By Father Thomas Esposito
Special to The Texas Catholic
This column is simply an exhortation to you, good reader, to watch and ponder the film “A Hidden Life.” The movie chronicles the true story of Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian farmer, devoted husband, father of three young girls, and a devout Catholic who refused to swear an oath of loyalty to Hitler, and was consequently condemned to death. For his willingness to leave everything behind for the sake of the good and the true, Jägerstätter was declared a martyr and beatified in 2007 by Pope Benedict XVI.
The movie itself is a masterpiece of filmmaking. The director, Terrence Malick, employs an unmistakable style of voiceovers, sustained shots, and camera angles to highlight the loveliness of Austrian villages and farm valleys tucked between snow-capped mountains. Malick thus focuses our attention on the wonderful simplicity of the happiness Franz and his family shared before the terrifying intrusion of the Nazi war machine on their happy hidden life. One critic rightly describes “A Hidden Life” as “a cathedral of the senses,” while another calls it “cinema at its mightiest and holiest.” In spite of many anguished scenes of Jägerstätter wrestling with his conscience and agonizing about his decision in the presence of his wife, fellow villagers, and Nazi soldiers, the entire movie is a prayerful meditation on a solitary witness to holiness. It provoked in me an immense desire for silence and thoughtful solitude after watching it.
In his next column, Fr. John will provide more details about Jägerstätter, as well as his own reflections on the film. For now, I would like to offer a few further musings inspired by the movie. Its title is taken from the George Eliot novel “Middlemarch,” and is shown at the end of the film: “For the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”
Jägerstätter did not defy Hitler face-to-face, nor did he make a reckless, moment-of-glory act of resistance to bring attention and instant death upon himself. He was a simple farmer who calmly refused to orient himself to anything other than the good that he knew came from God and the natural moral law. He received many opportunities to ride the Nazi train like everyone else in his village, to bury his scruple of conscience for the sake of “the fatherland,” to say the words but not mean them in his heart – but his cultivation of prayer and a firm conscience allowed him to recognize such compromises as temptations.
The simplicity of Jägerstätter’s life and the anonymity implied in Eliot’s quote pair well with the Jewish folk-tradition of the lamed-vavnik, according to which there are 36 righteous people on whose humility the world depends to keep going. (Lamed and vav are letters of the Hebrew alphabet whose combined numerical value is 36; that number is twice the value of the Hebrew word “life.”) God preserves the world for the sake of these holy ones, even in the face of total barbarity. One particular detail about this tradition highlights the humility evident in these people: they do not know that they are among the 36 righteous, and yet God spares the world for their sake. Since no one would dare identify himself or herself as a lamed-vavnik, the moral exhortation is clear: everyone must act as though he or she were one of the righteous, quietly observing the laws of God and thereby sustaining the world through their virtue and fidelity. Jägerstätter, to my mind, was a lamed-vavnik: a simple farmer who did and wrote nothing glorious or revolutionary, but whose silent courage earned untold graces and mercies for others, and gave a glorious testimony of sanctity to those of us privileged to know about it.
Many questions inevitably arise in the self-reflecting mind pondering such an example of heroic virtue: “Would I have perceived the evil of Hitler’s regime? Could I have resisted the societal pressure to see in the Nazis a legitimate political authority to whom I owed allegiance? Would I have had the fortitude to persevere as Franz did to the end?” Though fruitful, I believe that such questions are ultimately secondary to a more essential question, one that would honor Blessed Franz Jägerstätter and make his sacrifice bear fruit even today: “Can I pray for the simple graces that would allow me to put to death whatever is evil in my desires and passions so that, if God allows it, my ordinary Christian life would prepare me to give the ultimate witness of martyrdom if necessary?”
Father Thomas Esposito, O.Cist., is a theologian and monk at the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas.