Friday, May 16, 2008

Ellen Burstyn

This essay by Ellen Burstyn appeared in Guideposts Magazine.

The world we live in, I’ve come to believe, is just a fraction of the universe, the froth atop a wave moving across a vast cosmic sea. So it is no accident that over the years I have been in movies that have had strong mystical themes. The movies have taken on issues that are important to me and shown a powerful dimension to our existence beyond the rational world. But it is off camera where I have had even more powerful glimpses of that other world, experiences that have changed me, shaped me and made me who I am, going all the way back to my earliest memory.

Detroit, 1935: I was two and a half years old and my five-year-old brother, Jack, was in the hospital with double pneumonia and a mastoid infection. I slept on the couch in the living room and my mother sat nearby in her rocking chair knitting and crying, the click-click of the knitting needles and the creak of her chair lulling me to sleep.

One day at breakfast I overheard my mother tell my grandma that there was a bird trapped between the walls. “I can hear it flapping its wings,” she said. That night she rocked faster in the chair, her needles clicking, murmuring, “That poor little bird.” What did it mean? That my brother was struggling like the bird? Then Mother came home from the hospital with the news that Jackie wasn’t going to make it. In desperation she agreed to let the doctors try out a new drug, sulfa. My grandma tucked me in on the couch and my mother took to her rocker and her knitting. I drifted off. Suddenly the chair stopped creaking. I opened my eyes and saw my mother leaning forward. “The flapping has stopped,” she said in a hushed voice. “The bird has found its way free and Jackie will be all right.”

We found out that the sulfa—which is a very similar drug to penicillin—had cured my brother. But my mother knew it without being told.

Six years later I had a similar experience. My mother and I had just come into the house and we went into Jack’s bedroom where my grandfather had recently been staying. No one was there, but I was overcome with an intense odor of flowers. “What’s that smell?” I asked.

“Flowers,” my mother said. At that moment the phone rang. My mother answered it, and learned that my grandfather had just died.

I can’t remember if I heard the wings of the bird flapping but I definitely smelled those flowers. The sign was so strong that I could never ignore one if it came again. And it did years later.

April 4, 1968, my husband, my son and I were going to spend the day at the beach near our home in California. At 8 a.m. the clock radio came on with the full, rich voice of Martin Luther King, Jr., saying, “I am not afraid. For I have been to the mountain and I’ve seen the other side and mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” I sat straight up in bed certain that Dr. King would be killed that day, but unwilling to believe it was possible.

It was a foggy day at the beach. I lay on our blanket reading. Suddenly I got up and said, “We have to go. We have to listen to the radio. Dr. King has been shot.” I was terrified by my words yet, somehow, I knew they were true. We got in our van and I turned on the radio. There was a pause, then the announcer gave the terrible news. We drove home in anguish.

Easter Sunday I was still mourning for Dr. King. To honor him I went to a sunrise service at an African-American church in downtown L.A. The sky was gray when the congregation gathered around a piano in a vacant lot. We swayed to the music as the light began to lift. The tempo quickened and my heart did too, the piano player pounding his heel against the ground. A pair of hands began to clap, then everyone joined in. At once the hot orange ball was peering over the edge of the earth and I thought: The sun is risen. The Son is risen. I felt reassured.

When we made the movie "The Exorcist" we all knew that we were taking on a difficult and controversial subject. The book by William Peter Blatty had been very successful and the idea that evil was a real force in the world was being reconsidered more seriously than ever before. But I don’t think that any of us knew that that would make a difference in shooting the film.

First, my dressing room was robbed. The thief took very little, but it felt as if we were being put on notice. Billy Friedkin, the director, hired a night watchman to watch the production office. Two weeks later the man was killed outside his home. There were other accidents to people working on the movie. Frankly, we were all getting spooked. At one point Billy had every new set blessed by one of the real priests in the film.

The work was grueling, physically, emotionally and spiritually. Finally I took a day off and stayed in bed reading the paper. There was an article on the devil, its appearance in religion, its usage in literature, the fear of it and its reemergence in the public’s consciousness. As I finished the piece a lazy thought strolled across my mind: Wouldn’t it be funny if it turns out that Satan created the world and is more powerful than God? Suddenly a maniacal voice sounded loudly in my head, laughing wildly. It said, That’s the crack in your mind I’ve been waiting to enter. Now I’m inside your head. 

In a panic I leapt out of bed, my heart pounding, and stood barefoot in the middle of the room. I thought of the character in the movie, Father Karras, who jumps out of a window rather than let evil overcome him. This is how he must have felt. I had to take hold of myself, so I sat on the floor, closed my eyes and breathed deeply, flooding my mind with God’s presence. I filled myself with prayer, with love. My heartbeat slowed down. The awful voice went away. I felt protected and safe, reassured again that good is more powerful than evil, but we must always be vigilant against the latter.

That was a big experience of the divine presence, but there have been other, smaller moments of wonder and mystery. There was the time I lost my beloved dog, Bernard. I had raised him from a bottle, and was really the only mother he had. We were living in upstate New York in a house on the Hudson river. I had to go into the city and left Bernard behind with my housekeeper. I returned to discover that he had been missing for three days.

I searched all the nearby animal shelters. Then I called ones that were farther away. None of them had a dog matching Bernard’s description, and I knew that dogs were only kept 10 days. After a week I was beside myself. How, I wondered, how will I find him?

That night I had a powerful dream. I met a lady who had a small brown wiry dog in her arms. She asked me if I wanted him. I said, “No, not yet. I still mean to find Bernard.” I woke up from that dream, knowing for certain that Bernard wasn’t dead. Again I called all of the shelters near my home and added ones within a 20-mile radius. A man then referred me to a kennel in Closter, New Jersey. When I walked in, there was the lady from my dream—with Bernard at her feet! He was so excited when I took the leash that he ran to the car, pulling me over and dragging me through the gravel.

The biggest power in this world is love, and that was something I wanted to communicate in the movie "Resurrection." To create the role of Edna Mae, a faith healer, I worked with a real-life healer named Rosalyn Bruyere. An impressive woman with a pretty face, she joined us on the set as our technical adviser.

Most of the "Resurrection" crew considered the movie’s story and the subject of faith healing to be somewhere close to science fiction.

Then one of the crew guys dropped a lamp on his hand and smashed it pretty badly. He was bleeding profusely and the fleshy part of his thumb and fingers was turning purple. The crowd hovered around him, and someone was getting ready to drive him to the nearest hospital, which was many miles from where we were shooting in rural Texas. Then Rosalyn slipped through the crowd. “Here, let me see it,” she said to him.

She examined his hand, then pressed her fingertips over the wound. Then Rosalyn closed her eyes and prayed. Everyone fell silent. In a few moments, right before our eyes, the swelling began to subside, the color eased back to a normal color and before long, the gash in his hand began to close.

“Look at this!” the guy exclaimed. “It’s unbelievable!”

At the end of "Resurrection" Edna Mae takes over a gas station in the desert. She still has her healing power, but she has relinquished all of the fame, and is healing anonymously all those who are led to her out in the desert. She hangs up a sign at the station that reads, “God is love and versa vice.” That is really the message of the movie. Edna Mae heals by loving, the exact same way Jesus healed.

The world we live in is just a fraction of the universe. God is in the longing, the searching, the seeing, the loving. I have learned that for myself, often in the most wondrous and mysterious ways.

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