Praying the Movies: Daily Meditations from Classic FilmsPraying the Movies: Daily Meditations from Classic Films
Edward N. McNulty
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This book is a collection of thirty-one devotions that connect movies with the spiritual life of moviegoers. Each devotion contains a passage from Scripture, a description of a scene from a popular film, and a meditation connecting the themes in the scene to the Scripture passage. Also included in each devotion are questions to encourage further reflection, a suggestion for a hymn, and a brief prayer.

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Chapter 2. Spilled-Glasses Grace
Keep me as the apple of the eye;
hide me in the shadow of thy wings;
from the wicked who despoil me,
my deadly enemies who surround me.

They close their hearts to pity;

with their mouths they speak arrogantly.
They track me down; now they surround me;
they set their eyes to cast me to the ground.
They are like a lion eager to tear,
as a young lion lurking in ambush.
Psalm 17:8-12(RSV)

Then he poured water water into a basin, and began to
wash the disciples’ feet, and to wipe them with the
towel with which he was girded.

John 13:5(RSV)


In the 1968 film Charly, Cliff Robertson plays a mentally retarded worker at a bakery. His coworkers pretend to be his friends, but almost everyone mocks him and plays cruel jokes on him. Despite his mental condition, Charly enrolls in night school to try to learn to read because his mother has instilled in him a strong desire for learning. His teacher, Alice, a clinical psychologist associated with a research team at the local university, treats Charly with dignity and kindness. Impressed by his deep desire to learn, she recommends Charly as a good candidate for an experimental operation designed to increase human intelligence.

As part of the experiment, Charlie competes against Algernon, a laboratory mouse whose intelligence was greatly enhanced by the operation. Mouse and man are to figure out the way through a maze-Algernon’s in a box, and Charly’s on paper. But despite Charly’s operation, Algernon continues to beat the human. Day after day Charly looks up in disappointment to see that the little mouse has arrived first at his goal. But then one day, when Charly is about to quit the experiment for good, he wins. Finally he knows that the operation was a success, that he is now smarter than a mouse!

Charlie continues to increase in intelligence each day. At the bakery his coworkers are surprised when he is able to learn how to operate the dough-mixer. But as Charly’s intelligence grows, far surpassing theirs, his so-called friends soon grow uneasy around him and arrange to have him fired. Hired full-time now by the university project, Charlie quickly masters reading, writing, and arithmetic, and soon is studying higher mathematics, physics, biology, and philosophy.


The Scene

One night Charly is at a crowded restaurant. Above the noise of chatter and the clinking of silverware and glasses he hears a loud crash, the sound of breaking glasses. Cheers mixed with laughter arise from the patrons. Looking around, Charly sees that a busboy has spilled a tray of glasses. The boy stands there for a moment, confused by the crash and the laughter and unfriendly cheers that are obviously aimed at him. Earlier Charly had noticed the almost vacant look in the boy’s eyes, so he recognizes himself as he had been a few scant weeks ago. He well knows the feeling of hurt and confusion sweeping through the boy at that moment.

The boy stoops down and clumsily tries to gather up the glasses and the shards of the broken ones. The scornful sounds of the boss and of the crowd continue-until Charly walks over to the boy. Charly, without a word, stoops down and helps the young man clean up the mess. Instantly the crowd falls silent. The ensuing stillness is not the restful, peaceful kind, but is more like a void suddenly filled with embarrassment, surprise, and perhaps a touch of shame.

Reflection on the Scene

This incident is told differently in the original story. In the novel that the movie was based on, Flowers for Algernon, the author has Charly explode with anger and chastise the patrons for their cruelty. Actor Cliff Robertson, who played Charly and controlled the rights to the play, did not think that an outburst of anger was appropriate, as it would neither help the crowd understand their cruelty nor restore the boy’s lost dignity. Instead, the actor wrote this more satisfying scene of spilled-glasses grace.

Charly’s act of kindness speaks far more eloquently than do words, especially words of anger. Like Jesus in the synagogue, Charlie reaches out to the unfortunate victim and shows by his assistance that he understands the pain of the person and seeks to restore his sense of worth. Although he is angry, his simple deed of kindness is all the rebuke that the patrons need in order to understand how inadequate their response to the boy’s plight has been.

The plight of the just man described by the Psalmist is that of the busboy-and was once Charly’s also. Too often the disabled are surrounded by people who "close their heart to pity….They track me down; now they surround me; they set their eyes to cast me to the ground." Both Charly at the bakery and the busboy at the restaurant have suffered from those "who close their hearts to pity." At such times even the simplest act of kindness is as welcome as a cloudburst to a parched traveler lost in the desert. In such moments of grace, we identify with the person in need.

When Jesus took the towel and basin of water and knelt down to wash the dirty feet of his disciples, he identified himself so with their need that he set aside his position of master to take the role of a slave. In that restaurant, Charly also set aside his newfound position of privilege to go to the side of and kneel down with one who needed desperately the affirmation that, despite his mistake and slowness of comprehension, he was a person of worth.

Even those who are not so afflicted feel this way at times when family, friends, or colleagues turn on them. At such moments when it seems that all have abandoned us , even the smallest act of kindness directed our way is welcome. At such times we know what grace is and how much each human being needs it, no matter how smart or slow.

For Further Reflection

  1. How do you feel around a mentally or physically handicapped person? Embarrassed? Uncomfortable? Superior? Grateful("There but for the grace of God go I")?
  2. Have you been in the Psalmist’s position? Or have you been part of a group that put down a Charly—perhaps when you were a child or a teenager?
  3. Have you felt as Jesus did around someone in need who was being neglected or abused by others? What did you do? Would you change anything if you could do it over again?
  4. Which is more basic—feelings or intelligence? Why do you think that some people think they can insult or patronize a "slow" person?
  5. What do you think of Cliff Robertson’s rewrite of the scene? How is the simple act of "spilled-glass grace" more powerful than the novel’s dramatic scene of righteous anger? What kind of impression might each make on the callous onlookers?
  6. Does your neighborhood or church have a person like Charly, someone with a disability who would appreciate dome attention from you?

HYMN: "The Light of God Is Falling"

A Prayer

O God, who speaks to us in such simple acts as washing feet or picking up spilled glasses, may we who have received so much of your grace also be channels of your gracious love. Make us more sensitive to those around us, especially those like Charly Gordon who are so vulnerable to our callous or unthinking words and acts. May we see in each new day opportunities to give and receive your tender mercies. We pray in the name of the One who loved and touched those scorned by the society of his day, Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.


Excerpted from:
Praying the Movies, Daily Meditations from Classic Films
By Edward N. McNulty
Copyright © 2001,
Published by Westminster/John Knox
Used by permission. Unauthorized duplication prohibited.