It is the first day of spring today, 20 March 2019, so it seems appropriate to speak about the dawn. It has been a long time now since the sun set on Aurora’s life. She was a friend of mine from many years ago, a time before I believed there was a God at all or, what is more, that there could be the kind of God, who has compassion for and deeply loves his creation. But in those days I saw only the surface. I looked at the complicated cosmos as something clear, scientific, black and white. I hadn’t any idea about the illusionistic nature of nature, something I discussed a few blogs back. I saw suffering and concluded—in my former self’s defense, my reasoning wasn’t totally unfounded—that there cannot be a God who cares. If there were, he would be like the pagan gods, mercurial, taking some pleasure in or, at best, having no care whatsoever for human suffering.
I have just finished a recently released book entitled, Circe, by Madeline Miller. It is an excellent read on a number of fronts. Miller takes the Greek myth and adapts it, telling the story of Eos’ niece, the nymph Circe, from Circe’s point of view. Donning the first-person narrative voice, Miller explains how that nymph wound up being stuck on Aeaea, what it was like living there, who visited and what happened, culminating with, as a second climax (the first was Circe’s encounter with Daedalus and her departure from Crete), the lengthy stay of Odysseus and his men’s metamorphosis into pigs. I won’t ruin the book for you by telling you the third climax, which seemed to me almost an afterthought, the only real weakness of the book which is in every other way compellingly written, with numerous turns of phrase worthy of a truly great writer. Still, the end of the book takes a twist that is compelling if the alternative is merely the world of the pagan gods. Within the milieu of such quixotic and random divine hatred, the conclusion makes perfect sense.
That said, however, one of the most impressive things about the book is its “theology”. It really is pagan in the truest, purest sense of that word. One feels the arbitrariness of the gods affecting negatively the life of Circe, with whom the reader’s sympathies, naturally enough, lie. Yet the gods are not Circe’s only enemy: she is her own enemy. She allows many a sailor to take advantage of her sexually, not simply because she is bored—though that is certainly the case—but primarily because she suffers from/indulges in a stark lack of self-worth. She really can’t love herself because she has suffered at the hands of men (her perverse uncles, her uncaring father, as well as her offensive brothers) and women (her overly critical mother, her nasty sisters). Her appraisal of herself is that she is unworthy, and she only derives her self-value from lovers who don’t really love her, even though they might passionately say as much. She knows it’s all a lie—but she lets them have their way with her anyway, not merely for pleasure but to create in her the fleeting illusion of self-worth.
For Circe, in the state she remains in the book, there is no real redemption. Again, I won’t spoil the end by telling you her earthly solution. But in real life—though some might beg to differ with me on this—there is a far better solution. It’s not earthly, it’s heavenly. It involves not unbridled passions that lead to nothing—at one point Circe describes her allowing herself to be had by the numerous visitors to the island as being stabbed by a thousand blades—but the Passion of true Love that leads to heaven. On Circe’s island, one is surrounded by held grudges, self-doubt and self-pity; the alternative I speak of, the alternative I presented to Aurora, is a life surrounded by forgiveness, new-found confidence and self-worth.
So what about Aurora, where this blog began? Aurora was, as I said, a friend from long ago. When she was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer she contacted me. She remembered that somewhere along the way I had changed from someone like the visitors to Circe’s isle to someone who prayed to a non-pagan God, and now she instinctively knew that she needed that kind of prayer. I told her, of course, that I would pray hard for her, and I did, every day through her struggle. Though she was baptized as a Catholic, she had not stepped foot in a church for years; if I recall correctly, her parents were more or less agnostics or atheists. I asked her if she ever read the Scriptures. She said “no,” but she said that she would read the passages from the Psalms that I sent her from time to time; she found comfort in them.
“But what about the New Testament?” I asked her by telephone at one point. “Would you read some of that if I sent it to you?’ “No,” she said, it wasn’t her world. She couldn’t fathom really getting that close to God, and at any rate, it was too late for her, she said. She had lived a life a bit like Circe. The gods she had known, if they were really there at all, were the pagan gods, who afflicted people, like her, randomly. There was no purpose or plan behind most of their machinations. In fact, she seemed to believe that the “gods” were just extensions of our emotions. The notion of a God like that of the Psalms was comforting, in a way, but in a way, kind of disconcerting or off-putting. Where had He been all this time? For Aurora was in her early fifties when she was afflicted with cancer.
I couldn’t answer all her questions, but I asked her again, if I sent her bits of the Gospel of John, for example, whether she might read them one at a time. No, she said again, for she thought that she wouldn’t understand them. So I tried one last time—what if I were to translate them directly from the Greek for her personally, the “H.R. Jakes translation,” written in a way I guaranteed her to understand. This gave her pause, and then she changed her “no” to a “yes.”
So, week by week, I got up very early on Sunday mornings to render the weekly installment of the translation for her and then before I went off to church I would send one chapter to her. I prayed that these old words in my less than polished translation would encourage her in her dire straits , that she might find not only the faith and hope about which 1 Corinthian 13 speaks, but also, and especially, the love which it showcases, for I knew by chapter 11 of John’s gospel that same love was plainly manifest. I didn’t know how short the time was: Aurora died shortly after I sent her the eleventh chapter of John. When I learned of her passing I was, of course, broken hearted. The sun had set on her life, and I felt myself as if shivering, standing on a wintery beach looking at a vast sea just after sunset, with the afterglow of the sun sinking fast into the waves.
A few days later, though, my hope surged like Lazarus leaving the tomb at Christ’s command, for I learned from a friend that Aurora had done something quite unexpected before she died. She had demanded that a priest be summoned to give her last rites, and indeed the priest went to her home and performed the ritual. Do I believe there was any hocus pocus in that ritual? Etymologically speaking, yes, I think I do. In any case, I believe it affirmed that she had read and understood—had much more than understood; had believed—the Truth inscribed in the texts that I had sent her. She knew that in the midst of the storm there was God who truly loved her. Aurora’s seemingly stuck inner Circe—you’ll recall that Homer’s character was Eos’ niece and Sun’s daughter—was rescued from her isle by the Son of a greater mythos, one bearing the authority to repair broken souls and defeat death. For those conversant in Greco-Roman mythology, it will sound almost tautological to say that Aurora has risen, but I believe those last rites were really first rites to the dawn of a new life.