Twice over the past week or so I’ve sat in movie theatres packed with entranced 20-somethings. We (I’ll not exclude myself) sat entranced as, over two hours, we took the last steps of our long journey out of childhood. Sure that’s a little melodramatic. Sure, I felt a little out of place – OK, I’ll say it, a little old. But surely this is a series that has struck upon something deep, and there’s got to be some melodrama surrounding the movie that was the last echo of a generation-defining story.
As we walked out of the theatre, awkwardly pulling 3-D glasses off our heads, it seemed to me that varying versions of “Goodbye” could be heard on everyone’s lips. “I’m sad it’s over” one said, another: “Can you believe it’s the last one?” Even one young businesswoman in a suit lamenting with a wry smile: “I guess we’ll have to grow up now.”
So, and gimme your best movie preview announcer voice as you read this, I writing to say that: in a world that can no longer mark the transition from childhood to adulthood… Harry Potter part 7 (the 2nd) was certainly a marker.
But why? Why did a story about a growing up, about a child wizard, sweep millions of people off their feet, cause self-conscious 14-year-olds to don wizard hats and carry cardboard wands, and fill classrooms with sleepy eyed students the morning after a book release? And why does this last echo of new HP material mean an end of childhood? For me, the answer comes pretty quick: it’s because on some level we all wanted to be Harry.
I’m not trying to say that we all loved Harry the most, or that we wanted spells to burst forth whenever we said a couple words in Latin, or even ride in flying cars (although I’ll admit, all true for this guy). And I don’t mean that we wanted to be Harry because he was the hero (although for sure we want to be heroes sometimes). No, I think that so many people identified with, even longed to be like, Harry because he was the Chosen One. He, out of all of us, was the one who woke up feeling out of place only to discover that his feeling made sense, that there was another world right on top of this one, and that he belonged there. It’s not that he was the most powerful, it’s that he was chosen to belong in a world that fit him intimately, right down to charging that lightning-bolt scar with meaning.
The thing is, everyone who’s read these books, and all of us watching that last movie have known what it is to wake up feeling the long loneliness of being unloved and unnoticed in a metaphorical cupboard beneath a metaphorical stairway. And we’ve all known the (sometimes fleeting) moments of feeling that we are known, awaited, and beloved. In our all-too-real world of Bernie Madoff and Osama Bin Laden, of debt ceilings and inexhaustible, illimitable choices, it is the sense of belonging that I think we long for the most. Trite as it may seem, it’s that awkward feeling of being out of place, of there being something more, or that we are missing something essential that Facebook (and sometimes this very page) help us avoid.
Because it’s not only Ms. Rowling who has seen so clearly this truth that lies deep within the hearts of we fallible beings. It’s also St. Ignatius, and St. Augustine, and Karl Rahner as well. Augustine is most often remembered for what may in fact be his best line: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in You.” Humans beings at times feel the ache of being… misplaced, he seems to say. And Ignatius, whose 31st of July feast day coincides nicely with Harry’s birthday, held that “human beings are created to praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord.” He believed that we humans are made for union with something our own world struggles to communicate and can’t quite contain. And Karl Rahner, the great German theologian, wrote beautifully of the human being as “an emptiness for God, a question for which God is the only answer.” Here not only is there a deep longing within us, but it is that longing that constitutes us, that makes us human at all. Even Ms. Rowling herself, after years of denying the quite evident Christian parallels in her tale, has recently admitted as much, saying: “To me, the religious parallels have always been obvious.”
What I mean by all this is that Harry Potter has marked the end of youth for a generation longing to be affirmed in the quintessentially human experience of searching for a home in a strange world. I remember feeling something similar when, in the first of these books, Harry put on the Sorting Hat – a sentient black-pointed wizards hat which new wizards at Harry’s school must don in order to be sorted into one of four houses. Since the wizards of each house have particular qualities (courage, intelligence, etc.) being sorted into a particular house is being told, in some sense, who you are and who you are meant to be. As I read I thought to myself: how much we all long for such a secure sense of being known and of having been meant to belong in a particular group in a particular place.
Nearly every person who went to see this last HP movie knew what was coming. We all knew of Snape’s hidden goodness, and of Neville’s courage, and Harry’s death and resurrection. But still we all came. We came because it meant one last chance to be immersed in a world where we belonged. It was too good a chance to miss. All too soon each person in the theatre was going to be spit back into the “real” world regardless. It seems that Ms. Rowling and the screenwriters understood this (im- or ex-plicitly) as well. After all it was during the eye of the storm scene, when all was calm in a purgatory-like waiting platform between life and death, that our burgeoning adult question was put onto Harry’s lips. He had been talking with the God-the-Father-ly Professor Dumbledore about the opportunity he had to rise to life again, and Dumbledore was leaving too soon, fading into the pearl-white of the scene before the loose ends were tied up. And as he’s fading away Harry is calling questions after him, asking Dumbledore what he is supposed to do, asking to be set on a path once more, asking that his life be given just one more round of unassailable meaning. It’s right then that Ms. Rowling has Harry call out: “Professor, what should I do? Professor?!” He gets no reply.
It’s the truth that nearly every heart in those theatres felt the anxious tug of that non-answer. Because I’d wager that every one of our hearts has felt just the same, has longed for a clear response from God as to what we should do.
It is to Ms. Rowling’s great credit that she does not take the easy, Hollywood Blvd. way out here and have Dumbledore turn around and say something pithy (and assuredly shallow). That would have robbed her series of something profound, and would have kept those of us watching from so fully identifying with Harry — really, from being pushed into adulthood right along with him. Because it’s the same one, that question “what should I do?”, it’s the same one that we all must answer. The only real question is how… and perhaps whether we believe that our way of answering it makes a real difference. And this is where I wanted to suggest to all my fellow moviegoers that they not give up seeking answers to that question. Even more, that Sts. Augustine and Ignatius and Fr. Rahner had given us great clues as to how we might search. Those saints are whispering to us as surely as any Sorting Hat: “seek God, seek God, seek God. That is where you belong.”
The last scene of this last movie closed with the trustworthy, bright-red Hogwarts Express pulling off into the distance, billowing smoke behind it. It was heading again for Hogwarts, and this time we couldn’t come along. As its whistle blew dozens of kids leaned out of the windows waving goodbye – ostensibly waving to their on-screen families. But we who were watching knew the truth well enough: they were waving goodbye to us. Waving to those who could not come with them to that place we sensed so deeply that we belonged. As I walked out of the theatre and handed over my 3-D glasses to the teenaged attendant something in me wished they knew that, even though we were all now officially adults, this was one childhood dream they did not have to give up.
Harry Potter may have been just a wonderful fiction. Jesus, thank God, is quite real.