Graham Greene’s novel, The Heart of the Matter, begins with an aphorism from Charles Péguy: “Le pécheur est au coeur même chrétienté…. Nul n’est aussi competent que le pécheur en matière de chrétienté. Nul, si ce n’est le saint.” More than any other season of the liturgical year, Lent tells us that the sinner is at the heart of Christianity. Indeed, as Péguy intimates, in the contemplation of our sin we move deeper into the richness of Christian faith than anyone else, except the saint that we hope to become on the other side of the journey. Greene’s protagonist, Henry Scobie, and the central characters and narratives of other Catholic novelists, offer us skilful guidance through that journey, teaching us how to be sinners so that we can learn to become saints.
For Scobie, the weight of sin takes not so much the form of a desert as a desertion. And his relative ability to negotiate his isolation serves as a cautionary tale of our own moral lives if we isolate ourselves from the community of saints who may give us sustenance on the journey. Unlike many of Greene’s characters, Scobie is a firm believer. Yet his response to the burden of sin raises significant questions about misplaced (or, perhaps, disordered) love.
The encumbrance of sin is also exposed through two central characters in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. Unlike Scobie with his overt piety, Sebastian Flyte wanders on the margins of faith into a different kind of desertion. But Waugh resolves Sebastian’s exile (if it is a resolution) in something that seems closer to redemption, though seemingly on a level just out of reach of Sebastian’s own ability to intellectualise. His sister, Julia, on the other hand, expressly articulates the burden of her “little sin” in a pivotal scene that makes her journey through the desert very different from Sebastian’s. In some ways, Julia’s acknowledgement of sin was not dissimilar to Scobie’s. But in contrast to Scobie and Sebastian, Julia’s awareness of sin leads her to a different conclusion – or perhaps to the same conclusion by a different route. Waugh is less interested in resolving either character’s predicaments than he is in drawing his reader into them as episodes in our own spiritual dramas. Along the way, he forces us to face the moral ambiguities that often attend the road from sinner to saint.
Moral ambiguity is also a theme of Phil Klay’s ironically titled novel, Missionaries. Initially through interwoven first-person narration by central characters, the novel takes us into the deserts and jungles of spiritual war through the metaphor of real war. Accounting for events through the voices of people formed by different contingent stories, Klay tells us that we are all on a journey toward redemption. The circumstances that are thrust upon us make that journey unique for each, but the destination is the same. Lenten discipline is variegated because each of us has a unique perspective of the battles we must fight, and the tools we must use in those skirmishes.
Variations of the struggle through the slough of sin toward moral redemption is also the theme of both Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter and François Mauriac’s Vipers’ Tangle. Kristin and Monsieur Louis both imbibe the sin that, as Péguy notes, may be the key to understanding Christianity. Both look for salvation in places in which it cannot be found, and which lead to pain and suffering for the protagonists as well as the people around them. If the sinner is at the heart of Christianity, selfish desire is at the heart of the sinner. How, or even whether, Kristin or Louis find their way through their Lenten journeys teaches us how our own loves can be misdirected, leading not to the joy we seek, but the very pain we hope to avoid.
Among the most difficult of these journeys to understand but (perhaps for that reason) the richest vein to mine, is that of Hazel Motes in Flannery O’Connor’s novel, Wise Blood. Like Sebastian Flyte, Hazel resists the grace of the hound of heaven. His is a more aggressive and explicit battle, however. While Hazel thinks Jesus is his enemy, O’Connor shows us that his “Church without Christ” is a proxy for Hazel’s groping through the murkiness of his own sin, resisting the light of redemption. Motes not only refuses to see, he cannot even admit his blindness. His journey is, therefore, darker and more bleak than others. O’Connor is more concerned that we find our place in the story – and become better people for it – than comfortably resolving Hazel Motes’ own story.
The theme of all these novels is the persistent love of God, leading us into the wilderness of our own sin, for the purpose of leading us out to the paradise of redemption. How, or even whether, various of the characters find that redemption is as varied as the stories themselves. But regardless, these novels are but a few that invite us into the narrative, to teach us truths about sin, guilt, grace and redemption, so that our own journeys through Lent can bring us through the desert, purged and shriven.
Ken Craycraft is the James J Gardner Family Chair of Moral Theology at Mount St Mary’s Seminary School of Theology, Cincinnati
This article first appeared in the March 2022 issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe today.
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