07 August 2010

A rival good to God's

I finally finished watching the BBC version of Brideshead Revisited, all 11 episodes. I still also like the more recent version with Matthew Goode, Emma Thompson, and others, but this one brought out so much more complexity and nuance in the story. Something that stood out to me is the power of religious faith in people's lives and the unlikelihood that most people will ever fully let go of it or escape the voices of their past, telling them of sin and grace.

SPOILER ALERT: Most poignant, to me, was the crisis of the relationship between Charles and Julia, Charles being an atheist-leaning agnostic, and rather staunch and even arrogant about it, and Julia being a free-spirited and wayward Catholic woman who nonetheless retains a notion that she is, in the end, a sinner and will have to repent or pay at some point. This difference seems a side note in their relationship, a point of some mild friction but nothing to end the relationship over. In fact, they each turn away from other relationships and lives to come together, against the criticism and dismay of her family, who insist it is a relationship begotten in sin and incapable of being blessed by God, since they can't be married by a priest.

There's a reflective and poignant conversation between Charles and Julia's brother and sister, Bridey and Cordelia, in which Charles challenges their notion that their dying father must receive last rites from a priest in order to be saved from his life of faithless abandon. They insist he must show an act of will and contrition before he dies, and he illustrates that if their father has the will, the priest is secondary and not the crux, and they end in a bit of a stalemate. But in the end, the "just in case" wins out over doubts of faith, and their father participates in the rites before passing away, which challenges Charles' confident assertion that it's all hogwash, and he, too, joins in a prayer of mercy from God, in case God exists, and in case mercy is needed. He realizes he, too, has doubts about whether it's all truly "bosh" as he has claimed so often.

With his deep realization of what this family's religion means to them, of how pervasive it is in their being, and of the probability that he's been too dismissive of their faith, this experience hammers home the suspicion he's been fighting all along: that he is asking Julia to choose between him and something that is equally or more interwoven into her, and that maybe, just maybe, she's right not to let go of it. They have the following conversation--their last--on the steps of Brideshead, the family home where it all began and ended:

Julia: ...We have on the stairs a minute to say goodbye

Charles: So long to say so little.

Julia: You knew?

Charles: Since this morning. Since before this morning, all this year.

Julia: I didn't know 'til today. ...Oh my dear, if you could only understand, then I could bear to part, or bear it better. I'd say my heart were breaking if I believed in broken hearts. I can't marry you, Charles. I can't be with you ever again.

Charles: I know.

Julia: How can you know?

Charles: ...What'll you do?

Julia: Just go on. Alone. How can I tell what I shall do? You know the whole of me. You know I'm not one for a life of mourning. I've always been bad. Probably I shall be bad again. Punished again. But the worse I am, the more I need God. I can't shut myself out from his mercy. That is what it would mean, starting a life with you: without Him. ...One can only see one step ahead, but I saw today there's one thing unforgivable--like things in the schoolroom so bad they're unpunishable, that only Mummy could deal with--the bad thing I was on the point of doing that I'm not quite bad enough to do: to set up a rival good to God's. It may be because of Mummy, Nanny, Sebastian, Cordelia, ...perhaps Bridey and Mrs. Muspratt, keeping my name in their prayers. Or it may be a private bargain between me and God that if I give up this one thing I want so much, however bad I am, he won't quite despair of me in the end. ...Now we shall both be alone. And I shall have no way of making you understand.

Charles: I don't want to make it easy for you. I hope your heart may break. But I do understand.

I fear having that same conversation. It seems an all-too-likely scene in which to find myself years from now, and it's hard to imagine taking a risk that I may be sitting on the steps, knowing that I understand so very well that I can't say anything in rebuttal because even if I have worked it out and reconciled for myself, I know that no amount of explanation, or prodding, or pleading from anyone could have brought me here before I was ready. And I can't promise with 100% confidence that I will never make the same turn back and be the one saying, "I'm not quite bad enough to...set up a rival good to God's," nor can anyone else honestly. So the only option in such a case would be to let go, to love someone enough to not demand they choose damnation, even only in their own mind, for me. I wouldn't cling to someone at their detriment, but I'm afraid of being someone's sacrifice to prove their will to a God whom they believe demands such of them. I don't want to be laid on the altar and left as a holy offering by those I've grown to love and into whom I've invested everything. In those moments, the idea that we have eternity to develop relationships and this life to prove our will can become a comforting balm, even with its often accompanying rejections and reprimands, so it's not hard to understand why someone would choose as Julia did.

There are no guarantees, though. So I guess it's one step at a time, knowing the risks, learning from experience to refine and strengthen me, trusting in what I believe and/or hope is possible, doing the best I can with what I do know, and trying not to let my fear keep me "safely" locked up.