Friday, April 10, 2020

Lessons from Vipers' Tangle

A few years ago, our oldest daughter, Mary, attended Vacation Bible School at our Catholic parish.  As she and the other children practiced one of the VBS songs, I heard this line: "You are good, when there's nothing good in me."

I cringed inside.  Nothing good in me?  It immediately didn't sit right with me, especially coming from the mouths of children!  Even adults, capable and guilty of mortal sin, even at our worst moments ... do we ever reach a point where there is "nothing good in me?"

The VBS program was Protestant and that's where this kind of theology came from.  Martin Luther asserted of man, "He is a bad tree and cannot produce good fruit; a dunghill, and can only exhale foul odors. He is so thoroughly corrupted that it is absolutely impossible for him to produce good actions."

The Catechism of the Catholic Church, however, explains that man is created by God and for God.  He is made in the "image and likeness" of God Himself.  God can only create good!  Man is intrinsically good, though sin has corrupted his nature.  Saint Thomas Aquinas explained that evil is choosing a lesser good over the greatest good (God).  So even when a person sins, he or she is still trying (wrongly) to pursue a good.

But what about when someone loses sight of this inherent goodness and all that he can see is evil ... the dunghill ... the tangle of vipers?

I felt, I saw, I had it in my hand—that crime of mine. It did not consist entirely in that hideous nest of vipers—hatred of my children, desire for revenge, love of money; but also in my refusal to seek beyond those entangled vipers. I had held fast to that loathsome tangle as though it were my very heart—as though the beatings of that heart had merged into those writhing reptiles.

Vipers' Tangle, written by Nobel Prize Winner Francois Mauriac in 1932, takes the form of a letter, written by embittered, resentful Louis to his wife, Isa.  He is dying of a heart condition and he sets out to air his grievances toward her and to explain why she and their children will not inherit his massive fortune. 

Louis describes his childhood: he came from the peasant class.  His father died when he was very young, leaving him to be raised by an overprotective, doting mother.  He was a socially awkward boy, never able to joke around with others or bond with friends.  

My youth was nothing but one long suicide.  I hastened to displease on purpose for fear of displeasing naturally.

Things seemed to change when he met Isa.  At once he experienced the sensation of being wanted and loved.  His perspective, warmed by this affection, broadened.  Love whispered of Love ...

I suddenly had an intense feeling, an almost physical certitude, that another world existed, a reality of which we knew nothing but the shadow ... 

Shortly after their marriage, it abruptly ended.  One night, laying together in bed, Isa confessed to Louis that, before they met, she had been in love with another man.  Louis concludes that he was the one Isa had settled for: her second choice, her last-ditch effort at marriage.  She must have never really loved him.  

Already the infinitesimal space that separated our outstretched bodies had become impassable ... already I was asking myself: "Less than a year after this great love, how could she have loved me? ... It was all a sham ... She lied to me.  I am not set free.  How could I have thought that any girl would fall in love with me?  I am a man whom nobody can love."

For fifty years he nursed this grudge.  In his letter to her, Louis condemns her for ignoring him and favoring the children to his company, which she found boring.  He chastises her Christianity, purposefully eating meat on Friday to scandalize the family and refusing to go to Mass on Sunday despite his daughter's pleas.  Embittered, Louis clings to his wealth.

An old man only lives by virtue of what he possesses.  Once he ceases to possess anything, he is thrown on the scrap-heap .. Yes, indeed, I am afraid of being poor.  I feel as though I could never accumulate enough money. 

He is determined that his wife and children should not inherit his wealth.  One night Louis overhears them discussing his money and making plans for how they can secure it.  His family is a tangle of vipers, lusting after his gold.  Louis leaves unannounced the next morning, to meet his illegitimate son in another city and to arrange for him to receive his fortune.  

While Louis is away, Isa dies.  He is astonished: it never occurred to him that she would predecease him.  He was the sick one, not her!  All of his plans are destroyed.

I should never see my wife again. There would never be any explanation between us. She would never read these pages. Things would remain eternally at the point where I had left them when I went away from Calese. We could not begin over again, make a start on a new basis. She was dead without knowing me, without knowing that I was not merely that monster, that torturer, and that another man existed in me. 

Louis begins to realize that, all throughout his marriage, he decided how he would interpret all of Isa's actions and words--always to her detriment.  He only saw one side of her, the side that stoked the fire of his resentment.  

But there is always more to a person than his or her worst actions.  There is never a point where there is "nothing good in me."

We do not know what we desire. We do not love what we think we love. 

For most of his life, Louis believed that his love was his money.  On the day of Isa's funeral, he found that his attachment to money was no longer there.  He handed over the security deposits and bank notes to his children.  

One night, as the hail pounded against the house, like God's grace pounding against his sick heart, Louis realizes his error.  He had believed that his heart was that tangle of vipers: hatred for his wife and his children, desire for revenge, greed.  But that was all the sinfulness surrounding his heart, choking it.  He needed to go deeper, to cut past all of those vices.  He was more than his worst deeds.

He also had to do the same with those around him.  How often had he stopped at the mask people put up?  His son's mask of Christianity--dipping his hand in Holy Water while conspiring to seize Louis's fortune.  Or his granddaughter, Janine, saying that she performed her Christian duty, in the same tone of voice that she might say that she paid her taxes.  Those are masks, a false religion.  Louis had stopped at that, had criticized and ridiculed that Christianity.  The problem, however, is God is something more than that mask.  

Before we can reach others, we must penetrate their masks.  Before we can know ourselves, we must penetrate our mask.  We have to cut through the tangle of vipers.

Have you ever seen yourself on video?  I remember watching myself on a video one day and thinking, "Oh.  So that's what the back of my head looks like!"  I was so accustomed to seeing one perspective of my appearance in a mirror, that seeing myself from a new angle was almost jarring.  That person ... is me?  

It is so hard sometimes to see ourselves and others correctly.  But when we can cut through the masks--the sinfulness, resentment, the hurt--there is a child of God.  There is good inside of me, inside of you.  And in this novel, a book that spends the majority of the time demonstrating how vile and disgusting a character Louis is, by the end, you realize he is good, too.  As his granddaughter writes to Louis' son, her uncle:

But let me tell you why, finally, I think that he was right and we were wrong.  There where our treasure was, there was our heart also.  We thought of nothing but that threatened heritage ... Will you understand me if I tell you that, where his treasure was, there was not his heart also?