Grace is a gift from God. And so is Nature.
At the beginning of Terrence Malick’s masterpiece, THE TREE OF LIFE, we hear Mrs. Obrien’s voice speaking these words:
The nuns taught us there are two ways through life … the way of Nature… and the way of Grace. You have to choose which one you’ll follow. Grace doesn’t try to please itself. Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. Accepts insults and injuries. Nature only wants to please itself. Get others to please it too. Likes to lord it over them. To have its own way. It finds reasons to be unhappy… when all the world is shining around it… when love is smiling through all things. They taught us that no one who loves the way of grace… ever comes to a bad end. I will be true to you. Whatever comes.
These words come over images of a young girl (images above), the young Mrs. Obrien, as she interacts with Nature, and also with her father. We don’t really see her face much, we don’t see her father except for his hand and shoulder. Instead with see the world as the girl sees it, big, wonderful, full of life – and she is safe in the arms of her father.
Naturally these words set up a kind of interpretive lens through which we might analyse the film. As we follow the story we can’t help but think in terms of nature and grace. In these words we find a perspective of life held on to by Mrs. Obrien, a perspective that she learned as a child, taught to her by nuns presumably at a parochial school. Perhaps Malick is hinting at the kind of spiritual education common to Catholic schools seventy five plus years ago, and maybe he is commenting on that teaching. What is interesting, however, is how the film seemingly undercuts this philosophy. Although one is tempted to say Mrs. Obrien (in her softness and beauty) is grace and Mr. Obrien (in his hardness and anger) is nature, it is amazing how much nature permeates the film in the most loving and awesome ways. Even the film’s title, The Tree of Life, speaks of nature in connection with life. We might be tempted to see grace as the way to life, and yet we are continually being drawn back to images of nature, and in particular the tree the boys climb in the film, and by which the vision of their mother dancing in the air appears.
An interesting question is who is the protagonist in this film. Most are likely to see Jack as the protagonist. But is he? Might not Mrs. Obrien be the protagonist. If the film is a meditation on the book of Job (it opens with the book’s most famous verse), then we see both Jack’s and his mothers struggles in that light. When a boy dies in the story, a young Jack asks of God, “Where were You? You let a boy die. You let anything happen. Why should I be good when You aren’t?” This is a big moment, and a huge question for Jack. But similarly, after Jack’s brother R.L. dies (which we do not see, but only hear that he died at age 19), Mrs. Obrien cries out to God, “Lord, Why? Where were you? Did you know what happened? Do you care?” It is arguable that Mrs. Obrien’s struggle and final acceptance is the greater arc. If so, then it is possible that the film is about her coming to terms with the ideas taught to her when she was a kid, held dear for many years, and only later in life revealed to her (perhaps because of her willingness to see) as being false, or at least not entirely true.
Though my inclinations are that Jack is protagonist #1, it could be argued that the story, with all it sweeping and ephemeral qualities, is entirely in Jack’s head, being essentially his memory. If that’s the case, then it could be argued that Mrs. Obrien is the protagonist in the story going on in Jack’s head, or perhaps a co-protagonist.
Other interesting questions include which son is Mrs. Obrien giving to God at the end of the film? We assume it must be R.L., but could it be Jack? And who are the women with her at the end? We might think they are angels, but the one on the right is the girl Mrs. Obrien we saw at the film’s beginning. Might she represent the previous and less mature understanding of nature and grace? She is, after all, representing a more innocent time before adulthood, child rearing, marriage struggles, and the death of a child. And is the other woman an angel, or might she be the personification of grace itself?
I am inclined to think the trouble many people have with watching Terrence Malick’s films, especially the later ones, is that we are a culture that no longer reads poetry. Reading poetry alters the mind to think in different ways. Poetry is the highest form of writing, and thus taps into parts of us that other writing does not, or not as well. Secondly, we do not read the classics enough, especially theology. A good dose of St. Augustine wouldn’t be bad. I’ll leave it at that.
Finally, an interesting connection is that Mrs. Obrien’s verbiage is very similar to that of Chapter 91 of The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis, quoted here in it entirety:
On the Contrary Workings of Nature and Grace (found here)
My son, carefully observe the impulses of nature and grace, for these are opposed one to another, and work in so subtle a manner that even a spiritual, holy and enlightened man can hardly distinguish them. All men do in fact desire what is good, and in what they say and do pretend to some kind of goodness, so that many are deceived by their appearance of virtue.
Nature is crafty, and seduces many, snaring and deceiving them, and always works for her own ends. But Grace moves in simplicity, avoiding every appearance of evil. She makes no attempt to deceive, and does all things purely for love of God, in whom she rests as her final goal.
Nature is unwilling to be mortified, checked or overcome, obedient or willingly subject. Grace mortifies herself, resists sensuality, submits to control, seeks to be overcome. She does not aim at enjoying her own liberty, but loves to be under discipline ; and does not wish to lord it over anyone. Rather does she desire to live, abide and exist always under God’s rule, and for His sake she is ever ready to submit it to all men.(I Pt.2:13)
Nature works for her own interest, and estimates what profit she may derive from others. Grace does not consider what may be useful or convenient to herself, but only what may be to the good of many.(I Cor.10:33) Nature is eager to receive honour and reward : Grace faithfully ascribes all honour and glory to God .(Ps 26:2:96:7) Nature fears shame and contempt: Grace is glad to suffer reproach for the Name of Jesus.(Act 5:41) Nature loves ease and rest for the body ; Grace cannot be idle, but welcomes work cheerfully.
Nature loves to enjoy rare and beautiful things, and hates the cheap and clumsy. Grace takes pleasure in simple and humble things, neither despising the rough, nor refusing to wear the old and ragged. Nature pays regard to temporal affairs, takes pleasure in this world’s wealth, grieves at any loss, and is angered by a slighting remark. But Grace pays attention to things eternal, and is not attached to the temporal. The loss of goods fails to move her, or hard words to anger her, for she lays up her treasure and joy in Heaven where none of it can be lost(Matt.6:20)
Nature is greedy, and grasps more readily than she gives, loving to retain things for her personal use. But Grace is kind and generous, shuns private interest, is contented with little, and esteems it more blest to give than to receive.(Acts 20:35) Nature inclines a man towards creatures – to the body, tovanities, to restlessness. But Grace draws a man towards God and virtue. Renouncing creatures, she flees the world, loathes the lusts of the flesh, limits her wanderings, and shuns public appearances. Nature is eager to enjoy any outward comfort that will gratify the senses. Grace seeks comfort in God alone, and delights in the Sovereign Good above all visible things.
Nature does everything for her own gain and interest; she does nothing without fee, hoping either to obtain some equal or greater return for her services, or else praise and favour. But Grace seeks no worldly return, and asks for no reward, but God alone. She desires no more of the necessaries of life than will serve her to obtain the things of eternity.
Nature takes pleasure in a host of friends and relations; she boasts of noble rank and high birth; makes herself agreeable to the powerful, flatters the rich, and acclaims those who are like herself. But Grace loves even her enemies,(Matt.5:44; Luke 6:27) takes no pride in the number of her friends, and thinks little of high birth unless it be allied to the greater virtue. She favours the poor rather than the rich, and has more in common with the honourable than with the powerful. She takes pleasure in an honest man, not in a deceiver ; she constantly encourages good men to labour earnestly for the better gifts, (I.Cor.12:31) and by means of these virtues to become like the Son of God.
Nature is quick to complain of want and hardship ; but Grace bears poverty with courage. Nature, struggling and striving on her own behalf, turns everything to her own interest: but Grace refers all things to God, from whom they come. She attributes no good to herself; she is not arrogant and presumptuous. She does not argue and exalt her own opinions before others, but submits all her powers of mind and perception to the eternal wisdom and judgement of God. Nature is curious to know secrets and to hear news; she loves to be seen in public, and to enjoy sensations. She desires recognition, and to do such things as win praise and admiration. But Grace does not care for news or novelties, because all these things spring from the age-old corruption of man, for there is nothing new or lasting in this world.
Grace therefore teaches us how the senses are to be disciplined and vain complacency avoided ; how anything likely to excite praise and admiration should be humbly concealed ; and how in all things and in all knowledge some useful fruit should be sought, together with the praise and honour of God. She wants no praise for herself or her doings, but desires that God may be blessed in His gifts, who out of pure love bestows all things.
Grace is a supernatural light, and the especial gift of God,( Eph. 2:8) the seal of His chosen and the pledge of salvation,(Eph.1:14) which raises man from earthly things to love the heavenly, and from worldly makes him spiritual. The more, therefore, that Nature is controlled and overcome, the richer is the grace bestowed, while man is daily renewed by fresh visitations after the likeness of God .(Col. 3:10)