Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Lessons from Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy

"They tell me that often the worst criminals make the best nuns ... Because, they have known the depths.  'Out of the depths, I cried to Thee'..." 

Having read Rumer Godden's In This House of Brede, I was eager to reenter the world of the religious convent.  Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy is similar in that a substantial portion of the novel takes place within the community of the Dominican Sisters of Bethany.  Godden, in her engaging, vividly descriptive way inserts the reader into the daily life of the nuns, as well as the liturgical year of the Church.

Yet, Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy also focuses on two other, very different communities.

The novel can be divided into three different time periods within the life of the protagonist.  First, Elizabeth Fanshaw is a young, sheltered English girl serving as a driver in WWII.  On the night of the liberation of Paris, she pursues her own liberation, commencing a night of celebration and passion.  Elizabeth meets Patrice, falls in love with him, and then quickly learns he is the owner of a brothel.  She becomes Lise Ambard, prostitute and, eventually, Madam of the Rue Duchesne.

In the second period, Lise is convicted of murder and sentenced to prison.  She is known as "La Balafree" (the scarred one) due to the scar she bears on her face, a wound inflicted when she intervened in a fight between Patrice and another man.  

While in prison, Lise meets the Sisters of Bethany, whose special charism is to minister to convicts.  In fact, many of the nuns are former convicts themselves!  (Interestingly, this order of nuns actually exists: two Sisters of Bethany were advisors to Godden and the community benefited financially from the sale of her novel.)  When Lise has served her term, she takes on her third and final name: Sister Marie Lise of the Rosary.  

Lise becomes entangled in the first community of the brothel, hoping to find the freedom to pursue love.  Instead, she finds herself in a self-serving, abusive, and destructive environment.  She has entered a prison of her own doing and any effort to free herself--or those around her--are futile.

Ironically, it is within the walls of prison that Lise begins to glimpse freedom.

I never saw it, thought Lise.  Long before I went to prison, I was in a prison ... 

Finally, as she enters the religious life, Lise achieves the freedom she has sought: a freedom obtained only through self-surrender to God and to others.  Freedom requires submission.  Lise is most free when she lays her freedom at the feet of Christ. 

"Then...Madame Lise, where are you going?"

"Where I shall find just what we have both left," said Lise.  "Walls--or, perhaps, not walls, bounds that I musn't cross without leave.  Rules I musn't break.  Times to keep, silence, work, and where I must be obedient, poor."

"You mean--another prison?"

"Not prison, freedom.  That's the paradox.  I believe it will be such freedom as I can't imagine now."

The image of rosary beads follows Lise through these various periods of her life.  Godden, characteristic of her writing style, does not offer a linear progression of events.  Instead, Lise's story unfolds back-and-forth from past to present.  All three communities appear at once as the reader slowly understands what precipitated the events of Lise's life.

At first, this kind of narrative is a bit confusing.  However, it makes for a suspenseful revelation of the climax.  And it also symbolically reveals the action of God's grace in one life: how an event of the past, an evil event, can become the working of something much greater; that God can bring tremendous good out of the darkest of sin.  

We can never escape the past; it is part of our present.  But our past can be the means of our redemption.

This was an engaging, fast-paced read with a beautiful message of hope for all of us sinners: God can take us from the deepest depths and raise us to become saints.  The sorrowful mysteries of the rosary show us the penalty of our sins, but "where sin increased, grace abounded all the more" (Romans 5:20).  From the sorrow of our sins God pours forth the glorious joy of His forgiveness, mercy, and redemption.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Lessons from The Idiot

How far can compassion go, then?

Russian novelist Dostoyevsky published The Idiot serially from 1868-9, just two years after his famous Crime and Punishment.  The close proximity of the publications was influential: many saw The Idiot's protagonist as an inversion of the one in Crime and Punishment.  While the latter was a criminal, in the former Dostoyevsky strove to create what he described as a "positively beautiful man."

Indeed, Prince Myshkin is a man of outstanding compassion, simplicity, humility, gentleness, and forgiveness.  His virtues make him the hero of the novel.  Yet, to many, they also make him an "idiot."  (Myshkin's epilepsy--a medical condition that Dostoyevsky had himself--also contributed to his appearance as an idiot.)  

Myshkin's childlike naivety frequently becomes a source of amusement for those within his social circle.  He is derided as a fool--an overly generous, forgiving fool--who allows others to take advantage of him.  His straight-forward, unfiltered conversation is perplexing to some and outlandish to others.

A perfect child, and even quite pathetic; he has fits of some illness; he's just come from Switzerland, straight from the train, strangely dressed ... he's almost like a child, though he's cultivated. 

Dostoyevsky's purpose in developing Myshkin's character was to create a Christ-like figure and to place him in a materialistic, corrupt, and frequently fake society.  Would Myshkin's exemplary virtue elevate the society around him?  Or would he be dragged down in the dredges himself?

The question is aptly illustrated in a portrait that serves as a powerful symbol in the novel: The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb by Holbein.  Dostoyevsky viewed the painting first-hand and was captivated by its vivid, stark depiction of death.  There is no glorification here; Christ's flesh is painted as the dead, decaying flesh of any human being.  

One of the characters describes the painting:

In the picture this face is horribly hurt by blows, swollen, with horrible, swollen, and bloody bruises, the eyelids are open, the eyes crossed; the large, open whites have a sort of deathly, glassy shine.  But strangely, when you look at the corpse of this tortured man, a particular and curious question arises: if all his disciples, his chief future apostles, if the women who followed him and stood by the cross, if all those who believed in him and worshipped him had seen a corpse like that ... how could they believe, looking at such a corpse, that this sufferer would resurrect?

How could one believe, seeing the realism of death and every indication of defeat?  It makes Christ's death on the cross seem like an act of self-destruction.  And that is precisely the path many of the characters of the novel tread, most notably Nastasya Philippovna.  

As a young child, Nastasya was left without any parent.  An older, wealthy gentleman became her guardian, who later sexually abused Nastasya as an adolescent.  Four years serving as his concubine seared her soul with shame and guilt.  

When Myshkin meets Nastasya, he perceives her innocence, despite society's condemnation of her as a fallen woman.  Nastasya is attracted by his compassion and assurances of hope, but cannot escape the road to self-destruction.  Myshkin offers salvation; all she can see is a dead Christ.  And so, time after time, Nastasya takes the action that validates her (mis)self-conception: that she is destroyed.

Nastasya sees her fallenness with such intensity that she cannot see past the tomb to Easter Sunday.  She forgets there is a Resurrection--for Christ, and for her.

In such an instance, how far should Myshkin's compassion go?  

Nastasya is pulled between the path of salvation (represented by Myshkin) and that of destruction, which lies with a gentleman named Rogozhin.  Rogozhin's feelings for Nastasya are violently passionate.  His jealousy is as pointed and sharp as the tip of the knife he hides in a drawer.  

When Nastasya prepares to leave with Rogozhin, Myshkin--moved by pity--proposes to her.  

"I will consider that you are doing me an honor, and not I you.  I am nothing, but you have suffered and have emerged pure from such a hell, and that is a lot.  Why do you feel ashamed and want to go with Rogozhin? you...Nastasya Filippovna.  I will die for you, Nastasya Filippovna."

His offer is rejected, but Myshkin's compassion is undeterred.  At the climax of the novel, Myshkin is once again presented with the opportunity to save Nastasya.  The stakes are higher for Myshkin, as doing so causes him to sacrifice the romantic relationship he was developing with another character, Aglaya.  Aglaya is from an upstanding family, a young and pure girl who fills Myshkin with happiness.

Nevertheless, Nastasya accepts Myshkin's proposal to marriage and a wedding date is set.

The groom is motivated by pity, like that one would experience for a sick child.  The bride is partly filled with vindictive pride, eager to prove that she is just as worthy of Myshkin as anyone else.  She is also riddled with the conviction that, underneath it all, she is unworthy of anyone.

As the wedding nears, a friend pragmatically advises Myshkin:

"She deserves compassion?  Is that what you want to say, my good Prince?  But for the sake of compassion and for the sake of her good pleasure, was it possible to disgrace this other, this lofty and pure girl [Aglaya], to humiliate her before those arrogant, before those hateful eyes?  How far can compassion go, then?  That is an incredible exaggeration!  Is it possible, while loving a girl, to humiliate her so before her rival, to abandon her for the other one, right in front of that other one, after making her an honorable proposal yourself ... ?"

Was Myshkin's sacrifice redemptive?

In short, no.  Nastasya could not leave the path of self-destruction.  Though love, compassion, and forgiveness were extended to her, waiting for her at the head of the church aisle, on her wedding day she ran into the arms of Rogozhin ... and straight to her death.  

While I championed Myshkin for the majority of the novel and thoroughly liked his character, I, too, thought him an idiot on occasion.  It seemed as though his compassion veered into enabling at times.  He would not stop trying to save Nastasya, even though his efforts produced the same result time after time.  

Myshkin risked everything and the result?  Nastasya was murdered, Aglaya married an impostor who didn't love her, Rogozhin was found guilty and sent to hard labor in Serbia, and Myshkin lapsed into mental insanity from which he wasn't expected to recover.

The novel is a tragedy; there is no happy ever after for the characters.  One must speculate Dostoyevsky's message to the reader.  Did Myshkin's compassion go too far, to the point where he unwittingly contributed to the self-destructive behavior?  For that, one may well call him an idiot.

But it may be, too, that society is the idiot.  They could not understand Myshkin's compassion.  Aglaya was consumed with jealousy and left Myshkin, unable to comprehend his feelings toward Nastasya.  Likewise, those around Myshkin were perplexed by his behavior.  Instead of supporting him in his efforts to save Nastasya, they rebuked and derided him.  

For me, it is a reminder that, though Myshkin is the hero and the "positively beautiful man," he remains that: a man.  It takes more than a man to redeem.  We need a God-man.   

Friday, September 16, 2016

Lessons from Wuthering Heights

The second question, I have great interest in; it is this--Is Mr. Heathcliff a man?  If so, is he mad?  And if not, is he a devil?

A poll was taken in England to determine the greatest love story.  Coming in at #1 was Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë.

It was Brontë's sole published work, printed only one year before her death in 1847.  

The story centers on the relationship between Heathcliff and Catherine (Earnshaw) Linton.  When Catherine was a young girl, her father found Heathcliff orphaned in Liverpool and brought him to live with the family on their estate on the moors.  

Catherine's older brother, Hindley, immediately resented his father's affection for the newcomer, resulting in his subsequent abuse and mistreatment of Heathcliff.  This only escalated once Hindley became the master of Wuthering Heights.  Catherine and Heathcliff became close companions as they sought refuge from the bleakness of their home life on the wild, untamed moors.

The turning point of the plot occurs when Catherine decides to marry Edgar Linton, a decision based on Linton's prominent social standing and Heathcliff's lack of one.  Marrying Heathcliff, Catherine claims, will degrade her.  

Heathcliff, agonized over Catherine's choice, sets his course on revenge--on Hindley for his years of abuse and on Linton for marrying his soulmate.  When Catherine dies, Heathcliff is plunged into misery and seeks out her ghost, even digging up her coffin to glimpse her corpse.

"...Catherine Earnshaw, may you not rest, as long as I am living!  You said I killed you--haunt me, then!  The murdered do haunt their murderers, I believe--I know that ghosts have wandered on earth.  Be with me always--take any form--drive me mad! Only do not leave me in this abyss, where I cannot find you!  Oh, God! it is unutterable!  I cannot live without my life!  I cannot live without my soul!" 

It is understandable that Heathcliff would latch onto Catherine, the only source of kindness and support he knew.  The few happy childhood recollections he must have had, scattered among plentiful moments of abuse, were with her.  

But, as I finished reading the novel, I was left flabbergasted by that designation: the greatest love story.  Was this a love story?  Was Heathcliff a romance novel hero?

The devil masquerades as an angel of light: Lucifer literally means "light-bearer."  So I assert that one could call Heathcliff a romance hero as much as one can call the devil an angel.  

Indeed, there seems to be more literary evidence for Heathcliff being a demon than any hero.  Consider this:

* As a child, Heathcliff vows revenge on Hindley.  When Nelly, the servant and book's principle narrator, chides him and explains that it is God's job to punish the wicked, Heathcliff rebukes her, saying, "No, God won't have the satisfaction that I shall."  Heathcliff desires to take the position and power of God, a truly Satanic characteristic.

* When Heathcliff returns to Wuthering Heights after Catherine has married Linton, Nelly remarks, "I felt that God had forsaken the stray sheep there to its own wicked wanderings, and an evil beast prowled between it and the fold, waiting his time to spring and destroy."

* Heathcliff, in enacting his revenge on Linton, determines to marry Linton's younger sister, Isabella.  When Catherine hears of his plans, she says to Heathcliff, "...I won't repeat my offer of a wife: it is as bad as offering Satan a lost soul.  Your bliss lies, like his in inflicting misery."   (Not exactly the words of lovers, are they?)

* Linton tells Heathcliff that his presence is a "moral poison."

* Heathcliff visits Catherine when she is ill, their final meeting before her death.  When Catherine casts herself into his arms, fainting, Nelly approaches to check on her mistress.  Heathcliff grasps Catherine greedily, "foaming like a mad dog," preventing Nelly from interfering.  He acts like a man possessed, whose heaven lies in his arms and whose hell is life without her.  

* Heathcliff is described as a most "diabolical man."

* When one of the narrators, Lockwood, arrives for the first time to Wuthering Heights, he finds it guarded by fierce, gnarling dogs.  These two "hairy monsters" bent on viscousness are like hounds of hell.  And Heathcliff is the master of this hellish estate.

* When Bronte was writing, the dangerous, smoking factory-towns in England frequently symbolized hell.  For example, poet William Blake wrote of England's "dark Satanic Mills."  Where did Heathcliff originate from?  No one knew his parentage or history; all they knew was that he came from a factory-town.

Catherine describes that she and Heathcliff are one: they are the same soul.  If that is the case, the are the same demonic soul.  Illustratively, Catherine is also described in Satanic terms.  She relates a dream she had in which she was unhappy in heaven and the angels flung her out.  Catherine didn't mind, however--she wanted to be brought back to the moors, a place of chaos, disorder, and death (many people drowned in the pools or became lost in the wilderness).  

Well might Catherine deem that Heaven would be a land of exile to her, unless, with her mortal body, she cast away her mortal character also.  Her present countenance had a wild vindictiveness in its white cheek, and a bloodless lip and scintillating eye...   

Heathcliff even inquires of her if she is possessed by a demon.  "She showed herself, as often was in life, a devil to me!" Heathcliff exclaims to Nelly.

With this abounding evidence, I wonder how anyone can claim the relationship between Heathcliff and Catherine constitutes the greatest love story.  There is little true affection between them, scant moments of tenderness.  Their happy moments lie solely in childhood, to which we have only the briefest of glimpses through Catherine's diary.  The rest of the time, they act in a completely selfish, harmful manner.

Maybe it is a "love" story in the same vein that the relationship between a girl and a vampire--who always teeters on killing his beloved through overwhelming lust--is a "love" story.  Or consider the immensely popular Fifty Shades of Grey, where a BDSM relationship is considered a "love" story.  

Even more astounding than the designation of "greatest love story" was an essay I read about Wuthering Heights.  Martha Nussbaum wrote "Wuthering Heights: the Romantic Ascent."  In her article, Nussbaum asserts that of all the characters, it is Heathcliff who is most Christian.  

No, even more: Heathcliff, she states, is a Christ-like figure.  Every other character keeps his or her love guarded and limited, protecting his or her heart.  Heathcliff, on the other hand, pours himself out for Catherine.  Nussbaum points to a scene immediately after Catherine's death, when Heathcliff smashes his head against the wood of a tree, pouring out his blood for love of the departed.

"...Heathcliff's entirely unguarded love is linked, by contrast, with a deeper sort of generosity and the roots of a truer altruism.  There is no character but Heathcliff in this novel who really sacrifices his life for the life of another...he is in a genuine if peculiar sense, the only Christian among Pharisees, and--with respect to the one person he loves--a sacrificial figure of Christ himself, the only one who sheds his own blood for another.  The novel suggests that only in this deep exposure is there true sacrifice and true redemption."

This interpretation of Heathcliff is completely perplexing and disturbing to me.  Christ allowed Himself to be crucified by others for the sake of humanity's greater good; Heathcliff willfully destroyed himself--physically and spiritually--in a manner that did nothing to help Catherine and potentially damned his soul.  

How could Nussbuam overlook the long and horrifying list of atrocities committed by Heathcliff?  It is too long to detail here, but let me just mention Heathcliff's deceitful treatment of Isabella Linton, whom he married and immediately thereafter verbally, emotionally, physically, and sexually abused.  He also seized his young son, raising him and keeping him alive with the sole motivation of wanting to inherit the boy's property.  He held characters captive, forced a marriage, and may have had a hand in murder.  

For his whole life Heathcliff nursed a grudge and vindictively sought revenge.  And after all the evil he committed, Heathcliff had no sorrow or regret.

" to repenting of my injustices, I've done no injustice, and I repent of nothing--I'm too happy, and yet I'm not happy enough." 

Emily's sister, Charlotte (author of Jane Eyre), wrote in the forward to Wuthering Heights, "Heathcliff, indeed, stands unredeemed; never once swerving in his arrow-straight course to perdition..."

How anyone could call Heathcliff a Christ-like figure is bewildering to me.  But love is very misunderstood today--many things masquerade as love, but are far from authentic.

I suppose, perhaps, someone could argue that it is "romantic" that Heathcliff's feelings for Catherine were so passionate and boundless, he was willing to destroy himself as a result of his affection for her.  But I argue that this is a very disordered understanding of love.  Love, having as its source Love itself, cannot lead to damnation.  

The novel closes with the scene of Catherine and Heathcliff's graves, lying side-by-side.  The moor is silent and peaceful, the narrator implying that so are the souls of those whose names are engraved on the tombstones.  

But I think differently.  

Heathcliff and Catherine have died and their poisonous effect on the members of their families is ended: there is finally peace at Wuthering Heights.  

Yet, some have claimed to spy the ghosts of Heathcliff and Catherine wandering about the moor.  

This seems to indicate that their souls have not found eternal rest in the heavenly homeland.  Instead they roam the wilderness of the moors.  Perhaps that is what their souls desired: Catherine, after all, dreamed she would not be happy in heaven.  

God does not send any soul to hell.  Those in hell choose it.  And perhaps that is the eternal choice Heathcliff and Catherine made, together. 

I guess some people consider that romantic.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Wuthering Heights and the way it made me reflect--it was a multi-dimensional, complex novel.  

I would certainly recommend it to others, but definitively not as a romance.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Lessons from Helena

...despite her placid habit of life and her decisive manner, she was troubled always with the suspicion that there was still something to be sought which she had not yet found... 

I was having a conversation with an agnostic who was grappling with understanding God and what seemed to be God's injustice. He proposed a hypothetical situation to me: a soldier on a battlefield who moves to cover an opening and promptly dies from gunfire. Meanwhile a nearby soldier survives and goes on to live a long, prosperous, happy life after the war. 

The first soldier who died--what was the purpose of his life? Did God create him merely for the explicit purpose of filling a hole on the battlefield? If so, where is the justice in that? Why should one man die and another live? That soldier didn't win the war or go on to become president or create a new invention. He lived for the reason of ... filling a hole? How could that be just? How could a good God do that?

This conversation took place more than ten years ago and I have never forgotten it, probably because I carry a degree of regret about it. I didn't have an answer or explanation. I didn't know what to say. From the inquirer's perspective, I could completely see his point. It didn't seem fair. Why create someone who would die with such a meaningless purpose?

This memory can to me unexpectedly while reading Evelyn Waugh's Helena. Waugh lauded it his favorite work. A hagiography, Helena reads very differently from the other Waugh novel I have read, Brideshead Revisited

The book follows Helena's life from her childhood as a British king's daughter (based on an unlikely legend), her marriage to Constantius Chlorus, the birth of their son Constantine, years spent alone after she was divorced, to her time as Empress Dowager when Constantine ruled.

Helena spends her life surrounded by those who wield great power and influence. Her husband and son seek to rule the empire. In earthly terms, there was no higher aspiration.

His need was simple; not today, not tomorrow, but soon, sometime before he grew too old to make proper use of it, Constantius wanted the World. 

Yet despite the laud and fanfare, Helena knows better than anyone the consequences and implications of such power. Members of the royal family are murdered for fear of conspiracy or challenge. Helena even learns that Constantine has approved of the murder of Crispus, his son and her grandson.

The problem, as Waugh explains through the observant voice of Helena, is power without grace.

One might assert that God gave these leaders a higher calling in life, a more significant purpose, than others. But is such an assertion true? It was certainly a harder path to tread. Waugh is critical of Constantine, but sympathetic as well. Constantine is no Nero--though often failing, his intentions seem to be noble. 

Helena, in a particularly profound prayer to the Magi, intercedes for her son and those who are powerful in the world, since such authority can pose a substantial obstacle to sanctity.

"For His sake who did not reject your curious gifts, pray always for all the learned, the oblique, the delicate. Let them not be quite forgotten at the Throne of God when the simple come into their kingdom." 

And what of Helena? What of her purpose? 

It was realized in the very twilight years of her life when Helena traveled to the Holy Land in search of Christ's cross. When the pieces of wood were excavated from the ground and venerated as the holy cross on which mankind was redeemed, Helena's purpose was finally fulfilled.

No one who watched that day, while the Empress calmly divided her treasure, could have discerned her joy. Her work was finished. She had done what only the saints succeed in doing; what indeed constitutes their patent of sanctity. She had completely conformed to the will of God. Others a few years back had done their duty gloriously in the arena. Hers was a gentler task, merely to gather wood. That was the particular, humble purpose for which she had been created. And now it was done. So with her precious cargo she sailed joyfully away. 

Helena's purpose was actually the purpose of all of us: to do the will of God. Therein lies the explanation to the hypothetical situation that introduced this post. It came to me suddenly as I read Waugh's writing. 

The question isn't whether the soldier had a long life, a happy life, a life with all the possibilities and adventures another may enjoy. It centers on the question: was the soldier doing what God desired him to do?

If the answer is yes, then filling the hole and sacrificing his life on the battlefield is precisely the greatest thing that that soldier could do.

The value and purpose of one's life is not determined by earthly standards. If such were the case, Constantius Chlorus--ruler of the great Roman Empire--would be honored and recalled with more respect and adulation than his wife, who found some pieces of wood.  Instead, his wife is venerated around the world as St. Helena.  

"I want to do what God wants." It should be the desire that directs our lives. Helena became a saint by doing what God desired. That is our purpose, too, and though it may differ in how it is individually lived out--as a world leader, a finder of wood, a soldier who fills a hole--the end result is identically perfect and eternal: heavenly triumph.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Lessons from Emma

To understand, thoroughly understand her own heart, was the first endeavor. 

When Jane Austen prepared to write her novel Emma, she determined to create a protagonist "whom no one but myself will like much."  As such, Emma Woodhouse is wealthy, beautiful, proud, spoiled, self-centered, and vain.  

The real evils of Emma's situation were the power of having rather too much her own way, and a disposition to think a little too well of herself; these were the disadvantages which threatened alloy to her many enjoyments. 

Despite this characterization, Emma may be my favorite Austen heroine thus far.  She is very flawed.  Her vices are clearly articulated and on display.  Emma's vices are also very engaging: they drive the plot and anticipation builds as her flaws bring the action to a climax.  

Her wrongdoing and defects make Emma is so very human.  In her follies and stumbles--caused by her own doing--I see myself.  Though she has faults, Emma remains a very sympathetic character: she is a caring individual, who desires to do what is right (though she often fails) and feels remorse when she errs.  So, at least for me, Emma was a character I could thoroughly understand in all her blunders and for whom I could cheer.

Emma's source of undoing is her efforts at matchmaking.  As the novel opens, Emma boasts of having brought about the marriage of her doting tutor.  She thus desires another match-making endeavor and sets her eyes upon Harriet Smith, a young girl with unknown parentage whose naïveté and humble background make her unmatched for Emma's social circle--a fact Emma promptly disregards.  

Thus sets the course for the rest of the story as Emma steers Harriet from one suitor to another, doing her best to arrange things just so, but repeatedly causing misinterpretations and romantic blunders.  

The principle people that surround Emma are as blind to her wrongdoing as she.  Her father can see only good in his daughter.  With such an approving audience, it is regretfully understandable why Emma is so assured of herself and ignorant of any possible misdeed.  As her father lauds,

With all dear Emma's little faults, she is an excellent creature.  Where shall we see a better daughter, or a kinder sister, or a truer friend?  No, no; she has qualities which may be trusted; she will never lead any one really wrong; she will make no lasting blunder; where Emma errs once, she is in the right a hundred times.

The only one who has the gumption to confront Emma is their longtime family friend Mr. Knightley.  When he confronts Emma on one occasion, Mr. Knightley explains,

This is not pleasant to you, Emma--and it is very far from pleasant to me; but I must, I will--I will tell you truths while I can, satisfied with proving myself your friend by very faithful counsel, and trusting that you will some time or other do me greater justice than you can do now.

In his counsel and correction, Mr. Knightley proves his love for Emma.  For love is not flattery, but honesty.  While other possible suitors encourage Emma's inflated self-image, Mr. Knightley gently humbles her and directs her to a higher course.  It is Mr. Knightley who truly loves Emma because he challenges her to be a better version of herself and calls her out when she settles for something lower.  

Indeed, love is honesty.  Emma's principle downfall occurs because she is convinced that she can arrange, manipulate, and direct love.  But to attribute that power to herself is a lie.  One can perhaps arrange a date or ask for another's phone number, of course.  However, a person cannot force or connive love.  To do so complicates something that should be simple.  Love is organic, mysterious, and a gift--because its source is Love.  

And that may constitute Emma's chief vice: she is not honest with herself.  The praise and adulation she has always had heaped upon her have formed a deep blindness for Emma.  She lacks self-knowledge.  Yet, how well do any of us know ourselves?  We see the splinter in the other's eye; we can't detect the wooden beam in our own.  That is why, as the opening quote illustrates, understanding one's own heart is the first step toward honesty.  

While Emma sets out to arrange other peoples' love, she is entirely ignorant of the love she holds in her own heart for someone.  That truth, the truth of love that should scream louder than anything, is muffled by her self-assurance.

With insufferable vanity had she believed herself in the secret of everybody's feelings; with unpardonable arrogance proposed to arrange everybody's destiny.  She was proved to have been universally mistaken; and she had not quite done nothing--for she had done mischief.

Watching Emma's transformation from blindness, realization, repentance, and honesty is a journey for self-reflection.  For though she sought to make a character no one would like, I believe Austen actually created a character most like all of us.  

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Lessons from The Son Avenger

"God, my God, who lovest us all, who loved me--whom I once loved; had I chosen Thee, I should have chosen my deepest love."

With a title like The Son Avenger, I thought for sure Undset's final chapter in Olav Audunsson's life story would center on his adopted son's final realization that he is not the biological son of Olav and that, in fact, Olav is the murderer of his birth father.  Thus, Eirik would avenge Olav for the evil deed committed so long ago and never confessed of.

I was correct that Eirik is the avenger, but not in the way I had anticipated.  Eirik's personal conversion, love, and sanctity are the avenging forces.  It is they that battle the sin that Olav bears on his soul.  

But all that is preceded by more suffering.  Olav, now an elderly man, has only his children left and they become his source of joy.  They are also his source of consternation as Olav is forced to watch them commit the same sins of his youth.

Eirik, especially, tries Olav's wits, as he always has done.  Capricious and fickle, Eirik veers from folly to faith, from marriage to a celibate brother.  In response to these character flaws, Olav wishes Eirik never to return to Hestivken, while simultaneously wishing to talk to the son who has become so much more of a son than he had ever thought possible.

And he had loved Eirik, who lied and boasted and followed every fancy and turned again from every path he had set out on--loved this incubus that he had got on his back, this goblin that had sucked blood of him till they were as father and son after the flesh.  The murdered man's son had avenged his father as secretly as he himself had slain Taint.

Throughout the tetralogy, the main conflict has always been the inner struggle Olav wages with himself: will he finally confess his hidden murder and be reconciled with God?  Now, in the last years of his life, the risk is higher than ever.  As his children marry and move on, Olav is left with his inescapable sin.

Then he would be left alone with his own soul, as a captive in the deepest dungeon is left alone with the corpse of his fellow prisoner. 

While Olav still remains trapped in his sin, Eirik experiences a profound conversion.  He prays for his father, even asking God to remove some of the suffering from Olav and bestow it upon himself.  Eirik's reckless and selfish habits give way to a sacrificing, forgiving nature.  

Suddenly, like gleam after gleam of summer lightning, there flashed across Eirik's soul--all the forgiveness and all the gifts he had received in these last years.  And even if it were now his lot to forfeit his happiness in this world, that did not diminish the value of what God had done for him: never more could he become as he had been ... he realized in wonder how his raw and immature nature had ripened to hard grain.

When Olav becomes convinced that his personal transgression has produced ill-fruit in the next generation--certain his daughter had also committed an act of murder--he goes to make his confession in hopes of at last purging his family of the curse of his sin.  Yet, on the way to the confessional, Olav has a stroke, leaving him mute and, thus, unable to confess his sin.

In the end, Undset does not give her readers a clear scene of Olav's reconciliation with God.  We do know the desire is there in his heart and that he receives final absolution on his deathbed.  The idea is very much present that, as much as the fire of his sin has burned his soul, Olav's fervent fire for God burns even brighter.

Then the very rays from the source of light broke out and poured down over him.  For an instant he stared with open eyes straight into the eye of the sun, tried even, wild with love and longing, to gaze deeper into God.  He sank back in red fire, all about him was a living blaze, and he knew that now the prison tower that he had built around him was burning.  But salved by the glance that surrounded him, he would walk out unharmed over the glowing embers of his burned house, into the Vision that is eternal bliss, and the fire that burned him was not so ardent as his longing.

Undset's prose is beautiful and, on that merit alone, the tetralogy is worth reading.  I will say, however, that I was disappointed in Olav's story.  I was frustrated by how long it took him to confess ... or not confess, as the case may be.  For four books he knew that he should come clean to God and yet he kept delaying it!  I suppose that is what happens sometimes in real life, but for me, it made the plot languish.  

Another point of disappointment for me: Eirik never learned the truth of his birth.  Eirik never knew his birth father had been murdered and Olav's guilt in the deed, nor did he realize the quiet sacrifice Olav made throughout the years in rearing the bastard son as his own.  I feel that conversation would have added depth and meaning to their relationship.  At the very least, it seems Eirik deserved to know the truth.  It was frustrating this exchange never took place.

I also felt the tetralogy ended on a very odd note.  I won't give away anything by going into details--though it was so anti-climatic and strange, I don't know if it really would detract to explain the final few lines.  I'll just say it left a very unsatisfying taste in my mouth.  It could have been something much more than it was, or at least something a little more emotional or meaningful.

So, in the end, I don't regret reading The Master of Hestviken tetralogy, though I found Olav's character quite frustrating and redundant at times.  If you are considering reading Undset, start with Kristin!

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Christus Victor Part VI

(This is part of a series discussing Christ's crucifixion and the Atonement theories that seek to understand the cross. Earlier posts may be found here, here, herehere, and here.)

Beginning in the Middle Ages, a new understanding of the Atonement emerged that at first challenged, and later, almost entirely replaced the “Christus Victor” approach.

The Patristics certainly discussed the Atonement, but never in a systematic, thorough fashion, in part because they were so focused on Christological issues (such as reconciling the divinity and humanity of Christ) as well as developing a doctrine of the Trinity. 

 Therefore, a detailed Atonement theory did not appear until Saint Anselm of Canterbury.[1] Anselm (1033-1109) spoke against the earlier classical view, averring that Redemption is not primarily about the rights of the devil, but the wrong done to God on the part of humanity. 

Anselm’s historical context had a profound impact upon him as he developed his new theory of the Atonement. In the Middle Ages, feudalism governed European society with a series of hierarchical classes of people existing in a give-and-take relationship. For example, a lord would provide his vassal with material goods and defense whereas, in exchange, the vassal owed his lord loyalty and tribute. It was a society based on honoring and serving landowners. Justice, in this system, was fixed on satisfaction, not punishment like current law in the United States. As Anselm developed his theory, he was profoundly impacted by his view of God as a great feudal lord.[2]

Anselm’s Atonement theory (referred to as the satisfaction theory or Latin theory) is advanced in his work Cur Deus Homo? In this book, Anselm represses the classical notion of the cross as a victory over the devil. In its place, he maintains that the cross is predominantly deliverance from the guilt of sin. Through the cross, humankind is reconciled to the Father through the satisfaction made by the Son to the Father’s justice.[3] 

To elaborate, Anselm begins by explaining that man is created for happiness. Happiness, however, necessitates a life without sin, something no human could claim. Thus, in order to be happy, humankind needed remission of sin.[4]

The quandary is that all creatures, as vassals, owe a basic debt to God, the great lord. This debt subsists in being subject to God’s Will. If someone pays this debt, he or she is not in sin. If unpaid, that individual lives in sin. Anselm writes, “He who does not render this honor which is due to God, robs God of His own and dishonors Him; and this is sin.”[5] 

Since man has clearly sinned, he is mandated to restore what is due to God or else will remain in sin. In his feudalistic frame of mind, Anselm included another point: it is not enough to merely restore what one took from God. In addition, individuals are mandated to provide extra compensation for having even offended God in the first place. “…Every one who sins ought to pay back the honor of which he has robbed God; and this is the satisfaction which every sinner owes to God.”[6]

At first, the solution seems clear: God in an act of sheer mercy should simply forgive the sins of fallen humanity. Anselm, however, declares that God cannot straightforwardly wipe away the sins as if they had never occurred. To remove sin in such a way would eradicate any punishment. If there is no punishment, it is as if the sin had not transpired and this is not just since both the guilty and non-guilty would be treated equally. 

Thus, without satisfaction, God cannot allow sin to go unpunished. So there are dual dynamics present: the sinner cannot achieve the happiness he or she is destined to have because of sin and there exists a need for satisfaction to the wrong done to God.[7]

Then there is the final clinch in this series of dismal acknowledgements: the satisfaction must be in proportion to the guilt incurred. Yet, no matter how much one gives back to the Lord, whether it be prayer, abstinence, or contribution, humans already owe God all of this! Boso, the individual with whom Anselm dialogues in Cur Deus Homo? speaks the obvious predicament, “If in justice I owe God myself and all my powers, even when I do not sin, I have nothing left to render Him for my sin.”[8] Anselm states in reply, “Even God cannot raise to happiness any being bound at all by the debt of sin, because He ought not to.”[9]

The circumstances of humankind is one of which there is colossal satisfaction to be made. Anselm explains that the first man and woman had been placed in paradise, situated between God and the devil. They were meant to defeat the devil by remaining loyal to God. Instead, on his own accord, man sinned and permitted himself to fall under the will of the devil. In freely succumbing to the devil, humanity incurred the penalty of death. 

Anselm enumerates, “…so in his weakness and mortality, which he had brought upon himself, he should conquer the devil by the pain of death, while wholly avoiding sin. But this cannot be done, so long as from the deadly effect of the first transgression, man is conceived and born in sin.”[10]

Satisfaction must be greater than all else but God Himself, something that only God is capable of doing. Simultaneously, only a man can make the satisfaction because man is the one who owes the satisfaction to God. To this predicament there can be only one solution: a God-man.[11]

Anselm explains that the key to the Atonement is God becoming human. If there were no Incarnation, there could be no Redemption. Only Jesus, fully human and fully divine, could fulfill both sides of the justice issue.[12] Anselm writes, “For, as it is right for man to make atonement for the sin of man, it is also necessary that he who makes the atonement should be the very being who has sinned, or else one of the same race.”[13] 

When the issue is raised why God could not have created an angel or another human to accomplish Redemption, Anselm responds that God Himself had to do it because if God created a sinless man to redeem mankind, men and women would be indebted to this individual as opposed to God.[14]

There remained another question with Anselm’s view. If God freed humans from sins, hell, and the power of Satan, could He not have done this by His Word alone? If not, then God must not truly be an omnipotent God. If, however, God could have accomplished salvation in this means, yet insisted upon Jesus suffering on the cross, what kind of God must this be? 

Anselm counters that the Father did not force Jesus to die; He did not kill the innocent for the guilty. According to His own free will Jesus died for humankind’s salvation. While the Father clearly approved of the Son’s desire to die for this reason, He neither caused the desire nor the suffering.[15] Finally, God could not have brought about salvation by His Word alone, for reparation must be from a human since it was the human race that committed the transgressions and owed God the satisfaction.[16]

[1] Aulén, 1.
[2] Carroll and Green, 261.
[3] Aulén, 2.
[4] Saint Anselm, Proslogium; Monologium; An Appendix in Behalf of the Fool by Gaunilon; and Cur Deus Homo, trans. Sidney Norton Deane (Illinois: The Open Court Publishing Company, 1948), 201.
[5] Saint Anselm, 202.
[6] Saint Anselm, 202.
[7] Saint Anselm, 203.
[8] Saint Anselm, 224-225, 227.
[9] Saint Anselm, 230.
[10] Saint Anselm, 230-231.
[11] Saint Anselm, 244-245.
[12] Carroll and Green, 258.
[13] Saint Anselm, 247.
[14] Saint Anselm, 178-179, 184.
[15] Saint Anselm, 185, 191, 198.
[16] Carroll and Green, 258.