Friday, December 19, 2014

Lessons from the Moviegoer

...when I awake, I awake in the grip of everydayness.  Everydayness is the enemy.  No search is possible.  Perhaps there was a time when everydayness was not too strong and one could break its grip by brute strength.  Now nothing breaks it--but disaster.  Only once in my life was the grip of everydayness broken: when I lay bleeding in a ditch.  

In a sudden rage and, as if I had been seized by a fit, I roll over and fall in a heap on the floor and lie shivering on the boards, worse off than the miserablest muskrat in the swamp.  Nevertheless I vow: I'm a son of a bitch if I'll be defeated by the everydayness.  

(The everdayness is everywhere now, having begun in the cities and seeking out the remotest nooks and corners of the countryside, even the swamps.) 

Jack "Binx" Bolling is the Moviegoer.  He enjoys watching movies, making money, and romancing his secretaries.  He is selfish, unfeeling, and uncommitted.

He sits back in his theater seat to casually watch the unfolding of life, an observer rather than a participant.  Most people mark their memories by critical, moving events in their lives: births, marriages, deaths.  Binx, on the contrary, recalls the movies he has seen.  They are an escape from reality, from responsibility and ownership.

Yet, on the eve of his thirtieth birthday, Binx feels the nudge of the "search."  Something is missing.  Something is not quite right.

The idea of a search is the basis of Walker Percy's The Moviegoer.  The novel was Percy's first and most well-known work.  It was published in 1961 and won the U.S. National Book Award.  The narration is definitively Southern in tone and detail, the events of the book taking place within the week of Mardis Gras in New Orleans.  

Percy was a reader of Kierkegaard and begins his novel with a quote from the philosopher: "...the specific character of despair is precisely this: it is unaware of being despair."

On the surface, it seems like Binx has everything he needs.  He leads a comfortable life, has a secure job, enjoys the company of his interchangeable secretaries--romances with no responsibility or commitment required.  Yet, he is a man riddled with despair, constantly plagued by "the malaise."

Upon entering a movie theater, Binx must speak with the ticket-seller or owner of the theater, to ground himself in the concrete "here" and "now."  Otherwise, he fears slipping into the mercurial "anywhere" that threatens him, for this very movie he will watch could be seen in any city in any state by any person.  He doesn't want to be Anybody in Anyplace.

He wants to have meaning.  And therein begins the search.

Binx describes one morning looking at the collection of items loosely scattered across his dresser's surface: his wallet, a notebook, pencil, keys.  They are objects he fingers every day, places in his pocket each morning and carries along with him.  Yet he never stops to truly examine them, to note their details or individual qualities.  Though with him at all times, they are for the most part, invisible.  

It seems to be an insignificant scene of little weight, but I think it points to the lesson Percy addresses in his work.

What do we carry around with us, each day, without ever being fully aware of its presence?  How often do we stop to examine grace?  Grace keeps us alive.  It is our life-source.  But are we even aware of it?

The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life...To become aware of the possibility of the search is to be onto something.  Not to be onto something is to be in despair.   

To realize that there is a search...that there is something the first step.  Without a search, there is despair: the daily grind, the wheel of time spinning day in and day out.

The Moviegoer is a book about existentialism.  What's the purpose of existing?  Are we all just movie-goers, set to watch life unfold?  The despair of apathy, of lukewarmness is the enemy here.  "So because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth" (Revelation 3:16).  In a passage with similar meaning, Percy writes:

Christians talk about the horror of sin, but they have overlooked something.  They keep talking as if everyone were a great sinner, when the truth is that nowadays one is hardly up to it.  There is very little sin in the depths of the malaise.  The highest moment of a malaisian's life can be that moment when he manages to sin like a proper human being (Look at us, Binx--my vagabond friends as good as cried out to me--we're sinning!  We're succeeding!  We're human after all!) 

Percy's novel is highly subtle.  It is not plot-driven and there isn't much resolution.  It seems, in the end, that Binx has changed a little, in the sense that he isn't wandering but now committed in marriage to someone else.  

There is no St. Paul conversion moment for Binx.  Like I said, the book is quite muted in its message--very nuanced.  Maybe it harkens to Percy's own religious experience.  Percy was no stranger to tragedy, both of his parents having committed suicide.  Over time, Percy was drawn to Catholicism by the example of his roommate, who faithfully attended daily Mass. That quiet witness was the spark of conversion.

Percy may have written The Moviegoer as a critique of contemporary America.  It certainly is relevant today, fifty-four years later.  So many Americans live affluent, comfortable lives and are utterly depressed.

The Moviegoer isn't a "feel-good" book.  I don't know if Binx lived "happily ever after."  But  life isn't a movie and things don't always wrap up perfectly in the end.

Maybe, however, that's the point.  Things aren't supposed to be tied together and solved.  It's all about the search.  And the minute someone abandons the search, he or she is already lost.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Lessons from Ivan Ilyich

Maybe I didn't live as I should?

A friend once said that we should pray for final perseverance at least once per day.  Final perseverance is the gift of remaining in a state of grace--of being united with God--until the moment of death.  As Our Lord said, "He that shall persevere unto the end, he shall be saved" (Matthew 10:22).

So, upon this wonderful recommendation, I've acquired the habit of praying for final perseverance right before I fall asleep.  As my head hits the pillow, I close my eyes and pray to God that mortal sin will never separate me from Him.  I pray that my husband, our children, our parents, my siblings, all our family & friends, and those souls most in need of God's mercy...that all of these people will know God's friendship and be reconciled and united with Him before death comes.

This has been on my mind frequently as I recently finished Leo Tolstoy's novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich.  Tolstoy wrote this short work in 1886, after his religious conversion.  I enjoyed his Anna Karenina so much (and was still awaiting my next book from interlibrary loan!) that I decided to read about Ivan Ilyich.

The book opens the day of Ivan Ilyich's funeral.  A friend and coworker, upon paying his respects, notes:

He had grown much thinner and was considerably changed since Piotr Ivanovich last saw him, but his face, as with all the dead, was more beautiful and, more important than that, more meaningful than it had been in his lifetime.  The expression on the face suggested that what needed to be done had been done, and done as it should be.

The reader's curiosity is immediately piqued: what, exactly, needed to have been done?

Tolstoy then moves back in time and, starting with Ivan Ilyich's childhood, narrates the dead man's life--much like one would read in an obituary.  There emerges two clear pursuits of his life: pleasure and propriety.  He marries, but doesn't love his wife.  They have children, but he seeks his pleasure outside the family--often in playing cards.  Ivan Ilyich enjoys his career as a judge, but mostly from the power it affords him to ruin another man's life.

Things take a turn for the worse when Ivan Ilyich, attempting to hang curtains in his family's new, high-society  home, falls and injures himself.  His pain increases, medical help is sought, but no remedy relieves his discomfort.  Instead, it only becomes more acute.  He who once enjoyed the power of directing someone else's fate finds himself powerless over his own.

Ivan Ilyich saw that he was dying and was in continual despair.

Ivan Ilyich cannot reconcile the notion of death with himself.  Death is natural, of course, but certainly not something that should happen to him...not now, not in this way.  I am sure many of us might feel the same.   

But soon Ivan Ilyich can pretend no longer.  Ivan realizes the dreadful truth and suffers from the baneful lies offered to him by the doctors and his family and friends.  His wife chastises him for not taking his medicine properly--that if he only did this or that, he would get better.  His doctors offer false hope.  Conversation at his bedside politely side-steps the blatant truth that Ivan Ilyich is dying, the subject matter instead revolving around trite and trivial matters.

 Ivan Ilyich suffered most of all from lies--the lie that everyone accepted, for some reason, that he was just ill, not dying, that he need only keep calm and take his medicine and something splendid would come of it...this was the propriety he had served all his life.  He saw that no one would pity him, because no one even wanted to understand his position.

There is greater suffering to come for Ivan Ilyich, though not of a physical sort.  His pain grants him some insight and, for the first time, as he lays on his deathbed, Ivan Ilyich begins to see that he has not lived as he should.  

He once, as a young professional, donned a medallion inscribed with respice finem: look to the end.  Ironically, this is the very thing Ivan spent his life not doing, as he was intent on pleasure and propriety.

Ivan Ilyich searches his memory, recalling the moments of his life, questioning what is missing.  As he is dying, Ivan Ilyich sees with great clarity that his life was not what it should have been, but still he listens for the answer as to what he had done wrong.  The answer is given to him when--through his immense pain and affliction--he feels his sons's compassionate kiss on his hand.  

It was jut as this point that Ivan Ilyich fell through, saw the glimmer of light, and it became clear to him that his life had not been what it should have been, but that it could still be put right.  He asked himself, what is it, and fell silent, listening.  Here he felt someone kissing his hand.  He opened his eyes and glanced at his son.  He felt sorry for him.  His wife came up to him.  He glanced at her.  She was gazing at him, with a look of despair on her face, her mouth open, unwiped tears on her nose and cheeks.  He felt sorry for her...He was sorry for them, he had to stop them suffering.  Free them and free himself from all this pain.

His whole life, Ivan Ilyich lived for himself.  But he died for others.  He died with compassion in his heart.

I was grateful Ivan Ilyich found his answer before it was too late.  I am grateful God seeks out every possible means to bring back the lost sheep.  So many points when reading The Death of Ivan Ilyich I was reminded of Relient K's song "Deathbed."  

Yet, it is tragic to reflect that here is an individual who spent his entire life living the wrong way.  Thank goodness he corrected his error before death, but how different would things have been had Ivan Ilyich lived the right way originally?

In our culture, Christmas crowds out Advent in so many ways.  But we need Advent: the sobering, quiet time preparing one's soul for Christ's coming...on Christmas, yes, but also for His Second Coming.  Am I living as I should?  If death should meet me today, would I be ready?

That's why I am so grateful for the habit of praying for final perseverance at the end of the day.  Each night, as day ends and darkness comes, I am reminded: how am I living?  

And I recall the end for which God created me, the end for which Christ was born on Christmas and died so that I may one day know the eternal bliss that is heaven.  Am I striving for that end?  Is that my focus...or is it pleasure and propriety? 

Respice finem.  This Advent and always. 

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Lessons from The Heart of the Matter

...perhaps after all something may yet happen before he reaches me: some incredible interposition...But with open mouth (the time had come) he made one last attempt at prayer.  "O God, I offer up my damnation to you.  Take it.  Use it for them," and was aware of the pale papery taste of his eternal sentence on the tongue.  

Graham Greene is famous for writing three novels that are specifically "Catholic": The Power and the Glory, The Heart of the Matter, and The End of the Affair.  He objected to this label, arguing that he was an author who happened to be Catholic...not a Catholic novelist.  Yet the label endured and his works are divided into the two categories of "entertainments" (thrillers) and Catholic novels.

In reading The Heart of the Matter, I found myself frequently troubled by the notion that the novel was Catholic.  What, exactly, gives a work of fiction this delineation?  Is it because the imagery, actions, language, customs are Catholic?  Think: feast days, saints, Our Lady, sacraments, fasting from meat on Friday, papacy & Church hierarchy.  Or is it that the theme and message resound with Catholic theology?  Is it Catholic because it has the trappings of Catholicism, or because the novel's theme is Catholic in its teaching?

I had picked up The Heart of the Matter with a sense of reassurance and security.  It is, after all, a Catholic novel!  What matter could I find objectionable?  I was taken by surprise, therefore, when I found many things objectionable...troubling...  At many points I had to ponder where Greene was going with his plot and had to hope the "Catholic" message would triumph in the end.  There was certainly the elements of Catholicism in the plot (the main character being a Catholic himself), but the ideology residing behind in the protagonist's actions--was it Catholic?

I find that when reading fiction, you enter into the head of the author.  That can sometimes be a dangerous thing, but it's always fascinating.  What life experiences, ghosts of the past, lessons learned do the author intertwine with the lives of his or her characters?  How much does Greene put of himself into the words he writes?  Is this a "Catholic" mind you are entering as you progress through the chapters?

But, I ask myself, what is a "Catholic mind?"  Greene was a convert to Catholicism, but he was not always practicing.  In fact, he was a committed adulterer with multiple women and left his family.  He self-identified as a "Catholic agnostic." 

Surely, few of us are saints.  When one reads a work of fiction, the author generally tends to be a sinner.  However, when one seeks out Catholic fiction, should the expectation be that the author is a faithful, practicing Catholic?  Or can the Catholic dimension still shine truthfully through a sinful--perhaps even lapsed--lens?

Greene wrote The Heart of the Matter in 1948.  It was based on his experiences in Sierra Leone during WWII, when he was stationed there as part of the British Secret Service.  And in many ways, it was based on his own life, specifically his faith life.

Sierra Leone
Henry Scobie, the main character, is a police officer stationed on the west coast of Africa during WWII.  As the novel opens, he is presented as a strikingly honest man--whereas most of the police officers will accept bribes or engage in under-the-table exchanges, Scobie is known for his truthfulness and forthrightness.  Except when it involves his wife, Louise, that is.

Scobie perceives his goal to be making Louise happy, a goal which sometimes means omitting or avoiding the truth.  He is drawn to her, not out of love necessarily, but pity: he feels bad for her, who is socially outcast and trapped in the rainy, humid, foreign climate of Africa.  Like an actor in a play, he says the rehearsed lines to console her and reassures her of his affection, though there is little depth to his words.

He gave her a bright fake smile; so much of life was a putting off of unhappiness for another time.  Nothing was ever lost by delay.  He had a dim idea that perhaps if one delayed long enough, things were taken out of one's hands altogether by death.

This concept of pity becomes increasingly important as the novel progresses.  It is, in fact, the cause of Scobie's ultimate downfall.  Louise deeply desires to leave and travel to South Africa for a little while.  Scobie can't pull together the funds for such an excursion and so--against better judgment--takes a loan from Yusef, a Syrian who works for the black market.

 Pity smouldered like decay at his heart.  He would never rid himself of it.  He knew from experience how passion died away and how love went, but pity always stayed.  Nothing ever diminished pity.  The conditions of life nurtured it.  

Scobie hangs a pair of rusty, old handcuffs on the wall in his office.  They symbolize the pity that keeps him chained--to Louise, and then to Helen.  Helen is a young widow (married only about a month), who is found with a few others in a boat that was in the open sea for 40 days.  She is alone, ugly, without future...she is to be pitied.  

...he watched her [Helen] with sadness and affection and enormous pity because a time would come when he couldn't show her around in a world where she was at sea.  When she turned and the light fell on her face she looked ugly, with the temporary ugliness of a child.  The ugliness was like handcuffs on his wrists.

Scobie and Helen have an affair and it seems as though she may be drawing out of him genuine love and affection.  But perhaps not as Louise's unexpected return adds a whole degree of complication to things.  His greatest desire is not to cause pain to either one of them, but that means never telling Louise what has occurred while simultaneously never abandoning Helen.  

It may appear to be a sort of love triangle, but Greene's plot is more involved than that, as the Catholic dimension brings another layer of confusion and conflict.  Scobie and his wife are both Catholic.  After Louise returns home, she tells Scobie they will go to Mass together the next day.  Scobie immediately finds himself in the greatest predicament yet: to not receive Holy Communion would be a great indictment, yet to receive while in a state of mortal sin would mean his damnation.

"Now I'm just putting our love above--well, my safety.  But the other--the other's really evil.  It's like the Black Mass, the man who steals the sacrament to desecrate it.  It's striking God when he's down--in my power."

She [Helen] turned her head wearily away and said, "I don't understand a thing you are saying.  It's all hooey to me."

"I wish it were to me.  But I believe it."

Scobie believes and therein is the source of the conflict.  He is a practicing Catholic who knows what is right and wrong, who is torn up on the inside when contemplating receiving Communion while in a state of sin--yet, who still willingly commits adultery.  

Perhaps this is one reason why the book is "Catholic."  The climax of the book, at least in my opinion, is not a scene involving either Helen or Louise, but rather God.  Scobie doesn't want to hurt either woman and he pities each.  He also pities God though: God who places Himself helplessly and at the mercy of man in Holy Communion.  And Scobie is equally wracked with guilt that he is wounding God by receiving Him in a state of grave sin.  He kneels at the altar rail, Louise at his side, hoping for some deliverance from the situation in which he has placed himself through his sin.

The words of the Mass were like an indictment.  "I will go in unto the altar of God: to God who giveth joy to my youth."  But there was no joy anywhere.  He looked up from between his hands, and the plaster images of the Virgin and the Saints seemed to be holding out hands to everyone, on either side, beyond him...the fear and the shame of the act he was going to commit chilled his brain...he had no love or evil or hate of God: how was he to hate this God who of His own accord was surrendering Himself into his power?  He was desecrating God because he loved a woman--was it even love, or was it just a feeling of pity and responsibility?  

Loneliness overpowers him and courts him like a demonic companion.  Scobie can see no escape from his trap.

He said, O God, I am the only guilty one because I've known the answers all the time.  I've preferred to give you pain rather than give pain to Helen or my wife because I can't observe your suffering.  I can only imagine it.  But there are limits to what I can do to you--or them.  I can't desert either of them while I'm alive, but I can die and remove myself from their blood-stream.  They are ill with me and I can cure them.  And you too, God--you are ill with me.  I can't go on, month after month, insulting you.  I can't face coming up to tha altar at Christmas--your birthday feast--and taking your body and blood for the sake of a lie.  I can't do that.  You'll be better off if you lose me once and for all.  I know what I'm doing.  I'm not pleading for mercy.  I am going to damn myself, whatever that means.

The heart becomes the central matter: Scobie feigns angina and commits suicide by overdosing on medication.  

What is the "heart of the matter?"  What is the message Greene, lapsed Catholic, trying to give in this Catholic novel?

In many ways, Scobie is Greene.  They share the same first name (Henry) and are stationed in the same location during the war.  They both converted to Catholicism to marry and then, once married, committed adultery.  And both grappled with a guilty conscience.

George Orwell, in a review of the novel after it was first published, said that Scobie was incredible because "the two halves of him do not fit together."  In many ways, I agree.  He obviously has deep faith: his incredible guilt and grief over receiving Holy Communion comes from his conviction that Christ is present in the Eucharist.  He believes in God.  Yet, he kills spare God pain?  They are two extremes that can't seem to be reconciled--extremes that, perhaps, speak to Greene's bipolar disorder.

“To me the idea of willing my own damnation for the love of God is either a very loose poetical expression or a mad blasphemy, for the God that accepted that sacrifice could be neither just nor lovable.” ~ Evelyn Waugh in a review of The Heart of the Matter

If The Heart of the Matter is a Catholic novel, I find it a dangerous one, simply because I think you need to be Catholic to understand it.  If you do not understand or believe in transubstantiation, how can you commiserate with Scobie's grief concerning Holy Communion?  His desperation over offending God in this way leads him to suicide, but if you believe Communion to be "all hooey," as Helen did, then Scobie comes across as someone in a fit of insanity.  It also becomes easy to interpret Greene's writing as a condemnation of the Church's supposedly harsh and unmerciful teaching regarding sin and punishment.

Is there a Catholic message in this Catholic novel?  Yes, I think so, but it's only gleaned through Scobie's errors.  There is no example to emulate here.  As Greene wrote to fellow author and friend, Evelyn Waugh:

A small point – I did not regard Scobie as a saint and his offering his damnation up was intended to show how muddled a mind full of good will could become when “off the rails."

Scobie's fault was pity, which was in fact a masked pride.  To pity one, you must feel yourself somehow or someway above him or her.  It's different from compassion, which literally means "to suffer with."  Pity puts one above, not beside, the sufferer.  For Scobie to willfully end his own life is seizing a power that belongs only to God.  As Robert Coles writes in the New Oxford Review, "...Suicide is a kind of ultimate willfulness...Those who believe God has given us life know full well that it is for Him for end it."

Pity is a very different matter from love; as Greene himself described, "...Pity can be the expression of almost a monstrous pride."

As Scobie finds himself deeper and deeper in lies, he loses his ability to trust.  If he himself, once so upright and guileless, could deceive, who could be trusted?  Scobie couldn't bear to cause either Louise or Helen suffering--he felt too responsible for both of them.  He couldn't trust that God would take care of them.  He, Scobie, had to ensure everyone's happiness--even God's.  And in this Scobie committed the greatest sin that is pride.  

The Heart of the Matter takes the reader into the confusing, conflicted, and complicated place that is the internal, eternal soul.  In the end, Greene reminds us that--as wrong as Scobie's action was--it is God's place to judge him.  In one of the last lines of the book, Greene has Father Rank remind Louise, "The Church knows all the rules.  But it doesn't know what goes on in a single human heart."  

Scobie is a sinner in the same manner that Greene was a sinner.  The following quote is from Greene, though it could easily be placed on the lips of his protagonist.

We…become hardened to the formulas of confession and skeptical about ourselves: we…only half intend to keep the promises we make, until continual failure or the circumstances of our private life, finally make it impossible to make any promises at all and many of us abandon Confession and Communion to join the Foreign Legion of the Church and fight for a city of which we are no longer full citizens.

But this same man also wrote:

I can tell myself now that my lack of belief is a final proof that the Church is right and the faith is true. I had cut myself off for twenty years from grace and my belief withered as the priests said it would. I don’t believe in God and His Son and His angels and His saints, but I know the reason why I don’t believe and the reason is—the Church is true and what she taught me is true. For twenty years I have been without the sacraments and 1 can see the effect. The wafer must be more than wafer.

Maybe that is what makes Greene a "Catholic author."  He may not have been faithful, but he knew the faith and knew that it was true.  For most of us, sin makes the path of faith very messy at some points.  Maybe it's in that struggle that Greene is Catholic at his best.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Lessons from Anna Karenina

For us, for you and me, there is only one thing that matters, whether we love one another. Other people we need not consider.

Some claim it's the greatest novel ever written.  Dostoyevsky called it "flawless as a work of art."  

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy is an incredible novel--a rich, complex, poignant, and introspective work that touches on the myriad of life's experiences, emotions, and questions.  The writing is superb: I even found the chapter on scything a field positively moving!

The Russian author wrote Anna Karenina in serial installments from 1873-1877.  As he started the novel, Tolstoy was occupied with understanding the idea of family.  Throughout the work, Tolstoy touchingly portrays some of the most powerful and influential moments of family life with vivid detail.  

There is a number of ideas and themes running throughout the work, which is focused on two protagonists: Anna and Levin, who actually meet only once, but whose lives run parallel to each other, though in ever sharper contrast.  

So much could be written about Anna Karenina.  Tolstoy himself said of his work, "If I were to try to say what it is that I meant by Anna Karenina, I would have to write the entire novel all over again."

However, as I progressed through the stories of Anna and Levin, one particular theme stood out to me: truth.  Truth and genuineness.  

Consider the first protagonist, Anna.  Anna is a stunning, kind, confident, and intelligent woman, who was married at a young age to Alexei Alexandrovich, an older, seemingly-emotionless bureaucrat.  While visiting her brother and sister-in-law in hopes of repairing their marriage, wounded by her brother's infidelity, Anna meets the dashing Count Alexei Vronsky.  The attraction is immediate, the desire powerful.

At first Anna sincerely believed that she was displeased with him for allowing himself to pursue her; but soon after her return from Moscow, having gone to a soiree where she thought she would meet him, and finding that he was not there, she clearly understood from the sadness which came over her that she was deceiving herself, that his pursuit not only was not unpleasant for her but constituted the entire interest of her life. 

As the light of Vronsky's allure and appeal grows in Anna's eyes, her husband and their marriage seem dark, fake, and dull.  Though Anna initially resists Vronsky's advances--at least in word--she quickly succumbs to her desire for him, first in her thoughts, then in her actions.  

He [Alexei Alexandrovich] saw that the depth of her soul, formerly always open to him, was now closed to him.  Moreover, by her tone he could tell that she was not embarrassed by it, but was as if saying directly to him: yes, it's closed, and so it ought to be and will be in the future.  He now felt the way a man would feel coming home and finding his house locked up.

When Alexei Alexandrovich hears of Anna's liaison with Vronsky, he gives her one stipulation: do as you will, but maintain appearances.  Anna abhors living such a lie: how could she continue at Alexei Alexandrovich's side, playing the charade of happy, content wife, when there is another Alexei with whom she is passionately in love?

Don't you know that you are my whole life?  But I know no peace and cannot give you any.  All of myself, my love...yes.  I cannot think of you and myself separately.  You and I are one for me.  And I do not see any possibility of peace ahead either for me or for you.  I see the possibility of despair, of unhappiness...or I see the possibility of happiness, such happiness!...Isn't is possible? (Vronsky to Anna)

So Anna eventually leaves her husband and their son, escaping with Vronsky for Italy.  At first it seems that she has everything she desired.  But, for all the apparent freedom she has gained, she lacks a unity of life.  Ironically, the very thing Anna flees from--lies--becomes the life that she lives.  

Vronsky and Anna seem joined as one, but the truth of their situation speaks quite the opposite.  There is no marriage between them.  They are not one.  The precariousness of the relationship soon manifests itself more and more glaringly, like little cracks that grow deeper and wider.  

Anna is shunned by society for her choice to leave her husband and live as Vronsky's mistress.  She is a social outcast.  Their relationship has cost Vronsky a promising career in the military; he ultimately leaves his calvary post and pursues other interests--painting, building a hospital--all in the elusive search for something to desire.  Having his prior ambitions fulfilled in his relationship with Anna, Vronsky finds himself wrestling with the emptiness of discontent.  

Vronsky meanwhile, despite the full realization of what he had desired for so long, was not fully happy.  He soon felt the realization of his desire had given him only a grain of the mountain of happiness he had expected.  It showed him the eternal error people make in imagining that happiness is the realization of desires.

Believing her physical attributes keep Vronsky at her side, Anna desires no other children, knowing a pregnancy and subsequent postpartum period would alter her appearance.  Clearly, this relationship does not rest on a strong foundation.  Anna becomes increasingly jealous, suspicious, and possessive of the love she has sacrificed everything for...a love that is not based in truth.

These fits of jealousy, which had come over her more and more often lately, horrified him and, no matter how he tried to conceal it, made him cooler towards her, though he knew that the cause of her jealousy was her love for him...She was not at all as he had seen her in the beginning.  Both morally and physically she had changed for the worse...He looked at her as a man looks at a faded flower he has plucked, in which he can barely recognize the beauty that had made him pluck and destroy it.

As the novel opens, it is the Anna/Vronsky relationship that seems most intriguing, passionate, and powerful.  Yet, love that has at its root sin, is not authentic love.  Vice has a way of stripping the subject of his or her beauty--it makes one less of a person.  So it happens with Anna and Vronsky.  By the end of the novel, their story has gone flat.  The passion is gone; the romance is replaced with jealousy and insecurity.  Anna, originally so captivating and stunning in her persona, has become monotonous in her vice and misery.  In one of their final conversations, Anna cries desperately to Vronsky:

Respect was invented to cover the empty place where love should be.  But if you don't love me, it would be better and more honest to say so.

The reader cannot help but sympathize with her, but one cannot condone her actions: Anna's pursuit of love did not lead to her liberation, but to her downfall.  Instead of looking outward toward her husband, to whom she had given her vows, or to her son, Anna looked at Vronsky as the fulfillment of her desires.  As Vronsky states, "Other people we need not consider."  

This selfish insistence on Vronsky at all costs, despite the pain it inflicted upon others (including the lovers themselves) eventually meant that Vronsky and his love was all she had.  And when she thought his love gone, Anna saw nothing left for her.  As an article in The American Catholic explains, Anna had lost her identity through her sin.  Vice is self-destructive.

The other major romantic union in Anna Karenina is that between Levin and Kitty.  It exists as a foil for Anna and Vronsky's relationship and whereas the latter union was actually a disunion based on untruth, Levin and Kitty's relationship is genuine.  There is a unity of life between their desires and actions.  

Anna is intent on pursuing her desire for union with Vronsky, despite the enormous moral and societal cost of such an action.  Levin, in contrast, does not live for pleasure.  As he says to his friend (and Anna's brother), Stepan:

"Well, of course," Stepan Arkadyich picked up.  "But that's the aim of civilization: to make everything an enjoyment."

"Well, if that's its aim, I'd rather be wild." [Levin]

Levin's relationship with Kitty doesn't begin very smoothly.  He proposes to her, but she turns him down because she believes that she favors another man: ironically, Vronsky.  Levin's pride is hurt and he returns to his country home.  But unlike Anna, who cannot find any peace or contentment when she is apart from Vronsky, Levin takes his passion and energy and directs it to something fulfilling, as he works the land and applies himself to advancing his farming methods.

"'re a lucky man.  You have everything you love.  You love horses--you have them; dogs--you have them; hunting--you have it; farming--you have it." [Stepan]

"Maybe it's because I rejoice over what I have and don't grieve over what I don't have," said Levin, remembering Kitty." 

Though they parted ways for a time, in his heart, Levin has always loved Kitty and, when he meets her once again at a dinner party, he puts aside his wounded pride and is truthful with his feelings, as is she.  They are subsequently engaged and prepare for their wedding day.  Levin realizes that their marriage must be based on truth: they must be genuine with each other.  And so, before their wedding, Levin fully disclosed to Kitty his past transgressions.

It was not without inner struggle that Levin gave her his diary.  He knew that there could not and should not be any secrets between them and therefore he decided that it had to be so: but he did not realize how it might affect her, he did not put himself in her place.  Only when he came to them that evening before the theatre, went to her room and saw her tear-stained, pathetic and dear face, miserable from the irremediable grief he had caused her, did he understand the abyss that separated his shameful past from her dove-like purity... 

Vronsky and Anna seek to be one, but it is only in marriage that full unity of man and woman is achieved.  This is what Levin and Kitty experience.

Levin carefully kissed her smiling lips, offered her arm and, feeling a new, strange closeness, started out of the church.  He did not believe, he could not believe, that it was true.  Only when their surprised and timid eyes met did he believe it, because he felt that they were already one.

This oneness doesn't preclude quarrels or animosity.  In a remarkable parallel, Tolstoy provides the reader a view into the three months Anna and Vronsky spent traveling together and living in Italy, followed by the first three months of Kitty and Levin's marriage.  Both relationships experience difficulty during this time of adjustment.  After Vronsky grows discontent with his newly-acquired hobby (painting) and Anna secretly yearns to see her son, they abandon their temporary home abroad to return to Russia...almost, one could say, in defeat. 

Yet, the arguments Kitty and Levin have as they acclimate to married life serve to remind them how they are one--something quite absent from Anna and Vronsky's experience.

In perhaps my favorite passage from Anna Karenina, Levin reflects on his feelings after he and Kitty quarrel for the first time as husband and wife, a passage that strongly highlights the intimate union of matrimony.  There is no longer a "he" and "she," but a "we."

...he understand clearly for the first time what he had not understood when he had led her out of the church after the wedding.  He understood not only that she was close to him, but that the no longer knew where she ended and he began.  He understood it by the painful feeling of being split which he experienced at that moment.  He was offended at first, but in that same instant he felt that he could not be offended by her, that she was him.  In the first moment he felt like a man who, having suddenly received a violent blow from behind, turns with vexation and a desire for revenge to find out who did it, and realizes that he has accidentally struck himself, that there is no one to be angry with and he must endure and ease the pain.

By the end of the novel, it is the Kitty and Levin relationship that is more compelling, rich, and fulfilling.  Virtue makes one more of a person.  

Anna's focus became more and more inward: was she the recipient of Vronsky's full, undivided love?  Levin, however, by the end of the novel can cast his gaze up toward the heavens and recognize the source of Love.  Anna leaves this world, taking her life, convinced there is no more love to receive; Levin embraces his life, determined to put the goodness of love into the world.

What would I be and how would I live my life, if I did not have those beliefs, did not know that one should live for God and not for one's needs? life now, my whole life, regardless of all that may happen to me, every minute of it, is not only not meaningless, as it was before, but has the unquestionable meaning of the good which it is in my power to put into it!

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Lessons from A Canticle for Leibowitz

"It was said that God, in order to test mankind which had become swelled with pride as in the time of Noah, had commanded the wise men of that age, among them the Blessed Leibowitz, to devise great engines of war such as had never been upon the Earth, weapons of such might that they contained the very fires of Hell, and that God had suffered these magi to place the weapons in the hands of princes, and to say to each prince: 'Only because the enemies have such a thing have we devised this for thee, in order that they may know that thou hast it also, and fear to strike.  See to it, m'Lord, that thou fearest them as much as they shall now fear thee, that none may unleash this dread thing which we have wrought.'  But the princes, putting the words of their wise men to nought, thought each to himself: If I but strike quickly enough, and in secret, I shall destroy those others in their sleep, and there will be none to fight back; the earth shall be mine.  Such was the folly of the princes, and there fellowed the Flame Deluge."

Walker Percy, in an essay discussing Walter Miller's novel A Canticle for Leibowitz, asserted that the book contains a secret.  And if anyone figures it out, he dare not tell it.

It's been about a week since I turned the last page of A Canticle for Leibowitz.  I have my next novel already checked-out from the library and ready to be read.  But my mind is still wrestling with the questions, images, and themes from Miller's work.  It probably will be for a long time.  It's just that kind of a book.  It makes you ponder, wonder, speculate.  What did he mean?  What was he suggesting?

It is indeed a mystery.  And perhaps it's best that way.

Walter Miller was a one-book author.  A Canticle for Leibowitz was published in 1959.  Though written 55 years ago, some of the dialogue sounds eerily like something one could easily hear today.  It's both prophetic and apocalyptic in nature.  

Miller was an engineer and during WWII he served as a bomber pilot, participating in the controversial shelling of the ancient monastery of Monte Cassino in Italy--the site where St. Benedict established his first monastery.  Miller's experiences in the war understandably had a profound impact on him.  A convert to the Catholic faith, he lost his faith 
later in life and, tragically, committed suicide in 1997.

A Canticle of Leibowitz is set in the future and is divided into 3 sections: Fiat Homo (Let There Be Man), Fiat Lux (Let There Be Light), and Fiat Voluntas Tua (Let Thy Will Be Done).  They almost exist as stand-alone stories, with different tones, ideas, and characters in each.  Yet, they form a unity in the unraveling of human history, seemingly doomed to commit the same grievous errors again and again.

The focal point of each section is the monastery of the Order of Saint Leibowitz, located in the desert southwest.  The order was founded by a scientist who became disillusioned when his wife died in a nuclear fallout at the end of the 20th century.  The event is referred to as the "Flame Deluge"--the flooding of earth with the fire from nuclear explosions.  

In response to the vast nuclear destruction, the "Simpletons" emerged.  Blaming science and knowledge for the nuclear catastrophe, the simpletons sought to eradicate all literacy and learning.  They boasted of their ignorance.  Leibowitz founded his order in opposition to them, forming a community of religious who are bookleggers and memorizers, committed to the preservation of culture, books, and history.  They gather the artifacts of the earlier civilization in their "Memorabilia."  For his efforts, Leibowitz dies a martyr.

"At the beginning, in the time of Leibowitz, it had been hoped--and even anticipated as probable--that the fourth or fifth generation would begin to want its heritage back.  But the monks of the earliest days had not counted on the human ability to generate a new cultural inheritance in a couple of generations if an old one is utterly destroyed...The Memorabilia was there, and it was given to them by duty to preserve, and preserve it they would if the darkness in the world lasted ten more centuries, or even ten thousand years, for they, though born in that darkest of ages, were still the very bookleggers and memorizers of the Beatus Leibowitz..." 

In this reflection on the novel, I would like to organize my thoughts according to the three sections of the book.

Fiat Homo

Fiat Homo centers on Brother Francis, a simple, guileless religious who is seeking to take his full vows in the Order of Leibowitz...and to help advance the cause to sainthood for their founder, who is Blessed Leibowitz at this point.  

During his Lenten fast in the desert, Francis meets a mysterious pilgrim, who leads him to an underground fallout shelter, which holds treasures of the Pre-Deluge time.  With great wonder, the brothers admire and contemplate the relics of this former time...including, to the reader's humor, a grocery list.  Among the items gathered is a blueprint belonging to none other than Blessed Leibowitz himself.

It becomes Francis's life task to create a copy of the blueprint.  He and the monks have no idea what the blueprint represents.  It is meaningless to them, yet they know it contains meaning, and so they seek to preserve it for a future time when an "integrator" will come and connect the dots.  Francis labors for years to create his copy, using gold inlaid and beautifying it with scrolls and artistic embellishments.

When New Rome announces that Blessed Leibowitz is to be canonized, Francis is selected to attend the ceremony and commences his journey, the original blueprint (now a relic) and his finished masterpiece of a copy in hand.  

However, during his journey, the copy of the blueprint is stolen by some cannibals along the road--mutants due to the effects of radiation.  Francis never retrieves the work on which he spent his life laboring and dies, shot by an arrow between the eyes.

Killing the protagonist is a grim way to end the first third of the book.

It also sets the reader on an uneasy trajectory: what was the purpose of any of it?  Francis spent years creating a copy of a blueprint, of which he knew nothing save it was done by the founder of his order.  No contemporary of his, living in an illiterate world, could understand it.  The reader is left with the unsettling question: did Francis waste his life?  Was that all his life amounted to--Lenten fasts in the desert surrounded by wolves, tedious copying of texts no one understood, dying alone, unmourned in the desert with vultures overhead hungrily eying his remains?

The monks were safekeeping the keys to knowledge in their Memorabilia, but if and when society became interested in such knowledge, what would they choose to do with it?  Would they choose to destroy themselves again?

Whispers of despair begin in this first section.  I turned the final page of Homo Fiat, hoping that somehow Brother Francis--good, kind, honest, faithful Francis--would be revived and that his end wouldn't be so painfully trite.  Surely that couldn't be the conclusion of his story?

Well, it all depends on the lenses through which your read the novel and understand the world.  

That seems to be one of the overarching themes of this complex work.  Prof. Ralph Wood, in a lecture given at the Notre Dame Center for Ethics & Culture, explains that Miller attempts to show that, without the guiding light of theology and philosophy, there is no way to unify things.  Theory proceeds understanding: if one can envision using philosophy and theology, then one has the right lens to make sense of what is before you.  Believing enables understanding.

So, was Francis successful?  Perhaps not--his life work, his copy of Leibowitz's blueprint, amounted to nothing.  But was Francis faithful?  Yes, to his dying moment.  And, as history tells us, the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church. 

Furthermore, Francis's story isn't done with his death in Fiat Homo.  Death is not the end.  Francis is present again in the second section, when the abbot invokes his intercession (Francis is beatified at this point).  In the third section, as the world is literally crumbling around him, the final abbot reaches out his dying hand, which falls upon Francis's skull--a reminder that "the world is passing away, and also its lusts; but the one who does the will of God lives forever" (1 John 2:17).

Fiat Lux

If the first section of A Canticle for Leibowitz is akin to the Dark Ages, when the monks of the Church preserved culture by copying manuscripts by hand in their monasteries, then this section may be analogous for the Renaissance.

Society has advanced in the several hundred years since Francis's time.  There are professors, called "thons," who have created theories about science and technology.  Meanwhile, the still-illiterate rulers seek domination and power.

One particular thon, who plays a large role in this division of the book, is named Thon Taddeo.  Note the pun on his name: it contains the word Deo, which is the Latin word for "God."  It is a pun, of course, because Taddeo is an atheist.  

The focus, as the title of this second section suggests, is light.  What should illuminate our life?  As Prof. Wood explained, what is the lens, or light, by which we see?  The idea is hinted at in a brief exchange between Taddeo and a priest named Apollo:

"I can't accept it.  How can a great a wise civilization have destroyed itself so completely?" [Thon Taddeo]

"Perhaps," said Apollo, "by being materially great and materially wise, and nothing else."  He went to light a tallow lamp, for the twilight was rapidly fading into night.  He struck steel and flint until the spark caught and he blew gently at it in the tinder.

Taddeo requests permission to visit the monastery of the Order of St. Leibowtiz and to study the documents in their Memorabilia.  Taddeo's visit, as one might imagine, creates multiple scenes of conflict and contrast.

On the one extreme, there is Brother Armbruster, the librarian of the Memorabilia.  

"Armbruster was not impressed by the fact that the secular scholar, in two days, had unraveled a bit of a puzzle that had been lying around, a complete enigma, for a dozen centuries.  To the custodian of the Memorabilia, each unsealing represented another decrease in the probable lifetime of the contents of the cask, and he made no attempt to conceal his disapproval of the entire proceeding.  To Brother Librarian, whose task in life was the preservation of books, the principal reason for the existence of books was that they might be preserved perpetually.  Usage was secondary, and to be avoided if it threatened longevity."

The monks have a tremendous treasure in their Memorabilia.  But, the question is: what should they do with such a treasure?  Brother Armbruster would have it such that the treasure is hidden away, perfectly preserved and never used.  It exists to exist--not to change, to invent, or to create.

Taddeo, on the other extreme, accuses the monks of hiding away the keys to knowledge that could advance society.  He asserts that it would be more fitting to have the Memorabilia housed in the collegium, where the scientists would have ready access to it.  Taddeo accuses the abbot, Dom Paulo:

"Keep science cloistered, don't try to apply it, don't try to do anything about it until men are holy.  Well, it won't work.  You've been doing it here in this abbey for generations...If you try to save wisdom until the world is wise, Father, the world will never have it."

Were the monks right in keeping claim on the Memorabilia?  Many of them did, after all, die to preserve it.  Or should they have allowed the Memorabilia to reside in the hands of the scientists who could make the most sense of it?

The questions raise an interesting dilemma about the Church in the world.   

To what degree should the Church intermingle in a pagan society?  Would the Church's presence in society corrupt their Christian mission?

In the narrative, the monks warmly welcome Taddeo into their monastery and Dom Paolo explains to Taddeo that anyone may come to visit.  But the Memorabilia stays where it is.  

The point is that Christians cannot close themselves in and exist only in the realm of purity.  We cannot be insular and leave the world to its own devices.  We must reach out, welcome in, and invite the stranger as we would Christ.  Simultaneously, however, the treasures Christ has given the Church must remain within Her.  They do not belong to the world.  

Prof. Wood, in his lecture, comments that Christians must interact with the pagan world, but in doing so, the Christian's primary mission cannot be subordinated to pagan culture.

This idea is brilliantly highlighted in a symbolic scene involving a crucifix.  

Brother Kornhoer, using the theories advanced by Taddeo, creates a generator that is capable of producing light.  Thon Taddeo is to work and study in one of the alcoves outside the Memorabilia, which happens to be one of the darkest spaces.  It is agreed that it is most fitting that the newly invented light bulb should be hung over his study space.  However, the glitch is that there is something already hanging there: a crucifix.

Dom Paolo initially agrees to remove the crucifix and install the light.  After all, why create a light and not use it?  From a pragmatic perspective, it all makes complete sense.

Yet, as said above, the Christian's primary mission is not to be subordinated to a pagan culture.  As the first book emphasized, what is the lens--or the light--by which we see the world?  Knowledge gleaned without the guiding light of Christ may be knowledge that only leads to one's perdition.  And so, Dom Paolo changes his mind.
Brother Kornhoer slipped into the room again.  He was carrying the heavy crucifix which had been displaced from the head of the archway to make room for the novel lamp.  He handed the cross to Dom Paulo.

"How did you know I wanted this?"

"I just decided it was about time, Domne."  He shrugged.

The old man climbed the ladder and replaced the rood on its iron hook.  The corpus glittered with gold by candlelight.  The abbot turned and called down to his monks.  

"Who reads in this alcove henceforth, let him read ad Lumina Christi!" 

Without the lumina Christi, one walks in darkness.  So it is that Taddeo, brilliant though he is, is still blind.  He pursues the advance of knowledge, regardless of the repercussions it may cause.  For you see, Taddeo's cousin, Hannegan, is the present ruler and seeks to dominate the entire continent.  He will inevitably call upon Taddeo and use the scientist's knowledge to his gain...a destructive, deadly gain.  Taddeo has no light to guide his conscience and, thus, simply and conveniently avoids it.

Thon Taddeo knew the military ambitions of his monarch.  He had a choice: to approve of them, to disapprove of them, or to regard them as impersonal phenomena beyond his control like a flood, famine, or whirlwind.  Evidently, then, he accepted them as inevitable--to avoid having to make a moral judgment...How could such a man thus evade his own conscience and disavow his responsibility--and so easily! the abbot stormed to himself. 

So the whisper of despair that begins in first section grows louder. Are men, walking in darkness, doomed to make the same grievous errors over and over again?  Will they remain in the darkness?  Dom Paulo asserts:

"It never was any better, it never will be any better.  It will only be richer or poorer, sadder but not wiser, until the very last day." 

Is Dom Paulo right that things will never be better?  Perhaps he is.  Satan is, after all, the prince of this world.  Each and every human person enters the world with original sin.  Concupiscence is part of who we are.  "For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do--this I keep on doing" (Romans 7:19). 

Listen, are we helpless?  Are we doomed to do it again and again and again?  Have we no choice but to play the Phoenix in an unending sequence of rise and fall?  Assyria, Babylon, Egypt, Greece, Carthage, Rome, the Empires of Charlemagne and the Turk.  Ground to dust and plowed with salt.  Spain, France, Britain, America--burned into the oblivion of the centuries.  And again and again and again.  Are we doomed to it, Lord, chained to the pendulum of our own mad clockwork, helpless to halt its swing?

And if that is the reality--that human kind will destroy itself over and over again in perpetuity--is that cause for despair?  Was that the demon that drove Miller to take his own life?

Fiat Voluntas Tua

A different light emerges in the third and final section of A Canticle for Leibowitz.  It is the light of nuclear weapons.  The codename for the dropping of a nuclear bomb is: "Lucifer has fallen."  

The Evil One has many names, but it was fitting for Miller to select "Lucifer," as the word itself means "bringer of light."

Yet, what a radically different light from that of Christ!  This light brings death, not life.

It is the final nuclear war.  Pagan scientists, using the information preserved by the Christians, but without the guiding moral principles of Christianity, create a new civilization.  History repeats: this new civilization will destroy itself.

Coinciding with the nuclear battle is the ideological battle between the abbot, Zerchi, and Dr. Cors over the proper treatment for the victims of radiation poisoning.  Many of the injured seek refuge within the walls of the monastery.  Dr. Cors enters to provide assistance.  He works for the "Green Star."  Prof. Wood notes the illustrative change from the Red Cross (a symbol of Christ's blood poured out for us) to the Green Star (green for the environment, a star for false hope).  

And it is false hope that Dr. Cors offers.  He is a "mercy" killer.  Again, note the fitting name for the doctor: cor in Latin means "heart."  

Following the theme of the previous two sections, what is the lens or light through which you view things?  How do you make sense of the pieces put before you?

Dr. Cors sees great suffering and what appears to be inevitable death and offers euthanasia.  In a line that could be quoted from a politician, doctor, or scientist today, Dr. Cors argues that someone who isn't a Christian shouldn't be bound by Abbot Zerchi's Christian principles.

Abbot Zerchi sees suffering and offers prayer and death with dignity.  He orders the brothers to carry signs in front of the euthanasia tent bearing the message: "Abandon All Hope Ye Who Enter Here."  The light of Christ tells us that suffering is redemptive, that pain in this life is no match for the glory that await us in heaven.  And, in response to Dr. Cors, Abbot Zerchi asserts that, even if someone isn't Christian, that doesn't negate what is true.  

The doctor hesitated.  "I think it would be proper to make such a promise with respect to patients who belong to your Faith...Others are not bound by your principles.  If a man is not of your religion, why should you refuse to allow--"

..."Because if a man is ignorant of the fact that something is wrong, and acts in ignorance, he incurs no guilt, provided natural reason was not enough to show him that it was wrong.  But while ignorance may excuse the man, it does not excuse the act, which is wrong in itself.  If I permitted the act simply because the man is ignorant that it is wrong, then I would incur guilt, because I do know it to be wrong.  It really is that painfully simple."

The Christian case isn't the easy one and Miller brilliantly presents both sides of the argument.  Dr. Cors' position is compelling.  But it isn't true.  The fear of pain drove their culture; it drives ours as well and, as a result, we have the Culture of Death.

Really, Doctors Cors, the evil to which even you should have referred was not suffering, but the unreasoning fear of suffering.  Metus doloris.  Take it together with its positive equivalent, the craving for worldly security, for Eden, and you might have your 'root of evil,' Doctor Cors.  To minimize suffering and to maximize security were natural and proper ends of society and Caesar.  But then they became the only ends, somehow, and the only basis of law--a perversion.  Inevitably, then, in seeking only them, we found only their opposites: maximum suffering and minimum security.

The book ends with the ending of the world.  A nuclear holocaust takes place as Abbot Zerchi dies and a flight of bishops, priests, and brothers takes off for an outer space colony.  

The reader is left wondering the question we began with: was it all for naught?  Man destroyed himself again.  Are we doomed to repeat the same mistakes?  Is there no hope for mankind?

The answer, I think, may lie in a mysterious character named Rachel.  

Living near the monastery is a woman named Mrs. Grales.  She was born with genetic defects, due to the long-lasting effects of radiation.  Mrs. Grales doesn't have all of her mental abilities.  The reader also learns, as she confesses her sins to Abbot Zerchi, that she has had an abortion.

Another important point: Mrs. Grales has two heads.  There is Mrs. Grales's head and there is another head attached to her called "Rachel," who does not speak or even seem alive.  

At the conclusion of the book, as the world is being destroyed, Abbot Zerchi sees Mrs. Grales before him.  Or rather, he sees Rachel.  The Mrs. Grales head is now passive, mute, and dying.  Rachel, however, is very much alive.  In his final moments, Abbot Zerchi attempts to baptize Rachel, who refuses the sacrament.  Instead, she picks up a consecrated host and gives him his viaticum.  

In an earlier scene, one of the brothers had a dream about Rachel, which provides some more clues regarding her identity.

In a dream he met Mrs. Grales again.  There was a surgeon who sharpened a knife, saying, 'This deformity must be removed before it becomes malignant.'  And the Rachel face opened its eyes and tried to speak to Joshua, but he could hear her only faintly, and understand her not at all.

"Accurate am I the exception," she seemed to be saying.  "I commensurate the deception.  Am."

He could make nothing of it, but he tried to reach through to save her.  There seemed to be a rubbery wall of glass in the way.  He paused and tried to read her lips.  I am the, I am the--

"I am the Immaculate Conception," came the dream whisper.

Rachel is the exception--there is something unique about her that sets her apart.  She also commensurates the deception, or undoes the deception.  This may well refer to the greatest deception: that of the ancient serpent, convincing Eve that she and Adam may be like gods. 

Rachel is the Immaculate Conception...the New Eve.  She is an image of the Blessed Mother.  But why call her "Rachel?"  There is a passage in Scripture that reads:

 This is what the Lord says:

“A voice was heard in Ramah
    of painful crying and deep sadness:
Rachel crying for her children.
    She refused to be comforted,
    because her children are dead!”

But this is what the Lord says:

“Stop crying;
    don’t let your eyes fill with tears.
You will be rewarded for your work!” says the Lord.
    “The people will return from their enemy’s land." (Jeremiah 31:15-16)

And this is indeed explicitly what happens at the end of the novel: God's people return from their enemy's land.  

As 1 John 5:19 states, "We know that we are children of God, and that the whole world is under the control of the evil one."  Indeed, the world belongs to the prince of the world: Satan.  In the end, God's faithful return to their ultimate homeland in heaven, while others continue Christ's Church on another planet.  

In the face of despair, when it seems like man is doomed to repeat his errors, Mary shines before us.  We are all Mrs. Grales: handicapped by our concupiscence, fallen with our sins.  But one of us--one of our race--chose correctly.  She is united with us, just as Rachel and Mrs. Grales share a body.  Mary stopped history's repetition.  Through her, a new race was born: sons and daughters of God.  

The Rachel figure at the end of the book, so very alive despite the death and destruction around her, is a poignant reminder to us that in the world there is evil, but Christ has overcome the world.  Through Him, man can be transformed.  

When faced with a Culture of Death, with paganism, with evil, we know we will not be completely victorious until the Coming of Christ.  Sin and evil will be a part of this world until the end.  
We might not save the whole world.  But we can do what we can, guided by the light of Christ and filled with hope, to help the Thon Taddeos and Dr. Cors of our culture to know and live by that light.