Thursday, December 31, 2015

Lessons from A Tale of Two Cities

Along the Paris streets, the death-carts rumble, hollow and harsh.  Six tumbrils carry the day's wine to LaGuillotine.  All the devouring and insatiate Monsters imagined since imagination could record itself, are fused in the one realisation, Guillotine.  And yet there is not in France, with its rich variety of soil and climate, a blade, a leaf, a root, a sprig, a peppercorn, which will grow to maturity under conditions more certain than those that have produced this horror.  Crush humanity out of shape once more, under similar hammers, and it will twist itself into the same tortured forms.  Sow the same seed a rapacious license and oppression over again, and it will surely yield the same fruits according to its kind. 

It is a novel much about death, but it left me pondering most about life.

A Tale of Two Cities is Charles Dickens' 1859 novel about the French Revolution.  The plot centers around the Mannette family: patriarch and ex-political prisoner Dr. Manette, his devoted and virtuous daughter Lucie, and her husband Charles Darnay.  Darnay is a French aristocrat who has denounced his heritage, tainted with the blood of abused peasants, and moved to England where he works for his living.  

While in England, the family befriends Mr. Sidney Carton.  Similar to Darnay in appearance, Carton contrasts him most strongly in personality and disposition.  Carton should enjoy the same pleasures and contentment in life as Darnay, but he does not.  Instead, Carton aimlessly passes his life in lost opportunities and lack of ambition.  His life is one of "could have beens."  

Climbing to a high chamber, in a well of houses, he threw himself down in his clothes on a neglected bed, and its pillow was wet with wasted tears.  Sadly, sadly the sun rose; it rose upon no sadder sight than the man of good abilities and good emotions, incapable of their directed exercise, incapable of his own help and his own happiness, sensible of the blight on him, and resigning himself to let it eat him away.

Though the family and friend live in England, France and its growing unrest is not far from them.  When Darnay learns that the just man who acted as a servant for his malevolent, aristocratic uncle has been jailed by the patriots, guilt weighs upon him.  Darnay has renounced all the evil in his family's past, a past that habitually preyed on those less fortunate; however, Darnay's relocating to England has not righted the wrongs committed.  And here is a concrete plea for help, directed at Darnay, the sole person (as inheritor of his family's estate) able to do so.

With that intent in mind, Darnay returns to France and quickly finds himself imprisoned, with no trial, for breaking a law he did not realize even existed.  

Dr. Manette, Lucie, and Sidney Carton soon arrive in Paris, in the effort to free Darnay before he, like countless other innocents, is brought before the guillotine.  There, the French women peasants knit as they gaze upon the scene, goading on the instrument of death that will exterminate a class that so often starved, raped, stole, imprisoned, and murdered them.

It  [the guillotine] was the sign of the regeneration of the human race.  It superseded the Cross.  Models of it were worn on breasts from which the Cross was discarded, and it was bowed down to and believed in where the Cross was denied.  It sheared off heads so many, that it, and the ground it most polluted, were a rotten red.  It was take to pieces, like a toy-puzzle for a young Devil, and was put together again when the occasion wanted it.  It hushed the eloquent, struck down the powerful, abolished the beautiful and good.

Death is everywhere.  Blood marks the weapons sharpened at the grindstone.  Blood stains the shoes that dance the Carmagnole, the hideous mockery of dancing that revealed "how warped and perverted all things good by nature were become."  Blood flows in the streets like wine, broken from its cask, which the starving people feverishly collect and greedily consume.  

There is darkness and terror, even more frightening for the reader because it is true.  Yet, amid this, Dickens draws forth the theme of life.  

The first book of the novel is entitled "Recalled to Life."  Dr. Manette, a prisoner for eighteen years in the Bastille, has been freed, but is a shadow of his former self.  He sits, making shoes, withdrawn and unengaged with the world around him.  He lives, but not really.  

It is his daughter, Lucie, and her unswerving, ardent devotion and love that bring him back to life.  As the book progresses, Dr. Manette develops from a weak victim to a strong advocate in fighting for his son-in-law's freedom.  

Most powerfully, however, is Sidney Carton's recall to life.  Before the return to France, while they still reside in a serene home in England, Carton visits Lucie and confides to her that he loves her, though he realizes she should never return the sentiment toward him: he is undeserving of it.  Yet, he wants her to know that she has inspired him to consider striving for something higher...though that inspiration will have little bearing in reality.  Before he leaves her, Carton tells Lucie:

"...think now and then that there is a man who would give his life, to keep a life you love beside you!"

When Darnay is sentenced to the guillotine, Carton employs his ingenuity to devise a means to save his life.  Taking advantage of their similar appearances, Carton takes the place of Darnay, sacrificing himself for Lucie's love.

He dies and, in dying, he finds Life--everlasting Life.  

"It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to, than I have ever known."

Darnay has been saved and is able to return home to his love; Carton has likewise been saved and is able to return Home to his Love.  

Carton's sacrifice of his life gives hope that anyone may be recalled to Life.  Amid the great darkness of mob brutality and capital punishment, Dickens places the moment of triumph and victory.  It was the worst of times; it was the best of times.

There is the foil of Lucie, weaving her golden thread of love and mercy, and Madam Defarge, knitting her record of aristocrats targeted for death, who is filled with revenge and hate.  Yes, even a Madam Defarge may be recalled to life.

Dichotomies abound in A Tale of Two Cities, but the darkness does not diminish the light.  It helps one understand the evil, recognize and name it, in order to resist it.  We are all capable of it.  The guillotine has come in many forms throughout history; we have crucified God, haven't we? 

But the same God calls us to Life and Carton, moments before his death, could foresee a time with the streets of Paris would be free from blood, when Lucie's son who would bear his name could stand there in peace and freedom, remembering Carton's sacrifice.

We can foresee a time, too, when there will be no fighting, no war, no more death--when we will all be recalled to Life.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Forgiving ... With or Without Forgetting?

"Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us." -- the words of Christ

The standard by which God will forgive us is determined by us.  That is both a hopeful and frightening thought.  

Forgiveness can be challenging.  To really, truly forgive someone from your heart is a grace that takes work and time, especially when the offense is quite great.

Sometimes I think I've forgiven someone, but then the devil starts encouraging me to replay the mental video tape of past hurts and wounds, thereby stirring up the old feelings of resentment and anger.  I have to will that videotape to stop and choose forgiveness...again and again.  

My Mom once told me that she read somewhere that praying for the person who hurt you, daily for two weeks, is very healing.  And that certainly does help; I can attest to it.  

Praying for that other person--for his or her happiness and salvation--softens your heart.  You remember this is another soul created by God, loved by God unconditionally and eternally.  You remember Christ died for him or her, too.  Every night I pray for the person who hurt me, for her final perseverance and that one day she can be with God forever in heaven.

I think the aspect of forgiveness with which I struggle the most is the forgetting part.  Should you forget the hurt and injury?  

I once thought so.  Let bygones be bygones, so to speak.  Turn a new page!  Start again!  And that is how I acted in this particular relationship.  There was an injury, the offender apologized, I accepted the apology, and the relationship was resumed.

I worked very, very hard to put that injury behind me.  But, sadly, a couple of years later the offense was repeated--on a much larger, more serious, and more hurtful scale.

So I find myself back in the familiar spot of: I need to forgive and I'm praying for the grace to keep forgiving.  

This time, however, I don't want to forget. 

I don't want to harbor a grudge (and this is hard not to do sometimes).  Yet, I don't want the memory of what happened to completely vanish because I don't want to leave myself vulnerable again.  

I want to keep my boundaries up because I've learned that this relationship is one that is very dangerous for me.  I wanted the relationship to work, and that desire encouraged me to believe things were healthy and the relationship was normal.  I forgot how unhealthy things had been before, and how incredibly easy it is for things to fall back into that unhealthiness.

It's difficult because this is a family relationship, so I feel responsibility and the demands of charity on one side of the equation.  Yet, I see on the other side many hurtful words and wrong behavior.  

So I'm in a place where I'm trying to forgive.  And when I think I have forgiven, something triggers past memories and I have to work to forgive all over again.  

I'm also in a place where I'm working to balance letting go of past wrongs...while remembering them enough to realize I need very strong, very firm boundaries.  

Is this how God forgives?  I don't think God puts up boundaries, do you?  

However, while God wipes our slate clean after confession, forgiving totally, there are still repercussions to our sins.  Our trespasses have consequences and God doesn't wipe those away.  There is still temporal punishment, which we pay through suffering in this life or in Purgatory.   God loves us, He forgives us, but He is merciful and just.  

Perhaps that is somewhat analogues to this.  I should forgive whole-heartedly.  Yet, the offense, while forgiven, incurs a kind of punishment, in the terms of boundaries and keeping distance.  One could maybe say boundaries are an act of charity, in the way of preventing an occasion of sin if the offender has a particular vice in this area.  

God forgives, but does He forget?  I have absolutely no theological citations or references for this, so please do not accept my musings as fact.  But I wonder if He does not forget.  The claim of justice seems to warrant remembering...remembering that there was a wrong done that needs to be righted.  Otherwise, if a murderer goes to confession right before dying, would he appear before Christ, who would say, "Go right into heaven!  I don't remember any of your sins!"  That doesn't seem right.

God forgives in mercy; He remembers in justice.

The trick, of course, is remembering without bitterness, anger, and resentment.  God remembers with love and sorrow.  So, I suppose when I remember a wrongdoing--in the effort to keep the right boundaries in place--I should remember in sorrow that this person committed such a sin.  I should have remorse for her, not bitterness, and the memory should prompt a prayer on her behalf.

Loving someone at a distance, a very far distance involving no communication, is a challenge.  I don't think I am doing it as best as I can.  But I will keep trying and pray that God will also have mercy and forgive me for my shortage of love.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Lessons from Persuasion

Young and gentle as she was, it might yet have been possible to withstand her father's ill-will, though unsoftened by one kind word or look on the part of her sister;--but Lady Russell, whom she had always loved and relied on, could not, with such steadiness of opinion, and such tenderness of manner, be continually advising her in vain.  She was persuaded to believe the engagement a wrong thing--indiscreet, improper, hardly capable of success, and not deserving it.

When is it right to be persuaded?

Jane Austen wrote Persuasion when she was in her twilight years of life.  It was her final complete novel before she passed away at the age of 41.  Austen was ill during the time of writing and did not have the opportunity to do a final edit, which prompts some critics to say that the work isn't as polished as her other novels.

I'm far from an Austen scholar, but I would beg to differ.  I think Persuasion is as impressive as Mansfield Park or Pride and Prejudice.

It has a distinct tone, however, from Austen's earlier writing.  Persuasion is set mostly in the dreariness of autumn and bareness of winter.  The protagonist, Anne Elliot, is not a budding young lady, but a twenty-seven year old woman whose chances for marriage are bleak.  Her opportune time is just about past.

In her biography of Austen, Claire Tomalin asserts that Austen's final novel was a present to herself and to other women, like her sister Cassandra, "who had lost their chance in life and would never enjoy a second spring."  Austen, one might note, never married.

Anne Elliot's second spring was tenuous.  She had once known love.  When she was nineteen, Anne met Captain Frederick Wentworth.  Similar in temperament and interests, they were quickly enraptured by each other and Wentworth proposed marriage.

The circumstances of such a marriage, however, were dubious.

Wentworth was fully confident that his hardwork and good luck would soon equate to a favorable position in society and strong financial status.  However, at the time of his engagement to Anne, he definitively lacked both assets--he had no strong connections and was employed in a tenuous profession.  As a naval officer, Wentworth's chances at success depended on numerous, uncertain factors, such as safety at sea and engagement in battle.

Where Anne sought encouragement for her marriage, she found only discouragement.  Her vain father disparaged Wentworth for his more lowly birthright.  Anne's mother had died years before and, in her place, Anne turned to her friend and advisor, Lady Russell, who adamantly opposed the union.  Anne was thus persuaded: she turned away the man she loved.

Eight years did nothing to lessen Anne's feelings for Wentworth.   When her father must rent his great estate, Kellynch Hall, because of financial strain, circumstances work to bring Anne and Wentworth back into the same social circle once again.  

It is far from a joyous reunion, however.  Wentworth resents the fact that Anne was weak in her conviction and allowed her feelings for him to be overridden by the influence of others.  He perceived her as feeble and timid.  After great success at sea--achieving all that he had promised her he would, eventually, achieve--Wentworth has returned home to find a wife.  And she may be anyone, save Anne Elliot.

...there could have been no two hearts so open, no tastes so similar, no feelings so in unison, no countenances so beloved.  Now they were as strangers; nay, worse than strangers, for they could never become acquainted.  It was a perpetual estrangement. 

Anne is still fully in love with Wentworth and must watch as he acquaints himself with the other available ladies in the room.  She plays the piano, suffering silently, as Wentworth dances with a possible bride-to-be.  Anne's situation is sympathetic, no doubt.  It is even more sorrowful because Anne does nothing to advance her cause.  

There are no grand lamentations before Wentworth, begging his forgiveness.  She doesn't throw herself at his feet, explaining herself or defending her actions.  In short, she doesn't try to persuade him.

When Anne and Wentworth communicate, it only happens because circumstances work out in their favor.  Anne is walking down the street and Wentworth passes her way.  While attending a play, Anne is sitting at the end of the aisle and is thus free to speak with Wentworth as he stands near.  Wentworth happens to be present in the room when Anne is engaged in a conversation about the differences between how men and women love, providing Anne with the opportunity to emotionally assert, "All the privilege I claim for my own sex (it is not a very enviable one, you need not covet it) is that of loving longest, when existence or when hope is gone."

I remember, when I was of the dating age, constantly trying to maneuver and manipulate events to my favor.  If the boy I was interested in was attending a certain class, I would just "happen" to pass by the room at the exact time said class was dismissed.  No coincidence, just conniving on my part!  And interestingly, those relationships never really worked out.  But, when I finally lifted up my hands and said, "That's it!  I'm done!" I received an email from Chris.  

Anne did not advocate her cause.  But Someone else did.  

I still question whether Anne was right to be persuaded into not marrying Wentworth when he wasn't yet established financially and socially.  Anne later explains to Wentworth that, had she gone against her family and Lady Russell, she would have been troubled in conscience.  However, I consider eight years of lost time.  Was it justified?  Anne knew he was her vocation; did her conscience need to be bothered?  Perhaps she should have taken a leap of faith and trusted God to provide.

I conclude with my favorite passage from the book, which is a letter Wentworth secretly gives to Anne after he overhears her claim that women love the longest.  Austen never provides the dialogue between Wentworth and Anne when they finally reconcile.  However, she provides this letter, with words so loving and passionate that it more than suffices ...  Now this is romance!

"You pierce my soul.  I am half agony, half hope.  Tell me not that I am too late, that such precious feelings are gone for ever.  I offer myself to you again with a heart even more your own, than when you almost broke it eight years and a half ago.  Dare not say that man forgets sooner than woman, that his love has an earlier death.  I have loved none but you.  Unjust I may have been, weak and resentful I have been, but never inconstant."