“Better to illuminate than merely to shine, to deliver to others contemplated truths than merely to contemplate.” ~ St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae II-II q. 188 a. 6 co.

Monday, March 17, 2014

The Lament of Eustace Scrubb and the Sacrament of Penance

In honor of St. Patrick's Day, I will attempt to supplement your imagination with a new set of ideas, images, and sounds related to this dear patron of Ireland, the "keeper of Purgatory."

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 After reading my Mumford & Sons post, a friend of mine recommended a new band to me called The Oh Hellos. It took me a while but I finally listened to their first album on YouTube. They sound like a mixture of The Head and the Heart, Of Monsters and Men, and The Lumineers. I really enjoyed the whole thing, but the song that stood out from the others is the one titled, "The Lament of Eustace Scrubb." I knew C.S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia from my childhood and I had the opportunity to study them as an adult in college. So right away I recognized that the song was about the wretched little boy in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader who turned into a dragon. Do yourself a favor and listen to the song. It has a very Celtic feel to it, perfect for St. Patrick's Day. (Here's a link if you need it.) If you feel compelled to dance, by all means...

     Brother, forgive me:
     we both know I'm the one to blame.
     When I saw my demons
     I knew them well and welcomed them;
     but I'll come around, someday.

     Father, have mercy:
     I know that I have gone astray.
     When I saw my reflection
     it was a stranger beneath my face;
     but I'll come around, someday.

     When I touch the water
     they tell me I could be set free.
     So I'll come around, someday.

Wipe that dancing sweat from your brow and let's talk about what just happened. What do you feel? Were you surprised when the song took such a dramatic turn? Surprised by.... joy, perhaps? Why did that happen in the midst of such mournfulness? Here's my interpretation: I think you just experienced the musical version of the Sacrament of Penance, or Confession. The songs begins slowly and sadly, the subject lamenting a sin that he has committed against his neighbor. He acknowledges the fault, sending up his mea culpa. He addresses God the Father, asks for mercy. What happens next is not illustrated in words, but rather in music. But the title directs the listener to a brilliant image to aid our understanding of what is happening: Aslan, the mighty lion, tearing the scales off the boy-turned-dragon, Eustace Scrubb.

This saga is captured by two chapters in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. The beastly boy, in order to shirk work, breaks off from his cousins and the rest of the crew and discovers a dragon's cave full of treasure. (The set up is so similar to what happens when Edmund does the same sort of thing in The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe that we know something bad is coming.) Greedily, Eustace stuffs his pockets and covers himself with loot to the point of exhaustion. When awakens, he sees his reflection in a pool of water and discovers that he has become a dragon. The "Lament" goes: "When I saw my reflection, it was a stranger beneath my face." The rest of the chapter provides the full content to what the Oh Hellos mean by, "I'll come around someday," as Eustace struggles to cope with being a dragon and longs to be changed back. In the next chapter, Eustace tells his cousin Edmund about how he stopped being one. Aslan, King of Narnia, had come to him, and told him to undress. Eustace realizes that he means to shed his skin much like a snake does. So he scratches and scratches as scales fall to the ground, but it is not good enough:
   "Then the lion saidbut I don't know if it spoke'You will have to let me undress you.' I was afraid of his claws, I can tell you, but I was pretty nearly desperate now. So I just lay flat down on my back to let him do it. The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I've ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of felling the stuff peel off. You knowif you've ever picked the scab of a sore place. It hurts like a billy-oh but it is such fun to see it coming away."
   "I know exactly what you mean," said Edmund.
C.S. Lewis looking as if he just listened to The Oh Hellos.
 Allow me a brief digression here as we come upon one of my most cherished gems of spiritual formation, which came from C.S. Lewis. The last chapter of Mere Christianity is titled "The New Men." I've read it or listened to it at least a dozen times and I made my Apologetics students experience it, too, because it is one of my favorite things. It is about becoming holy, and Lewis says simply and surprisingly, "it must be fun." That is what is happening when we are stripped and purged of our baggage and our dead skin. We are being sanctified, and it is such fun.

Back to the song: none of this text is featured in the lyrics, but the music brings it to life most delightfully. The fiddle scratches like he lion's claws, the drum pounds like the child's heart, hands clap as if to cheer on the dazzling dance of transformation. It is loud and intense. It burns with pain but also pleasure. It is, to use Eustace's word, fun. As the music slows back down, the lyrics pick up and end with the next scene:
"Then he caught hold of meI didn't like that much for I was very tender underneath now that I'd no skin onand threw me into the water. It smarted like anything but only for a moment. After that it became perfectly delicious. [...] I'd turned into a boy again."

But the perspective has changed in the song. By the end, it is not the dragon talking ("When I touch the water they tell me I can be set free"), for he has undergone the cleansing of these baptismal waters and as such is being held up to the singer and to the listener as an example to follow, so that we, too, can be set free. But then he says that he'll "come around someday." To that I say, get thee to a priest, my friend! You can "come around" before the sun goes down. Here's how I discovered that beautiful truth...

After about ten years of sinning since my First Reconciliation, I accidentally found myself in a Confessional. A new acquaintance of mine had invited me to attend a Latin Mass. I had no idea what that meant but I felt sure that it involved a mariachi band. Undaunted, the guy picked me up at the Newman Center and brought me to this mystical place. We got there early because he was in the choir, so I meandered around the back and ran my eyes over the pamphlets and such that were lying about. Then I noticed a long line of people who appeared to be waiting for something. 'Why would all of these people have to go to the bathroom now before this thing has even started? Why didn't they just go at home? Why are they reading instead of chatting to one another?' Total confusion. As I continued to ponder the line (after ruling out the idea that the box at the front of it was a concession stand), an elderly lady asked me, "Do you need to go to Confession, sweetie?" She handed me a folded piece of paper that had a really detailed and scathing examination of conscience on it. Without really thinking I took it from her and placed myself at the back of the line where I read the list. Staring down at it was like looking into a pool of mucky water. I had done many of the things on that list, and I knew on some level that my soul was so spattered in sludge that the image of God within me had been obscured. I saw my demons. I knew them well. Over the course of a decade, I had become a dragon.

When I finally went inside the little door and faced the wooden screen, I could not think of how to begin. "Um... well... I've done a lot of things from this list." The priest patiently led me through the process. Uttering each sin (which I basically had lumped into categories for the sake of the many people in line behind me), I felt just as Eustace felt as he picked and scratched at his scales. The experience was painful, but goodexhilarating, even. Eventually, the priest told me that I really needed basic formation and that I should go find the Baltimore Catechism. I actually thought that he was telling me to go to Baltimore (I could take the train during Thanksgiving break) and search for a thing (maybe like an obelisk?) called a catechism. Thankfully, that level of ignorance didn't invalidate the absolution. The words were in Latin, but I knew what they meantwhat they were doing to me. It was the priest, in persona Aslan (if you will), clawing away at my remaining dragon-ness and transforming me into a Daughter of Eve. The next step, my penance, completed the process, and I became a Daughter of God in a state of grace (however brief). From that moment on, I was determined  to belong to Him. My Second Reconciliation was also a Second Spring.

As I think about this experience in tandem with my love of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (which my husband and I are reading to our son this Lenthe is dressed in a lion costume in his bed as I type this), I'm struck by how similar the confessional is to that magical wardrobe. As one steps inside either of them, he or she embarks on an incredible adventure in which obstacles are overcome, the King is encountered, the self is transformed. Then, when one steps outside, it seems as if no time has passed at all.


In the Sacrament of Penance, we are washed of our iniquities and cleansed of our sins. It recovers lost baptismal grace and continues the transformation that is both—somehow—complete and yet only incipient when we are baptized. This process is usually only finished after death, and that is why there is Purgatory. I became fascinated with this in college. In one semester of college, I managed to choose the topic of Purgatory in four different subjects so that I could study it from four different angles at the same time. In one of the classes I had been studying Hamlet when I came across a footnote in the Arden Edition which explained a bit of dialogue that had long puzzled me. Hamlet, having just had an audience with his father's ghost, is flummoxed and enraged, jabbering incoherently: 
HORATIO: Those are but wild and whirling words, my lord.
HAMLET: I'm sorry they offend you, heartily; yes, 'faith, heartily.
HORATIO: There is no offense, my lord.
HAMLET: Yes, by St. Patrick, there is, Horatio. And much offense, too.
Why St. Patrick? The note said he is traditionally the "keeper of Purgatory." The story goes that in Patrick's day the faithful would make a pilgrimage to Lough Derg in Ireland where the saint would lead them to the mouth of a cave where they would have a vision of their sin-riddled souls as God saw them. In that moment of horror, they would experience a purgatory on earth in the hope of being spared of the torments that otherwise awaited them. So, as I claimed in my term paper, the reason for his offense in the context of the ghost scene is that Hamlet had not been praying for the repose of his father's soul. Then in my Medieval Art class, I gave a presentation on iconographic representations of Purgatory and included the great image of St. Patrick below.

Several months after All Soul's Day in November, St. Patrick's Day can serve as a joyous reminder to pray for the holy souls in Purgatory, to go to Confession at least once during Lent, and heartily to celebrate the agony and the ecstasy of repentance and renewal. Now go back and listen to that song againimagine C.S. Lewis (who was born and raised in Ireland, after all) clapping to the beatand take St. Patrick's blessing along with you. Have fun!

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If you enoyed the sound of "The Lament of Eustace Scrubb," try another Oh Hellos song, "Like the Dawn", which is about Adam and Eve. It's a little slower, highlights the girl's voice over the guy's, and it's simply gorgeous.

11 comments:

  1. I love this post! It is fun! And you really convey that well. Thank you.

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    1. So glad! Thanks for letting me know. :)

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  2. I soooo love this post!!! I enjoy your writing very much. Thanks for sharing. Gods blessings on you.

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    1. Huzzah! You're very welcome and God bless you, too.

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  3. I didn't know that about St. Patrick, and it had never heard this band. But we just listened to The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. It is so, so wonderful!

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    1. Great! What audiobook version do you use?

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  4. I've often noted many of the possible comparisons of between pericopes of Lewis' tales and the richness of Catholic Tradition. But I never compared the confessional and the wardrobe: brilliant! A place of conversion, where one emerges different, and it is far bigger on the inside than on the outside. Perhaps one could also then compare it to the TARDIS. One of the richer Australian blogs I've seen - you're definitely going on my blogroll. All the best.

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    1. Delighted, Josh! Thanks for the kind words.

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  5. Great post. I've loved this song (and C.S. Lewis) for quite some time. You're explanation of the song (and more) is pretty much what I had worked up by myself a while ago but for whatever reason, the name Eustace Scrubb didn't click in my mind and the story/song now makes complete sense and I can finally rest easy, haha. I was considering getting my first tattoo as these song lyrics and (while I'm still a huge baby and probably won't end up going through with it) this post helped me better understand the song and I have some good imagery to go with the lyrics if I choose to get it. Thanks!

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  6. This is one of my favorite albums. As to your last comment about "Like the Dawn" being about Adam and Eve, I'd like to offer that the entire album is about this. The songs build one after another from creation, to fall, to redemption and are book-ended with songs sung by "us" the modern man reflecting on salvation history. Excellent article about an excellent song and an excellent topic.

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