I recently read ‘lapsed Catholic’ Colm Toibin’s travel book, The Sign of the Cross, which chronicles his journeys through Catholic Europe, and his own ruminations about his loss of his childhood religious faith. I was particularly moved by his encounter with Scotland’s “only Catholic novelist,” Thomas Healy, author of Fathers and Personality. Healy replied to Toibin’s description of him by saying the thought had never occurred to him, but that, yes he supposed he was Scotland’s “only Catholic novelist,” though, like Toibin, he was of the lapsed variety. The two men then went on to discuss the importance of there being ‘Catholic novelists,” particularly of the lapsed variety, to chronicle both the experience of having grown up Catholic and the pain of loss experienced when one leaves the womb of mother church. Once again, we see writers chronicling that sense of nostalgia for a long ago time when the sacred seemed near and comforting within the Catholic institution, coupled with the bittersweet sense of loss and regret when the institution seems to fail to sustain them in their faith (though the issue is more complex than this simple summation). This tragedy is now being compounded many times over, as thousands in Europe flee the Roman institution in light of the sex abuse scandals and the institution’s failures to protect its own children. How can one believe in a benevolent spiritual Power at work within the institution and which the believer presumably can access through the aid of the institution, when this Power seems impotent to prevent the most horrific forms of corruption within the power structure of the Church, a corruption that leads to the debasement of children. “Get behind me, Satan,” would seem to be a very sensible reaction to such a religion (though one which I don’t personally share, since there is evidence of a spiritual power at work throughout the larger church independent of a corrupt hierarchy). The loss of faith for many as a result of this crisis is going to be devastating and the moral responsibility for this loss falls like the blade of the guillotine upon the necks of those responsible.
Reading Toibin’s books led me by a circuitous route to Australian novelist Robert Dessaix’s lovely travel memoir, Twilight of Love: Travels with Turgenev. Dessaix’s thesis is that Turgenev was the first great modern Russian writer to exemplify the prophecy of Dostoevsky that once God and religious faith are banished from the world, the human person loses its soul, and ‘love’ in the full human sense becomes impossible. All that is left is lust and sentiment, affection and friendship, dalliance and flirtation, but the depth of love has been lost with the loss of all faith in God and the Sacred. The human person becomes flat and one dimensional.
This reminds me of Graham Greene’s criticisms of modernist writers, Virgina Wolf and E.M. Forster:
for having lost the religious sense, which, he argued, resulted in dull, superficial characters, who “wandered about like cardboard symbols through a world that is paper-thin”. Only in recovering the religious element, the awareness of the drama of the struggle in the soul carrying the infinite consequences of salvation and damnation, and of the ultimate metaphysical realities of good and evil, sin and divine grace, could the novel recover its dramatic power.
Of course, Greene himself strongly objected to being called a Catholic novelist, rather than a novelist who was Catholic, and in his later works, his religious themes were replaced by humanist ones.
Dessaix also maintains that Turgenev was the first great modern Russian author to simply lament the state of emptiness of the modern world, without the frenzied religious agenda of a Dostoevsky or a Tolstoy. Paradoxically, Turgenev chronicled this loss while himself living out a passionate and quite extraordinary love affair of over forty years with the opera singer, Pauline Viadot, herself a married women. As far as we can tell, their relationship was never consummated sexually and was accepted by Louis Viadot, the husband, even when Turgenev moved to Paris and bought a home near the Viadot’s, frequently dining with them and playing with their children. It is one of the most unusual love stories in history, a menage a trois without the sex, but there I go trivializing it in the modernist sense, when in fact the quality of Turgenev’s devotion and fidelity was something quite profound. Nonetheless, Dessaix insists that the tragic sorrow of Turgenev’s life was his deep conviction that without religious faith, human love in all it’s depth and profundity had simply become impossible.
(Here I must pause to say a word of thanks to my dear friends Bill and Steve (you know who you are) who so graciously led me to Stamford’s Travel Bookstore (on Floral Street, off of Long Acre Street in London). Among the many riches I found on Stamford’s shelves were the works of Colm Toibin and Robert Dessaix’s sensitive and insightful study of Turgenev, Twilight of Love. How mysterious are the ways of Providence, leading us – through the interventions of friends – to those books we seem to need right at the moment, which turns out to be a moment of grace and synchronicity.)
Speaking of Turgenev’s desolation of soul, Dessaix remarks:
Given his spiritual desolation, his joylessness (unrelated, as I see it, to unhappiness) and given his comfortable circumstances, I find it odd that Turgenev did not drift into mysticism of some kind. Inner emptiness and a full stomach, after all, make a good start. He did dabble in the supernatural, but that is not the same thing at all. Some trigger was missing in his psyche, something failed to fire. He made an effort from time to time to put his spirit in order, as one does at a certain age, but putting your spirit in order best follows some sort of insight, surely. No transforming insights were granted him.” (pg. 67)
That concluding sentence reminds me of Colm Toibin’s “Why?”, referred to in a previous posting of mine at Gay Mystic
. Why is no supernatural insight granted, when the seeker is so sincere? What is the source of the mystery of religious faith and it’s absence?
Later in the book (pg.169), Dessaix refers to Virginia Woolf’s own judgment about Turgenev, a judgement I find highly ironic in light of Graham Greene’s own criticism of Woolf.
I believe that Virginia Woolf was essentially right about Turgenev. What the seer tries to understand in Virgin Soil, I said, thinking aloud, is not the historical details of the failed attempts of high-minded radicals to foment revolution amongst the peasants in the late 1860’s, but how it is impossible to believe in anything – even a cause as just as revolution – or to sacrifice yourself to that cause, when you don’t believe in yourself (don’t love yourself), when you see yourself as nothing but a pinprick of mould on a grain of sand, about to be dead forever, just a biochemical reaction in a brain, as we might say nowadays. Commentators can argue endlessly over whether or not the radicals in Virgin Soil are Bakuninists or Blanquists or unhistorical fabrications, but such cogitations are beside the point: they are just the scenery for a play about the complete breakdown of any rational for acting (or loving) in an utterly senseless world.
As Dessaix explains, religion as a solution to his inner emptiness left Turgenev cold:
Religion (and in particular Orthodoxy and Catholicism) seems simply to have failed to hold his attention. I feel much the same way about astrophysics and sport, for example, although I know that for millions of human beings the cosmos revolves around these things. ‘God’, or at least the Orthodox Christian god, was not the answer to any question Turgenev was interested in putting.He was aware, however, …that ‘whoever has (religious) faith has all there is and can lose nothing, while whoever has no faith has nothing’. In need of consolation (as we all are), he kept a close watch all his life for something to have faith in, some sign that he might not after all lose everything in dying…
Born at a time when most people still believed in some sort of three-tiered universe -there was the supernatural world, the natural and, at some remove, there were human beings – he had lived on into an era when there was only indifferent nature left, which is more or less where we find ourselves stranded today. Everything else… was just words. Outside the natural universe, there was nothing.
Ironically enough, one of Turgenev’s most affecting characters, the young girl Liza in Nest of the Gentry, is possessed of a burning religious faith:
Liza (had) in a sense already been ravished by God, just as Pauline had been by music. At an early age ‘the image…of God squeezed with a kind of sweet force into her soul,’ Turgenev tells us with unusual directness,’filling her with awe and reverence…and Christ became something close and familiar to her, almost kindred.’ After an episode like this, any ‘possession’ Lavretsky (her suitor) had planned had little chance of fulfillment. (pg. 230).
This was, however, a ravishment of soul that remained foreign to the great Russian writer, Turgenev himself, just as Colm Toibin looks on from afar at the burning faith of Polish Catholics walking on their knees around the sacred icon of the Black Virgin of Czestochowa. Turgenev was not contemptuous of the power of religious faith, far from it, he seemed to harbor a deep seated respect ,coupled with a lilting sadness at his own incapacity for such devotion.
‘The naturalness of death is far more frightening than its suddenness or unusual form,’ he wrote to ‘ Countess Lambert, for whom, like Liza, the solution was simple: religious faith. Turgenev was not about to argue with her (‘Only religion can conquer this fear,’ he agreed), but ‘religion itself must become a natural need in man,’ he wrote, and in him it wasn’t. If a man doesn’t have a natural religious bent, he went on ruefully, ‘all he can do is avert his eyes frivolously or stoically (and in essence it doesn’t matter which).’
In the absence of any viable, living religious faith, love, then becomes impossible, the love, that is, that ruptures time and reveals to us a hidden, transcendent dimension. Love-sickness is still possible, as are desire, affection, infatuation, lust, sentimental attachment, adoration, married bliss, enduring fondness, passionate but passing infatuations. But not the love that breaks through the barrier of time and reveals to us Eternity.
The love that saves us from time… or at least opens up a crack in it, allowing us…’to think we have glimpsed the other side’, is of a different order. It is this kind of love which seemed hardly possible any more to the mature Turgenev. If it proved impossible, that would mean that what we see is all there is. And that would mean that ultimately everything is futile. …(pg. 249)
Only religion, as Turgenev noted ruefully, has made any serious attempt to call time’s bluff and remove our fears of the executioner. Yet, for all it’s huffing and puffing, what a huge disappointment Western Religion has turned out to be. We were expecting so much more. The music, paintings and cathedrals don’t make up for it. Jesus mentioned something about the kingdom of God being revealed to us – and quickly, too – and what might that be if not a rent in the fabric of time? However, as Mark Twain remarked, what we got instead, with lighting speed, was the Church. (pg. 250).
As I stumble my way towards a conclusion to these spontaneous reflections, it will certainly not be the judgment that the present sex abuse crisis in the Catholic Church is responsible alone for the loss of religious faith in Western culture at this present moment, since this malaise has been a long time coming. But it has certainly contributed to the decline! It is more like the final nail in the coffin for many struggling Catholic souls who were already hanging on by their fingernails to a religious practice that seemed to leave them atrophied and an institutional authority they found abusive. Just how abusive is now being made graphically clear day by day in what amounts to one of the greatest trials of faith the Catholic community has ever had to face.
Heartbreaking as such experiences of mass exodus are to contemplate, beyond them all is the unfathomable mystery of the religious quest itself, which does not always end in fulfillment even for the most sincere of spiritual seekers. Lapsed Catholics like Colm Toibin and Thomas Healy look back on the Church with a kind of nostalgic sadness, willing with part of their being to accept the sign of a healing light within the walls of mother church, but for all their goodwill unable to find it. Who is to say why or why not? Some do maintain or discover an open door into the sacred within the traditional religions (and I continue to be passionately ‘Catholic’ in my own devotion), others through meditation on their own, or through an unaffiliated spiritual master like Eckhart Tolle, others through nature, and others simply seem to have discovered a “little white bird,’ within their souls which sustains them in times of the most horrific terror without the mediation of any faith or explicit spiritual practice.
I’m thinking here (among others) of Heda Kovaly, wife of Rudolph Margolius, who was condemned to death during the infamous 1952 Slansky trial in Prague. Spurned by all of her friends, spied on by her apartment building neighbors, Heda contracted a mysterious illness that left her completely paralyzed on her bed, while her ten year old son Ivan remained powerless to help her, the two of them facing starvation. Yet during this ordeal, Heda maintains a ‘little white bird’ visited her interior being, assuring her that all would be well, as indeed it was some days later (of complete paralysis), when an old friend found her and broke through the door.
But Robert Dessaix himself, in The Twilight of Love, offers another example of this inexplicable faith in the worth of life, a faith that seems to find its sustenance completely outside the realms of organized religion:
Riding in the funicular later that afternoon through the firs and pines to the top of the Merkurberg, I took pleasure once more, as I always do in (Ilse’s) company, in her effortless ability to make life good and revel in it. How does she do it? I can never quite work it out. Certainly not through resignation – Ilse is not resigned to anything. Yet she by no means closes her eyes to the things that chilled Turgenev’s soul – she grew up in Berlin during the war, after all; until recently she worked in an old people’s home, listening to the ‘crackling sound of death’ on a daily basis; she has seen what nature and humanity are capable of, from Phnom Penh to the football stadium in Santiago. She, too, I think, although much loved, has failed to win what Turgenev thought of as ‘the main prize in life’s lottery’ (a mere spouse does not qualify). And she has no religious faith at all, as far as I can see, or even much sense of its absence. Yet she is joyful. I almost turned to ask her how she did it in the funicular car, but didn’t. And once we got to the top, as happens on the top of mountains, it didn’t seem important any more to find the words. (pg. 67)
This reminds me so much of a passage from a ‘secular saint’, that I’ve always found so inspiring. As a fitting close to these reflections, here is Albert Camus’ glorious paean of praise to the light of his childhood on the beach at Tipasa, Algiers, which sustained him through a lifetime of witnessing and resisting humanity’s cruel injustices:
At noon, on the half-sandy slopes, strewn with heliotropes as if by a foam which the furious waves of the last few days had left behind them in their retreat, I gazed at the sea, then gently rising and falling as if exhausted, and quenched the two thirsts that cannot long be neglected if all our being is not to dry up, the thirst to love and the thirst to admire. For there is only misfortune in not being loved; there is misery in not loving. We all, today, are dying of this misery. This is because blood and hatred lay bare the heart itself: the long demand for justice exhausts the love which nevertheless gave it birth. In the clamour in which we live love is impossible and justice not enough. This is why Europe hates the daylight and can do nothing but confront one injustice with another. But I rediscovered at Tipasa that, in order to prevent justice from shriveling up, from becoming a magnificent orange containing only a dry and bitter pulp, we had to keep a freshness and a source of joy intact within ourselves, loving the daylight which injustice leaves unscathed, and returning to the fray with this reconquered light. Here once more I found ancient beauty, a young sky, and measured my good fortune as I realized at last that in the worst years of our madness the memory of this sky had saved me from despair. I had always known that the ruins of Tipasa were younger than our new buildings or our crumbling towns. There, the world was born again each morning in a light that was always new. O Light! This is the cry of all the characters who, in classical tragedy, come face to face with their destiny. Their final refuge was also ours, and I now knew that this was so. In the depths of the winter, I finally learned that there lay in me an unconquerable summer.
Filed under: church reform, clerical abuse, Spirituality, Turgenev