In anticipation of a film adaptation by Martin Scorsese (due this fall), I read Shusaku Endo’s Silence. It’s the story of a Jesuit priest, the most polished product of the counter-reformation Church, sailing to Japan and there encountering brutal persecution. He expects that he will be forced to suffer a martyr’s death—but something more ambiguous, more subversive of faith, is asked of him. If only he will trample on an image of Christ, the fumie, suffering Japanese Christians will be spared torture. His accuser says:
You make yourself more important than them. You are preoccupied with your own salvation. If you say that you will apostatize, those suffering people will be taken out of the pit. They will be saved from suffering. And you refuse to do so.
Rather than let others suffer, the priest tramples on the face of Christ. Endo wants us to understand, forgive, even admire this decision. Think of the spiritual pain this man was willing to suffer in order to spare others physical torment! Betrayal becomes almost the supreme act of fidelity.
In a foreword to a new edition, Scorsese says that “In order for Christianity to live, to adapt itself to other cultures and historical moments, it needs not just the figure of Christ but the figure of Judas as well.” In a way, I am glad for such forthright statements of the ethic of the day. Judas was the first Christian humanitarian, the man who wanted to sell Mary’s spikenard in the name of the poor. What could be more natural for our do-gooding age than to displace Christ in favor of his betrayer?
I had heard a lot of about General Foods businessman-turned-poet-and-arts-advocate Dana Gioia before reading any of his poems. I'd gathered bits here and there about his bio, which came together to make quite an . . . unexpected figure. That, for instance, he had degrees from Stanford and Harvard, and then a second one from Stanford's Business School. That after business school he joined General Foods and helped invent Jell-O Jigglers. That he proceeded to resign from his position as Vice President of General Foods to pursue a full-time career as a poet. And he's done a lot since resigning: He's collaborated with musicians, setting his poetry to nearly to music in almost every contemporary style, was nominated as Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts by President George W. Bush, and has since been an outspoken advocate (and activist) for the importance of the arts in our increasingly industry-driven culture (which included the launch of Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience, which collected writings from U.S. troops and their families about their wartime experiences in Afghanistan, Iraq, and stateside) . In 2007, he gave a commencement speech for his alma mater, in which he lamented the low esteem in which American society holds its artists:
We live in a culture that barely acknowledges and rarely celebrates the arts or artists. . . When virtually all of a culture's celebrated figures are in sports or entertainment, how few possible role models we offer the young. . . .
So I was very curious to see how this public figure's poetry would sound. I've found it to be surprisingly intimate. Many of the poems (or at least parts of them) in his most recent Pity the Beautiful read like prayers, like modern psalms. Take this stanza, from the poem “Prophecy”:
O Lord of indirection and ellipses,
Ignore our prayers. Deliver us from distraction.
Slow our heartbeat to a cricket's call.
In the green torpor of the afternoon,
bless us with ennui and quietude.
And grant us only what we fear, so that
Underneath the murmur of the wasp
We hear the dry grass bending in the wind
and the spider's silken whisper from its web.
They are prayers, but they're not intuitive; they're bent, or something. And this seems to be a strain throughout his poetry that I've read. It's approaching beauty and goodness, but it's insisting on doing so (or is resigning itself to?) doing so through the way of thwarted desire, humiliating pain, and “the distance that bars our joy.” These are winter poems.
(Also, take note: Gioia will be our featured artist at this November's second annual FT-sponsored poetry reading here in NY).
Recently, I re-read Sheldon Vanauken’s A Severe Mercy, the “autobiography of a love” he wrote reflecting on his marriage to Jean Davis (“Davy”). The story is beautiful, telling of Sheldon and Davy’s courtship, marriage, conversion to Christianity at Oxford, and Davy’s subsequent illness and death—but it was also a fascinating text to investigate for lessons in Adult Sunday School, as I did last week.
Sheldon and Davy “met angrily in the dead of winter” but proceeded to a charming courtship based on their mutual loves—for sailing, for poetry, for unhurried time outside. They were aesthetes, and Sheldon calls their early love a pagan love. Seeing marriages fall into disarray and divorce all around them, they set out to construct their own marriage to be unbreakable. The Shining Barrier is what they called this deliberately-reinforced love: reinforced by totally shared experiences, by absolute trust, and by their overriding Appeal to Love (when faced with any decision, they ask the question “What is best for our love?”).
The Shining Barrier is both beautiful and sterile; Sheldon and Davy eschew having children, because the experience of being pregnant and giving birth cannot be totally shared. In class, we discussed how the Barrier is this couple’s attempt to reverse-engineer sacramental marriage: a laudable pursuit of unity, but downplaying complementarity and fruitfulness.
Eventually, the Barrier is tested. At Oxford, Sheldon and Davy fall in with a Christian crowd (very surprised to discover smart and interesting people could also be Christians) and give the faith some consideration. Sheldon thinks it absurd that one earthly religion could encompass a truth about the vastness of the universe. Fortunately, he receives a copy of C. S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy and that eccentric, ecstatic Christian space opera is exactly what he needs. In prayer and conversation with C. S. Lewis himself, Davy and Sheldon convert—Sheldon a touch more reluctantly, making his profession of faith with a slightly-defiant “I choose to believe.”
I won’t write too much about Davy’s death here. Suffice to say, I have cried every time I read it.
It is in reflecting on their life together after Davy’s death (the reflection of course gets its own capitalized moniker, “The Illumination of the Past”) that Sheldon discovers why her death was “a severe mercy”—the phrase is provided by C. S. Lewis. After the couple’s conversion, Davy had eagerly thrown herself into Christian life and ministry, even at its most quotidian. Sheldon hung back. He wanted God approving from a distance, and felt somehow betrayed by how much Davy brought God into her whole life. He writes,“Davy was simply living up to her commitment, wherever it led. For me, that was the trouble: where it led. I was ready to play in a match, Christians v. Atheists. I was ready to level my lance and charge under the Cross of Gold. I was ready to follow the King into battle. But — Sunday school? Where was the glory?” He was only ready to make the most glamorous sacrifices.
After Davy’s death, he acknowledges the root of the problem: He was jealous of God. The Shining Barrier, the pagan love he and his wife had built, had been invaded by Christ. Davy’s death, Sheldon realizes, may have been what was needed to truly open his heart—make him able to love his wife, and love God, without any exclusivity or selfishness.
This book is one of the most profound (and winsome) books I’ve ever read on love, God, and suffering. I recommend it to people very frequently. Last year I recommended it to the woman who is now my fiancée. So I cannot promise you will gain quite as much from this book as I have, but you never know!
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?