Zootopia edged out Disney’s Moana for Best Animated Film at the Academy Awards, and  I thought the least I could do in protest was offer this blog post. Moana was delightful, and surprisingly resonant with themes in Catholic-Christian spirituality.  Finding unintended meaning in a book or movie goes against my usual historical method, but I can’t help noticing the overlap between the things I study and the plot of this Polynesian flick.  Moana is a good theologian! So now, without further ado, here are four themes from Moana and their counterparts in spiritual life.

Vocation.  Mother Teresa was once asked how a woman knows when she has a religious vocation.  She smiled and responded, “The woman called to religious life – She knows! She knows!” This sense exploded from the screen during the first scenes of Moana.  She has a clear role on the island, but longs for more (so far, a classic Disney trope).  Looking out over the sea, she senses something in its vastness that will fulfill her in ways island life cannot. Here is the refrain from Moana’s theme, “How Far I’ll Go”:

See the light where the sky meets the sea
It calls me
No one knows how far it goes
If the wind in my sail on the sea stays behind me
One day I’ll know
If I go there’s just no telling how far I’ll go

Listening, I cannot help but recall Christ’s command to the fishermen to “Put out into the deep” (Luke 5:4), or Peter’s line to Jesus on the water, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water” (Matt 14:28).  In Scripture, the ocean is a place of risk, of vulnerability, of subjection to the unknown.  Yet it is also a place where God is found, and where God’s will is done.  This brings a peace that the ocean tumult cannot upset.

Gratitude.  When Moana meets the demi-god Maui, he assumes she came to thank him for everything he has given the human race.  Moana, eager to get on with her mission, is somewhat frustrated throughout  Maui’s number “You’re Welcome.” Maui’s humorous, self-congratulatory song challenges Moana to look past her immediate plans and express gratitude.  Before she could tell him what she needed, she had to remember what she had been given already. This reminds me of a beloved professor at Notre Dame, John Cavadini, who often said that the whole of Christian life is about learning to say “thank you.”

Pilgrimage. This is my personal favorite. Moana’s grandmother Tala is sympathetic to her wanderlust and leads Moana to a secluded cave. There, a hidden collection of ships tells the story of Moana’s people: before they settled into island life, they used to be wayfarers, exploring the sea for new places to flourish.

The language of wayfaring, or pilgrimage, is replete in Catholic tradition.  The Catechism explains that God created the universe in statu viae, that is, in a state of journeying toward the Creator. And Thomas Aquinas discusses the hope of the viator, or wayfarer, who journeys  toward eternal life.

Moana’s history, too, instills a sense of hope in her; it explains her desires and encourages her to follow them. It means her desire for something more than island life is written in her by her past, recalling John Paul II’s line in Fides et Ratio, “in the far reaches of the human heart there is a seed of desire and nostalgia for God.”

Witness.  Finally, Moana returns to her people and fulfills her role as chief.  She does so after unexpected twists and turns, as a stronger woman.  She tells her people the story of who they are, and teaches them how to live out that identity.  In the end, we see that Moana’s courage to follow her calling was not an abandonment of her community.  Instead, she grew into a woman who could serve her community with everything she had.  This reminds me of a quotation by Frederick Buechner, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”