“There is an area where pain and blessedness meet. A little contraction in the muscles around the mouth and the smile becomes weeping.”
Holy Masquerade, by Olov Hartman
Recently I recovered a book thought lost forever for I did not remember its title nor the author’s name. There it was— in a box of books ready to be put on a shelf in my new home. I do not remember packing it just days before. As I unpacked it a sigh escaped and a smile lit my eyes. I’d been wanting to read it for a couple of years but didn’t know how to find it. Holy Masquerade, a book that has stayed in my thinking since my freshman year in 1973 at a Bible college in Salem, Oregon. What I remembered was its first person narrative by an un-faithed woman married to a man of the church, a priest. The scene that stayed in my memory was one in which the speaker of the narrative witnesses the spilling of the Eucharistic wine on the white blouse of her husband’s paramour (symbolically) on Palm Sunday. Her husband refrains from participating in the elements. Her suspicions are aroused. In the next day or two the significance of this strikes her heart and she formulates the truth. The lie exposed.
She, as a woman of unknown undeveloped un-belief in God, is deeply aware of the contradiction resident in her husband’s faith as he leads his parishioners in a faith that is not fully his own. A faith (religion) that does not move him, that is a remote thing that one talks about but one doesn’t live, at least not in the way it should be lived, yet in truth, is more like that of a form that alters and bends according to the desire at hand. In his actions, to please his flock or himself, is a whole underlying deception, a religious manipulation, he never fully acknowledges.
I am moved by Klara-the story narrator. She, at least, is honest with herself. She is being brought to faith by an attraction to the mother of God and then to her child, to the Christ. He is appealing but she bars Him from entry. But He bids entry. The mask of religion is a masquerade that she comes to experience in vivid mirror images until she becomes free of its projection. The split is relevant, the person without religious "faith" that being herself, is more concerned about the holiness and holy treatment of those things holy, than the man of the cloth to whom she is married. The beginning quote is one she makes as she considers a broken down wooden statue of the Madonna with her Child. “There is an area where pain and blessedness meet. A little contraction in the muscles around the mouth and the smile becomes weeping.”
This week I re-read Holy Masquerade, its meaning readily came back to me. The words speaking much more plainly in my understanding for I now have grown in my depth as a lover of God and have more understanding of the liturgical form of worship. The story’s setting is the church and its manse. The time is the season of Lent. How apropos.
A year ago I read Vipers’ Tangle by Francois Mauriac, another book of the same type and from the same college class, skillfully written to expose the hypocrisy that hides the truth of the real. In an insidious way it is profound, showing and exposing both the human and the human’s contradictory ways and especially the duplicity found it some of the human’s most important of relationships, the lie that generates a falseness. This novel presents a first person narrative fiction, a story that makes me grapple with religiosity and catholicity and the ugliness of hatred. I can’t say I like the main character, Louis, an evil vindictive old man, who makes vengeance an art form. He begins to see truth in the end, love softens when least expected.
Two other well-known novels were read for that class so long ago, a college class I no longer remember its name but I do remember its professor, Mr. Gaylord Johnson. We read, Elmer Gantry by Sinclair Lewis, a story I find myself unwilling to read again although it sits on my shelf, about an evangelist who is gifted with star quality but knows debauchery in his personal life. The thing isn’t real, its a personification of “real” but makes one think of many such people, ones who have failed the test in the end, fallen from grace with the faithful, not able to deliver the goods as a preacher of God, although the attempt is made. Some have been a great embarrassment to the Church and fodder for jest on late night TV. At least, most started with faith but lost their way. It isn’t that hard to do when one is in the fore-front. I remind myself, those in the front lines often get hurt. I did try to read Elmer Gantry awhile back, but found it an unpleasant read. Yet, Sinclair Lewis makes his point. It can be taken as a warning or a condemnation. If we are truthful with ourselves, we all have the capacity to be frauds and will go that route if we let our gaze fall to our own wit and devices. For some crazy reason, Elmer Gantry makes me think of one or two entertainment personas, who could not rule their own passions and talents, lives shaped by others and what others wanted of them--caught in the unreality of fame, much like a person who wants the most out of life but finds that in the end, they are the enemy--for the enemy is within. The enemy is our own self.
The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne was the fourth book we read for that class. Its story line is famous, and Hollywood movies document its offering. The Salem witch trials are the perfect setting for such a book. It is a careful exposure of the hidden truth about sin and freedom. The hidden is what haunts and defiles, the religious as the condemning, and the condemned as the free, the free-spirit who does good and gives generously. It is a story line that can trouble a receptive mind, a mind set on pleasing the God of love, justice, and righteousness. Which one is the God we serve? It makes our religious conventions less comfortable. Hester, the one with the scarlet “A” embroidered on a label affixed to her dress across the chest, is not bound by the constraints of the religious-bound but her silence and protection of the one who compromised his faith, speaks in volumes. The contrast is notable.
These four books seem written for current times. They seem to glide from the past to the present. The Church is grappling, trying to make sense of the reality of the fallen state of these times. What is genuine? Where is the power? Who is real? The lines are dividing the Church. What do we do about the homosexual (hgbt), the user, the hater, the post-abortive, the molester, the needy, the families living on government assistance, the illegal aliens, the ex-felon, the hurting? Do truth and love go together? Is holy living for these times? Those of us who claim Christ in our names as Christ-following Christians are challenged by reading such books as are addressed in this writing. It is so easy to speak the truth, but it can be so hard to love. It can be so easy to love, but it can be so hard to speak the truth. Do you see the contradiction, the struggle? It rattles our cages. Everyone is telling us how to think! Opposite voices are clamoring for our attention. What to believe? Blogs and Tweets wage war with the religious community of readers. There is an endless group of “versus” that I can bring forth—another contradiction of religion exposed, affirming vs. condemning, positive vs. negative, truthful vs. deceitful, kind vs. mean-spirited, liberality vs. selfishness, and so forth ad nausea. I think I understand this, why it is to some degree. It is the "Real" that frees and it is the "Real" that reveals the attachments of the heart. It is the "Real" that makes someone real. Real is real attractive in a space or time in history throughout the ages. And, the "Real" is what sets apart the genuine from the mediocre or false. Christ is both what is true (truth) and what is love.
I have wondered to myself, just where would Jesus Christ hang out if he walked into my town or went on a visit to San Francisco? Who would he associate with and talk to as he went town to town. Would he go downtown to the college section, maybe even step into a bar? I used to think, "Never!" but now I'm not so sure. In His walk on earth, Jesus went to the places where the sinners would congregate, spoke with an immoral Samaritan woman, ate with a dishonest tax collector, stopped the stoning of an adulterous woman. It was the religious hypocrites of the day that He took issue with.I wonder, would Jesus visit my church, our churches? Which churches would He be welcome as a friend or accepted for His simple ways? Would some of us be seen--stroking our whiteness, our cherished way of outward living of our spiritual lives? Would we be the Pharisaical whited sepulchers, so quick to condemn the societal pariahs? And what about those who have lost their desire for God, would they find His holy genuine way something that compels and draws them to His presence? This one, I think is true. What about the ones of the Way? Those of the faith, who have the true spirit of God alive in their lives, those who have a inner sense of this same Presence. If Jesus came to their town, they would kneel at His feet in humble adoration with tears of gratefulness and joy streaming in rivulets down their faces, and they would be next to the town drunk or prostitute. It would not matter. The holy masquerade would be obliterated and The Real would be real.
Norma L. Brumbaugh
Author: The Meeting Place