The Personalist Project

Listening to an audio book while I was trying to sleep the other day—soon after conversation with a friend about the problem of clericalism in the Church—I happened to catch a passage that illustrates exactly the kind of thing I am trying to express when I speak of the need to develop a “slave side" theology and morality.

It’s from Emily of New Moon, by L.M. Montgomery, author of the Anne of Green Gables books, among many others. Her reputation is as a writer of sweet and sentimental books for children. But she hated that reputation.

I’ve just finished reading a biography of her, which is heartbreaking. She was acutely sensitive to the common problem in the Victorian era she grew up in of adults dominating, even tyrannizing over children. Her mother died when she was two; her father abandoned her to the care of her maternal grandparents. The grandmother, while a good and virtuous woman generally, was unsympathetic to her highly sensitive and imaginative nature; the grandfather was irascible and domineering.

Montgomery’s adult life, despite her enormous success as a writer, was plagued by depression, insecurity, insomnia, headaches and miseries of various kinds, all very familiar to anyone who frequents “recovery rooms” for adult children of dysfunctional families.  One of her sons was a kind of psychopath. She seems to have died from Bromide poisoning that led to suicide.

Anyway. “Emily” is a young girl who has been orphaned and sent to live with two spinster aunts, one who is kind and one who isn’t. Aunt Elizabeth plainly resents and envies the girl, though she is in denial about those feelings in herself. She imagines it’s her duty to discipline and curtail what she judges to be Emily's excessive spirits. One day she decides to do it by cutting off her niece’s hair. It was too abundant. It was sapping her strength.

'You don't mean that are going to cut off my hair, Aunt Elizabeth,' she exclaimed...

'Yes, I mean exactly that,' said Aunt Elizabeth firmly. 'You have entirely too much hair...Now, I don't want any crying.'....

Emily was distraught. She was at her aunt’s mercy; there was no one to intervene on her behalf. She felt completely helpless.

The morality of the day would have called for her meek and uncomplaining submission to her aunt’s authority. But something unexpected happens.

Aunt Elizabeth returned with the scissors; they clicked suggestively as she opened them; that click, as if by magic, seemed to loosen something—some strange formidable power in Emily's soul. She turned deliberately around and faced her aunt. She felt her brows drawing together in an unaccustomed way—she felt an uprush as from unknown depths of some irresistisble surge of energy.

'Aunt Elizabeth,' she said, looking straight at the lady with the scissors, 'my hair is not going to be cut off. Let me hear no more of this.'

An amazing thing happened to Aunt Elizabeth. She turned pale—she laid the scissors down—...and then for the first time in her life Elizabeth Murray turned tail and fled.

What the rest of the passage tells is that the aunt had been spooked because she had seen the image of her father (Emily’s grandfather, whom she had never known) in the girl’s transformed face; she had heard his voice in the phrase (highly characteristic of him) “Let me hear no more of this."

What I think the Church urgently needs today is a “loosening of the formidable power” from “unknown depths" given to laity in our nature and dignity as persons redeemed in baptism—our Father’s face and voice—the power to stand up forcefully against all forms of domination, including from the clergy.

Comments (2)

Rhett Segall

#1, Jun 14, 2017 10:59am

I love the original PBS production of Anne of Greene Gables. It's easy to see the connection with Montgomery's life. I loved Anne's spirit and was saddened to learn that the male lead, who becomes her husband, died recently. One does get attached to such people!

I think cultural entrapments are most difficultt to recognize and free one's self from.  A good example is found in the film "City of Joy". An American physician finds himself in a seedy section of Calcutta, India. Despite his efforts to escape his personal demons he can't help but see how a local slum lord is abusing his clientele.  He  tries to organize the peasant whom he has now come to have deep affection for. But the peasants seem to have accepted their hard lot, surely connected with the Hindu mind set of a kind of fatalism. At one point a rick shaw driver says to the doctor-"You have awakened in us feelings we can't handle."

There's the rub; first seeing the enslavement and then finding that inner strength Emily had. Hard. Hard.

Katie van Schaijik

#2, Jun 14, 2017 11:29am

Yes, exactly, Rhett! That's how I feel about L.M. Montgomery too. She had enough awareness of the way life should be and the wrong of the master/slave dynamic to create wonderful fictional heroines who overcame it.

But she couldn't quite manage to do it in her real life and circumstances. 

I think this is how redemption works its way generationally. One generation accomplishes things, secures the conditions, shows the way, and then the next takes over.

Moses led the Israelites to the promised land, but he didn't get there himself. Not in this life.

I have a priest friend, near my age, who, speaking of the "new springtime" of Catholic culture says, "We have to work for it, but we're not going to see it."

I have a lot of hope, though, that the time is ripe for real progress on this point. The "awakened feelings" WILL have their out.

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