Thursday, November 26, 2015

Thanksgiving for "bleeding charity"

I am currently reading C.S. Lewis' The Great Divorce. This morning I read the fourth chapter, which takes place after the narrator has left "grey town," a purgatorial kind of place, the sort of place I imagine when I consider John Lennon's nihilistic anthem "Imagine," and the bus on which he and the other ghostly passengers traveled arrives at their destination. Once they disembark from the bus the passengers encounter people who are more whole, more substantial, those Lewis' narrator describes as "the bright people." Rather than walk towards the encounter of the just-bused-in arrivals with the more substantial crowd coming to the meet them, the narrator veers off into the woods. He is followed by perhaps the most memorable character from the bus, "the Big Man - to speak more accurately, the Big Ghost."

The Big Man is himself "followed by one of the bright people." After shouting to the Big Man, the the brighter, more solid, soul is recognized by him. It turns out that the more substantial spirit, is named Len. The reader learns in short order that Len murdered a man named Jack, which apparently accounts for the Big Man's surprise upon encountering Len in this place. Len reassures the Big Man that Jack is present there too and the Big Man will meet up with him shortly.

An artistic depiction of the bus stop in "grey town"

Replying to the Big Man's blunt statement, "But you murdered him," Len says, "Of course I did. It is all right now." "All right, is it?," the Big Man retorts, "All right for you, you mean. But what about the poor chap himself, laying cold and dead?" But Jack, as Len has already noted, is not lying dead, he is there, where the two are now. This is where things start to grow interesting.

The Big Man admits that he was not a religious man, or without fault ("far from it")- though his tune on this changes a later on. He claims he did his best in life, never asking for or taking anything more, or anything less, than he deserved, asking only for what he deemed was his by right. And so what he wants now are what he deems to be his just desserts. Using this logic, he wonders out loud why Len, a self-confessed murderer, has been in this glorious place while he, the Big Man, has "been walking the streets down there [in grey town] and living in a place like a pigstye all these years."

Cutting to the chase, the Big Man has no clue about or apparent use for grace, for mercy, for forgiveness. You see, he is too taken up with the idea that you get what you deserve and nothing more, but perhaps something less. It is receiving less than he deserves, extended purgatory, while Len, who, by the Big Man's reckoning, is receiving far more than he deserves, that really irks him. Len would be the last one to argue with the Big Man that he (Len) is receiving far more than he deserves.

A bit later in the exchange Len states, "I haven't got my rights, or I should not be here." He tells the Big Man, who still shows no signs of getting over what he perceives to be the gross injustice of it all, "You will not get yours either. You'll get something far better. Never fear." To which the Big Man, feeling emboldened, but still failing to comprehend what he is being told asserts [here comes the change of tune that often happens when we make righteousness a comparative endeavor]:
That's just what I say. I haven't got my rights. I always done my best and I never done anything wrong. And what I don't see is why I should be put below a bloody murderer like you
When Len effectively tells the Big Man to just get over it, to get over himself, the Big Man asks Len, "Aren't you ashamed of yourself?" To which Len replies, "No. Not as you mean. I do not look at myself. I have given up myself. I had to, you know, after the murder. That was what did it for me. And that was how everything began."

Christ Crucified, by Carnegriff, 2010

The Big Man continues to press for what he see as his by right, which is certainly better than what a murderer, like Len, deserves: "I only want my rights. I'm not asking for anybody's bleeding charity." Ah, the words "bleeding charity"! Len bids the Big Man, "Then do. At once. Ask for the Bleeding Charity. Everything is here for the asking and nothing can be bought."

In the attitude of the Big Man I hear a modern and secularized echo of the voice of the Pharisee who thanked God he was not like the tax collector. Unlike the Pharisee, the tax collector was acutely aware of his great need for God's mercy (Luke 18:9-14). I hear a similar echo in the voices of those who wonder aloud why someone guilty of murder can be re-admitted to communion when people who are divorced and re-married cannot, at least not while insisting upon the conjugal rights of marriage. The difference can be explained in one word: repentance.

On the homepage, to which my web browser opens, the main this morning headline read, "Do You Carve Turkey Totally Wrong?" I am sure I do it totally wrong. Right underneath it was another headline: "Food You Can Make in a Toaster Oven." This made realize how I grateful I am for my lovely wife and beautiful children. At times in my young life I felt a pull to remain single. I have no doubt God called me to the vocation of marriage. He did so precisely because it is, at least for me, the more difficult path, the path to selflessness and self-forgetting (though I still have a long way to go), which is the only path to Love. This is a difficult thing for me to grasp. In other words, I empathize with the Big Man.

A friend posted this on on Facebook this morning: "Give thanks? Of course. But I find myself thinking of the Pete Townshend lyric: 'GIVE BLOOD.' (And of course, for us Catholics, these things are related . . . )" With that I am off to serve at the altar of the Lord, to accept His Bleeding Charity, and give thanks. I'll take grace over karma every time.

It is truly right and just, our duty and our salvation,
always and everywhere to give you thanks,
Lord, holy Father, almighty and eternal God.

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