Many of you, I suspect, are familiar with the famous, now classic film, Groundhog Day, starring Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell. The 1993 film is currently celebrating the 30th anniversary of its release. If you haven’t yet seen it, I recommend viewing the film as part of your Lenten practice.
Readers who have not seen the film may still be likely to be generally aware of the annual ritual held in rural Pennsylvania that is an American version of some ancient European winter/spring rite. Groundhog Day serves as a backdrop and context for Christians who can legitimately appropriate its messages as having much to do and say about the nature and importance of conversion of heart.
The film has enjoyed a rare staying power for a comedy, perhaps because it is, in part, a modern morality play with yet a classic storybook motif. Groundhog Day is about Phil Connors (note that Phil is also the name of the famed groundhog), a temperamental weather news reporter played by Murray, who is sent to cover once again the cyclic celebrated appearance of Punxsutawney Phil, that beloved groundhog whose hibernation is interrupted yearly in early February by local officials.
The sight of Phil’s shadow or non-shadow serves as a prophetic lens foreseeing the arrival (or delay) of spring so everyone can plan accordingly.
The human story gets fascinating when newsman Murray begins experiencing the same Groundhog Day over and over again, up to the point of being perplexed. The descriptive ad nauseum takes on new meaning for his experience of each succeeding, tiringly repeatable day.
Befuddlement and exasperation instigate some much-needed soul-searching for this reluctant penitent who prefers to remain a recalcitrant, cynical reporter.
Rita, played by Andie MacDowell, is his new media boss and serves as his foil and, later in the film, as his love interest and beloved. Little by little and often grudgingly, Murray grows increasingly reconciled to the hard fact that a personal attitude adjustment is in order.
While the film is a humorous poke at the human condition and the accompanying skepticism of those hardened by it, it is also a remarkable conversion story that can help us in our Lenten journey. The film relays, in my opinion, some outstanding lessons about the nature and importance of a good disposition and how our reactions to what life presents to us might be better met if met with authenticity, patience and love.
Isn’t Murray’s “way of turning” how our conversions often enough take shape? We aren’t particularly keen on making changes, and when we learn a lesson, it is oft only after all else has failed and we have tried seemingly a thousand times to get things right and lost.
Hard-won truth resides at the end of our often multiple failed attempts to be holy and wise. But our poor efforts, touched and motivated by God’s undaunted love for us and the bestowal of corresponding grace, lead us to our hearts’ and minds’ better desires.
And touching that truth is worth the price of admission and popcorn for us as individuals. But there is more. It is especially worth it with regard to our neighbor!
Peter Maurin, the co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement with Dorothy Day, writes in perhaps his most noted Easy Essay that:
“The world would be better off if people tried to become better, and people would be better if they stopped trying to become better off. For when everyone tries to become better off, nobody is better off. But when everyone tries to become better everyone is better off.
“Everyone would be rich if nobody tried to become richer, and nobody would be poor if everyone tried to be the poorest. And everybody would be what [they] ought to be if everybody tried to be what [they] want the other to be.”
If we so “turn,” we and the world would be transformed! We would see more clearly the “end” of the converted life—both for ourselves and our neighbor—and we would surely see the reign of God in our midst!
Michael Boover lives at Annunciation House of Worcester, Massachusetts, and is part of the Mustard Seed Catholic Worker Community.