Over the Rainbow

The man who is often thinking that it is better to be somewhere else than where he is excommunicates himself.

-- Henry David Thoreau

The Wizard of Oz lends itself to all sorts of allegorical readings, not the least a reworking of John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, with Dorothy as the pilgrim and Oz as the Celestial City. Except that The Wizard of Oz is more nearly the reverse of the classic Christian work, since Dorothy no sooner arrives in Oz than she wants to go back where she came from. The moral of the story, which Dorothy delivers shortly before her ruby slippers whisk her back to Kansas: “If I go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t go looking any further than my own back yard.”  Notwithstanding the ending – indeed, perhaps because it -- The Wizard of Oz offers profound spiritual insights, even if they run counter to the otherworldly longings of popular religion.

The Wizard of Oz is remembered more today for the movie than the book, and the highlight of the film is Judy Garland’s iconic rendering of “Over the Rainbow,” as pure an expression of otherworldly longing as anyone could ask for. The song, which unaccountably was almost deleted from the film’s final cut, prefigures Dorothy’s sudden removal to Oz by means of a cyclone. Rainbows and bluebirds notwithstanding, Dorothy lived in a monochromatic world until the farmhouse in which she was riding landed on top of the Wicked Witch of the East, and the movie switched to glorious Technicolor. The color scheme was in keeping with both the text and illustrations of L. Frank Baum’s original story, which drew a sharp contrast between the drabness of turn-of-the-century Kansas and the vibrancy of Oz.

In the original story, Oz was a real place; not so in the movie version, where Dorothy wakes up in her own bed and is told she just had a bad dream after being struck on the head during the cyclone. “But it wasn’t a dream,” Dorothy protests. “It was a place.” Alas, no -- and that is the crucial difference between an earthly adventure and an otherworldly one, even if the latter is in glorious Technicolor. Dorothy’s sojourn in Oz was pure wish fulfillment. Her wish was to be anywhere but Kansas, and a knock on the head provided the means of escape, if only in her dreams. Dorothy’s pilgrimage was not entirely in vain, however. She eventually realized the Yellow Brick Road wasn’t getting her anywhere, even as she wound up gaining an audience with that old humbug, the Great and Terrible Oz. Her true pilgrimage began when she clicked the heels of her ruby slippers three times and repeated the magic words, “There’s no place like home.”

In spiritual terms, the lesson of The Wizard of Oz is that there is nowhere we can go and nothing we can do that will bring us any closer to God than we are right now. “God himself culminates in the present moment, and will never be more divine in the lapse of all the ages,” Thoreau wrote. Why then do we search elsewhere? For Dorothy, there was the drabness of her surroundings in Kansas and the crabby neighbor who called the sheriff on her dog Toto; for the rest of us, we have our own portion of heartache and the thousand natural shocks that the flesh is heir to, as Shakespeare once put it. It never occurs to us that God might be found even in the midst of our own suffering. “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal which comes upon you to prove you, as though something strange were happening to you,” the Apostle Peter advised long ago. Jean-Pierre de Caussade, an 18th-century Jesuit spiritual director, added, “You seek perfection and it lies in everything that happens to you – your suffering, your actions, your impulses are the mysteries under which God reveals himself to you.”

For de Caussade, as for Thoreau, God always culminates in the present moment – not somewhere over the rainbow and not in some land that we dreamed of once in a lullaby. “There is not a moment in which God does not present Himself under the cover of some pain to be endured, of some consolation to be enjoyed, or of some duty to be performed,” de Caussade wrote in his role as spiritual advisor to the Nuns of the Visitation in Nancy, France. “All that takes place within us, around us, or through us, contains and conceals His divine action.” You get the distinct impression that you cannot seek God without gritting your teeth. But better that than to turn away when some painful moment might prove to be the gateway to eternity.

1 Peter 4:12
Jean-Pierre de Caussade,
Abandonment to Divine Providence

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