Seeking Certainty in Uncertain Times: Two Historical Novels

Michalina Ratajczak

Lucy Beckett, The Time Before You Die (Ignatius Press, 2016)

Philip Trower, A Danger to the State (Ignatius Press 1998)

Lucy Beckett’s novel The Time Before You Die: A Novel of the Reformation effectively conveys a queasy, uncomfortable immediacy to the whiplash-inducing movements of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, and subsequent backlash against the Counter-Reformation, in England in the 16th and 17th centuries. Beckett’s work of historical fiction brings to life a tearingly painful period in church history. Henry VIII’s rebellion against the spiritual authority of the pope for the sake of his marital aspirations, as well as the sacking of the Church’s spiritual and material riches, are all events with personal ramifications for the life of one Robert Fletcher, an erstwhile Carthusian monk.

Several centuries later, Philip Trower’s A Danger to the State depicts the consequences of the Reformation in the full bloom of the Enlightenment - one of which is that religious truths increasingly serve politically expedient realities. Also a work of historical fiction, A Danger to the State is set among the religious and political intrigues between European powers at the time of the Jesuit suppression in the late 18th century, at the height of their missionary work at the reductions of South America (depicted in the award-winning 1986 film The Mission).

The Jesuit order, since almost its beginnings in the 16th century, has had to endure a reputation for being dissimulating and acting on devious motives. These criticisms have come from both secular and ecclesial sources: from the mouth of the homeless young man behind me on the streets of downtown Toronto I heard decisively proclaim: “That man was a Jesuit priest – And he must die!” (serving as a handy reminder for me that I still owed this article!), to the suppression of the Jesuits in the 18th century by the highest authority of the church, Pope Clement XIV. This unfortunate reputation is immortalized in the English language by the pejorative adjective “jesuitical”, which the Oxford Dictionary defines as: “Dissembling or equivocating, in the manner once associated with Jesuits.”

The reason for this reputation is perhaps more complex than the explanation given by Jean-Paul, the enterprising and surprisingly well-educated young courier in A Danger to the State. “Jansenism, mademoiselle… the Calvinist frost that had blighted the bloom on our Catholic life in France… The Jesuits have always been their strongest opponents. The Jansenists reply that the Jesuits win power over people by preaching a lax morality. They say the Jesuits make religion too easy” (74). The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Reformation throws some light on this reasoning. “Not chanting the hours [which, until then, was a non-negotiable for a religious order], reliance on inner inspiration through ‘discernment of spirits,’ a special vow to obey the pope, and a policy in Spain and Portugal of receiving into the society persons of Jewish ancestry”. These are among the official reasons given as to why Jesuits have historically been the object of both official and unofficial censure.

The central Jesuit ideal of detachment from everything except for Christ fueled a particularly powerful adaptability, which made the order well-suited to undertake far-flung missions. The chief weapon in founder St. Ignatius of Loyola’s arsenal to bring about this detachment and adaptability are the Spiritual Exercises, during which the prospective Jesuit enters imaginatively and affectively into the world of the Gospels, in particular the defining moments of Christ’s life.The Spiritual Exercises are meant to:

...impress strongly on the imagination the pains of hell, the joys of heaven, and the desperate needs of the world… Having undergone this discipline, a Jesuit was assumed to be inwardly formed and thus not to require many of the usual monastic routines. He was also assumed to be capable of making decisions for himself when necessary; the famous Jesuit obedience was more a matter of learning to think with the church than of depending on rules or orders from above.[1]

This may give the impression of a loosely defined spirituality where one “finds one’s own truth,” easily understandable to my own modern mind. And yet, reading Trower’s novel belies this: he depicts the Jesuit charism as hard-edged and highly defined, comprising a cheerful and courageous embrace of empirical reality through scientific pursuit, and an effort, quite opposed to their reputation of duplicitousness, to be “Israelites without guile,” rooted firmly in a transparent witness of Christ – driven by curiosity and affection for the world God has made, they gather observational data from both seen and unseen reality, and mold themselves in faithfulness to that deepest reality.

This is the imprint left by the founder of the Jesuits, St Ignatius of Loyola. Rather than giving himself up to the darkness that sometimes overshadowed his soul as he lay for many months convalescing from a cannon shot to the leg, St Ignatius instead became curious about his experience. Why did certain movements of his imagination that involved, for example, winning the favour of beautiful women, or gaining worldly honour through dueling, give him an initial bout of euphoria, yet then left him feeling dry, dissatisfied and careworn? And why did the vision of winning honour for God, like the great saints he started reading about in a moment of bored desperation, leave him with an enduring sense of peace, inspiration and consolation?

Far from proclaiming the inner life inherently random, chaotic and unknowable, Ignatius became a sure-footed guide to it. Rather than leaving us lost to our inner chaos, Ignatius exposed the cunning work of the desolating spirit (which is confined to the boundaries and rules that God has set for it), resulting in the fourteen principles of the discernment of spirits. The confidence to navigate the inner movements of the spirit comes from the belief that God, in his mercy, has endowed men with reason, being the originator of reason itself. Thus reason is not to be dispensed with in dealing with these ‘desolating spirits’, but is an important ally in their circumvention.

Returning to Lucy Beckett’s novel, set several centuries earlier, Robert Fletcher, as a monk of the highly rigorous and respected Carthusian order, is being left to the mercy of 16th century England’s many spiritual upheavals. The limpid peace he cultivates (influenced by the famous work of apophatic theology, The Cloud of Unknowing), symbolized by his carefully cultivated walled garden, merely clears the way for more powerful forces to roll in: such as Henry VIII’s demand of an oath of loyalty, amounting to approval of his choice of his successive marital partners. In contrast to the Jesuits, who first ground themselves thoroughly and imaginatively in the Gospels, and then in empirical reality, using both as ballasts of certainty against the vicissitudes of history, the Carthusians can be seen as missionaries to their own spirit, entering this demanding way of life and becoming monks “…to discover whether God is or not” (32). Instead of finding reassuring footholds in the external world, the Carthusian way is to remove all but prayer and solitude, and to see what happens: “…to wait. To wait for what? For his own certainty to dissolve, as it had dissolved again and again, all his life” (158).

In contrast to the hard-edged, sure-footed certainty of Trower’s character development, I confess to sometimes feeling nauseous at certain points in Beckett’s novel. This is because the reader is never offered respite from Robert Fletcher’s inner chaos, as he struggles against the considerable moral quandaries of his situation. Having lost his enclosed Carthusian cell and access to his carefully cultivated real garden, he then tries to ruthlessly cultivate his mind as he once did his garden – as a place where no contradictions co-exist. Indeed, the moment he comes across a convincing argument against his ideals and lived experience, he hacks the previous, not even full developed, growth away to make room for the new bloom. He thus endures a slower martyrdom than the dramatic deaths of some of his fellow monks across England: one where he has to endure the repeated deaths of his ideals.

These two novels ultimately present two sides of the Christian faith experience, often encountered when observing the inner movements of one’s soul: certainty and uncertainty. While the Jesuits in Trower’s A Danger to the State are depicted as pursuing God through learning about, and directly ministering to, his creation, Robert Fletcher’s tremulous and uneasy witness in The Time Before you Die conveys the messy reality of a lifetime spent imperfectly pursuing the Beloved. I do wonder whether the story would have been different if Fletcher had fully internalized the truth that Christ, who is mercy himself, has already entered into his inner turmoil and rendered it subject to laws that allow it to be navigable and decipherable. Would his story have unfolded differently? If he had had before him the example of St Ignatius, might he have been able to progress more sure-footedly in his life, rather than surrendering to the strongest emotional or ideological currents of his time?

Michalina Ratajczak is a writer and part-time MTS student living near Toronto, Ontario.

[1] John Webster Grant, Moon of Wintertime: Missionaries and the Indians of Canada in Encounter since 1534 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1984), p. 5.