July 10, 2020

Ash Wednesday with Father Flynn


“It was a time of people sitting together, bound together by a common feeling of hopelessness. But think of that! Your bond with your fellow being was your despair. It was a public experience; it was awful. But we were in it together.

“…When you are lost, you are not alone.”

– from “Doubt”
(Listen to sermon below)

* * *

By overwhelming consensus it is agreed that we lost one of our generation’s greatest actors when Philip Seymour Hoffman died recently of acute mixed drug intoxication. A “character” actor par excellence, he was renowned for fully inhabiting the roles of flawed and troubled people. A.O. Scott of the NY Times said of Hoffman, “He may have specialized in unhappiness, but you were always glad to see him.”

Anthony Lane’s remarkable retrospective in the New Yorker notes how he was able to play both sincere and insincere at the same time, expressing “both unfeigned outrage and calculated conceit.” Philip Seymour Hoffman knew how to “make a scene,” simultaneously pointing to the truth while making sure we took notice of him. He got our attention. Of his extraordinary voice, Lane writes, “such were the gravelled depths of his voice that he often gave the impression, even in company, of murmuring to himself, as though submerged regrets and grievances were ready to overflow.”

I am not going to comment on his death, yet another sad example of “the needle and the damage done.” I trust the Judge of all the earth to do justly (Gen. 18:25).

One of my favorite PSH performances was that of Father Flynn in Doubt, the story of a Bronx Roman Catholic parish in which a progressive priest, a rigid, tradition-bound nun, and a young teacher caught between them deal with an ambiguous situation: did the priest have an improper relationship with a young student, the first black child in the parochial school?

This movie and Hoffman’s performance are a perfect introduction to the ambiguities of Lent, which begins today on this Ash Wednesday 2014. NPR critic Bob Mondello, in a review of “Doubt,” observed how the film not only captures the moral fogginess of a situation in which there is no evidence and no witnesses but only suspicion, it also contrasts two ways of facing moral questions — an older way of moral certainty and a more contemporary, more complex and nuanced approach. “Doubt,” Mondello writes, sets forth the “notion that the old ways…were intolerant, even monstrous. But the espousers of the new are damaged, compromised and not necessarily better guides to morality. Our elders are disasters, [this movie says], and so are we. Now what are we going to do about our children?”

On Ash Wednesday and throughout the days of Lent, we come together and confess with the Psalmist: “We have sinned—right along with our ancestors” (Ps. 106:6, CEB).

Amid our losses, our despair, and our doubts, we come forward on Ash Wednesday as God’s people to receive that which marks us, in Father Flynn’s words, as lost but not alone.


  1. Wow.

    I hope there was more.

    I hope He handed over Christ, somewhere along the line.

    In the clip we received there was no mention of Him.

    It’s nice not to be alone. But what we need is a Savior. Not more company.

  2. I have never seen Doubt but I will have to put it on my list. My favorite PSH movie which keeps getting ignored is Charlie Wilson’s War. I love what he said about dignify (cough, cough, cough) in his bosses office and what he did to the window! 😛

  3. Let me try this again;


    The company of other lost people.

    But no Christ.

    Maybe it was later in the sermon…not shown in the clip…I hope.

    • (I just wanted to give the good Father the benefit of the doubt…even if it is only a movie)

    • Ah, but that is the very point, Steve. Ash Wed is not about our oneness in Christ but about our common mortality and sinfulness.

      • Agreed, Mike.

        Therein lies the problem.

        But the gospel, of course, does something else to us. And faith is born by the preaching of it in conjunction with that law of mortality.

        A lot of people in that packed church may have surely needed to hear that gospel word that day. For one or two of them…it might have been their last chance to hear it.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          No Salvation Message…
          Hypothetical bus…
          For that you’ll have to go to a Christianese remake.

          Sure you’re not one ot Ted Bear’s movie reviewers?

      • Y’know, I was originally going to say something about Lent being about journeying through the Wilderness with Christ, but upon further reflection, when it comes to Ash Wednesday in particular, Chaplain Mike is totally correct. Robert Hart, a priest whose blog I really enjoy, had this to say about Ash Wednesday (emphasis mine):

        “In its emphasis on mortality and guilt, Ash Wednesday offers a two-fold remedy to what ails society. That is, to what ails society because of the prevalent deception that is in the air, and is, like most unthought-out yet strongly held opinions, caught like a virus. Only someone with a Christian mind understands why the thought of our death and our guilt brings comfort.”

    • SottoVoce says

      For you, there is no now. You think we get to someday by ignoring now. The pain and weakness of now must be suppressed and skipped over as quickly as possible; you pull the blankets over your head and hope that if you pretend that now is not here, it will go away and you can wish yourself into someday. But you cannot run away to get to someday. You have to look at and live through now first.

      Lent is about now. It is about grieving what should be and is not. It is about inhabiting now and allowing ourselves to mourn without running away or putting on a gleeful mask. Lent is the season when we huddle in the dark, holding hands. Easter is coming, but it is not here yet. Now it is night. Let us first cry together, here and now, and then we may watch for the coming of someday.

      • +1

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          Lent is a time for Lamentation, and you’ve stated several times that today’s Evangelicals have lost the ability to Lament.

          “Hell has no torment worse than Constant Forced Cheerfulness.”
          — G.K.Chesterton, “Three Tools of Death” (Father Brown Mystery)

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        For you, there is no now. You think we get to someday by ignoring now.

        Didn’t Screwtape counsel Wormwood to manipulate his prey into living in the past or the future but never the present?

      • +1 sotto voice

        as one of my pastors said last night: Lent is about going ‘subterranian” being willing to look at the dark corners and the stuff we’d rather not talk about

    • Steve, as much as I agree with your principle, I think Christ actually was in the talk, just hidden. Christ is not the one who fixes our suffering, he is the one who joins us and suffers alongside. The priest offered hope to the problem of suffering by pulling people out of themselves to see the suffering in others. This gives a glimmer of hope because it pulls us out of isolation and loneliness to find companionship in the walk through the valley. It’s not just about the company that misery loves. Christ is more than the Good Samaritan who binds up our wounds: he is also found beaten and left for dead, calling for us to see Christ in our neighbor in need and be Christ to him. The goal of Satan, the essence of sin itself, is for man to be turned in on himself. Christ calls us outside of ourselves to bear the burden of death alongside our neighbors and in so doing find that Christ himself is bearing us.

      I may be reading into this a bit, but within the context of the mass, these themes are brought out. In a “non-liturgical” setting, where the message is all you get, then yes, this would be a very incomplete message. But before those people left, the priest most certainly give them Christ, by putting Him in their mouths.

  4. “For Jesus came to raise the dead. He did not come to reward the rewardable, improve the improvable, or correct the correctible; he came simply to be the resurrection and the life of those who will take their stand on a death he can use instead of on a life he cannot.”

  5. This comment was inspired by Steve Martin’s comments. I can’t rightly categorize it as a “response”, but it was what came to mind when I read them.

    For the EO, Lent began this past Sunday at the Forgiveness Vespers. We’ve been transitioning liturgically for a few weeks though, so a lot of lenten hymnography had come into play before that.

    For us, Lent is a journey that we take together. That includes the company of other mortals and sinners, and a big part of the Forgiveneness Vespers is taking the time to ask the forgiveness of every other person present and to give your own. The sound of it is amazing – a burble of “Forgive me, a sinner” and “God forgives and I forgive”, with bows and hugs and tears and smiles and the sound of the resurrection canon sung quietly in the background reminding us “Christ is risen from the dead!” Whatever happened in the last year, however we have failed each other actively or passively, we have to put it behind us for this journey and move on. If I have experienced any better full immersion vision of the kingdom of God, it could only be on Pascha itself.

    This is not the only way in which we are not alone, however. Our journey hearkens to Israel’s through the wilderness before it reached the promised land, and the exiles in Babylon. Our commemorated saints during Lent are all martyrs, those who endured suffering victoriously and pray for us. Our hymnography reminds us that we take our journey with Moses as he awaited the Law on the mountain, Elijah and he subsisted on the food birds brought in the wilderness, and Jesus himself as he took his 40 days and as he approached his passion.

    And of course, Jesus is with us in a special way through the Presanctified Liturgies during the mid-week. On Sundays we stand before him in the light of his resurrection and on Wednesdays and Friday’s bow before him in the face of our great need. On both he comes to us through communion, giving us strength in that wilderness, “setting a table before us in the presence of our enemies”. He feeds us of his Body and Blood.

    Eventually, we will all arrive together at the resurrection on the third day, having traveled through the broad sea of Great Lent. The lenten spring has sprung, indeed, and we are not alone. In the meantime, I ask forgiveness of you all.

  6. David Cornwell says

    Doubt comes like a cloud, and casts it shadows on everything within its reach. It takes it lodging in the human heart and makes us wonder, not only about God, but also each other. It’s the darkness we own.

    Hoffman and Meryl Streep were superb walking us into this despair.

    Now it is Ash Wednesday.

  7. Charles Fines says

    When Mr. Hoffman died, it was the first I had ever heard of him. I guess I don’t get out all that much. This little homily struck me as very Good News. As it happens, spoken by a Jew in parable. I was particularly pleased to see my favorite character actor playing the nun, Steve Martin Luther.

  8. I’m a movie buff, and yet somehow I’ve only seen him in The Big Lebowski and Magnolia. Both relatively minor roles, though good ones – he’s funny in Lebowski! Need to get around to seeing more.