Friday, 19 September 2008

An Act of Faith.

An auto da fe is literally an 'act of faith' and as such it has come to be synonymous with being burnt at the stake. It has a more literary, as opposed to literal, meaning as well, which is that of a final, tragic, great act, more than a tragic denouement, a final movement of the soul almost beyond the boundaries of the body, for the last time and forever. This, brave Christian soul, you may find similar to being burnt at the stake or you may find similarities with some of he accounts of the early Christian martyrs, whose bodies were overcome by their spirit, allowing them to proclaim one last, powerful act of witness. James the first may have been thoroughly undeserving of his great apotheosis in the Banqueting Hall, but an auto da fe, a moment quickly gone, may leave a more indelible mark than any painted ceiling.

The ending of King Lear is a tragic denouement for the cast, but an auto da fe for Lear, as he sees the magnitude of God and his own brief mortality in the figure of his dying daughter Cordelia ('look there, look there'). He has a spiritual moment which has taken a complete, dramatic and painful change in his life state to achieve. In the end, his humanity redeems his soul.

One of my favourite authors, Elias Canetti, variously described as the architect of literary brutalist modernism, a contributor to the start of the Second World War and the saviour of post war European literature, depending on your level of hysteria, wrote a book called Auto Da Fe, which is one of my few 'favourite' books. It charts a journey into the interior no less daunting than Lear's, of Peter Kein, a bookish, precise, sinologist in a large town in Germany on the brink of the Weimar Republic. It is written in 1935 and provides, under the action, a fascinating insight into the mindset of the German people at this time. Peter goes on an horrific journey, beginning with his marriage and ending with his death, as he burns his vast library and he is consumed in the flames. The fire is purifying and in scenes straight from your Musurillo, he feels no pain, but liberation as the flames take himself and his beloved books out of the reach of a seemingly cruel and non understanding world which his marriage forced him into.

There are wonderful scenes 'under the stars of heaven', a bar filled with grotesques, the Theresianum pawnbrokers, a deserted Church and a parade of sleazy hotels, with Fischer, a deluded, drunken chess player, Therese, Peter's grasping wife and an abomination of a doorman. Peter's redemption comes close, in the form of his brother, George. Much like Shakespeare, Canetti inserts a character who is to act as we would wish to, who gives focus to the horror of the protagonists life. In the end, though, not even George can save him from himself.

The action in the book is driven by Peter's love of books. He guards his library jealously from his wife, he regards any change in his domestic arrangements as a threat to the safety of the books and, forced to leave his home, he carries his books symbolically with him in his head, mentally packing them and unpacking them in each hotel, much to the amusement of Fischer. He can survive - just - as long as he has his books in some way intact and safe. Once he cannot, he burns them and himself to protect them from the monstrous hands of those who do not understand them.

It so not a comedy, you may have gathered. If anything, it is depressing, although I find it curiously liberating, how a conversation with a child and the first ever showing of one of his books to a stranger can lead to his burning the library to protect it from the outside world. There are shades on Ionesco in the 'unsaid' (those who know Ionesco will recognise mushrooms growing everywhere) and there are shades of the Duke in Measure for Measure, torn between disguise and revelation, although without that curious, displeasing ending.

If we were forced from our spiritual home, what would we take with us ? Would we be able to carry all we need in our hearts in the wilderness? No, this is why, fundamentally, 'continuing' Churches are bound to fail. Would our old comforts and the things which have brought salvation to so very many, be welcome in a new home? Would our conforming be the end of this story of ours and the joining of another? If we left, would the structure we left behind earnestly and too late wish that we had never gone? My belief to the last question is yes, it would and it is a view shared by a Diocesan Bishop of my acquaintance who is not naturally sympathetic to our cause and he tells me that it is a view rapidly finding favour amongst his brothers. If we were forced to leave the house, we would have to eradicate every memory of ourselves before we went, lest they be used to pretend we had never gone and that all is well. If we go, we go, with everything, however it is not my opinion that we should go. Therese may have taken over much of our library, but we still have hope of winning it back and surprisingly, there are green shoots of renewal in the rooms we have lost which are growing into vines, coming for water in our remaining chamber. I am daily surprised by small signs of joy.

It would be our auto da fe, our act of faith, to weather the blows and to remain. I am firmly convinced that when we are looked at fifty years from now, people will say 'thank God they stayed, even when things must have seemed to be over'. We look at the courage of the Fathers of the Oxford Movement, but people will look at ours, also, if we remain faithful to ourselves and to those who will smile at our remembrance in fifty and a hundred years and put a little more incense on the coals as they say 'thank God for those people, at that hard time'.