Dignity Canada Dignité
     Queer Spirit
           By Thomas Novak

Mystery and Sacrament on Brokeback Mountain        

“Lovers don’t finally meet somewhere;
They’re in each other all along.”
– Jelaluddin Rumi

Brokeback Mountain is the cinematic surprise of the year (2005).

It is surprising not only because this story of unfilled romantic love between two young cowboys has been an outstanding commercial success, and not just because audiences both gay and straight have been deeply touched by this twenty-first century re-telling of the story of Romeo and Juliet.

Yes, a moving love story it is:  a powerful illustration of the tragic and spiraling consequences that ensue when men or women battle the very truth of their beings in an attempt to live up to the rigid expectations of unforgiving families and communities.

But just as surprising is that Brokeback Mountain is also a moving invitation to reconsider some classic themes of Western spirituality and a startling meditation on Christian sacramental theology.

Passing through Greek mythology, the Hebrew Song of Songs, the Christian gospels and even the Suffi Muslim poet, Rumi, the creators of this magnificent work have taken us, literally, to the heights and depths of the spiritual journey.

It all starts on a mountain – where vision-questers go to find their sacred visions, to discover the divine truths that actually await them, not really on the mountain, but deep within themselves.   The mountain is where Moses conversed with the divine in a storm; where Elijah met G-d in a gentle breeze; where the disciples discovered the true nature of Jesus and where, later on, Jesus was executed.

The mountain is also where the followers of Dionysus went to make passionate music and pursue their ecstatic dances to commune with the god of wine, passion, and the mysterious, non-rational forces of life. 

Dionysus was the half-brother of Apollo, the God of the sun and masculine beauty, the defender of reason and conventional morality, the yin to Dionysus’ yang.

As with all gay cowboys, the wardrobe says it all. One of them wears sun tones while the other prefers colours that evoke the mysterious depths of the ocean.

In Euripides great play, The Bacchae, King Parmenethes, a follower of light and reason, seeks to destroy the cult of Dionysus that has infiltrated his kingdom.  The king ends up being torn apart by the avenging Maenads – who themselves had became mad because they had abolished all reason from their dark forest.  In a healthy soul, both Apollo and Dionysus must make their home.  A well-balanced person uses his reason, works hard and does her duty.  But he also knows how to give himself over to the ecstasy of the dance, to risk riding a wild mare and to take leaps into the unknown.

In the gospel story of the transfiguration, Jesus takes Peter, James and John up the mountain, where they are dazzled to see his true nature shining through the appearances.  The disciples plan to set up tents, so as to stay there, savouring the beauty of the experience.  But Jesus rebukes them and sends them down.  They must live out their experience, their vision, down on the plains of their everyday lives.  On Brokeback Mountain, when word comes that severe storms are on their way and that the two cowboys must come down from their idyllic experience, Ennis breaks down and sobs uncontrollably.  He has set up his tent there – he can only experience the beauty of his own truth up on the mountain.

Dionysus is the god of mystery.  “Mysteries” was the way that early (Greek-speaking) Christians described their sacraments – the sacred symbols and rituals where men and women relive, in our daily lives, the “mountain experiences” of our encounters with the Divine.

Early in Brokeback Mountain, Jack asks Ennis if he believes in the Pentecost.  In some Christian traditions, the Pentecost is the day when a spirit of freedom and an experience of spiritual ecstasy filled the followers of the crucified Jesus.  But more to the point, it was the day that a band of fearful and demoralized losers miraculously found the courage to stand proudly and speak their of their experience.

In the closing minutes of the film, a simple piece of clothing becomes the sacrament whereby Ennis finally experiences his own Pentecost. 

Ennis is alone and despairing in his trailer.  Alma, his daughter, comes by to invite him to her wedding.  At first Ennis finds excuses.  He has been hired for another ranching job; as always, he has to do his duty.  Besides, we know he is not much for dancing.

Then Ennis “lifts up his eyes to the mountain”, and he remembers Jack.  He thinks again.  He stands up.  And like he had done many times with his own beloved, he pours out some spirits, sharing them with his daughter.  It is as if Jack is present.  He gives Alma his decision.

Alma leaves.  Ennis goes to his closet.  Inside there is nothing but a package containing two shirts – his only remembrance of his time on the mountain with Jack.  With great reverence he unwraps them.  Enfolded in Ennis’ white and gold shirt is Jack’s deep blue one – still stained with the blood that was shed by him and for him, blood that now runs in his own veins. It is as if he hears Jack saying to him, “Do this in memory of me”.

“I promise”, he says.

Outside his window, the fields have turned to green.  The time for resurrection has come.

Dignity Canada Dignité is Canada's organization of Roman Catholics who are concerned about our church's sexual theology, particularly as it pertains to gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered persons. We work in collaboration with other Catholic organizations seeking reform in our church's leadership and teachings.