In the first post of this series, I argued that “within the context of evangelization my problem, as a literary artist, is whether and how it is possible to create a Hero, and indeed a Saint, who is neither a rogue, nor a naïve, nor a bore.” My second post suggested that “The literary artist desirous of portraying perfection is left, then, with two kinds of conflict in the soul of the noble man: sorrow at the sins of others, and intellectual doubts.” A reader of the last post suggested a third: sorrow for one’s past sins. That all three of these interior tendencies are fertile ground for the literary artist is the thesis of this post.
The third mentioned tendency of the good man—to regret his own past sins—is similar too, though not identical with, the interior conflicts experienced by the typically conflicted hero. The fact that the good man himself was also the sinner—that it is his moral flaw with which we are mutually perturbed—makes this tendency interesting. And the reality is that the better the person, usually the more certain they are of their past sins; this kind of interest, in other words, has the advantage of being prevalent among the saintly, according to their own testimony, in real life. But from the point of view of this exercise, focusing on this kind of interior conflict would seem to be cheating by the terms of the problem as originally set. This conflict is rooted in a moral imperfection of the hero—albeit a past imperfection; it belongs to the hero-as-flawed rather than the hero-as-heroic. Ultimately, this kind of conflict still depends on the hero’s bad actions, or at the least bad impulses, for its interest—though it is an advance over the merely conflicted hero.
The second tendency of the good man—to sorrow at the sins of others—contains potential that I think has been underrated. It is easy—too easy, for those of us who are tempted to pride (that is to say, for everyone)—to show a superior man looking down on other people; and it is incredibly difficult to present his sorrow at their sins as being anything but snobbish and ultimately self-justifying. Fanny Price is exhibit A here: however Austen may have intended her, generations of readers and critics, with a few notable exceptions, have found her distress at the sins of Julia, Maria, and the Bertrams less moving than irritating. The fact that Austen could not quite achieve the feat of making Fanny’s moral horror appealing is a sign of just how difficult it would be to create this kind of interior conflict. But difficulty, surely, is not the same as impossibility.
The first tendency of the good man—to intellectually doubt concerning what is the right course of action—while a genuine experience, lacks the emotional heft of sorrow at sins (one’s own or another’s). It is (as one of my critics justly insists) a problem of the Sherlock Holmes type: a mind rather than a heart matter. And yet, when combined with sorrow for sins as the motivating force, the stakes on the intellectual question of how to act prudently may lead to a significant degree of emotional interest in the reader.
In my own experience, I can affirm that doubt as to prudent action, while distinct from the doubt proceeding from my own moral debility, is genuinely distressing. I can vividly remember one occasion when a long-standing slight was suddenly resolved, spiritually speaking. I had nursed a grudge (not unreasonably—most grudges are, by human standards, quite reasonable) while simultaneously praying not to carry the grudge (also no unreasonably—most grudges cannot be overcome simply by human effort). While carrying the grudge, I was in genuine doubt as to how to think about my offender, but the doubt proceeded from my inability, or my unwillingness, to overlook the offense. Once the grudge was removed, I still retained doubt about my offender, but the doubt no longer proceeded from the problem of what (in my mind) I was owed, but rather from what would in fact be good for them. The difference between the two viewpoints was a clear as night and day; and there is no doubt that the latter one was preferable. Still, the latter state (though certainly supernaturally influenced) involved a degree of interior doubt on my part that was perfectly consistent with ordinary human experience—and quite as distressing, though in a different way.
Distress of this kind is something that we rarely feel; but it is, I am convinced, common enough in truly good and noble people. Like all varieties of conflict, this distress proceeds from an inadequacy. But the inadequacy at the root of the saint’s conflict comes not from a flawed notion of God-as-Judge (cf. Fish’s Milton), nor from the saint’s own sinfulness (at least, we have ruled that out for a challenge), but from a knowledge of his own human incapacity. Adam himself before he fell might well have worried about how to handle the Eve’s transgression, and doubted his own ability to resolve the problem. (Milton instead has him doubt God’s, which is a capital error.)
And if Adam, with clear intellect, might conclude that solving Eve’s problem was beyond him, how much more do we, with our fallen intellects, have reason to wonder? This darkened intellect is a flaw on the part of the saint, but no moral one—or so I believe. We are used to hearing of the darkening caused by sin; but it seems to me that there is something else which occurs in fallen intellects as well: an debility which, though it touches on the will, does not jaundice it in the way that deliberate sin can do.
A good analogy in this case would be of bodily illness. Just as some bodily illnesses are attacks from the outside, whereas others are brought about largely through the choices and actions of the sufferer, so to there are negative dispositions of the will which are the result of sinful choices—past or present—and negative dispositions of the will which arise in a person through no fault of their own. The dark night of the soul would be the prime example of the latter; but any misfortune can lead to a negative disposition, even without the consent of the person suffering. Consider a mother on the loss of her son: even Our Lady, confronted with the body of the Lord, is grieved, and right to be grieved, though she does not at the same time cease acknowledge the justice, mercy, and wisdom of God.
There is, then, a degree of distress that is compatible not only with sinlessness, but also with submission to and trust in God. It is possible to be at once holy, and pierced in the heart. And it is further my contention that this connection between sorrow and sinlessness, between pain and hope, does not erase the saint’s interior conflict, any more than a confidence in a doctor’s knife dulls the pain of surgery.
To take another example, closer to home: Love itself, of any sort, is willing to sacrifice, but it does not make the sacrifices not hurt. My husband’s socks still smell, no matter how much I love him; being tortured by a totalitarian government will hurt, no matter how much the dissident believes in the humanity of his cause. We may say—and indeed, we must say, if we truly love—that love makes everything from socks to agonizing death bearable. We would even say, for a Hero and a Saint, that he or she takes on the socks and the torture gladly. We must not to dare to say, except in hyperbole, that love makes the suffering any less.
As in the body, so in the mind. When it comes to intellectual suffering and conflict, the saint’s confidence in God’s Providence echoes the words heard by Julian of Norwich—All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well—but that does not mean that our particular agony of choice, before or after the choosing, is any less. We want to do our best, to help the works go, and not gum them up; and the knowledge that God can and will proceed with perfect ease in his plans, and forgive us blithely for our stupidity (so long as it was well meant) does not and should not make us any less anxious (on some level) to get things right.
This, at any rate, is my imaginary idea—subject to wiser spiritual guides and theologians—about how we ought to proceed, and how Saints do proceed, in the process of making a choice and monitoring its success or failure. And I think, if the literary artist could portray this process well, we might have both better literature and, by the reading of it, more saints. But whether the challenge of producing such art is one to which only a saint could rise—and whether any saint would care, like a man returning to the cave, to write fiction for that purpose—is another question altogether, and one which I will not now attempt to solve.