Monday, July 5, 2010

glimpses of magic

Delightfully, I have today off from work, and early this morning (far earlier than I finally "rose to greet the day," as my mother would say), the Shenandoah rafting trip loosely planned for the day came apart, so I really have a day to myself, for unstructured leisure, and to get a few chores done, and avoid the heat. One of the items on my list was to see whether the internet afforded a copy of Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday, so that I did not have to go to the library - because the next meeting of my book club is on Wednesday, and though the club's rules are very liberal, my scruples forbid me to attend if I have not read the book chosen for the month. And this meeting is particularly significant to me, because I may have the responsibility of hosting next - making dinner, offering a venue, and choosing a book. I love cooking, and hosting, and I have some ideas for books, so I'm excited about that.

Any of you who is familiar with Chesterton and possessed of a good "ear" will notice that I am now writing in some imitation of his style. You may even be able to dig up a post I wrote complaining about a Bronte novel in which I had adopted the ponderous sentence structure and over-descriptive turns of phrase of those delightful spinsters. I'm rather susceptible to that, even when I'm trying not to be; I absorb the rhythm of the words I've just read, and I just finished the book, which I read nearly straight through. The effect will fade in a few hours, perhaps a day.

I'm writing this post now, though my eccentric writing may perhaps annoy, because I want to get it down before another effect fades away. Before this, I'd only read most of Chesterton's Orthodoxy, which I found was written in the style of a person who had read far too many medieval fairy tales, and far too recently. He trailed off into the fanciful as if it were hard for him to focus on mere metaphysics, or philosophy (his subject in Orthodoxy). I didn't expect this effect to be so heightened in a fictional tale (which The Man Who Was Thursday is) - but it was. For all my literature training (and I really was good at deconstructing stories), and for all the blinding obviousness that Thursday is an allegory, I can't pick it apart. Perhaps in the next day or two it will impress itself upon my brain, what it is intended to mean.

But I was standing in my kitchen fetching another fudgecicle when something else occurred to me. More than Chesterton's phrasing, something else had worked itself into my brain while reading the book; something in his descriptions of things, and approach to things. The days of the week travel by coach onto the estate, reminded poignantly of their boyhood; a memory from before they remembered their mothers, and beautiful and comforting and loved. And I thought of how I turn up, in unconscious moments, the phrase "I want to go home" - it's wandered through my head as a refrain for five years or more now, that I remember, and I realize whenever I hear it that I don't know where that is, and couldn't render an adequate definition of home. I know I need to go there, but I'm not sure that I have or could have one.

Chesterton's description of remembered boyhood is home. What they saw, what they remembered, on that carriage ride, was something of purity, of beauty, of bliss; of the innocence and joy that childhood associates with a place that is purely and simply happy. Chesterton's imaginativeness is not so singular that he invents traits for the human person. I remember that feeling. I remember childhood - not only the sadness that marred so much of it, but other things, too.

And I remember something that I had, that I have not had in some time: a genuine and deep love for the world. I remember not wanting to go to bed, not because friends were still up late partying, but in spite of the fact that nobody else was awake - because I might miss something of the inexhaustible supply of life. I remember straining my eyes to read in a near-dark room at night because I couldn't bear to wait till morning for the end of a story. I remember waking each day in the summer with an automatic joy that a new day was beginning and I was experiencing it - even a day that already promised to be filled with fretting over a lack of anything entertaining to do, or arguments with my mother or my siblings, or a truly unpleasant task. I never dreaded a day. I loved them; even though I was very unhappy much of the time, I loved days.

When I was a child, even into my teen years, I remember always feeling safe outside in the night. Realizing this at one time, I reflected on it; and I concluded that I felt safe because in the silent dark, though I couldn't see them, I knew that the world was full of other people, elsewhere, and I would never be alone. It's interesting, because I have rather similar observations as an adult - as a result of which I never feel entirely safe alone outside at night. I imagine most adult women feel the same way. Partly it's because I know more now, but even as a teen, I was afraid in the dark inside; I could imagine some evil person lying in wait for me; but outside, I felt peace. I don't know why, and I miss it.

The other day I was thinking of my long unfilled summer days as a school-child. Because of a years-long rift with my mother, my siblings and I rarely did any chores (and if we did, only after a battle). So the many days were not days on which we accomplished anything of the sort I think I ought to be accomplishing now. I did occasionally fill them with things; lots of reading, craft and art projects usually of my own conception, supply, and execution. I made a great number of interesting things, such as contemporary parents are always trying to educate their children into making; my projects were merely a nuisance to my mother. I thought about this because these days - summer days, just now - I feel as though I've wasted the day nearly no matter what I do. If I spend the time with friends, I've not done enough chores; if I stay at home and laze about, I've not even accomplished that much; if I get a lot of chores done, it's still never enough. When I was a child, I would occasionally be disappointed that some anticipated activity had not occurred. But the thought of a day wasted, or time regretted, never once crossed my mind.

I think, though I could be bored or unhappy or depressed, and my difficult family gave me reason to be; though I had probably, by adolescence, a serious hatred for myself; though it might often have been accurate to say that I resented my life - it was always true that I loved life. Each day, there might be a new adventure. When I looked out through a window - as I looked onto my back yard through the kitchen window, fetching my fudgecicle just now - I saw that I had loved life. Not because I believed some day that I would have a good Catholic marriage and a good job and an expensive house and its rooms full of children, or anything silly like that, that occurs to me now. I would have seen - and, thanks to the phrases of Chesterton, still ringing in my ears, this afternoon I did see - a beautiful meadow, poured full of joy by the sunlight, gorgeously framed by the blue sky, not radiating an oppressive summer heat, but radiating life. That's where life is.

Somewhere along the way, I've lost the joy in life. And this was not the studied and affected piety I adopted in young adulthood, according to which I was grateful to God for each day because I ought to be grateful, but the blind and sincere and perhaps virtue-less, because instinctive, love that I had as a child; God never consciously entered into that. I was just grateful for another day to be alive, though I would never have realized it and said so.

I was just reading the writing of some saint - the name may come to me presently, or not - about how after leaving off real charity, a person may continue for a long time to practice the outward form of charity (being willing to do some generous and selfless things but not others - that was named as the principal symptom), and that this thinner charity is a positive moral hazard one ought to look out for in oneself. It can blind one to the disappearance of true charity until the moral disorder has become quite severe. One is supposed to be able to guard against this sneaking error by asking oneself, "Is there anything I would not do for God?" If the answer is no, you're in the clear; it's true charity, after all.

I reject this idea as the absolutest nonsense. When I was in college, assiduous about my spiritual reading, I would have accepted the idea immediately, and it would have tormented me; I would have concluded, as I conclude now, that there is nothing I would in theory deny to God if I were sure He were asking; but that there are plenty of sacrifices I would certainly resent, and resent more if I had to make a good guess that He wanted them, rather than an angel appearing directly to let me know. I would have realized, moreover, that this resentment would lead me to great indecision as to whether some sacrifice were really asked of me by God, or not; that my hesitancy to give would actually cloud my discernment of whether I was even supposed to. At the time, that would have tortured me, perhaps for months.

But I see now that that indecision is always the way for me, and, I am vain enough to suppose, for almost everybody; we seek spiritual direction and pray and beg intercession so that we may not fail at an important task, but the possibility of failure exists in the first place because we are not entirely generous at first impulse. Still, the hesitant giver may make the most heroic gifts. Though he won't be the pious contemplative who's really and wholly dead to self, the one whose charity is still being purified may be the epic martyr, whisked into heaven at the vey moment of death.

The saint is wrong.

The saint is the more wrong because the natural charity that comes of good habit and a well-disposed heart is the best kind, better by far than that we beat into ourselves with unrelenting discipline. Discipline does have a place; if the discipline is wise and well-ordered, it may lead, even very quickly, to spontaneous and joyful generosity; after excising one or two temptations, we may find ourselves giving of ourselves freely and with joy. Out of habit, which the saint used as words of condemnation; the Catechism is clear that virtue is precisely a habit, a habit of goodness.

There are a few things I can do generously and joyfully. A great many others are difficult for me, and sometimes I am good enough to do them anyway. I know that the best ones are the ones that cost me in the literal sense, but whose costs I don't count, because they make me happy. The Gospel could say, "God loves a giver who is nearly killed by the act of giving a gift and gives it anyway"; but it says, "God loves a cheerful giver," and I believe that makes the point clear. I know people - my husband, for example - who think nothing of parting with anything that someone else might want; I may think he manages finances badly, but in his generosity is the goodness of an angel, which I do not have.

Real joy, real virtue, is the sort that the child-saints would have had, had they never been told of God; that would only be magnified, once they had divine objects for their joy, in addition to earthly ones. Real goodness is not that which a person would develop only upon reading his catechism, who had been miserable before. That person is living an elaborate lie - and I have been that person, so I know.

I've said to myself for a while that I will return to daily Mass and a more structured life of prayer when I can find a way other than sheer force of will to make it stick. I need to fit it into the rhythm of my life, so that I know it will be constant, and I'll not just fall readily again into the pattern I'm now in. So I'm ever on the lookout for a Mass I didn't know about that's steps from my office, or a house to buy next door to a beautiful church. It's going to come back, and I'm waiting for the right way.

It occurs to me that part of the right way may be that I will find joy again first, and all the trappings of the practice of the faith second - my previous efforts to ingrain the faith and thereby obtain the joy were fairly abject failures. The more I prayed, the gloomier I was. I succeeded in many things; I was less cynical; I was less jaded; I was more innocent, and I was kinder; but I was not happy. I think I should know the right pattern, because I would be really happy.

I don't know how to look for that, and I think the magical haze bestowed so generously by Chesterton is already dissipating; but I've seen a glimpse of something and I wonder whether I can't find the rest of it, if I keep my eyes open.


  1. You are like a poet. It is a glimpse of magic just reading your prose.

  2. Beautiful post. I have a few GK Chesterton books on the shelf that are due for a rereading now (although I've never read the one you referred to).
    I love your style of writing, influenced by dead Englishmen or not :).

  3. poignant. how come you're a lawyer for a living and not a theologian and/or a writer?

    for the record, i think you were generous in your last comment on my blog. i feel as though i have no right to say what i do - that my reproductive history haunts me - when clearly i ought to forget about it.

    also, i must share how i relate to your post. during my last year of my B.Ed. degree, i was busy reading victorian novels. i went into a language arts test and wrote in extensive paragraphs, painting my sentences with colons and semi-colons. the t.a. who marked the test failed me because of it! i had never failed a test in my life, and certainly not in language arts! i went to see my professor and she had a good laugh about it. to her credit, she threw my mark out the window. i still like colons and semi-colons, though. :)

  4. I love your writing too. This post is so beautiful, and I agree heartily with Leila.