Answer the call
Erin Thomassen | Thursday, March 9, 2017
I did not go to last weekend’s SUB movie “Moana” expecting to see a cartoon musical about what it means to be a saint. From the very beginning of the film, however, it was clear that “Moana” is not just a coming-of-age female empowerment tale with a few catchy songs. It is the portrayal of a saint, Moana, answering the call to return the power of life to its rightful divine owner, despite a lamentable lack of practical preparedness. It is also the story of how Moana, after accepting this call, is aided by supernatural powers of the Ocean to achieve her mission.
Though Disney may not have intended the Christian themes permeating the film, the theological connection cannot be denied. Moana is chosen by the ocean at a young age to embark upon a mission to save her island and people. “See the line where the sky meets the sea? It calls me,” she sings in the movie’s main theme, “How Far I’ll Go.” As the angel Gabriel asks Mary to deliver Christ into the world, Moana’s grandmother, the Ocean’s messenger, asks her to deliver the demi-god Maui to Te Fiti. As Mary responds to God’s call with the Magnificat, Moana responds to the Ocean’s call by leaping into a boat and venturing out beyond the reef, a physical manifestation of her assent.
As the movie continues, it becomes clear that Moana’s mission also has a theological center. Maui, a demi-god attempting to prove his own heroic character, stole the heart of Te Fiti to give humans power over creation and “life itself.” Yet when humans instead of Te Fiti usurp this power, flora and fauna on and around the island begin to die. Moana has been called to return the heart to the god of creation. This plot line parallels the story of how humans, in their desire to be like God, took the forbidden fruit and ended up cursing the human race and introducing death into a garden of life. Moana then plays the role of Mary, facilitating the voyage of a divine being to redeem wrongs.
As Mary and saints throughout the ages have encountered cultural pushback from attempting to carry out God’s will on earth, Moana receives disapproval from the villagers and especially her father. Rules have been established that she must obey: stay inside the reef and stay safe. Rules were also established in Mary’s day, namely to not become pregnant before getting married. If Moana and Mary made their decisions based on what pleased their parents and their society, they would not have allowed the Ocean or God to save their people by working through them. This is when the oft-difficult verse from Luke begins to make sense: “If any man come to me and hate not his father and mother… he cannot be my disciple.” Moana, like Mary, does not let fear of judgment and adversity prevent her from saying yes to her mission.
Furthermore, Moana discovers that the rules imposed on her people prevent them from being who they were supposed to be: voyagers. Yet saints who attempt to remind people who they were created to be often experience criticism because of a fear of change, suffering and sacrifice. Moana, however, does not allow the possibility of injury or even death dissuade her from completing her mission. Though she is almost killed the first time she ventures past the reef, she returns, confident the Ocean will help her complete her journey. In a similar way, saints such as missionary priests represented in the film “Silence” have returned to life-threatening situations to spread the Gospel and care for the needy.
It wasn’t easy for Moana or Mary to embrace the weighty tasks fallen to them. They both felt unprepared for such responsibility; Maui points out that Moana is basically an “eight-year old with no sailing experience,” and Mary is a powerless Jewish female villager. Moana and Mary can only accomplish their mission because of divine aid, whether it is Moana getting repeatedly placed back upon the ship after getting knocked off or Mary receiving the graces of Immaculate Conception. Both Moana and Mary’s stories show that if saints work to answer God’s call, He will meet them there. The film also highlights that saints, or Moana, would not be able to carry out the will of God, or the Ocean, without His help; if they tried, they would not be saints, but ‘heroes’ like Maui trying to prove their own prowess.
Faced with overwhelming obstacles, Moana is tempted to abandon ship. She throws the heart of Te Fiti in the Ocean, too weary to continue, begging it to choose someone else. The spirit of her grandma, reincarnated as an eel, appears to strengthen her. She does not tell Moana what to do, but helps her remember who she is. Moana’s grandmother’s reappearance is reminiscent of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist: we consume him to be saved and and be strengthened to save others. As her grandma is gone when Moana resurfaces, Christ does not stay physically present with us forever on this earth. Eventually, we must leave Mass and Adoration and draw upon the strength we received previously to continue our discipleship.
Watching Moana answer her vocation may lead us to ask: what is our call? It is worth noting that Moana’s vocation was directly linked to her deepest desires and truest identity. She sings: “I’ve been standing at the edge of the water, Long as I can remember, never really knowing why.” Like Moana, we should ask ourselves why we have certain prolonged longings and what we are called to do with those desires that reappear despite suppression.
Correction: An earlier version of this column incorrectly stated the heart of Te Fiti was the heart of Tahini in “Moana.” The Observer regrets this error.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.