Category Archives: Literature

An Ethos of Pastoral Care – Gerard Manley Hopkins

In a class on pastoral care yesterday, we read and discussed Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem, “In the Valley of the Elwy.” Hopkins was a Jesuit priest in nineteenth-century England seized with a deep sense of missionary vocation, and, after his early death, regarded as an outstanding poet. Porter and Porter note that Hopkins later confessed that this poem was “not about the Elwy at all, but about the Watsons of Shooter’s Hill.”

The linking of two separate things—a place he loved and a home that had been hospitable—gives the poem a universality that is intentional, rather than it being a record of a single unique time and place (Porter & Porter, ‘Over the Bent World’: Poems and Images from Gerard Manley Hopkins, 78).

I used the poem not so much to highlight Hopkins’ missionary concern, but to help us reflect on the ethos of pastoral care. The poem has the form of a classical sonnet, and so we used the first stanza to explore Hopkins’ experience as a way into thinking about what pastoral care might look like, and the second stanza to reflect on the fundamental impulse or ethos of pastoral care.

I remember a house where all were good
To me, God knows, deserving no such thing:
Comforting smell breathed at very entering,
Fetched fresh, as I suppose, off some sweet wood.
That cordial air made those kind people a hood
All over, as a bevy of eggs the mothering wing
Will, or mild nights the new morsels of Spring:
Why, it seemed of course; seemed of right it should.

Lovely the woods, waters, meadows, combes, vales,
All the air things wear that build this world of Wales;
Only the inmate does not correspond:
God, lover of souls, swaying considerate scales,
Complete thy creature dear O where it fails,
Being mighty a master, being a father and fond.

“I remember a house…” Here Hopkins experienced a welcoming hospitality, filled with warmth and nurturing shelter, a safe and comforting place where fragile new shoots might take root and grow, or new life burst forth under the ‘mothering wing.’ The good air of the place made as it were a ‘hood’ for the people under which he too could find a place, though in fact he recognised that he deserved none of their kindness.

The Welsh countryside, lovely in every respect, is the recipient of this same ‘air’ which, in fact, builds the world of Wales. Yet…

And here Hopkins slips in a different note: “Only the inmate does not correspond.” The class discussed whether the term ‘inmate’ should be read generally as inhabitant, or whether it might carry the sense it does today of one confined, perhaps imprisoned. We did not really reach a conclusion. Perhaps Hopkins was using it in a similar way as we do today with a hint that humanity generally is confined with sickness, imprisoned in all kinds of fears and vice. The class also discussed whether Hopkins was here referring to himself or to the people of Wales more generally. He lived in Wales for three years and was gripped with a concern for the spiritual well-being of the country he loved. Perhaps the more general sense is best.

The people of this ‘cordial air’ are somehow out of step with the beauty and goodness of the natural order, and of the One who is over all. And so in the final three verses Hopkins prays, to a God with ‘considerate scales,’ and pleads with this ‘lover of souls’ to “Complete thy creature dear – O where it fails.” It is a prayer for restoration, for rebuilding from this God who is not merely a mighty master, but a ‘father and fond.’ He prays that the father might with a mothering wing shelter and nurture these wayward souls, perhaps in hope that they too might be a world built in the beauty and goodness intended for them.

There is much to consider here with respect to pastoral care: the welcome and warmth, the nurturing shelter, the primacy of divine love with scales tipped toward considerateness, the place of prayer, the ideals of beauty and goodness, of corresponding to the creational order, and probably more besides. It is a beautiful poem celebrating the beauty of God and the beauty of his creation, and not least, the beauty of all the ‘souls’ – the real people needy and broken – that he loves.

On Love and Character

Anita Brookner, Hotel du Lac 
(1984; Penguin edition, 1993) 184pp.   
ISBN: 978-0-140-14747-6

I enjoyed this little novel, winner of the 1984 Booker Prize, though many critics have panned it and suggested it should not have won the prize. Edith Hope is a thirty-something woman banished by her friends to a short exile in Switzerland for her unforgivable indiscretion and foolishness. The novel is a measured unfolding of the story of how she ended up where she has, of the different characters who make up her companions in exile, and of her gradual self-realisation. Edith is in-between her former life now dismantled and perhaps lost to her, and … what?

The enigmatic Mr Neville, one of her hotel companions, introduces her to his philosophy of life.

‘It is a great mistake to confuse happiness with one particular situation, one particular person. Since I freed myself from all that I have discovered the secret of contentment.’

‘Pray tell me what it is,’ she said in a dry tone. ‘I have always wanted to know.’

‘It is simply this. Without a huge emotional investment, one can do whatever one pleases. One can take decisions, change one’s mind, alter one’s plans. There is none of the anxiety of waiting to see if that one other person has everything she desires, if she is discontented, upset, restless, bored. One can be as pleasant or as ruthless as one wants. If one is prepared to do the one thing one is drilled out of doing from earliest childhood – simply please oneself – there is no reason why one should ever be unhappy again.’

‘Or, perhaps, entirely happy.’

‘Edith, you are a romantic,’ he said with a smile. ‘I may call you Edith, I hope?’

She nodded. ‘But why must I be called a romantic just because I don’t see things the same way as you do?’

The conversation goes on for a while longer, this ‘dangerous gospel.’ And then,

‘You are wrong to think that you cannot live without love, Edith.’

‘No, I am not wrong,’ she said, slowly. ‘I cannot live without it. Oh, I do not mean that I go into a decline, develop odd symptoms, become a caricature. I mean something far more serious than that. I mean that I cannot live well without it. I cannot think or act or speak or write or even dream with any kind of energy in the absence of love. I feel excluded from the living world. I become cold, fish-like, immobile. I implode. My idea of absolute happiness is to sit in a hot garden all day, reading, or writing, utterly safe in the knowledge that the person I love will come home to me in the evening. Every evening.’

‘You are a romantic, Edith,’ repeated Mr Neville, with a smile.

‘It is you who are wrong,’ she replied. ‘I have been listening to that particular accusation for most of my life. I am not a romantic. I am a domestic animal. I do not sigh and yearn for extravagant displays of passion, for the grand affair, the world well lost for love. I know all that, and know that it leaves you lonely. No, what I crave is the simplicity of routine. An evening walk, arm in arm, in fine weather. A game of cards. Time for idle talk. Preparing a meal together.’

Another refrain from the story concerns a piece of advice Edith learned from her father: “This is when character tells.” That is, when one can stand firm and sure within oneself and stand one’s ground in the face of and in spite of the criticisms, slights, discouragements and difficulties that assail.Anita Brookner has crafted a subtle story about love, and about character, and about the growth of one’s character if one is willing. Yet in the end we are left with questions unanswered, questions which call us to reflect on the nature of our lives and loves, choices and character. Who is Edith, and for what does she ‘hope’? How well does she actually know herself? And is her final decision a vindication or repudiation of Mr Neville’s advice? More pointedly, is the modern concept of ‘character’ at odds with our vision of love? If one of the marks of a good novel is that it will stimulate us to think deeply about the larger questions of life, Hotel du Lac qualifies as good.

The Best Book I’ve Never Read

The Color Purple Book CoverWell, that is probably an overstatement based in ignorance: there are undoubtedly many great books I have never read! Nevertheless, about a year ago I started listening consistently to audio books when cycling or doing the housework and so on. Usually I listen to novels, especially since I do not have much time to read novels anymore. A little while back I listened to Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, and then listened to it again.

The book is an extraordinary work, harrowing and brutal, devastating in its portrayal of inhumanity, sensitive and tender in its realistic portrayal of the beauty and tragedy of humanity. The audio performance was itself part of the pleasure; read by the author, every nuance and inflection drew me more deeply into an unknown world, as the story implicated and accused me, frightened and outraged me, touching my heart with its pathos and vision. It is both a cry of rage and protest against the injustice and inhumanity we humans inflict on one another, and a stubborn affirmation of hope in the midst of suffering, of endurance against all odds, of a kind of triumph in the end as we become more and more who we truly are.

Yet this becoming is neither easy nor automatic. Virtues grow slowly and under great pressure, and it is these that sustain a great and ordinary life. Walker does not idolise suffering, excuse injustice, or laud poverty. Nor is she ‘politically correct.’ Her major character, Celie, emerges into freedom only with great difficulty, slowly becoming the character and finding the community by which she becomes who she is.

(I wonder if Stanley Hauerwas has written on this story? I must see what I can find.)

The Color Purple is a deeply spiritual, deeply theological book, though the theology conveyed is neither biblical nor orthodox. In a preface to a newer, British edition Walker reflects,

Twenty-five-years later, it still puzzles me that The Color Purple is so infrequently discussed as a book about God. About ‘God’ versus ‘the God image’. After all, the protagonist Celie’s first words are ‘Dear God’. Everything that happens during her life, spanning decades, is in relation to her growth in understanding this force. I remember attempting to explain the necessity of her trials and tribulations to a skeptical fan. We grow in our understanding of what ‘God/Goddess’ means, and is, by the intensity of our suffering, and what we are able to make of it, I said. As far as I can tell, I added.

The book is an epistolary novel, the drama, characterisation and plot progressing by means of a series of letters written by Celie and her sister, Nettie. Many of the letters, especially in the earlier sections of the book begin simply, ‘Dear God.’ The final letter of the book begins, ‘Dear God. Dear stars, dear trees, dear sky, dear peoples. Dear everything. Dear God.…’ Walker clearly holds a pantheistic, or at least panentheistic, view of God in which the divine is deeply immanent within everything, a faithful creator and life-giving, life-affirming Spirit. She revolts against the intellectual idolatry that reduces God to the white, to the male, to the human. From the perspective of Christian orthodoxy, her rejection of Jesus Christ as attested in Scripture as the revelation of God is deeply troubling. From the perspective of the lived history of her family and people, it is hardly surprising.

alice-walker

There is much in this critique that Christian orthodoxy could listen to and learn from. Walker’s vision of the grace given in the order of creation is deeply moving and inspiring. Her understanding of the sinfulness of humanity is also particularly acute—at least to a degree. Where she departs from Christian orthodoxy is in limiting God to the order of creation. Hers is a religion of nature, and ‘redemption’ a reconciliation of the human spirit with this universal and universally-available reality.

There is a prequel of sorts to this story. Back in the very early 90s I rented the movie from the local video store. I didn’t last long: the opening rape scene was an affront, the lesbian encounter part way through not to be borne. I mentioned the movie in a sermon not too long after that, telling how I had turned it off. A woman in the congregation came up to me afterwards, surprised at my reaction to the film, and describing it as one of the most meaningful movies she had ever seen. Fortunately I could accept that what was difficult for one person was not necessarily the same for another (“for whatsoever is not of faith is sin”—Romans 14:23).

In hindsight, I think I see things more clearly. She was a woman; I, male. She was in her forties with more life experience and maturity, as well as more suffering and difficulty. I was barely thirty, if that, and with a much more ‘moral’ understanding of God. My own sexual brokenness and vulnerability played a large role in my reaction, as did the very black-and-white biblical hermeneutic I had in those days. It is possible the movie did not do justice to the story. But no matter how faithful or otherwise Spielberg was in his adaption of the book to the screen, it is more likely that I did not have either the life-maturity, spiritual maturity or theological maturity to hear, let alone penetrate, its message.

Twenty-five years later I am deeply touched and humbled by this story. Good literature does that: it holds up a mirror to ourselves, opening the soul to deeper understanding of itself, life, the world, and sometimes, God. Good literature probes, accuses, interrogates, and questions. And it does it in such a winsome and alluring fashion, we hardly notice it occurring. Alice Walker won the Pulitzer Prize for her novel, and with good reason. This is a book to savour. I will read it for myself as time allows. I will also listen to it again, just to hear Alice Walker read me back into this world at once so alien and so presently real.

Tales of Infidelity (2): Paul Coelho

Paul Coelho, Adultery (Melbourne: Hamish Hamilton, 2014)
ISBN: 978-1-926428-64-2

adultery CoelhoI did not know anything about Paul Coelho when I bought this book, other than that he was the celebrated author of The Alchemist, which I had also just bought but not yet read. In place of dedication and acknowledgements there is a prayer (“O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for those who turn to you. Amen”) and a verse from the Bible (Luke 5:4: “Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch”). Despite the religious overtones of such a beginning, the book doesn’t preach. Indeed, those of a religious persuasion might find both the title and the major drama of the book off-putting. No doubt the seventh commandment lurks in the background unseen and unheard but nevertheless there. Or is it?

The story concerns Linda, a Swiss woman upon whom fortune has smiled. She has it all: looks, a loving husband, well-behaved children, a satisfying job, wealth, possessions and comfort. Yet she is unhappy and deeply discontent. Her inner turmoil leads to a fling with an old high-school flame, which subsequently escalates into an obsession. The main action of the book traces Linda’s mental world as she engages with the affair, wrestles with her conscience, and struggles to understand her own mind, feelings and actions, and those of others around her. In the end she does have an epiphany of sorts, and manages to find equilibrium once more.

The book reads easily, told from Linda’s point of view. Just how effective Coelho is at portraying the mind of a woman I will have to leave to female readers. For me, a male, it was a believable read. I did, however, find Linda’s husband to be less than believable, and under-developed. This weakness allows an ending that for me seemed unreal, unlikely. At several points Coelho dwells on the differences between male and female via his major character, as here, where he reflects on an old double standard:

Men cheat because it’s in their genetic code. A woman does it because she doesn’t have enough dignity; in addition to handing over her body, she always ends up handing over a bit of heart. A true crime. A theft. It’s worse than robbing a bank, because if one day she is discovered (and she always is), she will cause irreparable damage to her family. For men it is just a “stupid mistake.” For women, it feels like a spiritual crime against all those who surround her with affection and support her as a mother and wife (187).

Coelho’s use of Luke 5 is ambiguous. Linda has launched out into the deep and let down her nets for a catch. In the biblical story the unlikely result is a miraculous catch of fish, and the occasion for revelation and repentance. In this story, there is revelation but little sense of repentance, despite the opening prayer. The seventh commandment has been violated but bypassed; Linda emerges if not unscathed, unburnt. Yet it is also clear that the adultery is not without cost:

I feel disgusted. I waited so long to act like a tigress and ended up being used like a mare. But that’s life; reality never comes close to our teenage romantic fantasies (184). 

In the end the reader will have to decide whether or not adultery is worth it. This book suggests that one might just get away with it, and with a better grasp on life for having indulged. The Bible which Coelho cites would warn us to take a different path. “Who can take fire to his breast and not be burned?” (Proverbs 6:27).

Tales of Infidelity (1): Hugh Mackay

Hugh Mackay, Infidelity: A Novel 
(Sydney: Pan MacMillan Australia, 2013) 
ISBN: 978-1-74261-248-5

Infidelity, MackayHugh Mackay is a well-known Australian social commentator and author of both non-fiction and fiction works. Several of Mackay’s non-fiction works—Right and Wrong and The Good Life—demonstrate his interest in moral questions, an interest also finding expression in his opinion pieces in Australian newspapers. His most recent novel Infidelity develops this interest. A brief statement at the close of the book says,

I first encountered the central moral dilemma faced by Sarah and Tom in an article published in The Psychologist, the monthly magazine of The British Psychological Society. It was presented as part of a series of complex moral questions that might be raised by clients receiving psychotherapy. When I read it, I could imagine how that dilemma, somewhat nuanced, could form the ‘hinge’ of a plot for a novel.

The story is told from Tom’s perspective. Tom is a forty-three Australian psychologist ‘exiled’ temporarily in London who falls deeply in love with Sarah. The attachment very quickly turns into an affair and before long he has moved in. But things are complicated: Sarah is still married to someone else in what is portrayed as a loveless but nevertheless mutually convenient relationship.

As the book unfolds and the affair deepens, various kinds and levels of infidelity are noticed as Mackay weaves a range of moral questions, scenarios and dilemmas into the narrative. These are such a subtle  part of the story that it is only upon subsequent reflection that I became conscious of the extent of everyday moral issues that Mackay has canvassed. The core matter though concerns what the object of fidelity truly is. Early on Sarah, a popular university lecturer, notes that “once you’ve stopped being true to yourself, other infidelities come more easily” (44). Later, in a reflection on his own loss of religious faith, Tom ponders:

Unfaithfulness. Was that, I wondered, one of the infidelities that could lead on to others? Was that what Sarah had meant when she said being corrupted by Perry’s wealth made other infidelities easier? Was one kind of faithfulness a bastion against other lapses?

Sitting in that magnificent setting, surrounded by all the panoply of religious practice, I wasn’t sure. Not sure at all. I could be true to myself, I thought, and faithful to a partner, without needing religious faith to shore me up. Yet I saw how the reverse process might work: one kind of infidelity could make others easier. If a man betrayed his wife, or his friends, or his colleagues – or even his country – perhaps that would lower the moral barrier to other betrayals. But I couldn’t see why steadfast religious belief should be the core fidelity. Wasn’t the core fidelity being true to yourself, to your own scruples? And wouldn’t other fidelities be more likely to flow from that one than from any others? That was an idea that had been with us for thousands of years. Shakespeare, as usual, put it best: this above all – to thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man. (178-179, original emphasis)

Although Mackay portrays religious faith in quite positive terms, this is as close as he comes to preaching. In an interview/review in the Sydney Morning Herald, he described himself as a Christian agnostic, by which he means to convey the idea that he is broadly in sympathy with the Christian position on many issues, having been steeped in Christian culture and tradition. “But I am not currently the kind of believer I once was,” he says. “More pilgrim than committed. Neither atheist nor theist. Full of doubt, as I suspect many Christian believers also are. Very wary of the fundamentalist, having been one in my youth.”

In his interview Mackay indicates that he is arguing with Shakespeare that “fidelity is about being true to yourself and your own convictions.” Certainly Sarah’s initial observation, together with Tom’s reflection, suggests that the primary fidelity involves being true to oneself.

Yet does the story subvert this observation and undermine Shakespeare’s wisdom? Perhaps Sarah’s initial compromise with respect to her husband was an initial infidelity. Arguably, however, the infidelities of her life are the symptoms of a deeper fidelity to self-above-all. Sarah’s infidelities arise precisely because she is so committed to herself and what she perceives to be in her own best interests. If the theological dictum homo incurvatus in se has credence, this (inherent) self-fidelity will be overcome only by a more fundamental fidelity to that which is not our self, to that which is external to ourselves in such a way that the self becomes decentred—though not lost. That there are secular ways of framing this external reality is undoubted; nonetheless, the very act of establishing such an external reference is inherently religious, whether that external reference is God or an abstract value such as justice, or dare I say it, the “golden rule.” Thus, the question persists, perhaps even in spite of Mackay’s intent. Might religious faith be that core of fidelity which supports and enables other kinds of fidelity?

Mackay is doing here in fiction what he does more straight-forwardly in The Good Life. That is, he argues that true satisfaction is found not in serving one’s own (selfish) interests, but in our capacity for selflessness, for relationship, for hospitality toward others. He has written a credible and thoughtful story in a very readable form. I recommend it.

Two (Unrequited?) Love Poems

Erin Martine Sessions

Photo: Rebecca Ding Photography (http://www.rebeccading.com.au/)

One of the people I met at the recent Evangelical History Association Conference was Erin Martine Sessions (Erin’s website, still under development, can be found here: www.erinmartinesessions.com). Erin works at Morling College in Sydney where she is also doing doctoral studies in the Song of Solomon. Her Masters is in English literature, and I found she has a poem in Australian Love Poems (Inkerman & Blunt, 2013, 2014).

These two poems, including Erin’s, come from a section entitled, “We outgrow love like other things.”

Israel
(Erin Martine Sessions, p. 268)

You’ve got someone else in mind
as we walk on ruined temple walls.
This city was built with the stones under our feet
and I am built with parts of you.

As we walk on ruined temple walls
our tongues reclaim the language of Genesis
and I am created with parts of you.
We are raising our own religion

As our tongues reclaim the language of Genesis.
We trace the etymology of maps
to orient our own religion.
And I try not to notice your fingers.

We trace the etymology of maps
to resurrect antiquarian words
and you try not to notice
as I reflect the freckles in your eyes.

I breathe the air from your lungs
and exhale our favourite words:
“I am built with parts of you.”

But you’ve got someone else in mind.

*****

australian-love-poems-2013-edited-by-mark-tredinnick

Bittersweet
(Melinda Smith, p. 272)

#micropoem #divorce
your mistress/tells her friends/

about your enormous/
bank account/
I tell mine/about your tiny/
heart

The Warden (Trollope)

Books 1I was inspired by Stanley Hauerwas to read some Trollope, and this was my first. An easy to read mid-nineteenth century novel (1855), in which the author intrudes into the narrative at a number of places. It is a gentle story of a good and honest clergyman hounded by the press for what they consider to be a moral compromise and an abuse of position. Harding, caretaker of a hostel with twelve elderly men in care, is accused of illegitimately taking the money which should by rights belong to the twelve men in the home. The introductory essay situates the narrative in real events unfolding in England at the time. It highlights the growing power and amoral posture of the newspapers, and details  the response of Rev. Harding to the pressure he experiences.

Hauerwas appreciates Trollope because he develops and portrays the character of Harding, the depth of his honour, his wrestling with moral ambiguity, his decision to choose the highest and the best rather than simply settle for what was permissible or good, even at great cost to himself and his daughter. For Hauerwas, Trollope’s stories illustrate the narrative context and formation of virtue, that is, that virtue is formed in the concrete experience of life and community.

In one scene, the moral activist Mr John Bold who launches the action against Mr Harding, is appealed to by Mr Harding’s elder daughter to drop his case:

‘Pray, pray, for my sake, John, give it up. You know how dearly you love her’ [Harding’s younger daughter]. And she came and knelt before him on the rug. ‘Pray, give it up. You are going to make yourself, and her, and her father miserable: you are going to make us all miserable. And for what? For a dream of justice. You will never make those twelve men happier than they now are’ (50).

The WardenIn this instance, Trollope shows that justice can never be simply the application of an abstract principle, but must be concerned with actual situations and actual people, otherwise it is “a dream of justice” and not actual justice.

We see something of Trollope’s humour, as well as his understanding of morality, in the following description of “Dr Pessimist Anticant” – an allegorical reference to Thomas Carlyle, a Scottish essayist and historian:

[He] had passed a great portion of his early days in Germany; he had studied there with much effect, and had learnt to look with German subtlety into the root of things, and to examine for himself their intrinsic worth and worthlessness. No man ever resolved more bravely than he to accept as good nothing that was evil; to banish from him as evil nothing that was good. ‘Tis a pity that he should not have recognized the fact that in this world no good is unalloyed, and that there is but little evil that has not in it some seed of what is goodly.

Returning from Germany, he had astonished the reading public by the vigour of his thoughts, put forth in the quaintest language. He cannot write English, said the critics. No matter, said the public: we can read what he does write, and that without yawning. And so Dr Pessimist Anticant became popular. Popularity spoilt him for all further real use, as it has done many another…

Anna Funder – All That I Am

Anna FunderAll That I Am tells the story of a small group of German resistance workers during the rise of Nazism. The story is narrated by two persons in two different times and locales recalling the events that so energised and then shattered their lives. Driven from Germany after the Nazis seize power, the group find refuge in London and seek to alert both the British public and their own countrymen of the growing threat posed by Hitler and his party. But all is not well in the little group and a devastating event tears them apart with severe implications for all of them.

Anna Funder won the Miles Franklin literary award for this novel in 2012 – deservedly in my estimation. I recall there being some disquiet around the award at the time. Is the book “Australian” enough, seeing it is largely set in London? Is it fictional enough? The second point is interesting. Funder has built her story around real persons, including a friend, Ruth Blatt (1906-2001) who serves as one of the book’s narrators. Ernst Toller (1893-1939), a German playwright is the book’s other voice, while Dora Fabian (1901-1935), activist, writer and journalist is the central figure in the book. Historical drama is probably my favourite genre, though I did not realise until I reached the acknowledgements at the end of book, just how historical it was. It remains, though, a work of fiction filled with intrigue and pathos.

Funder’s characters are believable, heroic and tragic. She manages to capture a sense of the terror and desperation which must have pervaded those living through the times, as well as English accommodation to Nazism in the Baldwin-Chamberlain period. The book is well-written, cleverly structured around the two voices, and ultimately, deeply humane. It draws the reader into the story, and the suspense Funder generates keeps the pages turning. The final pages gather some loose threads and lead to a pleasing resolution of the story.

In recent months I have read two stories by Australian authors written against the backdrop of Nazi Germany (the other was The Book Thief). Both are excellent, both are well-worth reading, both highly recommended.

Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending

Barnes, JulianI had to read this book twice because after the first time through, I didn’t have a sense of its ending. Like the main character, I “just didn’t get it.” I had read quickly and missed some clues along the way. Fortunately, it is only a short book – just 150 pages – and easily read.

Awarded the Man Booker prize in 2011 (one impolite reviewer suggested it was awarded to the right author for the wrong book), The Sense of an Ending is the first-person narrative of Tony Webster recounting particular aspects of his life story from the perspective of his latter years. It is a book about memory and history, a reflection on time which “holds us and moulds us” (3), “bounds us and defines us” (60), and “first grounds us and then confounds us” (93). Important questions of memory, identity, responsibility, blame, and relationships are raised by means of a very accessible story about eros and thanatos – love/sex and death – which, we are told early on, is the primary subject matter of all great literature.

I enjoyed the playful way that Barnes has written his book, the way he keeps circling back on key incidents, clarifying, enhancing, correcting – and making us question – our memory. It is not so much a book about memory as an exercise or an immersion in remembering. Fragments of memory arise and the reader is drawn more deeply into the story. The main characters are well developed and believable, and the story has both humour and pathos.  I would like to read it again sometime, just for the pleasure of it.

Baptism in Gilead

Marilynne RobinsonIn 2005 Marilynne Robinson won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction with her magnificent Gilead. It is a gentle, beautifully-written story, the memoirs of the elderly Reverend John Ames, written for his seven-year old son, retelling his life, his beliefs, his fears, his hopes. This is a deeply human story of life in a slower time (the 1950s, but recalling a family history extending to the mid-nineteenth century). But slower does not mean simpler, for issues of war and slavery, courage, sickness, and family difficulty loom large.

So do matters of love, friendship, faith, ministry, and theology. As a reader I was caught by Robinson’s theological vision woven throughout the book, but in such a way that it does not overwhelm the story. Using the story, she reflects on all the issues mentioned above and more besides. See, for example, her meditations on the value being human:

There is nothing more astonishing than a human face … Any human face is a claim on you, because you can’t help but understand the singularity of it, the courage and loneliness of it… (75)

When you encounter another person, when you have dealings with anyone at all, it is as if a question is being put to you. So you must think, What is the Lord asking of me in this moment, in this situation? (141)

So, too, Robinson’s meditations on baptism and the Lord’s Supper surface from time to time. For instance:

There was a young couple strolling along half a block ahead of me. The sun had come up brilliantly after a heavy rain, and the trees were glistening and very wet. On some impulse, plain exuberance, I suppose, the fellow jumped up and caught hold of a branch, and a storm of luminous water came pouring down on the two of them, and they laughed and took off running … It was a beautiful thing to see, like something from a myth … it is easy to believe in such moments that water was made primarily for blessing… (31-32)

It may be that “blessing” is Robinson’s primary word for describing the action of grace in the sacraments, and indeed the entire function of ministry. We minister in order to impart blessing (cf. Rom. 1:11). Baptism and blessing belong together in Robinson’s luminous world, and come together in a particularly humorous passage:

We were very pious children from pious households in a fairly pious town, and this affected our behavior considerably. Once, we baptized a litter of cats. They were dusty little barn cats just steady on their legs, the kind of waifish creatures that live their anonymous lives keeping the mice down and have no interest in humans at all, except to avoid them. But the animals all seem to start out sociable, so we were always pleased to find new kittens prowling out of whatever cranny their mother had tried to hide them in, as ready to play as we were. It occurred to one of the girls to swaddle them up in a doll’s dress – there was only one dress, which was just as well since the cats could hardly tolerate a moment in it and would have to have been unswaddled as soon as they were christened in any case. I myself moistened their brows, repeating the full Trinitarian formula.

Their grim old crooked-tailed mother found us baptizing away by the creek and began carrying her babies off by the napes of their necks, one and then another. We lost track of which was which, but we were fairly sure that some of the creatures had been borne away still in the darkness of paganism, and that worried us a good deal. So finally I asked my father in the most offhand way imaginable what exactly would happen to a cat if one were to, say, baptize it. He replied that the Sacraments must always be treated and regarded with the greatest respect. That wasn’t really an answer to my question. We did respect the Sacraments, but we thought the whole world of those cats. I got his meaning though, and I did no more baptizing until I was ordained…

I still remember how those warm little brows felt under the palm of my hand. Everyone has petted a cat, but to touch one like that, with the pure intention of blessing it, is a very different thing… (26-27)

For other, better accounts of this book, see the reviews by Nathan Hobby and Ben Myers.