Lilies of the Field (1963)
by Jonathan Walker
We often talk about God sending us blessings, but the extent to which God plays a role in our lives rather than just people acting on their own agency is rarely understood. Lilies of the Field explores this issue and offers a compelling solution.
Homer Smith (Sidney Poitier) has been living out of his car as he heads west, “maybe Los Angeles.” Passing through the Southwestern desert his car gets “thirsty” and he stops at a small Catholic mission to get some water for the radiator. The mission is run by several East German nuns who are amazed to see the stranger. They see him as the answer to their prayers. He will build the chapel that they have longed for. Schmidt (as they call him) has different plans. He’s “just passing through,” and anyway, he’s Baptist. Homer’s need for cash compels him to agree to work odd jobs for one day, but that day turns into many.
Lilies has an understated elegance. While the film is consumed with religious ideas, none of them overpower the simple story about people. It’s a sermon, but not overtly. And that quality of telling an honest story first comes out in the style of the film. Sidney Poitier’s portrayal as a frustrated, but honest carpenter justly won him an Academy Award. The stark images and simple cinematic elements reinforce the stoic lifestyle of the nuns. And just as Schmidt’s arrival turns that stoicism up-side-down, the soundtrack’s Gospel music acts as effective counterpoint to the images.
For all of Mother Maria’s insistence that Homer is an answer to their prayers, the film is not meant to be didactic, metaphoric, or propagandistic. The idea of God’s answer to prayers is just the crux of the film. Maria is adamant about God’s participation, but Juan, the owner of the trading post, is at least as skeptical. “You pray hard enough and your stomach doesn’t feel empty anymore. Praying does not pay the rent… God ain’t going to get behind this counter and sling hash.” He admits to having a hard time seeing anything beyond this world, but does not discount the belief of others. The viewer is left to decide whether Mother Maria or Juan is right. Even though the film does not force an answer upon us, the answer, I think, can be found in it.
The answer to whether God had anything to do with the situation is actually found by looking at Homer and the way he goes about to build the chapel. Homer wants to do it alone, but the local people throw their labor into it and make real progress. Homer withdraws since he can no longer fulfill his long-time dream to build something lasting by himself. During his despondency, Maria chastises him. “God is out there building the chapel and you sit in here feeling sorry for yourself because you’re not him.”
The film’s message is wrapped up in seeing Homer’s success in building the chapel as a model for how God accomplishes his work among people. He ultimately learns what God has known all along: you accomplish a task more efficiently when you let others help. Does Homer build the chapel or do the local people? Both. Did God build the chapel or did Homer? Both. Homer built the chapel as a contractor, planner, and supervisor just as God answers people’s prayers as a master planner.
Homer even said it at the beginning of the process. The three things you need to build a chapel is a plan, labor, and materials. In the lives of all these characters, they think that they are building a chapel, or passing through town, or running their own businesses, but only God sees the overall plan. Just like Homer is the only one who sees the overall plan for the chapel. Without him, everyone runs in different directions. With him, they seem to be doing their own things, but they are actually moving in orchestration to accomplish a single task.
God has the plan, honest people provide the labor, and material has a way of making itself available (especially when God is the general contractor).
In the heat of the moment, even the most faithful forget this fact. Although her faith is the strongest, even Mother Maria stumbles. Having secured Homer’s services, she feels the pressure to get the materials. She sends query letters to dozens of philanthropic organizations only to be denied by all of them. She admits, “I failed because I put my faith in people, instead of in God.” She recovers her perspective in her repeated mantra, “Everything works out.” Homer complains about the lack of materials and all she can say is “everything works out; it’s God’s will.” “That we get brick or don’t get brick?” She simply responds, “Whatever.”
By the end of the film we see that God answered more prayers than just the nuns’. The building of the chapel answered several prayers at the same time. God gives Father Murphy his “vain and selfish” wish to have a comfortable place of worship and answers Homer’s long-prayed-for desire to build something significant. When Homer finishes the steeple, he signs his name in the mortar where only God can see it. He looks up in reverence at the cross, revealing gratitude not pride.
Juan was right about one thing: God is not going to get behind his counter to sling hash, or behind adobe to sling mortar. His involvement in the world is no less literal, he just knows where to find good employees. The chapel was erected, prayers were answered, and lives were lifted not because nobody did any work, but because the Lord took care of things. The lilies of the field are beautiful because the Lord made them that way.
2001 Meridian Magazine. All Rights Reserved.