Finding God in Crockett Island’s Song

Blue and red flashes illuminate an ichthus. As the camera pans to a wider scene, and we realise the metallic fish is actually a bumper sticker on a convertible that has collided with a Volkswagen Beetle. Sitting on the sidewalk is Riley Flynn, the convertible driver, watching paramedics attempt to resuscitate the driver of the Beetle—a young woman killed while he was driving drunk. The paramedics give up, realising they cannot save her. With her body still on the ground, her bloodied face turned in Riley’s direction, Riley begins reciting the Lord’s Prayer. An officer approaches him and says, ‘While you’re at it, ask him why he always takes the kids while the drunk fucks walk away with scratches.’1

Riley is subsequently incarcerated, and an image of his victim haunts him as he tries to sleep.

This, the opening scene of Mike Flanagan’s Midnight Mass, introduces a few important questions explored throughout the show: how do we handle the circumstances of our lives? How do we accompany each other in grief and trial? And where is God in the midst of it all?

While various aesthetic features of the show might suggest answers to these questions,2 I hope to explore them through Midnight Mass’s soundtrack, showing how the first and last hymns incorporated in the soundtrack—‘Abide with Me’ and ‘Nearer, My God, to Thee’—transform darkness, creating a sonic frame by which to experience surrender to Divine Providence, as well as God’s presence made manifest in acts of sacrificial love.

 

‘Fast falls the eventide’

After his release from prison, Riley returns home to Crockett Island, an isolated fishing community facing dwindling population and economic hardship. Upon his return, we hear the first hymn, ‘Abide with me’,3 and are introduced to two principal themes of the show: enveloping darkness and pleading for God’s presence.

The piece begins when Riley and his father, Ed, conclude a healing conversation in Riley’s bedroom after a tense encounter at the dinner table. As Riley’s father bids him a good night, we hear the first line of the hymn:

Abide with me: fast falls the eventide

Riley and Ed must learn to cohabitate once again, both having been transformed by time, absence, and the weight of guilt and shame related to Riley’s actions. Just as the choir pleads ‘Abide with me’ with childlike dependence on God, we now imagine Riley depending on his own father with new-found humility.

The scene then cuts to Sheriff Hassan and Ali praying in Ali’s bedroom, and we hear the remainder of the verse:

the darkness deepens; Lord, with me abide.
When other helpers fail and comforts flee,
Help of the helpless, O abide with me.4

At this last line, ‘Help of the helpless,’ Sheriff Hassan instructs Ali to ‘kiss [his] mother’ before he falls asleep. As Ali takes hold of a picture of his mother on his nightstand, the audience realises Sheriff Hassan’s wife is dead and recontextualises Hassan and Ali’s relationship in light of grief.

During the second verse, we encounter another parent-child relationship as Sarah Gunning accompanies her mother down the stairs after she mistakenly begins climbing them to return to the room where she slept before her worsening dementia:

I need thy presence every passing hour.
What but thy grace can foil the tempter’s power?
Who like thyself my guide and stay can be?
Through cloud and sunshine, O abide with me.

As the choir sings ‘Through cloud and sunshine’, O abide with me,’ Sarah helps her mother into bed, sitting with her, letting her rest on her shoulder. This time, the parent-child situation is reversed, as Mildred’s declining health has left her in need of Sarah’s constant care and attention. The audience once again witnesses the profundity not only of the characters’ suffering but also of their concern for one another in the midst of suffering—their willingness to abide with one another.

As the third verse begins, we return to Riley’s room, where Riley looks out his window in time to witness his brother, Warren, sneaking out of the house:

Hold thou thy cross before my closing eyes.
Shine through the gloom and point me to the skies.
Heaven’s morning breaks and earth’s vain shadows flee;
in life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.

Warren looks back at the window, notices his brother looking back at him, and adopts a guilty expression. In the spirit of fraternity, Riley waves him on. Though Warren has matured since Riley saw him last, Riley still sees an innocence in his brother, a spirit free from the disturbance and jadedness he feels.

After this tender moment, Riley returns to bed, eyes wide open once more. ‘In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me’ is repeated, and after a few seconds of silence, the image of Riley’s victim appears again to haunt Riley’s conscience.

‘Abide with Me’ frames these encounters, underscoring the twofold effect of abiding presence in in the darkness of ‘eventide’: it honours the reality of grief through solidarity, and helps the sufferer carry on by uniting this grief with acts of self-giving love. The characters’ love for one another makes God’s love present and palpable, as ‘love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God’.5

In Abandonment to Divine Providence, Jean Pierre de Caussade writes that ‘it is only by constant crosses, and by a long succession of all kinds of mortifications, trials, and deprivations, that pure love becomes established in the soul. This must continue until all things created become as though they did not exist, and God becomes all in all’.6 Even amidst personal struggles with loss, each character sacrifices for the sake of others. This attitude towards each other remains central and critical throughout the show, as the community of Crockett Island undergoes terrifying trials.

Riley is not the only new person on Crockett Island, as a priest named Father Paul Hill arrives to temporarily pastor the town’s Catholic church while the regular pastor, Monsignor Pruitt, recovers from a health scare. Not long after the charismatic Father Paul arrives on Crockett Island, little ‘miracles’ begin changing the town’s makeup. Ed Flynn’s chronic back pain disappears, paralysed Leeza Scarborough walks again, and Mildred Gunning de-ages.

The miraculous turns horrific during the cataclysmic Easter Vigil, when Father Paul ‘confesses’ that he is the source of the miracles is the blood of an ‘Angel’, blood he has been adding to the communion wine. He then reveals the Angel to the community, and those attending Mass are encouraged to drink poison to die and ‘resurrect’, fortified by the Angel’s blood. Some try to escape, but find that compatriots Bev and Sturge have locked the doors. Most drink the poison, and those who transform into vampires turn on their fellow parishioners. In the last episode, the newly-turned vampires descend upon the town, burning homes so as to impede any chance of shelter from their ravage. They turn a few unsuspecting townspeople into vampires and kill most others, believing they are destined to bring about the promises of the apocalypse.

 

A Final Congregational Song

Crockett Island soon transforms from a sleepy town to a burning hellscape. Yet, even in the midst of such great horror, a few townspeople live out the sacrificial love first witnessed during ‘Abide with Me’.

Sheriff Hassan attempts to burn the church’s recreation centre, the safehouse in which Bev and Sturge plan to house the vampires from the rising sun. Bev shoots him, leaving him unable to reach the building. Ali, himself turned at the Vigil Mass, recovers his sense of human compassion as he watches his father in pain, and sets the building ablaze.

As the centre burns, we learn that the vampires had planned to escape to the mainland the following day to infect the wider population. Now, with their only shelter burning, they have nowhere to turn. Most vampires, like Ali, come to realize the extent of evil they have wrought, expressing remorse for their actions.

The sun slowly rises on the horizon, and inhabitants of the burning island gather on the beach, awaiting their inevitable incineration.

We see first return to Annie Flynn, who had previously used herself as bait for Bev and Sturge to let Erin, the Sheriff, Warren, and Leeza escape to safety. While her act of self-sacrificial love would rightfully warrant existential frustration, she now dons only a tranquil smile. Accompanied only by the crackling fires around her, she sings, tenderly swaying with Ed—

Nearer, my God, to thee, nearer to thee!
e’en though it be a cross that raiseth me,

He joins her in song—

still all my song shall be,
nearer, my God, to thee,
nearer, my God, to thee, nearer to thee!

Both Ed and Annie were turned unwillingly, and as such, have faced the extreme hunger that their fellow vampires face. Yet both have refrained from feasting on human blood to honour their dignity and the dignity of their neighbours.

We hear new voices join in the next verse, as we watch Ali and Sheriff Hassan praying together, facing the rising sun over the East, as a lonely Bev onlooks—

Though like the wanderer, daylight all gone,
darkness be over me, my rest a stone;
yet in my dreams I’d be
nearer, my God, to thee;
nearer, my God, to thee, nearer to thee! 

John Pruitt and Mildred Gunning sit together with the body of their dead daughter, Sarah—

There let the way appear, steps unto heaven; 

Before Sarah’s death, John confessed to her that he was her father and that he regretted he could not be in her life, but that he was proud of her.

Warren and Leeza, two of the few townspeople never to have turned, reach safety on a boat, watching the island burn up in flames—

all that thou sendest me, in mercy given; 

The Sheriff finally collapses by his son—

angels to beckon me
nearer, my God, to thee;
nearer, my God, to thee, nearer to thee! 

Bev frantically digs, attempting to save herself in the approaching sunlight—

Then, with my waking thoughts bright with thy praise,
out of my stony griefs Bethel I’ll raise;

She spends her last minutes desperately avoiding the fate she has brought upon herself (quite literally) with her head in the sand.

The remaining townspeople, joined together and surrounded by flames, have lost everything—

so by my woes to be
nearer, my God, to thee;
nearer, my God, to thee, nearer to thee! 

All that remains is each other and the hope of what will be.

In the final iteration of the song’s refrain, we see final glimpses of each relationship as the sun incinerates the townspeople—

still all my song shall be,
nearer, my God, to thee;
nearer, my God, to thee, nearer to—

 

‘E’en though it be a cross’

In their last moments, the townspeople recognise their duty to one another.

‘On then, my soul,’ de Caussade writes, ‘through perils and monsters, guided and sustained by that mighty invisible hand of divine Providence. On, without fear, to the end, in peace and joy, and make all the incidents of life occasions of fresh victories.’7 The townspeople transform their final moments on earth into a fresh victory by accepting their circumstances, sacrificing themselves out of love for one another, and uniting together in the hope of what is to come. Perhaps it is in these last moments that we see God’s love made manifest, the imago Dei made clearest, and God becoming ‘all in all’.8

The choice to sing one last time as a community—and particularly, to sing a devotional hymn on this collective deathbed—paints a striking image for the viewer. ‘Somehow, when we sing,’ writes Nancy Hardy, ‘we’re able to articulate our beliefs and deep longings of our souls. And when we sing together, the Spirit can move us to become part of a greater whole.’9 In singing ‘Nearer, My God, to Thee’, the townspeople articulate the ‘deep longings’ of their souls: to be with their Creator, in Whose image they were created.

Is it possible that an island of vampires might point us to what it means to be fully human, and, in turn, allow us to reveal God to one another? On Crockett Island, we watch the duty of the present moment shift from mundane sacrifices witnessed during ‘Abide with Me’, to the sacrifice of one’s life for the sake of others. In ‘Nearer, My God, to Thee’, we see the reward of this duty—rest in God’s Providence. The hymns frame the show in God’s love, a love whose measure was first revealed on the cross, a love made manifest in each act of sacrificial love for one another, a love ‘to the end’.

1. “Book I: Genesis.” Midnight Mass, no. 1.
2. Matthew Nelson’s Transpositions piece, “Thirsting for God: Midnight Mass, ‘Bloodthirsty’ Religion, and the American Gothic Nightmare,” explores some of these themes through a Southern Gothic lens.
3. “Book I: Genesis.” Midnight Mass, no. 1.
4. “Abide with Me,” Midnight Mass: S1 (Soundtrack from the Netflix Series) (Los Angeles, 2021).
5. 1 John 4:7.
6. Jean Pierre de Caussade. Abandonment to Divine Providence. Grand Rapids, MI: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 62.
7. Jean Pierre de Caussade. Abandonment to Divine Providence, 101.
8. Cf. Abandonment to Divine Providebce, 62; and 1 Corinthians 15:28.
9. Nancy E. Hardy, “The Transforming Power of Congregational Song,” 35.
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