Running through the streets of a French coastal town, a few scattered British soldiers are picked off one by one by unseen German combatants. We follow the singular survivor as he desperately clamors up a gate through a courtyard into another street, where he is met by Allied forces holding the perimeter. Our man escapes to relative safety but we find nothing is guaranteed as planes continue the assault from above. Men wait in lines leading to the ocean and scatter like ants as the whir of propellers signals another round of random explosions that throw men across the beach to their death and completely decimate others.
So begins Christopher Nolan’s newly released film, Dunkirk, about the mission to evacuate British and Allied troops from the French coast after being unexpectedly surrounded by Nazi forces. The tension of this opening scene fails to wane as we are thrust into the gut-churning reality of war. The movie follows this first soldier on his unrelenting quest of survival, an airman attempting to keep the German planes from attacking the exposed men on the beach, and a trio of civilians who set off in their leisure boat to aid in the evacuation. All these men face the maddening anxiety of battle, from witnessing the randomness of death and destruction, to the unsettling silence as they wait for the enemy to strike. Nolan repeatedly reminds us of the passing of time, as the airman, played by Tom Hardy, slowly runs out of fuel and must decide whether to turn back or go on and face probable death in an effort to aid his brothers. A clock ticks, the strings in the score tremolo, and the audience slowly moves to the edge of their seats.
It is precisely this tension that is the central narrative of Dunkirk. The story of war is conflict, victory or defeat, but when we zoom in on the human drama questions emerge that unsettle as much as the horror unfolding before us. What are we willing to do to win? To survive? To save an ally? And who, really, is the enemy?
As you listen to this film the deep, guttural bass adds foreboding to the already anxious tone of the score, an anxiety borne of an enemy unseen. The mystery of why most German advances slowed was of little comfort to those still under attack by aerial assault and probably added to the disorientation of their seaside prison. I believe, however, that the reason Nolan doesn’t show a single Nazi fighter is not simply to underline their absence but to shift focus to a different conflict. Not one of flesh and blood but of the spirit, namely the human spirit.
There is no hopeful crescendos in music, no warm colors from a sunset to offer a reprieve. The world of Dunkirk is cold and damp, one where men can go from scurrying like rats to survive to displaying heroic companionship and then back again. The instinct to survive, on full display here, proves tragically ineffective without some glimmer of hope but maybe more so the virtue of fortitude. Of course Christ calls us to more than ‘survival’ but to ‘salvation!’ So what does this retreat from war teach us of the spiritual fight to win life with God in heaven?
The Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks on hope and salvation, as well as their enemy. “By despair, man ceases to hope for his personal salvation from God, for help in attaining it or for the forgiveness of his sins.” (CCC 2091). As in war, despair in the Christian life is fatal. Occasions of sin, distractions from prayer, and the allure of carnal pleasure confront us from all sides. It is romantic to think that, in our lives, there is one deciding battle where Christ saves us from temptation and sets us on the right path from which we will never waver. The reality, as we all know, bears much more resemblance to the quest of these British soldiers. Outlast, overcome, repeat.
Moments of hope in the movie are subtle and hard won, a hiding place, a ray of light, and the promise of home. But when they are won it is after fighting tooth and nail. The Catechism defines “fortitude” as “the moral virtue that ensures firmness in difficulties and constancy in the pursuit of good. The virtue of fortitude enables one to conquer fear, even fear of death, and to face trials and persecutions.” Rather than comfort, Christ promises persecution and suffering for those who follow him. For many, the greatest suffering is to face our own imperfection. As soon as we advance in the spiritual life another wave of dryness in prayer drags us down, some image or situation triggers old habits of sin, leaving us wounded. We should look not only to those men who struggled to return home from war but those saints who battled spiritual darkness and overwhelming temptation and made it home to heaven.
Saint John of the Cross wrote about what he called “the dark night of the soul.” Saint Teresa of Calcutta, a modern saint who endured this mystical desolation, did so while captivating the world with her joyful service to the poor. She who tirelessly comforted those in suffering found little comfort herself, even from God. After her death her journals revealed decades-long stretches of this spiritual loneliness: “the reality of darkness and coldness and emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul,” (Come Be My Light, Mother Teresa). Many misinterpreted this experience for loss of faith or abandonment by God. Mother Teresa knew, however, that her perseverance in compassion when she herself felt none, united her with the suffering Christ and brought her and others closer to our divine destination.
Though our own dryness in prayer cannot be equated with this mystical experience, it can be instructed by it. Like the soldier who takes each obstacle as it comes, keeping in mind the goal, we too can call on the gift of fortitude to persist in good even when we feel so far from its warmth.
There may be others who seem to intimidate us and scoff at our cause of holiness, they are not the true enemy. Scripture tells of a victory that endures humiliation, abandonment, and even death. Jesus invites us to join him on the front, steadfast in virtue, with our eyes fixed on the goal.
This gritty triumph of the human spirit doesn’t happen all at once but moment after moment in the cold, tense, din of battle. While the men of Dunkirk had only the promise of their home across the channel and the hope of rescue, the Christian marches in perseverance raising the banner of Christ who strengthens us, “In the world you may have tribulation, but take courage, I have conquered the world,” (Jn. 16:33).
Anthony Esser is recently married and lives in Southern Maryland with his wife, Casey, and daughter, Noelle, who they welcomed in May! After serving in various ministry roles from Ohio to New Orleans and three years at the National Shrine, Anthony now works in evangelization in the Archdiocese of Washington. He considers himself an artist, a wannabe chef and a sometimes stand-up comic.