At the centre of the humane (and at times humorous) 2013 film, Philomena, is a tough-minded, elderly Irish woman, Philomena Lee, played by Judi Dench. The film follows her battle to find out what happened to the baby boy taken away from her in the 1950s. As a teenage unmarried mother, she had been forced to put up her child for adoption, while working in one of the Irish Republic’s penitential Magdalene laundries (also portrayed in Peter Mullan’s 2002 film, The Magdalene Sisters), which survived until as late as 1996.
The screenplay by Jeff Pope and Judi Dench’s co-star, Steve Coogan, explores the demands of faith and a hard-won ability to offer forgiveness to those who have hurt us deeply.
One question that Philomena faces is that voiced by Ruth Duck:
God, how can we forgive
when bonds of love are torn?
How can we rise and start anew,
our trust reborn?
Ruth’s hymn (StF 613) lays out the struggle that many individuals and communities face “when human loving fails and every hope is gone” and sets it against a Christian understanding of God’s readiness to forgive, forgive and forgive again (v.3).
The hymn draws upon a number of stories and verses in the Bible: notably (verse 3) Jesus’ challenge to the law-keepers and religious leaders that whoever has not sinned should throw the first stone at the woman caught in adultery (John 8: 3-8) – suggesting a parallel, perhaps, to Philomena’s “sin” of bearing a child out of wedlock.
The same verse of Ruth’s hymn also recalls Jesus’ parable of the unforgiving servant (Matthew 18: 21-35), which Jesus tells in response to the disciple Peter’s question: “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?”
Also referenced is St Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome (Romans 8:26-34), in which the apostle speaks of Jesus (in Ruth’s words, “a priest who shares our human pain”) who “intercedes” for us, making God’s love real in our experience. And the hymn closes by borrowing a line from the Lord’s Prayer: “forgive us our sins as we forgive others” (see Matthew 6: 12-15).
Ruth Duck’s description of God’s “ocean depth of grace” echoes Frederick Faber’s fine hymn, which begins: “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy / like the wideness of the sea” (StF 416). Other hymns that express wonder at God’s seemingly boundless, loving forgiveness are: ‘Forgive our sins as we forgive’ (StF 423) and We cannot measure how you heal (StF 655).
Finally, Gillian Collins offers an antidote to the way in which women like Philomena, oppressed by religious rules and expectations, have often seen themselves: Woman stopping, bent and burdened.
An interview with the real Philomena Lee in The Irish Post makes for interesting reading.
Philomena was nominated in four categories at the 2014 Academy Awards. For best:
• motion picture
• actress (Judi Dench)
• original Score
• adapted screenplay
Read more Oscars-inspired hymn reflections.