Conall Ó Cuinn SJ sees in the film “The Postman” a parable of vocation, a way God can call us to our destiny, just as he called St Ignatius to be the founder of the Jesuits, a band of men with a new way of serving God.
The film star Kevin Costner (Dances with Wolves, Thirteen Days, JFK) plays the role of a wandering loner in the film, The Postman. He’s at rock bottom. It is the end of the line in many ways, not just for himself, but also for the US which is coming out of a seventeen-year environmental disaster following a devastating war. He himself has lost everything and has chosen ‘to become a solitary witness to the chaos that reigned’. His motto, AVOID CIVILIZATION, reflects his cynicism about all relationships, both with others and with his country.
Taken prisoner, he manages to escape, but finds himself alone and lost on a cold, wet, hungry night. Losing his footing, he slides down a sharp incline and crashes into a wrecked US Postal Service van. The driver, now a skeleton, stares at him from the driving seat where he had died long ago. A bleak picture.
For Costner, the postal van means one thing: shelter. He manages to crawl in. In the skeleton’s pocket he finds a lighter and a hip flask of whiskey. Jokingly, he toasts the dead postman and he warms himself by making a fire out of some letters. Things are looking up.
Now comfortable, he passes the time by reading the remaining letters aloud to the skeleton in a mocking voice. One letter, however, from a little boy moves him. The boy has lost his first tooth and he is writing to his grandfather to tell him.
Costner finds the little tooth in the envelope and examines it. The background music changes, signalling that something deep is happening in him. We. don’t know what it is yet. Whatever is happening to him, he puts away the letters, turns on his side and enters into a sort of daydream.
The camera shifts and now we see with Costner’s eyes as he reaches out to the dead postman across from him, touching the insignia on his hat: a postman riding a horse with the words, US Post Office Letter Carrier. His touch is reverent. He’s in a new space.
Next scene, Costner dressed in the postman’s uniform comes upon Pineview, a palisade town patrolled by suspicious armed guards. When challenged to identify himself, he introduces himself as a postman of a newly established US Post Office.
But the guards threaten to shoot him if he doesn’t leave. With that he pours out his letters onto the roadway and begins to call out the names on the envelopes. None of them mean anything to the townspeople until the name ‘Irene Marsh’ provokes a response. From behind the palisade gate we hear Irene ask, ‘Did he say my name? She’s a blind old lady. Her daughter reads the letter aloud, news of her long-lost family. Irene’s blind eyes light up in new hope.
‘You’re a godsend, a saviour,’ Irene proclaims as she turns to thank Costner.
‘I’m only the postman,’ he replies in humble confusion. Hostility turns to welcome. He’s no longer a threat but a hero, the bringer of good news and hope. For them he is ‘The Postman’.
Putting the Tooth and the Pineview scenes together we get a wonderful parable on ‘Call’: Costner is called out of his darkness and despair when he least expects it.
Maybe his motives were still very mixed as he donned the postman’s uniform. Nevertheless, he takes up his letter bag and follows the call, not knowing what mysterious journey he is beginning.
At the gates of Pineview he spins a yarn to get into the town to find food and shelter. What he doesn’t know is that his words become true as he says them: without knowing it, he is indeed re-establishing the US Postal Service. But he needs Irene Marsh’s response to name what is happening: he is being sent by God (godsend) to save this people (saviour). It takes a long time and many trials to accept his call fully. He has moved from pure self-interest to a generous sharing of his newly-discovered gifts of leadership.
Every genuine call has a First Tooth and a Pineview part to it. It begins with an inner movement of the spirit, and is confirmed by others from outside, a call from within and the call from without.
The Postman also shows how we can run from our true call, downplaying it with words like, ‘I’m just the postman.’ But a true call keeps coming back. It has a sense of destiny to it, something I have to do. It’s an apparent contradiction, something I have to do, but freely.
The story of St. Ignatius, the founder of the Jesuits, is like the postman’s. He too, hit rock bottom when his leg was smashed by a cannon ball. He too, had time to waste as he recovered over long months and took to reading, not letters, but books. He used to turn over to ponder what he had been reading and the desire arose in him to do great things for God. And with mixed motives, just like the Postman, he set out dressed in the clothes of a pilgrim.
His journey led him to the town of Manresa, where his call became clearer. There, some people recognized his gifts and encouraged him. For them he was a ‘godsend’, in a way, a ‘saviour’. Though not knowing what exactly he was to do, he set out again, a journey which led him eventually to found the Jesuits (a band of men with a new way of serving God). He had discovered his gifts of leadership.
The Postman is about each one of us, for we are all called to move away from isolation and towards community. The Call transforms our love of little self into a love of Big Self. This New Self is what St. Paul referred to when he said, ‘It is not I that lives, but Christ lives in me.’
In this Year of Vocation, let us pray that we might not be deaf to the Call.
This article first appeared in The Messenger (December 2008), a publication of the Irish Jesuits.