I saw Father Stu during the Aseret y’mai teshuva, the 10 days of repentance, that occur between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. It is a time when Jews are supposed to be introspective, to evaluate the past year and resolve to lead better spiritual lives in the coming year. It is a time to make amends for the past and chart a different course for the future.
Father Stu is the story of the spiritual redemption of a wayward Catholic who gets emotionally close to God and turns his life around. There are parallels in Stu’s spiritual struggle to Jews who stray far from the holy life and who eventually turn over a new leaf. For that reason, I am reviewing Father Stu.
Stuart Long is a boxer whose mixed success in the ring forces him to consider alternate ways to earn a living to avoid a life- threatening injury. He tries going to Hollywood to become an actor. However, he has no training and no acting experience. Moreover, he is brash and foul-mouthed. While in Los Angeles, he serendipitously meets Carmen, a Latina Catholic girl, and decides to go to church so that he can grow the relationship.
One night he is involved in terrible accident while riding his motorcycle. It leads to months of rehabilitation in which Stu reflects on the emptiness of his life and decides to become a priest, which he feels is the right challenge for him at this point in his life. He is mentally prepared for the celibate life, married to Mary, mother of Jesus, rather than a flesh and blood woman.
Stuart is accepted reluctantly into the seminary to study for the priesthood, but the arc of his life changes when he is diagnosed with a deadly disease. The trauma of this news causes him to again evaluate his life and his relationship with his father, in particular, with whom he has not spoken for years. Sensing that time is now short, Stu sets out to repair relationships and lead an exemplary life.
Father Stu deals with the age-old question of why bad things happen to good people. Stu has changed from being a wild arrogant young man to a sensitive, humble soul offering a beacon of love of wisdom to his parishioners. Yet it is precisely at this time that he afflicted with illness. He asks: why? The question is asked by Jews as well and there are no simple answers. One idea that is discussed in the Talmud is that punishments can be viewed as yissurin shel ahava, punishments of love.
Rabbi Yitzchak Blau discusses the relationship between suffering and sin and quotes Proverbs: “For God chastises those whom He loves (3:12).” If one is suffering, the first order of spiritual business is to examine one’s conduct, for repentance is the priority. Moreover, we must recognize that human beings do not have the panoramic vision of God and no one can say with certainty why they suffer. “Afflictions of love” conceptually repair the soul in preparation for its existence in the World-to-Come. Moreover, afflictions compel us to focus on the more important things in life, not just the acquisition of material possessions. From the struggle with our difficulties, we often find new reservoirs of strength within us.
Father Stu undergoes such struggles and emerges with an epiphany: “Hear me out. All our outer nature’s wasting away. But our inner nature is being renewed every day. This life, no matter how long it lasts, is a momentary affliction preparing us for eternal glory. We shouldn’t pray for an easy life, but the strength to endure a difficult one. Because the experience of suffering is the fullest expression of God’s love.”
At the end of the film, there is a clip of archival footage in which the real life Father Stu articulates the lessons he has learned from suffering: “It’s a profound experience, suffering. And the struggles of this disease helped me, and helped others, to learn the way that we should have been living all along. It’s taught me a little humility. It’s taught me dignity, respect for others. And sometimes people like me– there’s an extreme example– we need things like this to be able to make those changes, and decisions in our life that are gonna help us become better people, become the people that God has created us to be when he sent us to this planet.” His message is sober but uplifting, and transcends any specific faith.