Saturday, November 01, 2008

A Novel for All Souls

This isn't really about music or liturgy, at least not directly, but readers might enjoy this article I wrote for Inside Catholic. It is a reflection on Oscar Wilde's Picture of Dorian Gray. The article explains how the books is terrifying on its own terms, but there is much more than meets the eye. It is actually an allegory of the soul in the midst of the great drama of salvation vs. damnation, and the story is complete with a creation, temptation, incarnation, offer of salvation, crucifixion, and final damnation. The characters in Oscar's story vividly reflect Christian themes, which is not surprising given the author's lifelong fascination with and study of the Catholic faith.

One passage from the book that I didn't put into the article is interesting for its liturgical element. At one point, before Dorian has completely damned himself, he becomes interested in the faith:

It was rumoured of him once that he was about to join the Roman Catholic communion, and certainly the Roman ritual had always a great attraction for him.

The daily sacrifice, more awful really than all the sacrifices of the antique world, stirred him as much by its superb rejection of the evidence of the senses as by the primitive simplicity of its elements and the eternal pathos of the human tragedy that it sought to symbolize.

He loved to kneel down on the cold marble pavement and watch the priest, in his stiff flowered dalmatic, slowly and with white hands moving aside the veil of the tabernacle, or raising aloft the jewelled, lantern-shaped monstrance with that pallid wafer that at times, one would fain think, is indeed the "panis caelestis," the bread of angels, or, robed in the garments of the Passion of Christ, breaking the Host into the chalice and smiting his breast for his sins. The fuming censers that the grave boys, in their lace and scarlet, tossed into the air like great gilt flowers had their subtle fascination for him. As he passed out, he used to look with wonder at the black confessionals and long to sit in the dim shadow of one of them and listen to men and women whispering through the worn grating the true story of their lives.

But he never fell into the error of arresting his intellectual development by any formal acceptance of creed or system, or of mistaking, for a house in which to live, an inn that is but suitable for the sojourn of a night, or for a few hours of a night in which there are no stars and the moon is in travail.

Mysticism, with its marvellous power of making common things strange to us, and the subtle antinomianism that always seems to accompany it, moved him for a season; and for a season he inclined to the materialistic doctrines of the Darwinismus movement in Germany, and found a curious pleasure in tracing the thoughts and passions of men to some pearly cell in the brain, or some white nerve in the body, delighting in the conception of the absolute dependence of the spirit on certain physical conditions, morbid or healthy, normal or diseased. Yet, as has been said of him before, no theory of life seemed to him to be of any importance compared with life itself.

The quotation fairly sums up Oscar's own views for a good part of his life. He came very close to converting but could never bring up himself to agree to undertake what he thought would be the required sacrifice: his love of money and fame. So he waited, having even canceled a schedule meeting with Cardinal Newman for fear that it would bring about his conversion. In the end, of course, he died with the sacrament, a holy death, recorded in detail by the priest there with him in Rome.

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