Sunday, September 13, 2020

The Greatest Challenge: A Sunday Rumination

     Then came Peter to him, and said, Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times?
     Jesus saith unto him, I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven.
     Therefore is the kingdom of heaven likened unto a certain king, which would take account of his servants.
     And when he had begun to reckon, one was brought unto him, which owed him ten thousand talents.
     But forasmuch as he had not to pay, his lord commanded him to be sold, and his wife, and children, and all that he had, and payment to be made.
     The servant therefore fell down, and worshipped him, saying, Lord, have patience with me, and I will pay thee all.
     Then the lord of that servant was moved with compassion, and loosed him, and forgave him the debt.
     But the same servant went out, and found one of his fellow servants, which owed him an hundred pence: and he laid hands on him, and took him by the throat, saying, Pay me that thou owest.
     And his fellow servant fell down at his feet, and besought him, saying, Have patience with me, and I will pay thee all.
     And he would not: but went and cast him into prison, till he should pay the debt.
     So when his fellow servants saw what was done, they were very sorry, and came and told unto their lord all that was done.
     Then his lord, after that he had called him, said unto him, O thou wicked servant, I forgave thee all that debt, because thou desiredst me:
     Shouldest not thou also have had compassion on thy fellow servant, even as I had pity on thee?
     And his lord was wroth, and delivered him to the tormentors, till he should pay all that was due unto him.
     So likewise shall my heavenly Father do also unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses.

     [Matthew 18:21-35]

     Every Christian faces some challenges. For each of us, there will be some challenge, some trial of mind and spirit, that exceeds all the others and tests us to our limits. That greatest challenge may take a lifetime to surmount – yet we are guaranteed that it is possible, for God is just. He asks nothing of a man that is beyond his strength. This has sometimes been termed a piece of His Covenant with fallen Man: that while we may sin, no matter what we have done we may also repent and reform. While we may struggle with faults of character that predispose us to unChristian behavior, nevertheless we can learn to control those faults and avert the temptations they present.

     Christians are commanded to put anger and vengeance aside, and to forgive those who have wronged them. For many, this is the greatest challenge. Forgiveness isn’t a formula that can make everything right yet preserve the dark impulse to revenge that we privately savor. It’s a resolution to let go of the anger and lust for vengeance – to declare oneself “over it all” and to mean it.

     For me, that has always been the greatest challenge. I’d imagine that there are some among my Gentle Readers who have found it to be equally trying, for anger has a pleasurable aspect, even if not acted out in deeds.

     There’s no “royal road” to the mastery of the ability to forgive. Indeed, it may be that we must relearn it every time we’re wounded by another. For me, that serves to undermine its uniqueness, as a virtue the practice of which cannot be made a matter of technique.

     I haven’t done a Rumination for some time, and it’s possible that my Gentle Readers might have wondered why. The explanation is a simple one: I wait to be inspired, usually by an event in my own life or a story told me by an acquaintance. But other stimuli sometimes contribute, as well. This morning’s Gospel passage coupled to a train of thought I’d been riding about characterization.

     A fiction writer can characterize a character legitimately — i.e., without “telling” the reader what sort of person the character is – through any of three techniques:

  • What the character says;
  • What the character does;
  • What other characters say about him.

     In most cases, a writer will use all three methods to acquaint the reader with each of his Marquee characters. However, the three techniques are not equally potent. Showing the character in action is by far the strongest of them, to be preferred to the other two whenever possible.

     Christ’s parable cited in the previous segment is a fine illustration of that technique. The Redeemer didn’t just say “Forgive those who have wronged you, or Dad will kick your ass.” He had the fictional king and his two servants act out the quality of mercy, and its absence, and the consequences of not exercising mercy, in a little “morality play” suited to the understandings of His audience. That was Christ’s preferred method for conveying an important moral message to His disciples and other followers.

     Contemporary writers could learn a lot from Christ’s parables: both as regards morality and characterization.

     I can’t resist throwing this in from The Wise and the Mad:

     “You’re becoming rather tight with the old boy,” Rowenna said.
     Holly leveled a flat look at her. “He’s been gracious and helpful. Do you have an objection?”
     The muscles in Rowenna’s face worked. “I’ve told you of our history.”
     Holly nodded. “Yes, you have. Yet here he is. When he found himself beset by a problem he didn’t know how to solve, he came to you. He accepted your conditions without protest, did he not?”
     Rowenna nodded reluctantly.
     “Has he been unpleasant toward you since he arrived? It doesn’t seem so to me.”
     “Then perhaps the time has come to allow that things might have changed, that the two of you might be able to mend your bridges,” Holly said. “God forgives. He accepts repentance and reformation. Perhaps we should provide for them as well.”
     “Oh?” Rowenna’s gaze turned sharp. “Have you forgiven your father, love?”
     Holly breathed once slowly.
     “Yes, I have,” she said. “It wasn’t easy, especially as he has not forgiven me. But I managed, and I’m the better for it.” She pulled Rowenna back into her arms and hugged her gently. “A grudge such as the one I bore is a heavy thing to carry. I had no idea how heavy until I set it down.”
     She released her lover and started away, halted and faced Rowenna once more.
     “By the way,” she said. “I told Sir Thomas that I’m equipped the same way as you, though in my case by choice. Did you see him treat me as a freak? As someone to keep at a distance?”
     Rowenna paled. Holly nodded, headed to the kitchen, and set to work on the flounder.

     And later in the same novel:

     Walsingham stopped at the entrance to Grucci’s Gardens’ main dining room, thanked and tipped the maître d’hotel as he would have in London, and looked about for Rowenna. He found her beckoning to him from a table along the far wall. He made for her and seated himself across from her.
     “This is quite a posh eatery, Rowenna.”
     She inclined her head. “It’s considered the best restaurant for hundreds of kilometers in any direction. You’ll soon see why. Where did you dine with Doctor MacLachlan?”
     “A more modest place that calls itself the Aquarium. Quite decent food, though the décor could use a bit of work.”
     She nodded. “I’ve been there.” A waiter arrived with menus for them. He glanced at his briefly.
     “What sort of cuisine should I expect, my dear?”
     “Continental. Everything here is first rate, but for your first visit I would recommend the veal piccata. They’re particularly proud of their version.”
     “You’ve eaten here many times, then?”
     “Several. Holly and I often sup here when she doesn’t want to cook.”
     Walsingham nodded. “Then the food here must be special. Holly’s hand at the stove is plainly a skilled one.”
     “Oh, indeed,” Rowenna said. “But I must tell you, we have a young friend whose creations outshine both Holly’s cuisine and the offerings here rather handily. I’m hoping we can induce her to visit before you must return to England.”
     “Really? How young?”
     “I believe she’s twenty. An exceptional talent.”
     “Most unusual.” He noted their waiter’s steady drift toward them and set down his menu. Rowenna asked for the lobster fra diavolo, out of the shell. Walsingham requested the veal piccata. The waiter murmured a suggestion for a suitable wine, and Walsingham assented.
     When the waiter had moved away, Walsingham said “Fra diavolo dishes are often rather challenging, you know.”
     Rowenna nodded. “But perhaps a trifle less challenging than what I invited you here to do.”
     Walsingham tensed. “What would that be?”
     Rowenna locked eyes with him.
     “We are here that I might seize this unprecedented opportunity to try to restore your daughter to you,” she said. “Your older daughter.”
     “Ah,” Walsingham said. “I thought it might be that.”
     The waiter approached with their salads.

     Two of my more recent efforts at characterization. The first addresses my desire to show that Holly is a genuine Christian who understands the importance of forgiveness. It uses Holly’s words (“What the character says”). The second is a bit slyer: Rowenna speaks to her estranged father of a challenge, but who is it that’s really being challenged? She rises to the occasion (with the aid of a nice dinner) in the passage that follows (“What the character does”).

     Do those passages “work?” Only the reader can say. But they do illustrate how one best impresses the reader with the moral and ethical aspects of his characters – just as Jesus did in the parable from the opening segment.

     Perhaps forgiveness hasn’t taxed you as it has me. Perhaps there’s some other challenge to your Christianity that you’ve found more difficult. Perhaps you’re still struggling with it. I shan’t ask you to describe it. Rather, I’ll ask this: Do any of Christ’s parables strike you as especially relevant to your greatest challenge? If so, do you reflect on that parable when your struggle becomes a conscious one? But if not, are you certain you haven’t simply overlooked it? The Redeemer’s coverage of what God asks of us was rather complete, you know. Remarkably so, considering that He had only three years to “make His point.”

     May God bless and keep you all!

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