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’
Watch the film, keeping in mind the Scripture passage from John, paying special attention to the theme of faith. Afterwards, prayerfully re-read John 20:24-29.
AFTER WATCHING THE FILM (Questions contain spoilers.)
What additional light does the film shed on the Gospel passage? You may find it helpful to use one or two of the questions below to deepen your reflections and prayer, or for group conversations. (For Cinema Divina in a group, each person who wishes to can share the words of the Scripture reading that “chose” them, or insights from the film that has helped them.)
- In RISEN, faith is shown as a growing relationship with Christ. What is your favorite moment of the film in Clavius’s journey of faith? How did it touch you and why?
- As Clavius follows the Apostles to Galilee to see the Lord again, he gradually leaves behind his soldier’s armor and weapons. At the end of the film, Clavius says that his encounter with Christ has changed his life forever. How does your faith influence your day to day life? Do you allow your faith to lead you to letting go of the “old ways” and “putting on Christ”? (see Ephesians 4:20-24 and Romans 13:12-14)
- RISEN beautifully illustrates how faith leads to witness: every disciple is a joyful witness of their faith in Jesus, in their own way. Though he decides not to join the apostles in spreading the Good News, at the end of the film Clavius witnesses to his faith in Christ to the innkeeper. Even early on when he is just beginning to be drawn to Christ and still struggling with doubts, Clavius has the integrity to witness to his nascent faith in Christ by his honesty with Lucius, his young assistant. How can we be joyful witnesses to Christ in our lives?
- In many of the scenes with Christ, the apostles physically touch Jesus—running to him, hugging him, leaning close to him. These visuals emphasize the reality of Jesus’ bodily Resurrection, and can also be an invitation to reflect on the great mystery of the Incarnation—that the Son of God took on our human nature to draw near to us and save us. In the film, Jesus clearly wants to be close to the Apostles and to Clavius. When you have felt Jesus close to you? How do you want to grow in your relationship with Christ?
- Clavius’ journey to faith required great perseverance through many obstacles, when he couldn’t see where it would lead. How can each of us persevere in our journeys of faith in times of darkness when for us, like Thomas, Jesus seems absent?
- Some of the interactions between Clavius (a fictional charater) and Jesus or the apostles are “echoes” of actual events recorded in the Gospels. Saint Ignatius and other saints invite us to pray with a particular Gospel event by imagining ourselves present in the scene. How do these imagined interactions help us to put ourselves “in the scene” of the Gospel?
Have a conversation with the Lord about this Gospel, your relationship with him, and how you want to respond to his Word and to his invitation to greater faith in him. (If you are sharing Cinema Divina in a group, each person who wishes to can share a personal prayer spontaneously, and you can conclude with a prayer together such as the Our Father, the Act of Faith, or a hymn about faith.)
What insight or invitation from the Lord have you received? How is Jesus inviting you to be converted anew, or transformed in him—your mind (thoughts), your will (choices), your heart (feelings and attitudes), and your strength (actions)? Invite Jesus to transform you in the way that you most need.
Choose one way to live your “yes” to God’s invitation to you in his Word.