10 December, 2007

A brief comparison of two visionaries: one real, one fictional

I mentioned a while back that I was reading the novel Lucinie by the French writer M-L Pascal Dasque. I ended up disappointed with the story, and I've moved on. Fortunately, I followed up with the autobiography of St. Gemma Galgani, which I quoted just a moment ago. I would like to compare the two briefly.

It isn't fair to compare them too closely; I don't know what Mme. Dasque's experiences of the mystical were, but she seems to be acquainted at least with the basic doctrine behind it, as well as with the official Church's discomfort with and suspicion (!) of mystical experience. Lucinie has already achieved perfection in charity; at one point another nun remarks to herself that Lucinie never showed any sign of difficulty with the rule of the Order. She is always just right throughout the novel; even her few faults are mild. After describing Lucinie's brief "dark night of the soul", she describes a steady detachment of Lucinie from the world, effortless miracles, a numbness to suffering, and a bliss that increases to the point that her soul is eventually lifted out of her body:

Sister Lucinie caught hold of the Mother General's arm. She understood with an overwhelming joy that God lived in her and was her soul. She understood, too, that her soul from the very beginning in the confused and awkward blindness of her search had identified itself in Him and had looked only for unity. Her fears and hestitations had come from her ignorance. She humbled herself in prayer, finally freed from effort, forgetful of her remorse, her body, and her life.

The wind ruffled her heavy skirt slighly and blew the black veil of her headdress against her cheeks. God rose up within her, lifting her soul out of her body, lingering in the happiness of reunion.
That approach doesn't appeal to me. Maybe it corresponds to real life, and it would send me to bed in raptures of pleasure, if I let it. Where the story fails is that it doesn't challenge me.

St. Gemma's story is different. She also experiences God's presence, accompanied by visions of conversations with the saints. However, she attributes sayings to Jesus that sometimes made me ask myself if she were more mad than holy. It isn't so bad at the beginning, but as her passion for Christ becomes more intense, and her longing for union with him increases, and she fails sometimes by engaging in worldly conversation—not sinful conversation, mind, but worldly conversation—her guardian angel rebukes her. Toward the end of the story, Jesus himself rebukes her:
Daughter, what can I say when you, in all your doubts, afflictions and adversities think always of yourself instead of me. When you always hasten to find some relief and comfort rather than turn to me?
To put this in context, St. Gemma suffered greatly, both from the loss of her parents (her mother at 7, her father at 18) and from a number of physical maladies, including a back brace, sores on her back, a disease from which doctors were sure that she would not recover—nor did she wish to recover, as she wished to join her mother in heaven—and, eventually, painful stigmata. Add on top of this the disappointment of being turned down from a monastery of nuns, whose life she thought would be easy for her to follow. I could understand completely if she felt a little time for her was in order. Jesus essentially tells her, Yes yes, I see your suffering, but let's get back to my needs. If you read this and don't come away with the image of Jesus as a petty, selfish boyfriend, you are a much, much better man (or woman) than I.

The visions and conversations that St. Gemma describes grow more unsettling as the story progresses. I didn't come away from this book feeling as if proper religion, or spirituality, would send me to bed in raptures of pleasure. I came away feeling challenged.

What strikes me about the few visionaries with whom I am familiar is that they never fill me with the sweetness and comfort that Lucinie seemed to offer; they never make me feel righteous or empowered. They don't seem fulfilled or empowered, and they're often filled with doubts. To the contrary; they see their vanity, and if they see themselves as vain or shallow, imagine how I see myself. They challenge me to become better, inspiring me at the same time to meet the challenge. Sanctity isn't something so transcendent as to be beyond this world; it's for the here and now. In that way, the saints reflect Jesus' own teaching.

Like St. Gemma, I then resolve to after reading and pondering these stories, and then I fail, only to get up & keep at it. Success seems to come eventually, slowly, as the grace of God bores through my heart likes drops of rain on a stone.

It's important to note that I may have misread Mme. Dasque's novel. She may not have intended the effect I perceived.

Edit: After rereading & rethinking Jesus' words to St. Gemma, I realize that what he means is not that she should think about him he needs her attention, but that she should think of them to comfort her: if he suffered such intense disappointment and pain only to emerge aftewards in the resurrection, we, with our less disappointments and pains, can have confidence in joining him. The correct image is not that of a selfish boyfriend stamping his foot and scolding her, but of a devoted lover scolding his beloved for not turning to him in times of difficulty, and trying to hide her problems or hold them secret within her heart.

If you can read this and not come away with the image that I'm a thick dullard, you are a much, much more charitable reader than I.

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