Tuesday, September 05, 2006

A Literary Interlude

In anticipation of discussing the work with my fiction book group, I have finished my third or fourth reading of Robertson Davies’ masterful Fifth Business, the first novel in his “Deptford Trilogy.” (I am terribly conflicted about whether Wendell Berry or Robertson Davies, among the people I read regularly gives me the greatest joy. But perhaps I don’t have to choose.) I expect to have some more things to say about it, but this weekend as I was reveling in the story, my eye and mind were drawn to one particular passage that I have failed to pay much attention to. I think that oversight indicates some really sloppy reading on my part, because I think the paragraph I cite below highlights and focuses one of the major themes of the book. But I don’t want to say more than that now.

The speaker, Padre Blazon, is an ancient Jesuit priest who is a member of the Bollandist Society. (This is a real-life group that is dedicated to the collection of virtually everything there is on saints. The main character of Davies’ novel, Dunstan Ramsay, is a boarding-school teacher whose (a)vocation is research into saints, and so it is only natural that he should eventually be attracted to the Bollandists.) Padre Blazon charges himself with imparting some aspects of wisdom to the younger Ramsay (“Ramezay,” as he calls him). And below is one paragraph of his instruction.

Somewhat defensively, I suppose, I acknowledge up front that Davies is not a theologian (which makes him even more fun to read); that, in fact, Davies threw out much of the baby with the bathwater when he rejected the sour Calvinism of his youth; and that some of my own enthusiasm for the quote is that is comes from a character that Davies paints in a way as vivid and bright as Shakespeare paints Falstaff. (Having studied with Father Godfrey Diekmann, of blessed memory, at St. John’s Abbey and University, I rather hopefully picture that Godfrey might have been a little like Padre Blazon, had Godfrey lived well into his 100s.)

I’d be curious to hear/see what you make of it. I hope and think the paragraph makes sense on its own, cut from its context.

Thus Padre Blazon:

My own idea is that when He [i.e., Jesus Christ] comes again it will be to
continue his ministry as an old man. I am an old man and my life has been spent
as a soldier of Christ, and I tell you that the older I grow the less Christ’s teaching says to me. I am sometimes very conscious that I am following the path of a leader who dies when He was less than half as old as I am now. I see and feel things He never saw or felt. I know things He seems never to have known. Everybody wants a Christ for himself and those who think like him. Very well, am I at fault for wanting a Christ who will show me how to be an old man? All Christ’s teaching is put forward with the dogmatism, the certainty, and the strength of youth: I need something that takes account of the accretion of experience, the sense of paradox and ambiguity that comes with years! I think after forty we should recognize Christ politely, but turn for our comfort and guidance to God the Father, who knows the good and evil of life, and to the Holy Ghost, who possesses a wisdom beyond that of the incarnated Christ. After all, we worship a Trinity, of which Christ is but one Person. I think when He comes again it will be to declare the unity of the life of the flesh and the life of
the spirit. And then perhaps we shall make some sense of this life of marvels,
cruel circumstances, obscenities, and commonplaces. Who can tell? – we might
even make it bearable for everybody.

Although I didn't intend to add this, I can't resist one more paragraph. Later in the novel, Ramsay looks up Padre Blazon, who is in a kind of hospice, cared for by some nuns. At their parting, Ramsay asks his friend whether he has found a God to teach him how to be old (confessing that he himself had not yet done so). Padre Blazon responds with his old insouciance,

Yes, yes, I have found Him, and He is the very best of company. Very calm, very quiet, but gloriously alive: we DO, but He IS. Not in the least a proselytizer or a careerist. like His sons.

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