Friday, 3 November 2017

Sherlock Holmes And The Institutional Church


Last night I watched the 2015 movie, Mr Holmes. It's a beautiful film which recounts the poignant story of the last years of the life of the world-famous (fictional) detective, Sherlock Holmes. At the age of 93, with his memory failing, he is desperately trying to remember the details of his last case. As the story unfolds, we learn that it was this case which caused him to retire from public life, and withdraw from London to settle in a quiet village on the Sussex coast, where he tends the bees in his apiary.

Eventually, it becomes clear that his handling of that final investigation resulted in the suicide of his client's wife, and he is driven to acknowledge that his intellectual genius is not enough for life. For all his amazing powers of observation and his near miraculous deductive reasoning, he lacks compassion - connection with the humanity of the lives around him.

But it is only when he faces the possible loss of his housekeeper's son - a young boy with whom he has formed a deep bond - that his life finally comes into focus for him and he reaches out to another human soul.

As I reflected on the way the film exposed the incapacity of Holmes' emotional life, I saw a parallel with my experience of the institutional church. Where the detective had his intellect and reasoning, the institution had its cold morality and ceaseless performance. Holmes' raison d'ĂȘtre was solving mysteries in life, but he failed to ever experience the mystery of life. The church's driving passion of compliance and rule-keeping was seen as proof of devotion to God, yet it failed to comprehend the mystical, transformation wrought by the Spirit of God.

Both were concerned with a dispassionate observation of human life - the way things presented to the eye - while maintaining a safe distance from the messy reality of the human heart. Both held at bay any danger of intimate connection or the exposure of their own vulnerability.

And in doing so, both have damaged the lives of those around them - sometimes leading to the death, whether physical or metaphorical, of those lives. For Holmes, the crisis leads to an acknowledgement of his 'sins' and failings. He 'confesses' to his housekeeper:
"There was a woman, once. I knew her less than a day. A quarter of an hour's conversation. She needed my help. She needed so desperately to be understood by someone... Me. So, I laid out the particulars of her case as I saw them... To her satisfaction, I thought. I watched her walk away. And within hours she'd ended her life. By identifying the cause of her despair with such clarity, I'd given her carte blanche to do just as she intended. I should've done whatever it took to save her. Lie to her, make up a story. Take her by the hand and hold her as she wept, and said, "Come live with me. "Let us be alone together." But I was fearful. Selfish. She's the reason I came here to my bees, so that I couldn't harm anyone ever again."
While it was not his intention to harm this woman, his choice to remain detached and dispassionate - to stick to "the facts" - nevertheless contributed to her despair-driven death. Likewise, the church has been culpable in harming countless souls who were offered "the truth" instead of love and connection in the midst of their desperation.

But unlike the church that I have encountered, Holmes does own his failure. He does care that he simply watched this woman walk away to her death. He does acknowledge that his "help" was worthless in the face of her distress. He does, in fact, repent.

The illustrious Sherlock Holmes humbles himself and acknowledges that facts, even when "true", will never meet the very real need for compassion and care in our lives. His eyes are opened to a greater necessity than "the truth" in life, and he allows this understanding to change him. 

In the closing scene, we glimpse his developing relationship with one who he had previously viewed as simply an employee. He has finally started to see the human behind the role; comprehending her capacity to feel and connect, despite the loss and pain she has known. We also witness his homage to the ghosts of his past - people with whom he failed to connect, but whose unacknowledged (and unreciprocated) love and care for him were vital to his well-being. And he finally recognises and honours the worth of their imperfect, irrational love for him.

And as I ponder this transformation in the great detective, I can't help but wonder if the 'church' will ever use a crisis in its own life to such good effect.