Humility

We have reached the last message about the virtues identified in Professor Karen Swallow Prior’s book On Reading Well. The series has given me the opportunity to reflect on things I truly believe are essential for the development of a moral character. It has also exposed me to the literary works Professor Prior asserts are valid teachers, though fiction based, of these qualities. I have thereby taken the liberty to offer my own suggestions about books, which have inspired me through the words and deeds of their fictional characters. Reading well has the ability to change us as the good professor insists.

The final virtue covered in Prior’s book is humility and her offering for literary examples in support of this virtue must be stated in the plural. For her examples come from two short stories written by author Flannery O’Connor; Revelation and Everything that Rises Must Converge

O’Connor is a writer with whom I am totally unfamiliar. This meant doing a little on-line research to gain some appreciation for her artistry and personal life. It is a clever saying that life imitates art, but I think that is only coincidental as art is derived from the life of its creator. O’Connor’s commitment to being a writer of southern vintage during the Jim Crow Era, her devout Catholic beliefs, health issues and the lack of a satisfying love relationship naturally infused her work.

O’Connor’s characters are noted for committing one or more of the seven deadly sins to which we must add racism as number eight. Their misdeeds are followed by an act of contrition if not repentance as they move away from their tepid Protestant roots to become more like O’Connor’s own Roman Catholic self. Redemption is key, though not always expressly achieved by story’s end.

Prior illustrates this through her choice of stories. In Revelation self-assured Ruby Turpin blithely criticizes others, revealing her own sin of pride. It also reveals the companion sin of hypocrisy as we see the things she condemns in others being vividly present in her own life. In a similar vein, Julian Chesney feigns a moral superiority by judging his mother’s intense racism in the story Everything that Rises Must Converge. To judge is to condemn and to condemn is to punish. Punishment is indeed meted out to Julian’s mother, but in a sinister way it is handed out to Julian as well as a consequence of his own lack of love and care for the one, despite her flaws, who sacrificed so much for him.

Pride is the overwhelming issue driving both stories. It is the antithesis of the virtue of humility. This leaves me in my usual quandary about learning from the negative perspective. It is simply not my forte in the quest for answers about life and love and meaning. Therefore I would like to offer an alternate literary work, which I think portrays humility as a positive develop in the protagonist’s story arc.

My choice is Amor Towles 2016 novel A Gentleman in Moscow. The story follows the life of Count Alexander Rostov, a man of once favored status as the scion of a prominent aristocratic family in Czarist Russia, who is exiled to house arrest in the Metropole Hotel conveniently located directly across from the Kremlin. In a truly wonderful irony, Rostov’s former cultivation of art, literature, manners, fine wine and gourmet tastes makes him the perfect head waiter. His descent from master to servant is accompanied by a moral growth as he willingly sheds his sense of entitlement, while gaining the friendship and respect of others in service with him. The camaraderie of this select group shames the national imitation, enforced by the Kremlin, by addressing each person as comrade in a supposed homogenization of fraternity.

Towles loads his story with subtle often amusing scenes of Rostov’s humbling and how each lesson learned aids the former Count in his adjustment to life as a prisoner. In truth it is hard to feel anything but joy for Rostov as his inner growth, his true humility born out of the Kremlin’s attempt to humiliate a former aristocrat, adds to his impressive six foot three physical stature. The beauty of this growth is reflected in the person of Sophia, a child forced on Rostov by an acquaintance, who develops into an exquisite young woman under his care and tutelage. She is the revelation of his soul in face and form.

Professor Prior quotes from the book Back to Virtue by author Peter Kreeft to help us understand that “Humility is thinking less about yourself, not thinking less of yourself.” This is the complete opposite of the mantra of our age in which we are told that to love others we must first love ourselves. Narcissism is the more likely result in place of humility, when self is enjoined to be perpetually preening in front of a self-obsessing mirror.

As a child I was taught a theological truth about humility through a simple song with the lines: “Jesus and others and you. What a wonderful way to spell joy.” The inherent mnemonic follows a sequence in which Jesus (J) is primary, Others (O) are second and You (Y) is third as the basis of true humility. The song ends with the line “Put yourself last and spell joy.” There are no mirrors in this mindset as the focus is outward as if through an open door of redemptive opportunity.

Kindness

Kindness needs no introduction. We know it when we see it.

That’s not to say that we, ourselves, are great practitioners of the art of kindness. But we are great consumers, when the need arises, and the need always arises.

We are nearing the end of our study of virtue, making use of Karen Swallow Prior’s 2018 book On Reading Well. The format of her book is balanced between examining the classical and theological definitions of various virtues, while encouraging us to take a deeper look into literary works as they provide, in a sense, living examples of these virtues. This week we experience the virtue of kindness through the short story Tenth of December by George Saunders.

Don Eber is a middle-aged man dying of cancer. He has come to the woods on the tenth day of December to commit suicide; death by hypothermia. As part of his plan he sheds his winter coat at a time when the air temperature – appropriately enough – is a mere ten degrees. Robin is a young boy, a doofus. He has come to the woods on that same day, caught up in the fantasy of rescuing the girl of his dreams from a nefarious foe as equally fictitious as his heroism. He is in effect another Charlie Brown lost in a vain pursuit of the little red-haired girl. What Robin does find is Don’s winter coat and his footprints in the snow. Enter kindness.

Robin follows the tracks, a real adventure still glazed over with a tinge of fantasy. His lack of true foresight puts him on thin ice, literally. Robin falls through the ice and into the frigid waters. Don Eber sees Robin’s plight and, despite his frail condition, stumbles to the boy’s aid. Although Robin is able to gain the shore on his own, the chill air and his wet clothes are killing him. Don gives the boy his own clothes in a life-saving gesture, which assures his own doom. Maybe.

I’ll stop there. If you want to know how the story ends, you can find it in a collection of Saunders’ stories published under the eponymous title Tenth of December. For our part, and pertinent to this message, is that kindness is endemic to both of these lost souls. Robin leaves his reverie out of concern for the owner of the coat. Don abandons his romance with death in order to give a dying boy a renewed chance at life. Though they are strangers to one another, their common humanity prevails.

This thought of kinship is a key feature of Professor Prior’s own perception of kindness. She provides us with the etymology of the word and demonstrates its relation to the word kin. She then uses the parable of the Good Samaritan as another type of literary illustration for the topic of kindness. This one stems from an encounter between Jesus and his detractors, which imparted his own theory of how kindness is a valid indicator of the nature of kinship. Those who understand the connectedness between kinship and kindness are not deterred from helping others they don’t know but recognize as a member of the human family.

There’s an issue of greater significance for Prior and the Tenth of December short story, which overwhelms the ending of her own narrative. It is rooted in the thinking of the character Don Eber. The man’s reason for committing suicide is his belief that he will be doing his family a favor. He sees his death in a lonely place as a release for them from the burden of caring for an emaciated, terminally ill person. This is based on his own bad experience presiding over the death of his stepfather, whose behavior became cruel at the end.

Don’s apprehension about his own slide into a dissipated state, where everything must be done for him (or even worse to him) causes him to seek solace in isolation and a reasonably quick end to his sense of humiliation by being “lessened” in his helplessness. Robin’s plight and Don’s role in saving the boy’s life changes all that. It is the beginning of an epiphany about love and care and family brought on by an act of kindness for a stranger.

Don’s reasoning changes to one of acceptance. “Why should those he loved not lift and bend and feed and wipe him, when he would gladly do the same for them?” Anyone who has watched a loved one die from the ravages of cancer knows that it can be a messy, seemingly demeaning even degrading process. But that is so only if we make it so. Dignity can be found in the doing as it renews the spirit through the refreshing of the body.

Still the thought of being lessened haunts us all. It does Professor Prior. In her candor she acknowledges her own kindred thoughts to those of Don Eber. She writes, “You see, I am so terribly afraid of dying. My own dying and other people’s dying and animals’ dying. I am afraid of the lifting and bending and feeding and wiping to come. I am afraid of the blood and the fluids and the suffering and the pain. I am afraid of being weak, sick, immobile, demented, blind, deaf – whatever of these might come to me and those I love.”

In our household we’ve had both experiences of a loved one who died alone and another who died in the comforting presence of family. The first was my older brother. At the time of his passing death was considered to be something of a taboo, kept hidden so as not to unduly upset anyone. The upset, however, if you ask my mother is dealing with the consequences of knowing your child died alone, unattended by even the hospital staff.

The clinical isolation of the terminally changed significantly following the 1969 publication of On Death and Dying by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. Hence, when my father died, he was home in his own bed with family present. My mother’s grief was still palpable but far less traumatizing compared to my brother’s passing.

I know the love I’ve given through kind and gentle acts which needed to be done. There is a peace of mind in the aftermath that all that could be done was done without resentment for the messiness of a protracted death. The ordeal fades from memory for the survivors as we fix on the good things of life, which long preceded a loved one’s difficult transition from this life to the next.

Those experiences shape much of how I view and value every aspect of life these days. It shows, I guess, in something as simple as my commitment to pick up the litter that defaces my daily walk. It is my gift to the neighbors I never see but who are my kin for merely being human.

Kindness is love in a minor key.

Patience

A word of advice imparted to me at a young age was to never ask God for patience. This is due to the idea that to prove you possess this Heavenly virtue you must also be confronted with all manner of trials and tribulations in order to affirm that you have the gift to patiently handle such difficulties. In truth, I think the motivation behind praying for patience is because the trials and tribs are already present. Something else in us, though, does not want to act out in an offensive way no matter how unjust the source of our torment. So we seek the solace of a life well lived by demonstrating patience in the face of adversity.

Patience, to my way of thinking, comes from an informed conscience. Other values are already present governing our thoughts on how we are to behave based on our observations of people we both love and admire. Following the advice contained in English professor Karen Swallow Prior’s book, On Reading Well, we’ve come to learn that this admiration can be applied to fictional characters as well. This week as we discuss the virtue of patience we find that Anne Elliott is just such a person. She is the fictional creation of Jane Austen in the author’s last completed manuscript, Persuasion, published posthumously in 1817.

Anne’s story begins before we even open the book, meaning there is significant backstory to comprehend in order to explain what is happening, and why, in the present. Anne was nineteen when she fell in love with the handsome naval officer Frederick Wentworth. He proposed, but Anne rejected him on the advice of a trusted friend, hence one reason for the title Persuasion. Anne was persuaded that the marriage would be ill suited for her owing to the fact that Wentworth’s social status was beneath her. Wentworth went to sea and eight years later, when the novel begins, Anne is twenty-seven, past the bloom of youth and therefore regarded as being “on the shelf” in the colloquialism of the day.

Given this scenario and given that the novel is by Jane Austen, it’s an easy bet that Anne and Wentworth will find love in each other’s arms by story’s end. And this being an Austen novel it’s also an easy bet that the whole thing will be populated with a variety of characters, whose actions and mannerisms offer Austen much to critique for the sake of the reader’s amusement. Anne, however, is the story’s moral compass. Anne is patient and this drives our empathy for her pleasing character.

Professor Prior writes that “,,, the virtue of patience entails much more than merely waiting. The essence of patience is the willingness to endure suffering.”

This perspective is something that the good professor and I share with Jane Austen, the daughter of a Church of England rector. It follows the pronouncement of James, the brother of Jesus, who wrote: Brothers, as an example of patience in the face of suffering, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. As you know, we consider blessed those who have persevered. You have heard of Job’s perseverance and have seen what the Lord finally brought about. The Lord is full of compassion and mercy. (James 5:10-11)

Notice the added element of being blessed for one’s perseverance. Austen imbues that quality in her protagonist. It helps to explain one’s willingness to endure the suffering, whether emotional, spiritual or physical. Anne’s perspective is one of what we now call playing the long game; looking past the immediate in hopes for some rewarding yet undefined resolve. There is consequently the evidence of trust in Anne’s soul. She trusts in that compassion and mercy of a guiding spirit. It is further an indication that patience is a multi-layered virtue. It requires maturity to be lived appropriately.

Anne has a servant’s heart. She does not sit and pine away for what was lost. She shows compassion to others of less noble character; support for family, who are frivolous in their financial dealings; and finds joy in the small things others fail to appreciate, which might well be obscured to any of us who indulge in the more self-aggrandizing things of life. She demonstrates that patience is not synonymous with passivity, otherwise Austen could not have crafted a complete and popular novel around her. Who, then, would not welcome having Anne as an admirable friend?

Austen scholars point out that Anne Elliott is the author’s most mature creation. It is likely that an aging Jane Austen, declining in health, was able to create Anne from her own experiences. Austen herself was self-described as being “on the shelf” and would intimately know the thoughts and feelings of one pathetically consigned by others to being a spinster. Her older sister Cassandra was pledged in marriage to a man who was too poor to marry. Like Wentworth, he went to sea to make his fortune only to succumb to a yellow fever epidemic. Cassandra thereafter committed herself to a life of celibacy, accompanied by her devoted sister Jane.  

Perhaps the most revealing insight into Anne Elliott’s soul comes near the end of the story, when Anne attempts to explain to Wentworth the reason behind her rejection of his initial proposal eight years prior. She feels she made the right decision, not because her friend’s advice was correct (which it wasn’t), but because of the honor she afforded her friend by accepting the advice. Fortunately this is a novel and Anne’s resolve to endure whatever unhappiness may well have come from her decision was rewarded by story’s end.

Sadly, in real life, there was no Captain Wentworth for Jane Austen.

Diligence

We are now onto the second of the so-called Heavenly virtues as described in the book On Reading Well by Karen Swallow Prior, professor of English at Liberty University. The format of her book and the model on which these messages are based is to provide a survey of thought on the meaning of a virtue matched to a well-known literary work as a form of illustration.

This week we are considering the virtue of diligence. Professor Prior provides the lineage of the word, beginning with its Latin origin concerning something or someone of great value, highly esteemed or dearly loved. Later it came to describe an attentive nature or carefulness in one’s behavior. Today we are more likely to use diligence to indicate a “steady, persistent effort.” The professor’s literary choice to help illustrate this virtue is John Bunyan’s 1678 novel The Pilgrim’s Progress.

The original publication had a subtitle to help us understand that the progress indicated in the title was “from this world to that which is to come,” making heaven the ultimate destination of an otherwise earthly journey. Prior’s use of this work is focused solely on part one of Bunyan’s final manuscript, covering the solitary pilgrimage made by a man known as Christian. Part two, published in 1684, was something of a sequel, following the similar journey made by Christian’s wife, Christiana, their four sons and a female companion named Mercy.

The Pilgrim’s Progress part one is regarded as the most often read English language book. It is an allegory, richly populated by people and places whose names convey their character. The protagonist, Christian, is often dissuaded in his travels by characters such as Obstinate, Pliable, Timorous, and Mr. Worldly Wiseman, while being aided in his trek by Faithful, Goodwill, Hopeful, Evangelist and the shining ones. His heavenly destination is called the Celestial City, but to get there he must avoid the snares of the Slough of Despond, the Hill of Difficulty, Vanity Fair and Doubting Castle.

For Prior, Christian’s arrival in the Celestial City is proof of his diligence. My own assessment of Christian, however, is that he perseveres. A diligent person is certainly not perfect, but is less likely to deviate from the prescribed path than someone else lacking in this virtue. Christian strays often. By contrast a diligent person’s attention to detail restricts the parameters within which they make decisions, no matter how difficult or unappealing the consequence of their decisions may be. They tend to tread a path that is straight and narrow.

Bunyan’s character is intentionally flawed so that through Christian’s ordeal the author can showcase the types of trials and tribulations a person of faith will encounter in life. Christian’s waywardness and occasional entrapment requires the need for redemption through the help of others. He lacks the kind of discernment one associates with the virtue of diligence. However, he does persevere despite his faults, exemplifying the grace of God available to those who believe.

You can see that I retain and emphasize two early qualities ascribed to a diligent person; an attention to detail and a careful ordering of one’s behavior. This can no doubt be attributed to my professional training as an accountant and more specifically to my role as an auditor. Success in this field reveals a person’s commitment to a goal of discovery, where evidence is pursued, tested, evaluated and thereby used as the basis for reaching conclusions about the financial health of an organization. Experience leads me to believe that a diligent person has a goal to which they commit and faithfully pursue. The goal is not always attained, hence the validity of a comment Prior makes in her text that “Although applied to a goal, diligence itself is not measured by outcome.” Diligence describes the quality of the effort. An engaging story will typically contain a gratifying ending to reward the quality of any pilgrimage.

My own offering for a literary work demonstrating the virtue of diligence is the Charles Portis 1968 novel, True Grit. While the grit in the title refers to the character of Sheriff Rooster Cogburn, Mattie Ross, the novel’s narrator and chief protagonist, is the personification of diligence. She is on a mission to bring her father’s killer to trial and throughout her own pilgrimage, the fourteen year old exhibits the qualities of a diligent person.

She introduces herself at the outset of her narrative as her father’s bookkeeper, a role that gives us an early indication of her attention to detail and the very careful ordering of her behavior. This image is emphasized later when Mattie finally encounters Tom Chaney, her father’s killer, and he identifies her as Little Mattie, the bookkeeper.

Her tenacious horse trading and thrift at the boarding house in Fort Smith, Arkansas are presented in a humorous light, as is her negotiations with Cogburn about a fair wage in bringing Chaney to justice. Mattie is as dogged in her recital of the terms of their deal throughout the length of the narrative as she is in reminding Cogburn, as well as a Texas Ranger named LaBouef, about the goal; bringing Chaney back to Fort Smith to stand trial in Hanging Judge Parker’s court for the murder of her father. Her intense focus runs counter to LaBeouf’s insistence that Chaney be taken to Texas to stand trial for killing a state senator and his dog. Mattie’s contemptuous response is that Chaney will not hang for killing a dog.

Technically, Mattie fails in her quest. Chaney is killed but not by hanging. The just result she sought is denied her. Prior’s insight bears repeating that “diligence itself is not measured by outcome.” Mattie’s diligence is unquestionable and that is the point to be made, at least as far as this message goes. A diligent person is recognizable by an unwavering commitment to a goal, faithfully pursued through one’s attention to detail, which subsequently guides all other well-ordered and compliant actions.

Outcomes may vary and in this life they likely will.

Chastity

This week we start on the third and final segment in our discussion about virtue. Segment one was the Cardinal or hinge virtues: Prudence, Temperance, Justice and Courage. They were highly regarded in ancient Greek philosophy as essential for there to be a stable society.

Segment two centered solely on a statement made by the Apostle Paul, from which were derived the Theological virtues: Faith Hope and Love.

Segment three is about the Heavenly virtues of which there are seven. Two of these have already been covered, Temperance and Love. The remaining five are Chastity, Diligence, Patience, Kindness and Humility.

The provenance of the seven Heavenly virtues goes back to an attempt by the early Christian teachers to identify the counterpoint to the proposed seven deadly sins. Since both lists have morphed somewhat over the centuries, the connection between the two is a little tenuous. But seven is a significant somewhat holy number in the Christian faith as reflected in the biblical references to the seven-fold spirit of God. So to retain this final collection of virtues is a virtuous gesture within itself.

We are following the lead of Karen Swallow Prior, professor of English at Liberty University. In her book On Reading Well, her method of encouraging us to think deeply about the subject of virtue is to match a prominent literary work to the speculative discussions by philosophers and theologians. The theory is that in literature we can learn about virtue from those fictional practitioners and profligates, who inhabit some of the best works of prose. This means we do not have to behave in like manner in order to prove a point; a gracious allowance when reading about a profligate protagonist – of whom there are many.

Professor Prior’s choice of Edith Wharton’s 1911 novel, Ethan Frome, as the source for enhancing our understanding on the nature and value of chastity once again puts me at a disadvantage for having never read the book. But just gleaning a few details from Prior’s recap and accessing the internet’s version of Cliff Notes (aka Wikipedia) I am inclined to think that Wharton was a master of innuendo. She was a writer during America’s Gilded Age and thereby required to suggest but not show the full frontal impact of something like the antithesis of chastity, which is lust.

Lust is the topic at hand in Wharton’s story, cleverly introduced by an engaging scene of a dance held in a church, normally considered a place of worship. Jane Austen demonstrated the power of the dance as a social gambit in a restrictive society in her novel Pride and Prejudice. Couples who are limited in their personal contacts with others can experience a reverie in close, physically active proximity when they join in the dance.

Ethan Frome is no more than a casual observer of this joyous ritual, looking through a church window. He is pictured as the consummate outsider looking in. Even though he is not a direct participant in the dance, he is still aroused by the mere sight of a young woman’s youthful movements; a sensation which is irreparably enhanced by her wardrobe malfunction; her red scarf slips back on her head. How unfortunate it is for the married Frome to find himself sensually ensnared by such an unintended gesture. Wharton, however, is very savvy for using the juxtaposition of a woman’s pleasing movements, the color red, and a casual slip of a garment. The man is hooked.

Wharton laces her story with another subtle metaphor to help us read into the lives unwinding in her text. The young woman who is the object of Frome’s male gaze is Mattie Silver and silver – as everyone knows – is regarded as a very valuable commodity. Men of greed have done terrible things to possess it and Frome, though Wharton gives us reason to feel sorry for him, is revealed to be just such a scoundrel. The greed of lust compels him to find ways to gain Mattie’s favorable attention until his enticement of Mattie to join him in his romantic fantasy proves to be just as effective and just as tragic as the words spoken by the serpent in the Garden of Eden.

Frome’s hypochondriac wife forces him to send Mattie, their housemaid, away. Instead the yet to be consummated affair ends with a suicide pact of dubious credibility on Wharton’s part. It puts me in mind of how Alfred Hitchcock got Tippi Hedren to trap herself in a room filled with a flock of vengeful birds. She pays the price for her stupidity. So do Frome and Mattie, who agree to ride a sled down a hill and into an elm tree with the intent of dying in each other’s embrace. The reality is that Frome is maimed in the collision and Mattie crippled.

The story ends with Mattie staying with the Fromes; confined actually. Literally there will be no more dances to arouse poor Etan Frome, who is confined himself by the responsibility of now caring for two complaining women.

Ethan Frome is a framed narrative. This is a technique where the main part of the story (told in the usual third person narrative) is framed within an opening and closing first-person account by a disinterested character. Using this format allowed Wharton to spring her surprise ending on her readers. It makes her story, like those of her fellow New Englander Nathaniel Hawthorn, Twilight Zone worthy. We only need to cue the music and invoke the spirit of Rod Serling to bring his classic opening and closing narration to support Wharton’s clever plot twist and drive home the novel’s moral assessment regarding the evils of lust.

The lack of a more positive statement about the value of chastity places me once again at odds with the good professor’s choice, since I do better seeing virtue in action rather than extrapolating its value from someone else’s decadent behavior. That’s too much mental work for the likes of me. I recognize the problem of portraying chastity in a positive light, even in a fictional context, since our culture typically labels any adherent as a goody two-shoes. Life’s a bitch that way.

Chastity is also considered to be synonymous with virginity, limiting the concept to one’s sexual activity or lack thereof. It takes on a greater depth when one considers that chastity has a twin; modesty. A chaste life is one of modest reserve in all aspects and reveals itself in one’s appearance, which eschews glamour, and behavior, which rejects the desire for generating attention by living one’s life as a public spectacle. The subtle result is a life well-lived for the benefit of others.

Furthermore, chastity, if regarded at all, is likely thought of as a feminine trait. Fictional characters like Jane Eyre in Charlotte Bronte’s 1847 tale of the same name or Agnes Wickfield in Charles Dickens’ 1850 novel David Copperfield are credible examples of those whose chaste behavior reveals a commitment to the wellbeing of others. Men need not despair, however, at the thought that we must forever be portrayed in fiction and in life as lustful interlopers into the otherwise happy existence of women. We have as our champion of virtue James Fennimore Cooper’s action hero Natty Bumppo of the Leatherstocking Tales.

Cooper’s 1841 novel, The Deerslayer, was the last of the five Leatherstocking novels to be written but the first in the chronological sequence of Bumppo’s adventures. Today we would call it a prequel. A young Natty Bumppo appears on the scene already famous for his long rifle skills, hence his sobriquet and source of the book’s title of Deerslayer. A more mature Bumppo is better known as Hawkeye from the previously published and more popular novel The Last of the Mohicans.

Cooper gives more depth to Bumppo in The Deerslayer than in his previous novels by giving him more in the way of emotional conflicts to resolve in addition to the struggles to defeat the bad guys in mortal combat. One of his issues is his personal encounter with killing his first human being. Another is more to the point of this message, how to respond to the proposal in marriage proffered by the beautiful Judith Hutter. Beyond her beauty, Hutter is intelligent, courageous, devoted to her younger sister and loyal to her friends. The sticking point for the Deerslayer: Hutter’s reputation is one of amorous indiscretions openly committed among the officers she meets in the then frontier of upstate New York.

Hutter sees in Bumppo a person of many virtues, which she overly romanticizes by referring to Bumppo as her hoped for Adam to help her start a new life in the frontier’s semblance of Eden. Bumppo’s keen eye serves him well in this instance as he sees in Hutter’s overture a doubtful fantasy, something Mattie Silver could not discern in Ethan Frome’s enticements. More importantly for us, Bumppo cannot bring himself to compromise his Moravian Christian beliefs for the sake of embracing someone, whose physical beauty is compelling but insufficient to seduce in light of a staunch character. Chastity prevails.

It is naive to think that we can be so morally pure that we cannot be tempted. Beauty is an attraction we cannot deny. Lust, however, is the perpetual desire for an illicit pleasure. Ethan Frome shows us that lust can be ignited in an instant but takes time to be fulfilled. To experience a moment’s pleasure at the sight of someone who meets our personal beauty requirements is normal. The relentless stalking of the object of our obsession, no matter how stealthily done, is lust on the make. It is greed for a commodity, which can only render the pursuer morally bankrupt.

Chastity is selfless, seeking another’s good. And clothed with modesty its dance moves more gracious to the soul of both the dancer and the observer.  

Love

This week’s topic is love – everybody’s favorite virtue.

This is the third and final installment on what are known as the Theological virtues; faith, hope and love. And the literary work chosen by our mentor, Professor Karen Swallow Prior, is The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy. First published in 1886, its storyline is likely richly influenced by Tolstoy’s own journey of faith, which undertook a significant transformation in the decade prior.

Tolstoy moved towards a more aesthetic perception of faith after reading German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer’s writings. He affirmed his Christian beliefs, but adopted a greater sense of self-denial and pacifism, which brought him into conflict with the practices of the Russian Orthodox Church and the pre-revolutionary state. His creation of the character Ivan Ilyich espouses the complete opposite lifestyle in terms of being fully absorbed by material possessions and the pursuit of worldly status by imitating society’s ruling elite.

Ivan Ilyich views people as he does any other tangible accoutrement of success. People are valued for their celebrity factor and he gathers them as adornments in a manner reflecting his choice of décor in his home and about his person. For Ivan such things reflect the quality of a person’s attainments. For Tolstoy they are shallow, disposable and unimportant to our real need of love and relationships. Ivan Ilyich finds that out too late to shape his life, but the realization does impact his journey towards death.

The people in Ivan’s life, his family and associates, reflect their role as fixtures by being unable to show compassion when Ivan sustains a fatal injury. They look upon his suffering as an inconvenience in their own lives. Innately they desire his demise as the means to “release the living from the discomfort caused by his presence.” The exception to this emotional void is the servant Gerasim.

There is a great deal of displeasing acts one must undertake when serving as the caregiver for another. The displeasure can be enhanced when the service is performed for someone who is incapable of caring for even their most fundamental needs. The caregiver and the recipient are bound together in humility, which Tolstoy seems to advocate as the necessary condition for the presence of unconditional love. It is through Gerasim’s service that Ivan attains some peace in the face of his own mortality. Death loses its sting as promised for the faithful.

In her own explanatory narrative Professor Prior identifies the four Greek words for love to distinguish between the acts and relationships that we generally characterize with the single word love. There is storge (empathy), philia (friendship), eros (desire), and agape (unconditional love). All four are missing from Ivan’s life resulting in his emotional suffering, which mirrors his physical condition. The pain becomes so excruciatingly unbearable that Ivan endures the last few weeks of life screaming. Gerasim’s agape love is the means by which Ivan belatedly grows in spiritual wisdom and eventually finds relief from his agony.

The presence in our lives of all four aspects of love is essential to our sense of wellbeing. They define our relationships with others and indicate the complexity we encounter in shaping each relationship with the appropriate type of love exhibited for the benefit of others.

An instructive example can be found in the Gospel of John, which ends in a manner completely different from the other three accounts attributed to Matthew, Mark and Luke. John’s final episode involves a meal prepared by Jesus for his disciples. The setting is the shoreline of the Sea of Galilee after a long night of hauling in empty nets by the fishermen. The establishment of a relationship is the focus of the after dinner conversation. This is the episode in which Jesus famously queries Peter three times about the nature of his love for Jesus. What we lose in the translation of this exchange is that the first two times Jesus askes Peter “Do you love me?” he does so using the Greek word agape to which Peter can only reply with the Greek word philia.

Compassion reigns in this exchange as Jesus changes his expectations of his most ardent but unnerved disciple by lowering the standard of his query into their relationship. The third time he asks Peter “Do you love me?” Jesus uses Peter’s word, philia, to which Peter can truthfully and comfortably respond in-kind, affirming his feelings of brotherly love for the one he calls Lord and Savior.

By stepping down his expectation of Peter’s confession, Jesus displays his own unconditional love by meeting Peter at a level Peter can sustain at that moment. Such love elicits truth when we allow others to love us less, believing it to be a temporary expression of who we are together. It is informative to see that many years later Peter’s growth was on display when he advised his own followers about the nature of love learned years before at that seaside retreat:

“… make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, philia (brotherly kindness); and to brotherly kindness, agape (love).”

This is the path to effective and productive relationships.

Hope

This is our second message about the Theological virtues identified for us by the Apostle Paul, who wrote to a fledging group of first generation Christians that three things abide – are always present – faith, hope and love. To examine the qualities of this second virtue, we are following Professor Karen Swallow Prior’s technique of using a popular literary work to illustrate the nature of a specific virtue. Her choice for our enlightenment is The Road by Cormac McCarthy, published in 2006.

This is another case where I have not read the book. However I have seen the 2009 movie version, staring Viggo Mortensen, and feel that I have a passable understanding of the story, supplemented further by essential details provided by Prior in her expository narrative for her book On Reading Well. Thereby I hope to do McCarthy’s highly praised work justice in our own journey to a better understanding of an abiding virtue.

The Road is firmly rooted in the post-apocalyptic genre, which is very prevalent in movies, TV and literature these days. It is also a minimalist work in its form and representation of the setting in which a father and son journey towards some form of redemptive future. It is described as being near the sea, where they will find greater warmth and hopefully fellowship in the company of like-minded souls.

The father provides the impetus for the arduous journey through his eclectic teaching. He assures his son that the two of them, but especially the son, are good guys, who carry the fire. The latter quality is not defined, but should resonate with the reader as a post-apocalyptic version of being the keepers of the flame; the ones who retain some ideal of warmth and light to elevate the human spirit above that of shear animalistic survival.

That the book never defines what it means to carry the fire is of no consequence. The father and son are fictional characters after all. The meaning is deemed to reside within the reader, the only one who can be truly shaped by this story. And that is what Prior is after in her book On Reading Well, the realization that good literary works affect us by shaping our own character through insights gained from the fictional lives concocted in an author’s imagination.

Prior makes use of The Road to symbolize hope, but acknowledges that first it displays the virtue of love as shown in the relationship between the father and son. We can take this even further and say that in McCarthy’s story all three of the Theological virtues – faith, hope and love – are present. The son reveals faith in all its purity by his reliance of his father’s instruction. Even when the son questions his father’s actions, he willingly accepts the response, assured by the refrain that they carry the fire. The son’s trust in his father’s undefined phrase justifies all.

Hope abides in us all. The father and son’s journey in The Road demonstrates our need to find purpose outside the self, something transcendent, to sustain us in our hope that life has meaning. That we see in this story that hope is best revealed in combination with the other Theological virtues is not surprising. The unknown author of the biblical book Hebrews shows the relationship when he writes “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1 King James Version)

The sequence expressed in this statement is correct. Faith engenders hope. As I wrote in last week’s message faith is not blind. It is the consequence of experience. We say that we put our faith into someone or something based on the evidence we encounter. I have faith in Karen Swallow Prior as a teacher based on her position as a professor of English at Liberty University and by what I have read so far in her own writings. Because of this faith I hope in her ability to provide further insights into the nature of virtue. This is the type of good result hope seeks to find in some future attainment no matter how difficult or delayed the result may be. An example of something far more potent than the hope I have in the good professor’s teaching can be found in the Apostle Paul’s letter to his student Titus, when he wrote of the blessed hope, “the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ.” (Titus 1:2)

Prior relies on the philosophical teachings of the Dominican Friar Thomas Aquinas to illustrate another significant combination of the Theological virtues. Aquinas taught that hope leads to love and action. We see this in the father’s decision to save his son following his wife’s suicide, the consequence of hopelessness. Love for the boy and hope for the attainment of a safe haven prompts a journey of epic proportions. Prior writes, “What else but love, the fruit of hope, could fuel the fire of such an arduous action as survival in a post-apocalyptic world?”

The Road retains the elements of a hero’s journey defined by Joseph Campbell based on his research into the epic stories of the past. The one distinction from his literary predecessors I would claim for McCarthy, though, is the element of fellowship. The bond between the father and son as they share in the experience and inspire one another’s actions is the antithesis of the classic hero as a lone warrior. Think of Perseus slaying Medusa or the 12 Labors of Hercules and you get the idea. Modern day versions of a life journey tend toward buddy stories. Father and son have more in common with Frodo and Sam than they do with their mythic forebears such as Orpheus’ lone descent into the underworld to rescue his wife Eurydice.

A post-apocalyptic scenario allows any author to posit entirely new values in a world that is essentially a morally blank slate. However, even though the setting may be in a post-apocalyptic world but the reader is not. The terms of the writing, no matter the form, must remain understandable to those of us who take up the book in the present age.

The values of the protagonists in The Road reflect this dynamic. The “good guys” are easily recognizable as they retain the white-hat persona of a Hollywood western hero, while those of the “bad guys” reflect the traditional storyline found in such works as William Golding’s 1954 novel Lord of the Flies. Good and evil do not vanish beneath the ashes of a dead world. They are merely accentuated by the absence of material distractions. Something transcendent must remain. Hope fulfills this need as do its companion virtues faith and love.

Faith

Today we start a three part subset of the topic of virtue by discussing the nature of the Theological Virtues proclaimed by the Apostle Paul in what is described as his first letter to the believers in the Greek city of Corinth. These three virtues are faith, hope and love and as you can see from the title this week’s message is about faith.

The process we’ve been following aligns with the work by Karen Swallow Prior, a professor of English at Liberty University. Her book, On Reading Well, addresses the topic of virtue by using literary works to help us better understand the concepts behind twelve virtuous traits historically categorized by philosophers and theologians as cardinal, theological or heavenly.

To illustrate the virtue of faith, Professor Prior chose the novel Silence by Shusaku Endo, published in 1966. I was not aware of this book before reading Prior’s own work nor have I seen Martin Scorcese’s movie version released in 2016. So my perception of the author’s intent is limited to what Prior reveals in her own narrative about the storyline. Therefore at the outset I must admit to an inability to fully appreciate Endo’s desired impact for what is regarded as his masterwork.

Silence is a fictionalized account of a true episode in Japanese history, the hunt for and execution of hidden Christians in the mid-1600s. The protagonist is a Portuguese Jesuit priest, Sebastiao Rodrigues, sent to Japan in 1639 to investigate the rumors of apostasy by another priest. Rodrigues is the fictional representation of a real priest sent to Japan during that time for the same purpose.

Endo pictures Rodrigues as initially condescending towards the Japanese Christians he encounters. He is eventually betrayed to the local authorities, who devise a compelling test of his faith, which they term a mere formality. This test calls for Rodrigues to step on a wooden plaque bearing the image of the crucified Christ. The authorities view such an act as a renunciation of a person’s Christian beliefs. Their enticement for Rodrigues to accept this mere formality is centered on his ability to thereby alleviate the suffering of those Japanese Christians, who are being subjected to a harsh torture in his presence.

Endo imbues his story with his own form of stimulus for Rodrigues to step on the plaque as the priest perceives the voice of Christ speaking from it, giving Rodrigues permission to step on him. Following his act of submission to the officials’ demand, Rodrigues is given a Japanese name and wife and forced to live the rest of his days essentially as a captive. All the outward trappings of his Christian faith are totally stripped away to the point that upon his death he is given a Buddhist burial.

The question Endo’s novel raises is whether a person can be a Christian inwardly without any external expression of faith as is seemingly mandated by the words of Jesus who said, “Whoever acknowledges me before men, I will also acknowledge him before my Father in heaven. But whoever disowns me before men, I will disown him before my Father in heaven.” (Matthew 10:32-33) My guess is that most of us fail to explicitly express our belief in Jesus as Lord and Savior outside a close knit circle of family and friends who share our beliefs. In that regard how does that make us any different from the shamed priest?

I am not sure that Silence is really about faith, but about beliefs. These are two different things. Endo was Catholic and while his story is based on historic people and events, his beliefs determined the fictional details and the outcomes of his representative characters. The importance of the wooden icon is one prominent indicator of how his own beliefs influence the consequence of Rodrigues’ actions. Another is the voice of the Christ emanating from a carved wooden plank. Implied in the balance of Rodrigues’ life is the concept that a person can commit the unpardonable sin. The concept of faith is subsequently lost beneath the weight of a person’s self-imposed limitations to its efficacy.

Faith may be the most common of virtues. We all live by faith on a daily basis. We don’t consider this to be true, however, when our faith is not placed in a religiously prescribed deity. But think about a driver’s faith in the belief that fellow drivers will obey the rules of the road within a humanly reasonable scope. A red light means stop, green means go. White lines designate lanes in which we are to guide our vehicle. Double yellow lines mean no passing of frustratingly slower drivers. Faith abides in these circumstances.

Such faith is not blind. It is based on experience. Experience also teaches us to be wary of potential offenders, who interpret a yellow light as a cue to speed up or attribute stop signs at an intersection as a suggestion, not a requirement. We cannot possibly handle all of the decisions we must routinely make without the use of faith in place of objective analysis. The burden of thought is just too much for a simple mind to constantly bear. We are inclined to call our choices intuition, however, not faith.

Experience based faith follows a biblical model. When Jesus changed the water into wine, John – an eyewitness – says that “He thus revealed his glory, and his disciples put their faith in him.”  These are the same men, who were already convinced that Jesus was the promised Messiah after meeting him at the Jordan River, where the prophet known as John the Baptist proclaimed Jesus to be the Lamb of God. John, the gospel writer, tells us that later, after Jesus was raised from the dead, these same men “believed the Scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken.” Between these two episodes other events occurred where the disciples and those present put their faith in Jesus based on what they saw, heard and even ate, as in feeding a multitude with a few fish and loaves of bread.

This repetition indicates that faith is not static, but dynamic. Whether we say that it grows or matures is immaterial. It is enough to understand that faith is unlike our material possessions, whose features never change. Faith retains its essence, while constantly expanding in its ability to be awed by events. It grows through experience, even in the lives of the most faithful among us.

Prior’s choice of Silence as an appropriate literary work to study the virtue of faith is problematic for me. As I have confessed in previous messages, I learn more easily when I see positive representations of any virtue rather than piecing together some semblance of the truth through a character’s negative qualities.

Children’s stories likely offer a more positive expression of faith than do adult novels, which can never seem to wholly escape the bonds of cynicism no matter the storyline. Think Pollyanna or Heidi or The Secret Garden or The Little Princess and you get the idea of the persistence of faith in the face of adult inspired adversity. Little wonder, then, that Jesus himself insisted that to enter the Kingdom of God one must do so as a little child; trusting, dependent and faithful.

Endo’s control of his story can be seen in his choice to provide an ambiguous ending to the travails of a beleaguered priest. A Protestant writer may have been more inclined to allow Rodrigues to exert a valid Christian influence through his charitable treatment of others rather than by requiring him to make explicit statements about the way of salvation being solely though the only begotten son.

That Rodrigues would hide his beliefs after his act of supposed heresy is normal. In fact it is in keeping with biblical pronouncements. The prophet Amos wrote about the oppression experienced in his time that “Therefore the prudent man keeps quiet in such times, for the times are evil.” (Amos 5:13)

From Plato to Paul

This current series of messages centers on the book written by Karen Swallow Prior entitled On Reading Well. Published by Brazos Press in 2018, the book’s title is what initially attracted my attention. I am a reader. I came to it by an awkward path, emulating my older brother and finding myself bewildered by the topics he was engaged in; the bewilderment largely stemming from the six year difference in our ages. Fortunately the reading habit stuck despite my confusion.

Reading, though, is not the topic of these messages. Virtue is. Or shall I say a select few of the virtuous traits traditionally proclaimed by scholars are the subject at hand. Prior is a professor of English at Liberty University and the format of her book, intended to encourage us all to be better readers (better being an attribute of understanding and not mechanics) matches historically recognized attributes of virtue and how they are portrayed in prominent literary works.

Virtue is a topic of importance to me. I approach it more from the concept of character building, which appears to no longer be a concern of our educational system as it once was. And if my own understanding of our current culture has any merit, then I would say that the prevalence of relativism as the standard of thinking has denied the importance of character and replaced it with the cult of personality. So Prior’s book has struck a major chord with me. Not that we agree on everything, but that her perspective is a stimulus to my own thinking about what I believe to be true about virtue.

The first section of her book examines the four Cardinal Virtues of antiquity; prudence, temperance, justice and courage. The Greek philosopher Plato gets the credit for identifying these four traits as essential for the viability of any society. The word cardinal is applied to them since its original meaning was hinge. The implication is that all other virtues hinge on these four foundational virtues and over the centuries philosophers and theologians have added a great number of virtuous traits onto Plato’s initial prescription.

The second section of Prior’s book is based solely on the Christian perspective that three virtues abide throughout all the conditions and situations we encounter in life. These three virtues are faith, hope and love. The origin of this thought can once again be attributed to a single person, the Apostle Paul, who informed a group of first generation Christians residing in the Greek city of Corinth that these three things continually reside in the heart of each believer. As such they prove to provide evidence of a person’s character by the behavior they subsequently inspire.

My next three messages will address these virtues in the sequence Paul gave them. However, there is an issue contained in Professor Prior’s writing that I wish to address in advance since I think that it reveals a significant difference in our perceptions of virtue. She writes that faith hope and love “occur in their true sense not through human nature but by God’s divine power.” That is a statement I cannot make, at least not in keeping with my current concept of we as humans and what we can attain no matter our choice of religious or philosophical beliefs.

I take literally the claim made in Genesis 1:27 that we are created in God’s image. For me this profound statement implies that we are all endowed with the ability to exhibit all the attributes of God’s character, which means all of these virtues that we as mere mortals have discovered and aspired to live by. They are fully attainable for each person. What differentiates the Christian from everyone else can be found in the apostle’s further teaching about our lives no longer being our own. We live the life of Jesus, who spiritually resides in us, shaping our thoughts and deeds so that we become imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children. (Ephesians 5:1)

It is not the what that truly matters in our speculations about the nature of virtue, but the why. If we therefore embrace the thought that we are striving to imitate the nature of the one we love as our Creator-Father, then our maturity in these things will grow in proportion to our concept of his presence in our lives. For me this means every virtuous trait will find its fullest expression through God’s divine instruction.

For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. (II Corinthians 4:6)

Courage

This week’s message concerns our fourth and final look at the cardinal virtues of antiquity. Courage, as the title clearly indicates, is that virtue and the literary work chosen by our guide, Karen Swallow Prior, to illustrate this virtue is Mark Twain’s 1885 novel Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The “The” we are prone to use as a prefix to Huck’s adventures was added later to accommodate our preference for placing articles before titles.

By way of review, I like to begin each message with an attribution. I am using Prior’s book, On Reading Well, to prompt my own thoughts on the broader topic of virtue, which I regard and refer to as character building. Prior is a professor of English at Liberty University. I do disagree with her on a few minor points, but must concede on the depth and breadth of her reading compared to my own less academic tastes. Her knowledge in these matters is far superior to my own.

That said, my relative position in academics has not prevented me from having my say as we work our way through her well defined path for appraising the merits of a virtuous life. This is where we can cue Faye Dunaway’s character in the Dustin Hoffman movie Little Big Man to inform us all that a virtuous life is its own reward.

Courage is defined in Professor Prior’s book as “the habit that enables a person to face difficulties well.” She, like the Greek philosophers and Christian theologians, who expounded on the value of cultivating a virtuous life, draws a line between courage and bravery. To be brave or bold is not tied to the concept of being virtuous. A villainous person can be brave. For our consideration courage – or fortitude as some have deemed it – always has a virtuous goal. Prior writes “Courage is measured not by the risk it entails but the good it preserves.”

Huckleberry Finn fits into her concept of courage as someone who faces the racial prejudices of his day and overcomes internal conflict by going against the oppressive forces of hate when helping to free Jim, a runaway slave. This brings to mind the words of the prominent political historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. He spoke of Huck as the archetype of the American character and referred to the boy’s decision to risk the fires of hell in order to defy the law and free Jim as “the finest scene in the greatest of American novels.” Of this appraisal I am more than a little skeptical.

Huck is an observer. He is similar to his English cousin, David Copperfield, in providing a first-person account of what he sees on his life’s journey and struggling to reach a proper interpretation of both people and events. The comparison between Finn and Copperfield goes even deeper as Twain’s original concept for the book was to tell Huck’s story from boyhood to adulthood, just like the story arc of Copperfield’s life. Both “boys” are far less colorful in character than those who surround them and carry the storyline for them in directions at which the supposed heroes can only marvel.

Twain lost interest in his own project and set it aside to pursue other interests. When he took it up again, his original concept of Huck’s story changed, fortunately for all of us. Huck’s adventure through life is recast as a journey down the Mississippi River on a raft with Jim. Both are runaways, who are carried along by events as inexorable as the current of the river. And within the repurposing of Huck’s story is the reason why I would invoke the concept of courage as it pertains to this novel; Twain’s own moral fortitude to craft an honest story about the antebellum South. It is not a harsh critique of the times and people of his youth. In fact there are moments when Huck, Twain’s alter ego, acknowledges the virtues of various men and women he encounters along the way. Twain does, however, disparage the institution of slavery on which the Southern economy depended, albeit from the safety of his New York home.

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is not a children’s story. Racism, alcoholism, abuse, theft, murder and fraud are staples of the story. Although told by a boy, just as a young woman tells the story of the racism encountered in her childhood in To Kill a Mockingbird, Huck’s adventures were intended for an adult audience, just like Mockingbird. That it continues to be a target of censorship should not be surprising. The novelty of the characters’ colloquial speech appropriate to the day includes terms unacceptable in our own current culture. Twain was even pushing the envelope in his day and it is this lingering tendency towards shock and offense that is for me the greatest indicator of courage in the story. Sensibilities have and will continue to be violated – for the greater good.