Thursday, 1 November 2012

Division and All Saints

            …division stretched between
the queen’s identity and the queen.

So writes Charles Williams in his Arthurian poem The Coming of Palomides. Palomides, mathematician and minstrel, at court as a foreigner (in all possible ways) – this Palomides sings before the Queen Iseult, ‘defining’ the beauty of her body. As Iseult’s beauty shows something more than physical, so Palomides’ song is something more than words. It is called forth by his pierced heart, his exultant reason, and the reality of the Queen for which his heart and reason were made –

blessed the unity of all
authorities of blood and brain,
triply obedient, each to twain,
obedience in the mind, subdued
to fire of fact and fire of blood;
obedience in the blood, exact
to fire of mind and fire of fact;
to mind and blood the fact’s intense
incredible obedience,
in the true equilateral ease.

But alas, the vision does not last; while the Queen’s body remains as beautiful as ever, something disappears. Palomides’ eyes lose sight of the Queen’s true glory. He falls, because he keeps gazing nonetheless. That is the division, the dis-visio, seeing things apart from each other. How well we understand this division: it is not easy to see, in a single perception, both what the Queen is and what the Queen is. Especially when the Queen is adulterous Iseult. And who of us isn’t?

Those who remember the old interior of this blog-spot might recall my reaction at finding out some biographical details about the actress who gave flesh and face to the young heroine of Inception, Ariadne. Suffice it to say, I preferred Ariadne.

So when I recently saw the beautiful movie Joan of Arc, starring Leelee Sobieski, I knew better than to look up the actress. Through unfortunate circumstances, however, I caught glimpses of her on Google, from which it was immediately clear that she was not the devout, charismatic, young, feminine peasant general whose demeanour she had borrowed for a spell, and whose life in the movie began and ended with a great Eucharistic ‘Thank You’. Too bad; Leelee would have been truer to her name and herself if she had been consistently truer to Joan. (Sobieski, after all, was the ‘Lion of Lehistan’ who beat the Turks away from Vienna.)

That is why I cannot agree with the Reformed fringe that opposes acting because it is allegedly a lie. Acting is not a lie. Man is an actor, an imitator, and he finds his highest identity in imitation (just ask Thomas a Kempis). Acting shows that humans are not fixed in their habits, but that they have a potential to become better or worse than they are. It invites us to say ‘There but for the grace of God go I’ or ‘There for the grace of God could I go’. When division stretches between our visible lives and the true Image in the sepulchre of our soul, the parts we act can show more of the truth to others than the part we play through habit. (No doubt the Reformed fringe thinks that comparing life to a ‘play’ betrays an irreligious lack of gravity. Or calling mature piety a ‘habit’: such an external view of things belongs to the Romish monk and his shameful garments of false humility! I exaggerate.)

Incidentally, when I watched Joan of Arc, it struck me that St Joan’s ‘voices’ identified themselves as St Catherine (of Alexandria) and St Margaret. These virgin-martyrs from the late dawn of Christianity belonged to the Fourteen Holy Helpers popular in the Middle Ages. There is a certain fittingness to these two: St Margaret was put on trial and was miraculously saved from death by fire, whereas St Catherine was called to dispute with fifty learned pagans, who could not outwit her. Or so the legends go. For the lives and indeed the very existence of these saints is obstinately doubted in these soul-corroding times.

It is likely that the hagiographers have sought to illumine the true identity of these virgins by painting a halo of miracles around them. Sorting out truth from, let us say, embellishment is a hopeless task. Can one say, then, that St Catherine or St Margaret (or St Christopher, for that matter) existed, if their entire ‘lives’ (in the biographical sense) are doubtful? What do we remember, then – a lifeless name? But she whom the West calls Margaret is known in the East as Marina.

I expect a report from the CDF (any day now, surely!) on whether the infallibility of the ordinary Magisterium extends to unofficial canonisations. For now, I remain sturdily convinced that all the dubious saints existed and had a true identity, known to God alone (and who of us hasn’t?). Certainly St Catherine and St Margaret; the argumentum ad Ioannam proves that beyond a reasonable doubt.

Happy All Saints’ Day!