I’ll admit: I’m a bit of a sucker for police dramas and whodunits.
It doesn’t help to know that some of today’s most gripping serials are available for streaming on Netflix: If the pilot program is intriguing enough, I’m sorely tempted to binge-watch—taking in a season’s worth of shows over the course of just a week or two.
In recent days, this very defect of character reared its head in me. I started watching the BBC series “Happy Valley” and quickly got hooked (ironically, becoming a little like the drug-addled minor characters who populate so many of the Yorkshire valley’s neighborhoods in the show.)
Now be forewarned: There’s very little that’s explicitly Christian, or even wholesome, about the storyline. Just the opposite: You wind up seeing more than a few brutally violent scenes in a six-episode plot that turns on a kidnapping gone bad. And for the most part, the characters (both the “good guys” and the “bad”) are breathtakingly self-absorbed and self-indulgent.
Having said that, there’s something remarkably redemptive about the show’s main character—Sergeant Catherine Cawood. Early on, she uses this self-description to create common ground with a suicidal addict she encounters on her turf: “I’m Catherine, by the way; I’m 47; I’m divorced; I live with me sister who’s a recovering heroin addict; I have two grown-up children—one dead, one I don’t speak to; and a grandson.”
What Catherine doesn’t say is just how profoundly her basic decency and habits of self-sacrifice affect all those people (and more). She’s not a perfect person, by any stretch; but her righteousness, occasional self-pity and other flaws are tempered by an ability to accept the brokenness in others…while also cajoling them to become better persons.
Quite unexpectedly, then, this week’s brush with binge-watching turned into a lesson for me about Christian discipleship. The lesson crystallized at Mass this morning, when we heard a passage from Mark’s gospel in which Jesus sends the disciples out to preach the good news.
Mark says Jesus gave his emissaries “authority over unclean spirits.” And it’s precisely this authority that I recognize in the Cawood character, I think. She sees the unclean spirits in others, but refuses to let them be defined by them. She offers encouragement—and a suggested path forward—instead.
It doesn’t always work, of course—in Happy Valley, or in real life. People aren’t always going to be open to the invitations they receive for conversion of heart—and we may therefore wind up ‘shaking the dust off our feet in testimony against them,’ as Jesus puts it.
But we shouldn’t let the fear of failure (or the overwhelming odds we face) deter us from shining a tiny light into an otherwise dark world. It may be through those seemingly quixotic efforts that the journey to redemption begins.
Let us pause now…to recall that we are in the presence of the Holy One.