Monday, October 29, 2012

The Wooden Shepherdess

Richard Hughes believed in the power of fiction to extend our moral sensibility. It breaks us out of our solitary confinement and allows us to see people as people, not as things, and this is 'the necessary groundwork of ethics'.

'The Wooden Shepherdess' is the second volume of his unfinished trilogy, 'The Human Predicament' that explores the movement towards war that was initiated by the failed peace of Versailles through core characters - English and German. Most prominently are Augustine, an atheist of humanist turn, a member of the landed English gentry of no gathered occupation beyond enjoying his inherited wealth and 'adventures' in Prohibition USA and Morocco, Mitzi, his distant cousin, blind and a secluded Carmelite nun and Adolf Hitler who needs no introduction even as he eludes fathoming (though Hughes portrait is compelling of a man absolutely committed to power who is continuously underestimated).

They form a fascinating trinity - the free floater attached to sentiment, the one wholly dedicated to a self-emptying other and the one wholly dedicated to their ego. The first and last fail to notice evil because the first is too distant  from it and the last because too near to it. The nun, however, in the closing pages (after her uncle is murdered in the Night of the Long Knives) sees it only too clearly as the darkness God must penetrate at a time when time is ripe.

These concluding paragraphs are striking because they suggest that in order to truly see the nature of the world, we must rest back, surrender, into a view of the world that radically de-centres us and which is God's eye seeing us. It is only God's eye that can bear, bear witness, to the whole picture - the light and the dark. It  is only in God's sight that a true valuing of self can emerge.

I have a very real sense of what he means here, by analogy. I remember my first meeting with Metropolitan Anthony that extraordinary man of God who I would venture to suggest was genuinely saintly. I did not know what to do, standing in his kitchen, should I embrace him or run away? Both I felt! It was not he who judged you, though his scrutiny as I was to find out, could be sharp, but at that moment you felt held in a gaze translucent to God and loved and in that love both upheld and found wanting in a simultaneous instant! I cannot say that I have ever felt 'more real' than in that moment. I was broken out of the confinement of my own self-regard and found myself a unique person, momentarily.

This is not only the groundwork of ethics but of the long winding path towards holiness.


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