God’s Own Country: Learning a Language of Grace

Through the film ‘God’s Own Country’ (available online here), Andrew Bennison reflects on grace, speech and Christian life.

 

God’s Own Country (2017) is not, despite the title, an overtly religious film. Set on a struggling farm in the Pennines, it is a captivating story of loneliness turned into intimacy, played out against the backdrop of the rugged Yorkshire landscape. Twenty-something Johnny (Josh O’Connor) is the disaffected protagonist, shouldering the burden of running the farm following his father’s stroke, under the tight-lipped scrutiny of his grandmother. It’s an unforgiving way of life. Conversation in the farmhouse is clipped and economical: blunt Yorkshire idioms disclose a stoic resignation to life’s hardships and disappointments. For Johnny, escape takes the form of oblivion: binge-drinking and anonymous sex.

Into this world comes Romanian worker Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu), hired to help Johnny with the lambing season. Soft-eyed and pensive, Gheorghe brings a tenderness to the task which unsettles Johnny, who responds with a mixture of aggression and attraction. Their first sexual encounter is rough, urgent and wordless. But as the tenderness which Gheorghe shows to the animals is patiently held out to Johnny, a relationship develops in which Johnny becomes haltingly yet visibly alive. Like the new-born lambs taking their first fragile breaths, we see Johnny being awakened from the deadening effects of loneliness and monotony, both tentative and giddy in his new surroundings. As his father suffers another stroke and the family’s situation becomes even more precarious, Johnny discovers that he needs Gheorghe – a need that runs much deeper than merely keeping the farm afloat. Johnny’s struggle to voice this need marks the climax of the film, and it is only the risk of losing Gheorghe forever that brings him finally to admit it.

Above all, it strikes me that God’s Own Country is a story about learning to speak. The central irony is that the person who finds a voice is Johnny – the one who, initially, wields his coarse Yorkshire dialect as a weapon, defensively charged with xenophobia and machismo. It is Gheorghe, the outsider and non-native English speaker, who teaches Johnny how to speak. A further irony is that Gheorghe teaches Johnny mainly through silence. Through his searching and steady gaze, he coaxes Johnny to new depths of honesty. With his body, he patiently shows Johnny a new way of communicating, shaping his lust into tenderness, aggression into vulnerability, and fear into trust. The few words he says are simple but penetrating, often capturing a truth that Johnny has yet to articulate: ‘It’s beautiful here, but lonely, no?’  Through Johnny, he teaches the whole family a new language of honesty and truthfulness. In a poignant scene, Johnny washes his father in the bath after his second stroke, applying the sponge with a new-found gentleness and attention. His father touches his hand and says simply but meaningfully: ‘Thank you’.

Christian faith involves, I think, a whole series of new discoveries. Principal among them is the task of learning a new language – a new way of speaking shaped by grace, and shorn of fear and self-assertion. Often this may involve very few words, relying instead on habits of touch, attention and hospitality. In such ways, our ‘speaking’ (in a broad sense) becomes genuinely sacramental: a conduct of grace through which God can teach others the same language. This mutuality is reflected, I think, in St Paul’s words to the Corinthians: ‘We have spoken frankly to you; our heart is wide open to you. In return, open wide your hearts also’. (2 Cor. 6.11-13).

The challenge, of course, is that in this new way of speaking, someone has to speak first. Watching God’s Own Country, I found myself reflecting on my own experience of ‘coming out’ last year. The gift of a new-found honesty about myself was the opportunity it provided for speaking a new language, a language of truthfulness, and giving others the permission to do the same. The difficult thing is that very few people will begin the conversation. You have to risk speaking in a way that others might find strange and threatening. And you have to risk speaking first.

In God’s Own Country, Gheorghe speaks love into the life of Johnny. He speaks attentively, silently perceiving Johnny’s hidden pain. He speaks with courage, patiently enduring the risk of rejection. Above all, he speaks with grace – he makes it possible for Johnny to find his own voice. The film left me wondering how Gheorghe learnt to speak this language of grace, and how, in my own life, I might learn to speak it too.

 

The Gypsy Nun

A translation of Federico García Lorca’s ‘La Monja Gitana’ and reflection by Lyndon Webb

La Monja Gitana

Silencio de cal y mirto.
Malvas en las hierbas finas.
La monja borda alhelíes
sobre una tela pajiza.
Vuelan en la araña gris,
siete pájaros del prisma.
La iglesia gruñe a lo lejos
como un oso panza arriba.
¡Qué bien borda! ¡Con qué gracia!
Sobre la tela pajiza,
ella quisiera bordar
flores de su fantasía.
¡Qué girasol! ¡Qué magnolia
de lentejuelas y cintas!
¡Qué azafranes y qué lunas,
en el mantel de la misa!
Cinco toronjas se endulzan
en la cercana cocina.
Las cinco llagas de Cristo
cortadas en Almería.
Por los ojos de la monja
galopan dos caballistas.
Un rumor último y sordo
le despega la camisa,
y al mirar nubes y montes
en las yertas lejanías,
se quiebra su corazón
de azúcar y yerbaluisa.
¡Oh!, qué llanura empinada
con veinte soles arriba.
¡Qué ríos puestos de pie
vislumbra su fantasía!
Pero sigue con sus flores,
mientras que de pie, en la brisa,
la luz juega el ajedrez
alto de la celosía.

The Gypsy Nun

Silence of lime-wash and myrtle.
Mallows among the culinary herbs.
The nun embroiders wallflowers
on cloth the colour of straw.
Within the grey spider soar
seven birds of the prism.
The church groans in the distance
like a bear, paunch to the sky.
How well she sews! Such grace!
Across the straw-coloured web,
she longs to embroider
the flowers from her dreams.
O sunflower! O magnolia
of sequins and ribbons!
O crocuses and moons,
for the altar cloth!
Five grapefruits are ripening
in the nearby kitchen.
The five wounds of Christ
cut in Almería.
Before the nun’s eyes
two horsemen gallop by.
A soft and final whisper
slips off her blouse,
and seeing clouds and mountains
in the rigid distance,
it breaks her heart
of sugar and lemon verbena.
Oh! the soaring plains
with twenty suns overhead.
What rivers begin to run
in her dreams!
But she continues with her flowers,
whilst standing overhead, in the breeze,
the light plays the high
chess of the trellis.

Federico García Lorca, 1928
from the ‘Romancero Gitano’ (Gypsy Ballads)

 

Training for ordination during LBGT history month and the current political climate, Lorca’s voice speaks with a particular freshness, and an unsettling urgency. His nun is unaware of the nationalism which will sweep over Spain in the coming decade, drawing the country as tightly behind the Pyrenees as she is drawn behind the lime-washed walls of the monastery. Already she feels the repression of her gypsy heritage, a common mallow among the ‘fines herbes’ of the other nuns. That repression will tighten and tighten under Franco, whose regime will murder Lorca in less than ten years for being too colourful himself. He was executed in 1936 at the ‘Great Spring’ for ‘homosexual and abnormal practices’.

 

As he stood in that final place, I wonder whether Lorca thought of the rivers which sprung up at his gypsy nun’s feet as she too dreamt of a more colourful world; I wonder whether some church stood idle nearby, paunch to the sky; I wonder whether he thought of the outrageous cerise of grapefruits, and the wounds of Christ, another man too colourful for his climate. I hope the church of the day had not whitewashed Christ into one more oppressive figure at that moment; I hope in the crucified and risen one, Lorca saw a friend for the seven bright birds of his indecent imagination, which dared to remind Spain about the earth and sex and the strength of women – who invariably take centre stage in his works, alongside men of the fields and the road, in protest against the fragile masculinities of Francoist Spain.

 

I look forward to being sent out of this place, in the name of the indecent Christ, Son of the Creator who dared to embroider the flowers of Her dreams across the straw-coloured earth; I can’t wait to call out the colours in other people’s lives.

 

gypsy