Monday, November 7, 2011

enlightening and unpleasant

This month, my book club read Sophia House, the "prequel" to Father Elijah (i.e., Father Elijah was written first, but Sophia House is set earlier in time). I haven't read Father Elijah, but I thought Sophia House was compelling. My musings here require me to ruin the ending for anyone who hasn't read it, so consider yourself warned.

The basic thread of the story is that the main character, Pawel Tarnowksi, was molested by his great-uncle (apparently repeatedly) as a young boy. He grows up brooding and sensitive, and disappears to Paris as a young man to discover himself as an artist and is taken in and encouraged by a kind author who turns out to have designs on Pawel as a lover; after Pawel rejects his advances, he returns to Poland, but has long since ceased practicing his faith, and despairs of objective reason and the love of God. He has inherited his uncle (not great-uncle)'s bookstore, and is running it somewhat successfully when the Nazi invasion of Poland goes into full swing and Warsaw is plunged into destitution. Pawel is now about 35.

Meanwhile, a 19-year-old David Schaefer, starved nearly to death, flees the Warsaw ghetto where the Jews are imprisoned by the Nazis, and deported daily by the trainload to concentration camps to be killed. Pawel hides him just as he is about to be discovered by the pursuing soldiers, and keeps him in his home/shop for a considerable period, feeding him until he is healthier. David is an ultraconservative Hasidic Jew, well-versed in theology and philosophy and wise and serious beyond his years. The whole time, Pawel is tormented by sexual desire for David, including demonic voices offering to give David to him.

Pawel, who would appear to be actually a heterosexual (his romantic interests are in women, for example, though he has never actually taken the step of pursuing a relationship - he is extremely shy), is horrified by these inclinations and resists them, turning to a greater life of prayer. He comes to accept the temptations and his general internal torment, as well as substantial material privations (hunger, poverty, and cold), as as a suffering that unites him to Christ. He and David have a serial conversation on the nature of God, the truth, and the value of literature, among other things.

Finally, one day when the shop is closed, a Polish count marches into the shop when it is closed and sees David. The count is a homosexual, and believes that Pawel is as well (he is a friend of the Parisian author, Pawel's former benefactor, and believes Pawel was in fact his lover), so he offers to hide David from the Nazis in exchange for "sharing" David with Pawel. When Pawel refuses and throws the count out of the shop, he knows that the count will immediately report him to the Nazis. He sends David to the home of his cousin Masha in the countryside and remains behind, wearing David's skullcap and prayer shawl. He is arrested and loaded onto a train to Oswiecim (Auschwitz), where, it being the end of the war, the Nazis are burning the concentration camp inmates 'round the clock. Pawel goes to his death with a joyful heart, embracing the opportunity to give his life for his friend.

So I have several things to say about this. First of all, I never sat back and thought about whether it was a good thing for me to be reading; it was so orthodox it never occurred to me to consider whether it was nevertheless harmful. I would say that it probably was. I've worked on cases involving children who were raped and molested before, which were profoundly disturbing, but I believe it is worth the sacrifice of a little of one's innocence of heart to help keep a predator in prison and more children safe. But this is only a novel, and I'm not sure it prospers my soul to stare deeply into a picture of child molestation and demonic sexual temptation. If I had it to do again, and were more reflective, I would not finish the book, however noble its point. Take that for what you will.

But my real interior turmoil upon finishing it is for a different reason. By the time I'd reached the part of the story in which Pawel has taken David in and is being tormented by temptation to pursue him, I had realized that I identify with Pawel. By the grace of God, I've never been tempted to lust after a member of the same sex, or someone half my age (though I have many other flaws, which will come as no surprise to anyone who reads this blog). But I saw in Pawel someone whose defects - which he did not choose - stunted his ability to pursue his vocation; inclined him to believe himself vile and worthless, and therefore made it difficult to believe in God's love for him; and made him into a deformed version of the man he should have been, whom others would naturally reject and revile if they knew what he was, even if his exercise of virtue were perfect.

If that doesn't sound familiar, well, I think it should. If you're Catholic and infertile, you've been asked a thousand times when you're planning to start your family, and some people haven't bothered to do that and have just started in with telling you the moral requirements for the use of natural family planning (i.e., trying to avoid conception). After you've been married a few years, they conclude that you're an incorrigible sinner and they stop even asking; they already know you're using contraception. So they try to drop hints about how nice it is to have a family and how much you'd enjoy being a parent, on the off chance that you're not yet entirely steeped in selfishness and materialism and have a heart that can be moved by truth and beauty. But that's not even as bad as the ones who suspect what the problem is; they avoid ever bringing it up, and many of them even avoid you, as if they think infertility were catching - because the deformity of a woman who cannot be a mother is so awful that even being in your company and forced to think about the fact that such things really happen is more than they can take. Your life is too ugly for them to be forced to recognize it for what it is.

And what about you? You know what you are. You're not just a woman with a defective uterus - you're a defective woman. If you were the holy, innocent, virtuous woman God intended you to be, your self-giving love for your husband would bear fruit, like the love of the Father for the Son, in another person; and you would look into the eyes of a tiny child and feel that you would lay down your life in a moment to protect it; and your body, and your energy, and your time would all be formed to the care of this little person who depends on you, and your selfishness would be mortified, and you would live for others, and find yourself conformed to the example of our Blessed Mother, and learn to practice the sanctity that would lead you to eternity with God.

But no. That will never be you, because you don't have that capacity, that God gave even to the animals; and rather than becoming selfless and generous and loving, you've withdrawn, to protect your heart, and now you see all of the people around you as potentially the next to say or do something that will lay bare your pain, which is more than you can bear; so you push them away. You don't know why He would do such a thing to you, why when His creature comes to Him wanting only to give up her time and her youth and her material aspirations to raise children to love Him and glorify Him, He would reject such an offer, and cast her aside; and you realize that when people say that "God loves you," well, everyone knows that it's true, so it must be true, but it must mean something different in your case - God must be capable of a "love" toward you that doesn't really match up with what we all understand that love is, that everyone else experiences, and you'll have to make do with that. And pretend that it's what you were looking for, that it's all that you need.

So when I looked at Pawel, responding with perfect chastity and faith and growing in holiness as he battled an affliction that would make him hateful in the eyes of humanity, that made him appear to be a depraved sinner when he was a saint, I saw an example of someone whose visage was so marred, beyond human semblance, but who had a beautiful soul.

And then Pawel died.

Not long before he died, he had gone to confession, and confessed that he was tormented by impure thoughts; the very wise confessor noted that he did not give into them, that a thousand temptations did not make a single sin, and when Pawel said that he was oppressed by these temptations, the priest said that he was given this trial so that he would grow in holiness very quickly, to do an important work for God. The book's ending makes clear that this was his martyrdom in David's place.

I am not claiming that I have grown in holiness through the cross of infertility, nor even that I've rejected a single temptation to be bitter or angry (well, maybe one or two, but probably by accident). And I'm also not saying that I see no value in martyrdom. I see lots of value in martyrdom. However, when I think that the future for the infertile is to die young, because infertility makes one fit for a great sacrifice (already purified by suffering, no kids to take care of), and unfit for life, I see red. It makes me furious. If some people are called to martyrdom - good. It is often the cost of virtue in a fallen world. If some of those people are infertile - of course they would be, we're 1/6 of the population or whatever, that only makes sense. If one of those people is to be me - I'm sure I'll make the adjustment badly, but that's OK. But if we're called to die young because we're infertile, because this cross means we're useless for anything else, if learning that you're infertile means that you go to Omaha for your miracle or you adopt or you die right now, then no. I check out; I give up; I am not interested in playing the game any more; I will become a Buddhist and hope to be reincarnated as some form of (non-reproductively-defective) vegetation so I can have another entire lifetime to meditate on how angry I am, because it will take that long.

In the several days after I finished the book, I managed to lecture myself sternly into noting that though Pawel was conflicted about his romantic life and his future before, he was not afflicted with temptation until David came on the scene, at which point Pawel's death (and thus the necessity of preparing for it) started looking like a foregone conclusion; that Pawel didn't actually appear to be in love with David (just tempted to lust after him), which would suggest that the temptations were not a product of a spiritual disorder but in fact precisely an affliction for the sake of his purification - in other words, he didn't have to die because he was unfit for life, but rather had to suffer so that he would be fit for death. To me, this distinction makes all the difference in the world.

So I am returning to a more measured point of view on these questions, which I will try to discipline myself not to share with the book club ladies tomorrow. (As this post proves, it would be impossible for me to do succinctly, in any case.) Books tend to affect me rather excessively, and sometimes I wonder how I managed as a lit major in college.

I doubt that a post in which I make conjectural threats to abandon my faith is specially edifying to anyone, or indicates that I have received any edifying myself. I suppose I haven't. I do know, like Pawel, that even when I don't know where I'm going or what I hope to find, if I visit the sacraments, if I walk through the steps of the practice of the faith, things seem to get better (at least a little better) all by themselves. And after I spent several days trying to drive out dark images of people doing awful things to children, I decided that I needed to offer particular prayers for children who are in danger of being preyed on in this way.

And particularly keen in my mind was that fact that Pawel was unable to do what one is always counseled to do with a constant temptation: avoid the source of the temptation. If it's your friend's husband you're tempted by, you see him as little as possible - any good spiritual director will tell you that. Don't overestimate your ability to fight off temptation. But Pawel couldn't avoid David, without abandoning David to die; he embraced every day with Christian love and compassion the person who was the source of his suffering. I am sure this will be the only example of its kind, for this is not the kind of virtue I have in any significant measure, but when my very pregnant coworker came by today to ask a legal question, I made a point about asking her about her children, and listened with interest to her answer, and hoped that my interest gave her a little bit of joy.

That's honestly not the sort of thing I can keep up. And as the Holocaust has been over for some decades now, I don't really know what's to become of me, and difficult though I find it to proceed in darkness on that point, I am frankly rather apprehensive to find out. I don't have a hope for a brighter future, or a bright future, or a future. I don't know. Hope and trust are not my strong suits just at the moment. But (appropriate to my temperament) I will keep putting one foot in front of the other, and God will just have to supply all that is missing - in fact, everything; because this is all that I have.


  1. I can't read books like that - I have an overactive imagination and tend to internalize a lot of things that most people wouldn't have problems with. It's the main reason I can't watch some intense movies either. Those images are burned into my brain forever and I just can't do anything about it.
    Still, you have some very interesting observations about suffering. I sure hope the life of an infertile is destined for more than just parenthood or an early death!!!

  2. I'm not familiar with this book, but I'm blown away by your astute are SO right, it's basically a mirror for IF.

  3. Wow! That book is interesting to say the least! Sometimes I wonder where authors come up with their plots.
    I can see a lot of myself in what you write about yourself. I am inspired by you talking to your pregnant co-worker and expressing interest in her life. Its really hard to do sometimes.