William Allen considers the witness of the spiritually disorganised in Fitzgerald’s Benediction
We are often too used to apologising and catechising to remember the adage that books cannot be judged by their covers—and neither can authors. As such, we defy well-trained reflexes to observe that F Scott Fitzgerald, that otherwise master seer of modern day corruption, should have chosen one hundred years ago to write on the subject of the Catholic Faith, as indeed he did in 1920, to the writers of New York monthly, The Smart Set. The published story, “Benediction”, concerns the spiritual vision of a sister who visits her brother at seminary; it creates the kind of synergy between the catholic identity, and the worldly materialism which has become synonymous with the American author’s lyrical paean upon ‘the American Dream’. In a few thousand words, he reminds of the Christly cornerstone with which we are forever armed – no, not Benediction per se, and less still the peal of the Divine Praises—but rather our spiritual experience as an inescapable power over us, manifesting itself amid the strain and stress of earthly living.
That phrase— “spiritual experience”—is more discomforting, I might suggest, than those within the catholic fold shall typically confess. Of course, there is very often a familiar hope and confidence in our hearts whilst yearning towards the revealed mysteries of our religion: – the mystery of the Eucharist, the real presence of Christ most of all. But the spirituality of all this sacramentality seems to remain always in its own, narrow confine. It is lucid, for sure; established, unchanging in a way which demands our worship—and indeed rightly so. Yet confronted with the vagaries of a personal spiritual encounter with God, do we not feel we have somehow weighed anchor, and thrown ourselves into troubled water, when it comes to authenticating and believing how God is working, and why? For no sooner have we entertained this category of personal, unwritten ‘spiritual experience’ than we have, in well-known words, risked being carried away by all kinds of strange doctrines.
Fitzgerald’s ‘Benediction’ is going be obfuscating for this very reason—that it tackles a religious problem, in a distinctly catholic domain, yet it cannot help but to be shot through with personal idiosyncrasy and conflict—the dilemma of a woman encountering Christ and retaining her weakness all the while. Holy and wonderful!, we exclaim, interiorly—but perilously problematic in the daily, rote practice of credo, practice and preaching.
The story in outline is already telling—a sister, Lois, makes her sojourn to her brother, Keith’s, seminary, not as an enthusiastic neophyte but as a past-time before she meets a man with whom she has engaged in an adulterous tryst. The hope, which Fitzgerald conveys in the calm, cool example of the Christian brother, intersects frenetically with the reality of a human soul led astray. The siblings meet, and there is an unexpected revelation between them: that he has grown out of the teenagerhood in the mind’s eye of his sister, and become that sure, solid rock which is the founding mantra of the apostolic life. It is a life that has not secluded him from the world but immunised him against its trickery. After all, Keith says, “You can’t shock a monk. He’s a professional shock-absorber.” Lois is enamoured by her brother and captivated by the “sweetness” of his seminarian life.
There is then the matter of Lois’ spiritual encounter at Benediction, where things “suddenly went very wrong”—the heat, and toxicity of her disorganised passion are conveyed imaginatively by Fitzgerald’s prose, mingled among the incense and candlelight of the ritual. It is only finally, after disputing her senses, hot, cold, light and dark that the words of the divine praises sing into her heart. And then, overwhelmed, she faints.
What do we make of a story such as this, which takes a familiar axis of the devotional life, and throws it, seemingly, through the void of chaotic thought and feeling? Fitzgerald’s story is foremost a discomfort because it is lacking the clear sense of Christian journey which we hope to place assuredly in the background of our lives. Lois’ experience does not lead her to conversion, but only to consideration, and a new kind of self-awareness. At the end of the tale, she ponders for the first time a telegram written to call off her adulterous affair for ever—though in the end, the letter is destroyed; the tryst goes on. Her personal experience of God is so frustrating for us, because it is not out in the open, in that revealed, materialised way that rationalises our clairvoyance. It is hidden. It is all out of proportion—and it doesn’t meet our expectations.
‘Expectation’, ‘proportion’; these are deeply tempting words. They assist in rationalising our Faith, and promote that well-heard Cistercian vision of the Cross ‘standing still while the world is turning…’ Indeed, a creed of hope amid the current, cold, and pandemical climate. But in being so calculatingly expectant, do not we rob ourselves, at least a little, of that uncertainty which typifies the human condition? That broken condition which is at the heart of the Christian Gospel, and Christ its apothecary?
The sure signs of grace which we receive as fruits of God’s Kingdom are mercies wide enough, we might pray, to accept the spiritually disorganised. While Fitzgerald, forever grandiose in his cynicism, shall ever seek to enlarge his portrait of human weakness, we are more than matched to the challenge, making wider still and wider the hands of priest and people to witness to lives touched, blessed by, though not all at once converted to, God.
William Allen is Pastoral Assistant in the parish of Parish of
S Stephen with All Hallows’, Gospel Oak