In The Bleak Midwinter.

In the Bleak Midwinter: Recording of ths post.

December has been a very tough month this year. You might have fathomed that from my lack of posts. I have been trying just to make it to the end of term. Did I make it? No, not really. I was ill and had another negative COVID test, and then back to work for the last week and a bit, only to scald my face quite badly on the Wednesday and have to stay home on the last day of term, after a visit to Accident and Emergency. Not that it made any difference, since I received a phone call from the Assistant Head telling me not to come into school on the Friday because one of the students I taught had tested positive, our first confirmed case in school. They needed to double check protocols with Public Health England. It seems to change regularly. Since then, another two students and some teachers have tested positive too. It is easy to complain and make a list of all the negatives, but suffice to say, December has been tough, for lots of reasons.

I have been watching Peaky Blinders on DVD box set throughout this month…maybe I should nickname it “Bleaky Blinders”. It is dark. Since watching TV is one of my amber, desires – it tips over into inordinate desire and obsessiveness all too easily, my Spiritual director encourages me to notice what I am drawn to watch and why. What is it that draws me? Where is it coming from? and where is it leading to? All good discernment questions. If you know the series, you might recognise in the title for this post, the words the brothers are committed to saying at the point of death.

So, here is what I notice. I watch a lot of Films/Box sets when I am ill, stressed or exhausted. I have been all of these, all throughout this long, long month. When my head is caving in and my body is just fighting to do what I need to do, and crash when there is no necessity or even option. My head becomes a swirly place to be, and the escapism offers some relief from the constant noise. You may know what I mean.

I am drawn to complicated characters that demonstrate moral ambiguity. Tommy Shelby might indeed be a violent gangster, but he also has admirable qualities and vulnerabilities: he shows tenderness and is clearly tortured by his experiences of the First World war. What would he have been without that desolating experience? The most recent episodes I watched described a charming young man with a desire to change the world for the better. A different man came back from the war, and is still fighting it. He knows no peace and falls apart when his circumstances and environment are peaceful. I am not recommending Peaky Blinders here, I am noticing my response.

I also notice the feeling of restlessness and the impulse to turn it off. Is that the nature of the drama itself or the process of watching too much TV? Or both?

When I did turn it off a couple of evenings before Christmas, I put up my Christmas tree and played carols, I had to stop for about five minutes and cry. So many of the baubles bring with them their own memories of different Christmasses past. When I became a single parent, I bought a set of very cheap baubles for that first Christmas alone with my children, and we bought only two elaborate baubles that they each got to choose one. We did that every year, gradually replacing the cheaper ones, so that now it is an eclectic mix. They are not inclined ot put up the tree anymore, and because of Coronavirus, my friend did not come to stay this year: I decorated the tree on my own. It was a poignant experience, and moving.

Christmas has been quieter this year, not the huge pomp and ceremony as usual. It has been trimmed back. And yet, in the middle of this winter, where perhaps we still have as much to go through as we have aready been through, there is the cosiness of finding a safe place and hunkering down, in spite of the odds. It may be survival mode and if there is survival, there is life and recovery is possible. In the centre of this hard place, there is a light and hope: it is this truth that hit me while I was decorating my Christmas tree. As always, when we remember to look for the presence of God, He is to be found, no matter how long or bleak the winter.

Love and Law

Les Miserables has been playing at the Theatre Royal in Norwich this week. I love that musical, and I love the book by Victor Hugo. The interplay between Javert and Jean Val Jean, to me, is all about the question of love and law, of sin and righteousness.

In bible study we have also been looking at Matthew’s gospel and the interplay between Jesus and the Pharisees; noticing them laying traps for Jesus regarding the Law, and how Jesus deals with them deftly.

I also laughed at a picture of a cat that had been circulating on the internet. The cat had caught sight of itself in two mirrors at the same time and where the phrase “existential crisis” had been applied to it. I also caught sight of that phrase in an article somewhere this week, but I did not have time to stop and read the article immediately, and now that I want to, I cannot remember where it was. Frustrating, but there we are. The brief line I read mentioned it as being when your whole belief system was called in to question, and the suggestion was that support structures could crumble…I think. Anyway, the phrase has been on my mind.

There is a confrontation scene in Les Miserables, where Javert has recognised Jean Val Jean for the criminal that escaped his parole so many years ago and it gives us a key insight into Javert. He was born in a prison and has pulled himself up by his bootstraps to become the respectable police captain. He is also a righteous man, who believes in God and lives a moral life according to the law, which he believes is God’s law. He sees Val Jean as a criminal, a thief, and as he sings here, scum. Not very loving, granted, but that is the point. Javert is obedient to the law, and it is this structure that has prevented him being what he was born into: It has saved him from the fate and life of a criminal, the life that Val Jean lived for so long, so there is no wriggle room for Javert regarding the law. I feel a lot of compassion for Javert, he does what he believes to be right.

And Val Jean had become what Javert believed him to be after being imprisoned for years for stealing some bread to feed his sister’s child: a bitter, angry and hardened man. Until that is, he stole some silver ware from a bishop after being paroled, and the bishop showed him forgiveness, love, and challenged him to live differently. Here is Val Jean’s existential crisis, his paradigm shift, when he came to know himself as a loved sinner. We see in Val Jean the grace of the first week of the spiritual exercises:

Here it will be to ask for shame and confusion, because I see how many have been lost on account of a single mortal sin, and how many times I have deserved eternal damnation, because of the many grievous sins that I have committed.

The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius trans Louis J. Puhl S.J.

With such persons the good spirit uses a method … Making use of the light of reason, he will rouse the sting of conscience and fill them with remorse.

The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius trans Louis J. Puhl S.J.

Although Val Jean is experiencing great turmoil of spirits in this scene and it is both moving and painful, ultimately, his struggle is spiritual consolation: it leads to a deepened faith in God and to a resolution to live differently, an election if you like. It is to be noted that it was the forgiveness and love, and yes, the lie, of the bishop, that precipitated this crisis in Val Jean. The bishop did not adhere to the law and turn Val Jean in when Val Jean committed the theft, in fact, he gave him more silverware, and it was his choice of love above the law which led to the Val Jean’s spiritual transformation.

I love both of these characters. They show us two possibilities for living and for making choices: they show us the importance of love and its transforming power, and warn of the dangers of too strict adherence to the law, religiosity. I mentioned this before in the story of the man picking up a piece of truth and turning it into a belief. It is what happens to Javert over the years: his uncompromising belief in the law leads him to pride and to a lack of faith in God. When faced with compassion from Val Jean, who has the opportunity to kill Javert and be rid of his relentless hunting of him but instead chooses to spare Javert, and more, to hand himself over to him, Javert’s whole belief system starts to crumble and he too experiences an existential crisis. Unlike Val Jean though, Javert does not turn to God. We get the sense here that Javert has never experienced love, and has never experienced God as love, only as law giver and punisher. Here, in his suicide scene, Javert experiences the ultimate desolation of spirits:

Emotional health warning: this scene is very upsetting and depicts Javert’s suicide.

I call desolation what is entirely the opposite of what is described in the third rule, as darkness of soul, turmoil of spirit, inclination to what is low and earthly, restlessness rising from many disturbances and temptations which lead to want of faith, want of hope, want of love. The soul is wholly slothful, tepid, sad, and separated, as it were, from its Creator and Lord. For just as consolation is the opposite of desolation, so the thoughts that spring from consolation are the opposite of those that spring from desolation.

The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius trans Louis J. Puhl S.J.

Javert says:

I have nowhere left to go.

And to me, this is the tragedy, and I grieve for poor, lost Javert. If only someone had loved him, if only he had been able to recognise himself as loved, if only he had turned to God in this moment. I volunteered for a helpline some years ago whose function is to be there for people contemplating suicide. And it seems to me that when people are so deeply into desolation like that, they believe themselves to be unworthy of love. From their perspective, their loved ones love them because they are nice people, not because they themselves are worthy of love. It took more than thirty years for Javert to reach this point, and it was a path he was walking. In the case of others, how, when, how frequently are loving interventions required to encourage another soul to walk a different path?

In the gospels, one of my favourite interactions with Jesus is with the rich young man. We are told:

Jesus, looking at him, loved him…

Mark 10:21

Jesus loved him, before He said anything else, Jesus really looked at him and loved him. And we do not know what this young man did next, after going away sad. I like to think that this interaction set him on a different path, that the disturbance it caused within him led to him following, just as Jesus had invited him to. Sometimes, it takes a while for discernment to be made and commitments to be realised. But, we will never know. It is important to act out of love always, simply for that reason, we might never know the effect of our words, actions and the way we are towards people.

And so, I would end with the words from Les Miserable that once were spoken:

To love another person is to see the face of God.

Les Miserables

and with more music, offered as a prayer: