At Mass in our church today the Feast of the Annunciation was celebrated. Its official date is March 25 but because of the date of Easter this year it has been delayed. In the Liturgical Year the Church celebrates many significant feasts of Our Lady; if there is a hierarchy of these memorable occasions that of the Immaculate Conception will be first, because it is this unique privilege that points towards every other event of Our Lady’s life on earth and her approved apparitions during the Church’s subsequent history.
Nonetheless, the subject-matter of the Annunciation has inspired more artists because of the very human drama of the event described in the Gospels: the angel Gabriel’s momentous communication, followed by Our Lady’s life-changing “Fiat”. My own favourite painting is Fra Angelico’s, because it so beautifully conveys Our Lady’s humility. It reminds one that one of the most attractive features of Catholicism is the person of Our Lady herself and the role she has played in salvation history. Although our love for her is incomprehensible to those outside the Faith, she fulfils our human longing for a mother infinitely compassionate and loving – and especially for a mother who will unceasingly intercede for us with her Son.
This particular feast in honour of Our Lady is also significant because it is intrinsically bound up with the pro-life movement. If Jesus became a human being at the Annunciation of his conception, so does every baby in the womb. Thus to be a Catholic is to be pro-life. Other Churches may quibble about a time when a baby is “less” than human and a time when it becomes “more” human; the Feast of the Annunciation tells it like it is.
Yesterday I was phoned up by a pleasant second year female undergraduate from my old college, Girton. Sensing that she might be phoning to ask for money on the College’s behalf – a common practice – I told her that, although I was sure the college needed money from alumni for all sorts of useful and worthwhile projects, I only support pro-life charities these days. I explained that it is a fundamental issue: after all, an aborted baby will have been deprived forever of the potential opportunity to take advantage of all the facilities that the college would have to offer.
To my surprise, the undergraduate told me she agreed with me. I was surprised because similar conversations in previous years have always ended in puzzlement on the part of the person phoning me up, as if such a line of argument had never presented itself to them; such is the success of the pro-choice lobby. I hope I did not sound hectoring or smug – just deeply serious about this cause.
As it happened, this girl phoned me while I was reading an article which first appeared in the Winter 2016 issue of Human Life Review. Written by Edward Short and entitled Abortion, Evil and JK Huysmans, it describes the life and extraordinary literary works of Huysmans (1848-1907), a strange figure, often seen (wrongly) as the poster-boy for fin-de-siecle decadence, but in reality a gifted writer who was to move in his literary and spiritual development from Schopenhauer-type pessimism to embracing the Catholic faith.
A Rebours, the study of a dandy who is bored and disgusted by life, is probably JK Huysmans’ most famous novel (Oscar Wilde discovered it on his honeymoon). However, in its final chapter the hero realises that “the arguments of pessimism were powerless to console him, and the only possible cure for his misery was the impossible belief in a future life”. A Catholic critic remarked of it: “After such a novel, it only remains for the author to choose between the mouth of a pistol or the feet of the Cross.” And as Short points out in his article, “We too have to choose between the culture of death and the culture of resurrected life and love.”
Huysmans, in a tetralogy of novels, beginning with La-Bas (the Damned) (1891), then En Route (1895), La Cathedrale (1898) and L’Oblat (1903), charts his own “resurrection” and discovery of the real meaning of love, a progression from his appalling understanding and dissection of evil in the historical figure of child murderer Gilles de Rais, to his eventual embrace of the Faith. As Edward Short reminds us, modern abortionists are actually much closer to the medieval monster, Gilles de Rais, than they would care to acknowledge.
I wrote about Huysman’s La Cathedrale for a series on Catholic classics in the Herald some years ago. The cathedral in question is Chartres, – actually the Cathedral of Our Lady of Chartres – where the protagonist, Durtal, finds himself overwhelmed by the palpable sense of grace emanating from the glorious artworks surrounding him. Looking at the sculptures he exclaims, “What souls these artists had! They laboured only in a state of grace.” Haunted by the memory of his past debaucheries, Durtal begins to understand the intercessory role of Our Lady: “Bending for ever over the squalid bed of the soul, she washed the sores, dressed the wounds…”
With these thoughts in mind, I shall try to spend as much of today in the company of Our Lady as I can: mindful of this singular Feast and praying for the pro-life cause, for the undergraduate who happened to phone me up, for the soul of JK Huysmans – and that in Chartres cathedral Our Lady will continue to bring sick and sad souls to Christ.