The Painted Veil with Naomi Watts and Edward Norton is a powerful story of love unreturned, love betrayed, love rejected, love scorned, love demonstrated, love made, and love lost. Kitty (Naomi Watts) opts to marry Dr. Walter Fane (Edward Norton), even though she doesn’t love him, just to get as far away from her mother as she can. The new bride far from home in China has an affair with an Englishman. When their secret is discovered, her husband gives the ultimatum to join him in the heart of a cholera epidemic deep in China or immediate divorce for adultery. Rejected by her lover she finds herself cut off from the rest of the world in the midst of enormous human suffering where their relationship is tested to the breaking point.
I find the parallels between romantic love and religous devotion unending. Consider the following exchange between the head of the convent and Mrs. Fane (Naomi Watts):
Mother Superior: Dr. Fane told me he wanted you to leave but you would not.
Mrs. Fane: I didn’t want to leave you.
Mother Superior: Yes, and we appreciate it, dear child, but I think you did not want to leave him either.
Mrs. Fane: Well, it’s my duty.
Mother Superior: Duty is only washing your hands when they are dirty.
Mother Superior: I fell in love when I was 17… with God. A foolish girl with romantic notions about the life of a religious, but my love was passionate. Over the years my feelings have changed. He’s disappointed me. Ignored me. We’ve settled into a life of peaceful indifference. The old husband and wife who sit side by side on the sofa, but rarely speak. He knows I’ll never leave Him. This is my duty. But when love and duty are one, then grace is within you.
Many people stay married for no better reason than they have for going to church, a sense of duty or obligation. Obligatory church attendance holds about as much passion as an arranged marriage. I have also lost respect for people who stay married till “death do us part.” I respect most those who stay in love, who work at love, who make love. I know many people who just live under the same roof, though they merit some recognition for not killing each other, but their love is unspoken, unexpressed, and maybe absent altogether. Those are not the kinds of relationships we should aspire to nor settle for.
The Bible is not a rule book, nor a list of doctrines. It is above all else a love story between the Creator and the created. While God’s love may be the one constant in the universe, we are reminded throughout that our love is frail. We must “catch the little foxes that ruin the vineyards,” for “the love of many will grow cold.” We must be passionate in our love making and our praying.
We make an effort to grow in love every day not because we have to, but because we want to. This is not a place we have to be. It is the place that we want to be and this is the one we want to be with. Then love and duty are one, and there we find grace.