28 April 2008
A "terrible beauty," Yeats called the martrydom of the Irish rebels. A "terrible gift," Byron called melancholia. The world is "terribly good," says Stanhope in Charles Williams' novel Descent into Hell.
Life is made of paradox and mystery. I want to accept it -- no, more than accept -- embrace it, run toward it, or at least not run from it and let it embrace me, as Pauline finally allows her most terrible fear to overtake her, only to find it is precisely what makes her most fully herself, most wonderfully able to serve others, most joyfully confident in a Power greater than any she could conjure or imagine, and which she now understands is indeed "terribly good."
22 April 2008
War in Heaven is a grail story, superbly done in Williams' inimitable style, bringing together the most unlikely group to save the holy object. Williams suggests through the story also the most unlikely -- from our human perspective -- possibilities for individual salvation, reminding me of Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh, who also make much of our human frailties and God's mercy.
But Descent into Hell is the one that had me barely breathing Sunday evening. Williams takes the understanding that self-absorption is hell and shows the temptations to it, the ways out of it, and the consequences of choosing both rightly and wrongly. It is horrifying in its picture of Lawrence Wentworth's fall, and there is nothing simplistic about Pauline Anstruther's salvation from the same fate. It is a true book . . .
There are doppelgangers, suicide, ghosts walking, visions of heaven and of hell, the temptress Lilith (whose story I really must become more familiar with; so many of my favorite writers make use of it), the doctrine of substitution applied in our lives in a more compelling way than I've ever seen it, and again the constant suggestion that the slightest choice that is not evil could serve to put us on the way of salvation . . .
Early on, one of the characters says to poet Peter Stanhope, whose latest play they are going to produce, that "nature is so terribly good."
He agrees, but taking her literally: "it comes from doing so much writing, but when I say 'terribly' I think I mean 'full of terror'. A dreadful goodness."
She replies resentfully, "If things are good they're not terrifying, are they?"
Pauline, who confronts daily her own personal terror, interjects at this point the question, "And if things are terrifying, can they be good?'
Stanhope: "Yes, surely. Are our tremors to measure the Omnipotence?"
At the end, "Under the Mercy," Stanhope tells Pauline. "Go in peace, under the Mercy."
20 April 2008
from T. S. Eliot, Ash Wednesday
Because I do not hope to turn again
Because I do not hope
Because I do not hope to turn
Desiring this man's gift and that man's scope
I no longer strive to strive towards such things
(Why should the aged eagle stretch its wings?)
Why should I mourn
The vanished power of the usual reign?
Because I do not hope to know again
The infirm glory of the positive hour
Because I do not think
Because I know I shall not know
The one veritable transitory power
Because I cannot drink
There, where trees flower, and springs flow, for
there is nothing again.
Because I know that time is always time
And place is always and only place
And what is actual is actual only for one time
And only for one place
I rejoice that things are as they are and
I renounce the blessed face
And renounce the voice
Because I cannot hope to turn again
Consequently I rejoice, having to construct something
Upon which to rejoice.
And pray to God to have mercy upon us
And I pray that I may forget
These matters that with myself I too much discuss
Too much explain
Because I do not hope to turn again
Let these words answer
For what is done, not to be done again
May the judgement not be too heavy upon us
Because these wings are no longer wings to fly
But merely vans to beat the air
The air which is now thoroughly small and dry
Smaller and dryer than the will
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still.
Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death,
Pray for us now and at the hour of our death.
-- T. S. Eliot