by Anna Burnham | February 7, 2021
Greta Gerwig’s 2017 film Lady Bird tells the story of Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan), a high school senior at an all-girls’ Catholic school in suburban Sacramento during the 2002-2003 school year. If you haven’t seen it, there actually isn’t too much of a plot to relay; it’s one of those seemingly-simple coming-of-age movies where the plot follows the ebb and flow of senior year: college applications, the school musical, prom. When it was released, it evoked a fervent, familiar devotion in products of Catholic school from boring suburban places everywhere. I’ve seen it more times than I, erstwhile attendee of York Catholic High School in York, Pennsylvania, can count.
To say that Lady Bird has a lot of religion in it is not, I hope, too hard of a sell. The opening credits are set over a school Mass. There are nuns. Characters snack on (unconsecrated!) communion wafers when ditching class. The Virgin Mary is painted on the school’s walls. The poster features our protagonist in serene, saintly profile, a crucifix blurred in the background, the movie title centered in a gothic font that evokes old religious texts. Religious imagery infuses this film, but its engagement with religion goes far beyond its aesthetic. This is a movie that integrates religion and theology on a deep, thematic level.
In an interview during the press tour for Lady Bird, writer/director/queen of my heart Greta Gerwig revealed that the inspiration behind the main “organizing principle” of her coming-of-age story was, indeed, divine. “I was always interested in who [the saints] were as people and that they both were these people who were divinely inspired, but they were also kind of just annoying teenagers,” she said. “God can use whatever you have even if it looks unpromising. Even if you’re just kind of an arrogant teenager, that can be something that’s transformed into something holy.”
For the uninitiated, the saints and their lives are an essential part of the Catholic tradition. Growing up Catholic, their stories and examples were conferred with as much importance as biblical stories, their feasts celebrated with regularity (we got our throats blessed with candles on the Feast of St. Blaise, the patron saint of…throats), their patronage invoked when traveling (St. Christopher), taking a test (St. Joseph of Cupertino), or playing a sporting match (Our Lady Queen of Victory). The canonized saints are people who have—we were taught—lived lives of exceptional holiness. They are set apart, marked, otherworldly in that holiness. And yet, as Gerwig mused in that interview, all the saints who lived to adulthood were teenagers who were probably quite annoying at some point in their lives, but we rarely hear about that part of the story in favor of their later “important” deeds. What would the story of a messy teenage saint figuring it all out look like?
In one scene, Lady Bird is about to launch into an earnest performance of a Sondheim piece as her audition for the school musical when she is asked if Lady Bird is her “given name.” Brashly defiant and baselessly confident in the way only a teenager can be, she responds, “Yes. Well I gave it to myself. It’s given to me, by me.” The audition then begins, complete with expressive hand choreography. She receives an unnamed role in the company. In scenes like this throughout the film, Lady Bird is taking her place in a long line of impertinent, self-assured teenagers committed to carving out their own identities as they fervently seek purpose; that is to say, she is taking her place in a long line of saints.
There is a word for a written life of a saint: hagiography. Hagiography emerged as a distinct literary genre in the Middle Ages, but instead of the true-to-life biographies we’re used to today, these lives of the saints were more akin to myths, used to teach and instruct the faithful. Courageous hero-warrior saints more closely resembled figures in epic poems of the time than real, fallible people. In fact, these stories were so laudatory that over time, “hagiography” came to most commonly be used as a critical term to describe a biography or a profile that presents its subject in an uncomplicated, overly complimentary light. The term has shifted from describing a life of a saint to describing the life of someone the profiler treats as such.
In Lady Bird, Gerwig imagines what a teenage saint might look like if she were a normal girl in Sacramento, and we see what a hagiography might look like if it were honest. Lady Bird is certainly no idealized Middle Ages hero-warrior saint figure, but instead a brash, kind, loving person who messes up a lot and is sometimes mean to her mom and her friends. Though we mostly hear about the “capital S” saints (the people officially canonized by the Church who get to put “Saint” in front of their name), all people can be small s-saints in the Catholic tradition. Some form of sainthood is available to all of us in our daily lives. In 1949, as Trappist monk Thomas Merton meditated on this concept, he wrote, “For me to be a saint means to be myself. Therefore the problem of sanctity and salvation is in fact the problem of finding who I am and of discovering my true self.” I think Merton is merely describing a process we know by a more familiar name: growing up.
I would argue that religion and growing up share something vital in common. They are both about myth-making, which is to say they are both about constructing meaning through identity: personal, social, and collective identity. Lives of the saints, especially, start with how an individual (the saint) cultivates a life and an identity, but they live on because a community later builds meaning around that person and their life. Growing up—finding our identity and our place within our society and community—is the process of building our own myth and figuring out what the truest forms of ourselves are.
Merton also wrote, “Our vocation is not simply to be but to work together with God in the creation of our own life, our own identity, our own destiny.” According to him, the process of becoming—alongside God (if that’s your thing) or just in the world with and among others (if God’s not your thing)—is saintly action because it is about co-creation of our own life, our own identity, and our own destiny. We see Lady Bird constantly trying to become the best version of herself while also navigating that the “best” version might not always be the same as the truest version of herself. There is a scene where Lady Bird and her mother, Marion (Laurie Metcalf), are shopping in a thrift store for a prom dress for Lady Bird when Marion says something hurtful. As explanation, she continues, “I just want you to be the best version of yourself,” to which her daughter quietly responds, “What if this is the best version?” In this scene, I see a teenage saint at work.
Through Lady Bird, Gerwig gives the life of a modern-day teenage saint the care and attention of a hagiographer. By taking girlhood and adolescence seriously—by deeming it worthy of artistic attention—she assigns significance where many others do not. And by directing that care towards it, Gerwig actually marks the film’s subject of growing up as something sacred.
To understand this, you need to know about another loveable weirdo in the great canon of adolescent womanhood: the French philosopher, activist, mystic, and writer Simone Weil. Weil died in 1943 after a short life of earnest and tragic attempts at solidarity with the poor and marginalized that were constantly foiled by a lack of physical aptitude to match her spirit (once, her parents had to come get her from the Spanish Civil War when her short-sightedness led her to accidentally fire her rifle at a container of hot oil and she suffered burns as a result—there are many more examples). Her writing wrestled with big questions: God, love, prayer. One luminous scene in Lady Bird suggests that Gerwig is no stranger to Weil. Lady Bird is in the office of her theology teacher, Sister Sarah Joan, as they discuss Lady Bird’s future with a touching warmth and mutual respect. The scene unfolds:
Sister Sarah Joan: “I read your college essay. You clearly love Sacramento.”
Lady Bird: “I do?”
SSJ: “You write about Sacramento so affectionately and with such care.”
LB: “Well, I was just describing it.”
SSJ: “Well, it comes across as love.”
LB: “Sure. I guess I pay attention.”
SSJ: “Don’t you think maybe they are the same thing? Love and attention?”
Sister Sarah Joan suggests that Lady Bird sees what others do not see in Sacramento because she pays attention to it in a way others do not, and this means that she loves it. For Simone Weil, love was the very act of noticing, of looking, of paying attention. She thought love and attention are “maybe the same thing,” just as Sister Sarah Joan suggests. Weil also believed that loving is inherently creative because it creates meaning where others do not see it; it is generative, it produces. “Love for our neighbor, being made of creative attention, is analogous to genius,” she wrote. “Creative attention means really giving our attention to what does not exist. Love sees what is invisible.”
I would take this concept further: not only does love see what’s invisible, but loving something (i.e., directing fixed attention to it) actually gives it significance. Weil believed that because love of one another is tied to love of God, loving someone is a prayerful, sacred act. To love something is to make it holy. She wrote, “Religion is nothing else but a looking.” This can be flipped, too, I think: looking—loving, paying attention—is a sort of religion. Looking at something and assigning it meaning makes it sacred, because that which captures our fixed love and attention is that in which we put our faith, whether literal or proverbial. By writing the story of a normal teenage girl like Lady Bird—by deciding that her story of growing up matters—Gerwig puts her faith in that story. She makes it sacred.
I cannot help but think it so simple: something is holy if we decide it is. And I suppose it matters to me that we continue to do so. It matters to me that we continue to mark things that matter to us as sacred and holy, especially when so much of our maladapted, institutional religion focuses on sacredness only in the context of the cathedrals, rituals, and pages of the Bible from which so many young people—rightfully, righteously, understandably—have removed themselves. By marking something as sacred, we confer spiritual significance: to our relationships, to the bends and turns of our lives, to the movies we love.
In Lady Bird, Gerwig sees what others render invisible: the sanctity of one normal teenage girl in early 2000s Sacramento coming to know herself through the pain and ecstasy of growing up. In the twenty-first century hagiography on screen that is this film, we watch a teenage saint growing into sainthood—one that, in its fullest form, “means to be myself.”