Reading Diary: The Moon by Night by Madeleine L'Engle
"You're just like that little dope Anne Frank," Zachary said. "All innocent and trusting. Life is going to be hell for you when you when you stop being protected. Absolute hell . . . You still believe in God, don't you? . . . Look what he did to your precious Anne Frank. Maybe he'll do something like that to you someday. Look what he's done to me . . ."
"No!" I shouted. I didn't even try to to stop from crying, now. The tears streamed down my cheeks and I hardly noticed.
Zachary shouted back. "What's the point of believing in God when nothing makes any sense? Nothing makes sense Vicky! Anne Frank doesn't make sense, but it makes about the best kind of sense there is. You're so darned good, Vicky, you dope. Don't you know it doesn't make any sense to be good?"
Every hard-nosed Catholic with a heart has one heretic whom he really loves, and mine seems to be semi-syncretist Episcopalian Madeleine L'Engle. I recently reread her "Austin Family Chronicles" novel The Moon by Night, and was reminded of two things: a) it is really well written; and b) it draws a lovely parallel between a family's cross-country road trip through 1950s America and a journey of faith and hope that the teenage narrator, Vicky Austin, must make on her own.
Of course, all the adults in her life are believers--not just believers in God, but also believers in the goodness of God, despite all appearances. And they give the usual answers when Vicky, scandalised by all the suffering in the world and filled with her new friend Zachary Grey's sense of despair, asks the usual questions. It made me wonder when the usual answers became so bland.
. . . "If God lets things be unfair, if He lets things like Anne Frank happen, then I don't love Him, I hate Him! . . . How can things like Anne Frank be God's way? I don't want God if things like that are His way. It's a cockeyed kind of way. Look at Maggy. Both her mother and father died and she was too young. And the most cockeyed part of it is she probably turned out a much nicer kid than if they hadn't died . . . Does that make sense? It's crazy. What kind of a God does things like that!"
"Do you mind if I give you a little lecture?" Uncle Douglas asked . . . "If you go on the assumption--and I do--that man has freedom of choice, then you have to assume responsibility for your own actions. You can't go on passing the buck to God . . . when the Germans set up concentration camps that was a very big wrong, and certainly many millions of people suffered because of it. Man exercised the freedom of choice to do wrong, and innocent people paid for it, but I don't think you can go around blaming God for it."
"He could have stopped it," I said stubbornly . . . "It wasn't fair. It wasn't right."
. . . "One of the biggest facts you have to face, Vicky, is that if there is a God, he's infinite, and we're finite, and therefore we can't even understand him. The minute anybody starts telling you what God thinks, or exactly why he does such and such, beware. People should never try to make God in man's image, and that's what they're constantly doing . . ."
Well, it's nothing we haven't read before--and for some of us, nothing we haven't said before. It's also nice and solid and ecumenical . . . and delivered by the self-described "heathen of the family." Which is so L'Engle! Do we give her a pass, though? Uncle Douglas's beliefs mean he can't take the theodicy any further--and by not forcing it, L'Engle keeps a recurring character consistent and writes a realistic scene. But Vicky's other uncle happens to be a minister, she visits him during the course of the story as well, and he doesn't leave us with a single line to quote. I will bet anything that L'Engle tried him first, didn't like what she was writing, and deliberately went with the "heathen" alone. Because she does that sort of thing. (My teenage self slurped it up with a straw.)
So what might Vicky's Uncle Nat have had to say to her? Well, this is just a guess, but given that baptism was one of the sacraments that the Episcopalians didn't throw out and that they kept some of the Catholic understanding of, I'm sure he would have said something about the Mystical Body of Christ. And this is so essential to any Christian discussion of suffering that my adult self is quite appalled that it didn't make the final cut. While I do see that it might have made the novel too preachy or too "niche," I think of L'Engle's entire oeuvre and don't think it was the main reason she left it out here. The Moon by Night isn't making compromises, holding back the heavy stuff in order to slip the "lite" stuff past; it honestly thinks all the "lite" stuff is heavy.
So why is baptism important to bring up when a teenager from a Christian home starts asking why some people suffer so terribly and so needlessly? Well, recall that the big issue is why God didn't stop something that He could totally have stopped. I mean, He has granted miracles before; why does He seem to save some and not others? All the answers that touch on the Fall, man's free will, etc. are correct, but they are just the beginning--and insofar as The Moon by Night is attempting to do Christian theodicy without Christ, it is not really finishing. If you're fixated on what God could have done (as judged by your puny self, of course), you don't see what God did do: He sent His Son not to end all the suffering in the world, but to suffer in the world and with the world. He also made it so that everyone who shares that suffering by being baptised into His Mystical Body has a chance at eternal life in a new world where all the imperfections of this one have been completely wiped away.
If I were Vicky's Aunt Enbrethiliel and were telling her this, I'm sure she'd bring up her pet example of Anne Frank, and point out that, as a Jew, Anne hadn't been baptised. To which I'd say: if so, the Catholics in Anne's camp failed. (Of course, I'd prefer to hope that one of them succeeded, though I'm not sure how plausible that is.)
Now, I'm not quite on board with the "Feeneyite" interpretation of Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus: I think that God could "baptise" after death someone who was never baptised on earth and that salvation is never denied anyone just because he only ever lived around weak Catholics. But I really don't want to sell baptism short--especially when suffering is the issue. An unbaptised person who suffers, suffers alone. A baptised person who suffers, suffers with the entire Mystical Body of Christ, and so can, with his sufferings, save other souls.
There's a reason why Anne Frank's life can tempt some to despair, although that is the last thing she would have wanted . . . and a reason why the life of St. Edith Stein doesn't. Or if you prefer Virgin Martyrs who were Anne's age, try St. Agnes, St. Lucy, St. Agatha, St. Maria Goretti, and even Bl. Albertina Berkenbrock. In all their cases, it also wasn't fair and also wasn't right. But I have yet to hear anyone turning them into a reasonable case to hate God.
Zachary's tragedy is that no one has ever told him that suffering can be a superpower--and that even if someone did, he wouldn't believe it. Because it's easier to be angry at God than to deny yourself, pick up your cross, and save souls.
Image Source: The Moon by Night by Madeleine L'Engle