Over the past couple of days I re-read Francois Mauriac’s Woman of the Pharisees.
It was on the shelf downstairs in the basement, it had been a decade or more since I had read it, and I admit that I was looking for a smaller book I could keep in my purse to pull out in those moments in which I might otherwise Take Out the Phone.
(Studying the Phone is not a huge problem for me. I don’t have a deep urge to check feeds and such at all times. But as I wrote a few weeks ago, the sight of everyone in a waiting room or even a restaurant, eyes glued to a phone, fingers scrolling, has really started to get to me. I don’t want to be a part of that, partly because I don’t want to model that for my kids, but also because I want to be attentive to my surroundings, and, if the surroundings are boring, engaged with something other than a screen. Even if the screen has a book or an academic article in its glow. Short version: I don’t grow any wiser from spending that ten minutes scrolling through Facebook or Instagram. But I do grow wiser, even just a little bit, from spending ten minutes with Francois Mauriac.)
Okay. So Woman of the Pharisees is an intense exploration of religious hypocrisy. Brigitte Pian is the woman in question, the narrator’s stepmother. She is an externally devout woman who sees her duty in life to guide others to and on the correct spiritual path – in other words, to dominate and exert control through prideful spiritual manipulation.
What interested me about Mauriac’s treatment of this whole situation is its subtelty and allowance for nuance. That is, there are no caricatures and no cartoon villains or heroes. Brigitte is monstrous and hurts many people – but she actually does engage in generous works of charity, daily. When she finally is humbled and turns from her arrogance, her subsequent life moves in a rather pathetic, even slightly ridiculous direction. Those she has harmed have their own deep flaws and there is a sense that perhaps Brigitte Pian was not completely off-base in her assessments of their situations.
The question being, then, in a world of screw-ups, of which we are one, how can we balance the trick of letting God work through us and staying out of His way?
What Mauriac excels at is exploring the motivation for religious faith and action, as well as how human beings react to authentic spirituality when they encounter it: mostly, they are repelled and fight hard against it.
Just a couple of quotes, not necessarily related to what I’ve discussed above, but just passages I liked:
Here Brigitte reassures herself about her spiritual progress:
There had been a time when she was worried by the spiritual aridity that marked her relations with her God; but since then she had read somewhere that it is as a rule the beginners on whom the tangible marks of Grace are showered, since it is only in that way that they can be extricated from the slough of this world and set upon the right path. The kind of insensitiveness that afflicted her was, she gathered, a sign that she had long ago emerged from those lower regions of the spiritual life where fervor is usually suspect. In this way her frigid soul was led on to glory in its own lack of warmth.
A priest – Calou – is a major character in the novel, having been given charge of a difficult boy, a classmate of the narrator’s. The boy tries to shock the priest by saying he doesn’t believe in any of those “old wives’ tales,” and asks the priest if he is surprised by his lack of faith. The priest responds:
Why should it?….The really surprising this is that a man should believe….The really surprising thing is that what we believe should be true. The really surprising thing is that the truth should really exist, that it should have taken on flesh, that I can keep it a prisoner here beneath these old vaults that don’t interest you, thanks to the strength in these great hands of mine which your uncle Adhemar admires so much. Yes, you little oddity, I can never get over feeling how absurd, how utterly mad, it is that what we believe should be precisely and literally true!”
The conversation continues as the boy reveals that despite his unbelief, back at school, he goes to Confession, as required, just making things up, and, again, as required, receives Communion.
But what did it matter whether one believed or not? It didn’t make the slightest difference.
He had expected an outburst, but it did not come.
“You really think so?” asked Monsieur Calou.
Jean presented an insolent face to his gaze. But he felt shamed by its gentle sadness.
“Every Saturday and every Sunday, for Heaven knows how long….two years at least, O Lord!”
Monsieur Calou looked at the handsome face, at the unsullied brow beneath the mop of dakr hair in which one lighter lock shone like a flame. He could say no more than: “Lie down a little before dinner my boy.” Then he hurried off towards the church without looking back. His gent shoulders made him seem less than his real height.
Finally, very briefly…the narrator sees Brigitte Pian years after the main events of the novel when she is old, frail and not the woman she once was:
When I alluded to past events, she talked of them quite openly. But I could feel that she had become detached from even the consciousness of her faults, and that she had decided to lay everything at the throne of the Great Compassion…..