Two books and a movie. An author, a saint, and a fictional character. They've all been tossing about in my mind over the past few weeks. I recently completed two books, Lizzie's War and Shirt of Flame: A Year with Saint Therese of Lisieux. Both books--one fiction, the other non-fiction--dovetailed to prompt pondering about vocation, love, and desire.
Lizzie's War, by Tim Farrington, is beautiful in its rawness and reality. Set in the late 1960s, the book alternates the story of Mike, a Marine in Vietnam, and his wife, Lizzie, left at home on her own battlefront, trying her best to run the family in his absence and to not lose herself in the process. For the past few years, my reading has consisted of theology, especially apologetics, and classics, such as Dickens, Austen, and Shakespeare. All good, but combined with the preoccupation of taking care of my father and dealing with estate matters, and homeschooling, I needed to expand my selections. Lizzie's War was a refreshing blast of reality and normality. My friend Lauren said this book forever changed her when it came to judging those families that you only see in the pews on Sunday, who you might be tempted to say aren't really living their faith because they're not flaunting it or proclaiming it.
Mike and his troops are "e-ffing and j-effing" their way through the horrors of Vietnam, while Lizzie is mixing cocktails, letting the dishes pile up, dealing with an at-first unwanted pregnancy, and trying to help her friend Maria, a recent Marine widow (whose children are called by their nicknames: Chevy, Ramada, and LeJeune, after their places of conception--one of my favourite details of the book). And I love them all. I love them in their frailty, their weakness, their strength--just their normalcy. This novel isn't meant to be about Catholicism, but Tim Farrington, a Catholic revert (by way of Hinduism) is a Truth-seeker and the truths about love, passion, and vocation come out through this on-the-surface-not-too-spectacular-but-look-closer Catholic family. Balms are supposed to be cooling and comforting, but I was refreshed by the furnace-blast discomfort of this recognisable family. Like my friend Megan says, "You just want Lizzie to be real. You want to go hang out with her and be her friend."
Shirt of Flame, by Heather King, is a life-changing memoir of author Heather King's year-long journey with St. Therese, the French saint known as the Little Flower. I thought I knew St. Therese, but Heather King mines the depths of the Little Flower's complex simplicity. Heather King is a convert, with an amazing story. She explored truths of St. Therese's spirituality that I have never considered or even noticed before. It was both a disconcerting and glorious experience to read this book. King weaves together Therese with other Catholic and non-Catholic authors in the way only a well-read author can. The title comes from the beautiful words of the great T. S. Eliot's "Four Quartets":
The dove descending breaks the air
with flame of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one discharge from sin and error.
The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre--
To be redeemed from fire by fire.
Who then devised the torment? Love.
Love is the unfamiliar Name
Behind the hands that wove
The intolerable shirt of flame
Which human power cannot remove.
We only live, only suspire
Consumed by either fire or fire.
The book begins with this excerpt and the tone is set for the rest of the journey, led by St. Therese, Heather King, and ultimately: Love.
So, I could draw lots of connections between these two books and this movie: love, vocation, truth, but the word, the word related to those other ideas, that ties all those ideas together, the idea that keeps coming to mind and making the pieces fit together in my mind is DESIRE.
In Lizzie's War, Lizzie and her husband are both very passionate people, though they display it in different ways. They are passionate in their vocations as husband and wife--in the daily events, in their intimacy, in their fights--and they are passionate in their other jobs/interests. Mike is a dedicated Marine officer who understands the love and bonding of men in war with which only a fellow veteran can relate. Lizzie is a former actress, whose love for words written and spoken sustains her and helps her maintain sanity and beauty in her world. Even in what might appear to be weakness and despondency, Lizzie is passionate in her actions, holding nothing back. She knows the basic desires of her heart--for Mike, for herself, for her children--and she holds steadfast to them, even if her attempts to follow that desire are sometimes awkward. It's what makes life messy. And glorious. And worth living.
"I choose all!" said Therese, and the further I progressed, the more I saw that the human dilemma is to want it all. I wanted to be a celibate, and I wanted to wantonly give myself to a spouse. I wanted the dark secrets, noise, lights, mania, and stimulation of the city, and I wanted to plant a garden, tend animals, and live on a farm. I wanted to live in the same place all my life, and I wanted to travel every inch of the globe before I died. I wanted to sit utterly still, and I was also driven to be constantly on the move. I wanted to be hidden and anonymous, and I wanted to be famous. I wanted to be close to my family, and I wanted to leave my family behind. I wanted to devote my life to activism, and I wanted to devote my life to contemplation.
I wanted to give everything to God, and I didn't know how! I longed to give my undivided self, and I couldn't! If you want all, there is only one place big enough to contain, embrace, and channel that desire, Therese seemed to be saying, and that is the Sacred Heart of Christ.
Heather King also writes about the dangers of a "reduction of desire." She relates a story about choosing rule-following, simply from fear of not following the rules, over what was best in a situation and then reflects:
Msgr. Albacete's story leads me to reflect that maybe this is why we need suffering, and why we need love: because without one or the other of them to blow us apart, we will comply with the letter, rather than the spirit, of the law like sheep. We will suffer from a fatal reduction of desire. We will dumbly go along with the dictates of our culture; the not-always-entirely-devoid-of-ulterior-motive desires of our spouses, children, bosses, and friends; the powers and principalities of peer pressure and fear of ridicule; our perpetual human resistance to effort or change of any kind. Love is the wild card that gives us the incandescent drive to subvert all power systems. Desire is the unpredictable x that throws off all bets.
Therese suffered from many things, but reduction of desire was not one of them.
She then goes on to tell the story of St. Therese breaking all protocol and directions to speak to the pope on a papal visit, throwing herself at his feet, and begging him to allow her to enter Carmel and become a cloistered nun at an early age. Onlookers must have been horrified, as she touched the pope, spoke to him, both things they had been expressly told not to do as they stood in line. King, in pondering this story, quotes Dante scholar Helen M. Luke:
Disobedience to authority, at the right moment, is the essential of any and every breakthrough of new awareness; disobedience with a condition, however. It is senseless and meaningless rebellion if it is not inspired by a real devotion to a conscious value, and if there is not complete willingness at the same time to suffer the consequences, whatever they may be.
King continues on her own:
If love gives us the courage to subvert all power systems, in other words, then love is also the vehicle that enables us to discern in any given situation when restraint is called for and when boldness.
I read this chapter several times because it was shocking and beautiful and deep. In the episode with the pope, St. Therese did nothing immoral or illegal. She broke with protocol, not doctrine or dogma. She had prayed and devoted herself to what she understood to be her calling, her path, and she let her desire, formed by her devotion, rule her heart and her head. It is so tempting to map out our life or course for ourselves, based on our idea of what that life should look like.
If Therese were simply some mamby-pamby, wishy-washy do-gooder who wanted to be holy for appearances or-- just as bad-- to be holy in and of itself, instead of as a journey to the very heart of God, she would have never broken with the protocol of a papal visit. She also never would have written such a soul-baring, warts-and-all memoir as we find in her The Story of a Soul.
And then there is Jane Eyre, one of the best heroines ever created in literature. If I had to choose only one literary figure I would want my daughters to emulate, it would be Jane. Even amongst other favorites of mine, such as Laura Ingalls Wilder, Anne Shirley, Elizabeth Bennet, Anne Elliot, and too many others to list, Jane stands tall as a model of Shakespeare's "To thine own self be true." Jane Eyre knows herself so completely that she is able to stand strong, not bending to others' will--or even her own--when it would be disastrous for her. It's not about avoiding suffering for her. She makes many choices that she knows will result in suffering. She does so willingly. What she won't abide is succumbing to actions that would damage her very being --her soul --that within her that makes her Jane. It is actually her life of suffering that has made her so very aware of who she is--in her very core--to herself and God, not just who she is as some reflection in another's eyes, which changes with each viewer.
In the novel, Jane must choose between staying true to herself and Mr. Rochester, within a particular situation. Mr. Rochester is a man amongst men. He is rugged, chiseled, intelligent, arrogant, humble, teasing, tender, and a physical embodiment of passion. He's the whole package. I'll be honest with you, when faced with her decision, part of me screams, "Oh, hang it all, Jane. Say yes!" But Jane is resolute when Rochester asks her who will know and who cares what others think.
See, Jane agrees. She doesn't give a single thought or care to what others would think about their living situation. The frameworks of society--what makes one "good" or "bad" in social terms--have no bearing on any of her decisions. That is formed in her by the fact that she was ill-treated as a child, regardless of how guiltless or good she was. In her very core, she knows that to live that way would not be right for her. It would not be the best for her; it would be a constant lie and a constant dark cloud, blotting out any hope for real joy, real love, real passion. Neither she nor Rochester would ever be free to completely give themselves to each other. What might feel wanton in the moment of decision could never be the fullness of passionate consummation. In literature, I find Jane a near-perfect character who embodies the desire discussed in Lizzie's War and especially, in The Shirt of Flame. (*Spoiler* It all works out for Jane and Mr. Rochester, just not in a simple way. She also turns down another offer that would have been viewed as respectable and noble because its lack of desire and true love would have been damaging to her.)
Lizzie, Therese, King, Jane--they are all embodiments of passion and desire. They aren't playing by a map or script written by themselves. They aren't just playing a script written by those around them either. They don't operate according to the dictates of what society says makes a "good girl" or "good person." They are following a compass--deep within their very cores--their souls. The journeys are not perfect. The paths are not always straight. And those paths are never neat, tidy, or easy.
As Heather King writes, in another of my favourite passages:
When a person dies whose existence has been all comfort and ease, we might be envious of the comfort, but we also sense that he or she had missed some essential point. When someone dies who has suffered, on the other hand, we might feel compassion, or pity, or even that the person brought the suffering upon him or herself. But we also think: Ah--that person lived.
I hope my children will be people who will act resolutely from the very core of their being, not just in an attempt to be a good citizen, a good girl or boy, or to be accepted by others. May they follow the Shakespearean ideal, rooted in Truth eternal, "To thine own self be true." And may God guide me in my role as parent to help them as they learn to know themselves and form that resolve.