Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Mill On The Floss: Dr. Kenn

"I never knew any one who did such things." These are Maggie's words after she hears Stephen describe the piety of Dr. Kenn, the parish priest. Stephen explains that Dr. Kenn is the only man he has ever known "who seems to me to have anything of the real apostle in him--a man who has eight-hundred a year, and is contented with deal furniture and boiled beef because he gives away two-thirds of his income." Stephen goes on to reveal that Dr. Kenn had also taken in a poor boy who had accidentally killed his mother and kept him with him at all times so the the boy would not fall into despondency.
It is in response to this description of Dr. Kenn that Maggie says, "That is beautiful.... I never knew any one who did such things."
In Maggie's words, I wonder if I hear Eliot's.
Eliot is famous for having abandoned both evangelical pietism and Anglicanism to embrace the Transcendentalism that was common among Victorian intelligentsia. One wonders whether or not she, and many intelligent people for that matter, would have remained faithful to the received tradition if they had ever actually met someone who had "anything of the real apostle in him."
Eliot's description of the religion of Maggie's parents as "semi-pagan" but with no heresy in it, betrays much, I think, of many people's experience growing up in religious homes. Very few people take their faith seriously enough to let it change them--or at least change them in any ways other than conforming them to the community's ideals of good citizenship. It is easy, oh so easy, even for very dedicated Christian people to slip into a comfortable lifestyle, having fulfilled all religious obligation as far as the society dictates, and to let petty sins and socially acceptable passions bring meaning to their dull, self-centered lives. And when this is the case, when selfish preoccupation within the limits of societal acceptability is all one has to illumine the Gospel handed down in the religious tradition, then it is no wonder that thinking people would look for light elsewhere.
"I never knew any one who did such things." In the absence of Christian example, of light shining in and through another, the rush of strong passion and the intellectual machinations of a mature mind are too much for the God of Sunday School. The God who seemed so real, the "friend we have in Jesus," when we were eight years old, is no match for the tribulation of maturity. Yet where does one turn to learn of the grown-up Jesus? Where does one turn when the lives of those around you and the words of those whom you would think should know provide nothing but confirmation that, probably, there is no grown-up Jesus. I wonder if this was Eliot's own experience. In The Mill on the Floss, it is almost the experience of Maggie.
Not only does Dr. Kenn live something of "the real apostle," he has the sensitivity to notice that Maggie is hurting at the Bazaar. He has a presence that made Maggie feel a childlike relief so that she "told him her whole history in three words": "I must go." And Dr. Kenn understood, enough.
But Maggie is not able to go, and the thing she fears and longs for and knows she must reject comes upon her.
When she is back in St. Ogg's and in a relatively safe place, the first thing she asks for is it to speak to Dr. Kenn. She wants to tell him everything. And Dr. Kenn listens and believes her and does what he can to help her.
I'm glad that Maggie had a Dr. Kenn. I don't know if Eliot ever did.
We cannot realize the Life or death we sow in the lives of those around us by what we do when no one is looking and by what we let past unguarded lips. One need not be a priest to be a Dr. Kenn. There is a Royal Priesthood to which every Christian belongs. Everyone of us sows life, and sows death. Who are the Maggies in our lives?
In one sense we are all Maggies, looking for someone to help us see the grown up Jesus, looking for someone a little farther down the road to help us over the rough patch we keep finding ourselves in. Sometimes we find someone who can help us. Sometimes we go for long periods lost and hungry and looking. Most of the time, I suspect, we have to make due with weak fathers, stumbling mothers, with guides who help us only a little. However, maybe we can only really apply a little at a time. Maybe if we follow the little light we have, God will have mercy and send us a brighter one. Or maybe we will realize that we have been the dull ones all along.

1 comment:

Barbara said...

Dear Fr. Michael,

This posting reminds me of Psalm 100:6 (LXX)

My eyes shall be on the faithful of the land,
That they may dwell with me;
He who walks in a perfect way,
He shall serve me.

We need the saints - true apostles so much. It has been such a blessing for me to be surrounded by the stories of the saints and to even get to commune with them in prayer since I became orthodox. I never get tired of reading the writings of the saints either - they make your heart sing because they write with such authority and authenticity. It is very easy to become cynical about others and overly permissive of ourselves without knowing those who have been transfigured into the likeness of Christ.

Thank you for this reminder.