by Kristin Fontaine
It was a combination of a television show and a novel that started me thinking this week.
I have read and listened to the Lord Peter Wimsey novels by Dorothy L. Sayers more times than I can count. Her writing is exquisite and Ian Carmichael’s narration of many of her books is the only thing that got me through a past health crisis.
Back in the early 1990’s my husband and I enjoyed watching The Father Dowling Mysteries. Recently I discovered they had been released on DVD and decided to buy a set and see how they held up after nearly 30 years. While they are definitely a product of their time, the first few episodes at least are still enjoyable to watch. The series features a Catholic priest, his nun assistant, and the vicarage housekeeper who work together to solve murders. The thing I remember liking about the show back when I first watched it was that the show at least touched on some religious themes and complications of being an active Christian (which was and still is usual for prime time TV).
In Unnatural Death Lord Peter talks to a vicar (Mr Tredgold) about his involvement in pursuing a murderer and what his ethical and moral duties are in this case. He is concerned that in investigating a death he has stirred up the murder to take action. After Lord Peter has left, the priest thinks to himself:
” I wonder what brought him here. Could it possibly be–No!” said the vicar, checking himself, I have no right to speculate. He drew out his handkerchief again and made another mnemonic knot as a reminder against his next confession that he had fallen into the sin of inquisitiveness.
This action of the vicar’s, to call attention the way his thought were straying speaks of a mindfulness on his part.
When I first read the book, I was struck by how seriously Mr Tredgold took what I considered to be normal curiosity on his part as a transgression. The desire to know everything is such an all-consuming drive in our modern culture. It is a stark contrast between the vicar’s self-enforced reticence to pry into another persons affairs (even in the privacy of his own mind) and our modern 24-hour news cycle where rumor can rapidly be reported as fact and where their seems to be no pause for thought before the ‘publish’ button is pushed.
This never-ending cycle of news, rumor, and speculation gives the illusion that we can know everything that is going on and, further, encourages that thing which most of the ancient Greek plays warn against, hubris. If we begin to believe that we can know all, then it is easy to slip in to the idea that we should be able to influence and control the world around us.
When that illusion of control breaks down because we are confronted with illness and death, with injustice and greed, and with disasters that bring us up short our inflated sense of control is punctured and not only do we feel despair, we feel that we have in some way failed.
When I was watching the first episode of the Father Dowling Mysteries, I was struck by a quiet moment of prayer. Father Dowling is praying in church after witnessing a man seemingly commit suicide right in front of him. He had been trying to talk the man off of a ledge and was distracted for a moment and looked away. The nun comes in and chides him for taking the blame for the man’s death on himself.
While she does not use the word ‘hubris’ it becomes clear that part of the point she is making is that Father Dowling is falling into the error of believing that he could control the actions of another person.
It was in this moment that something I’ve been struggling with for years came into focus. When I was growing up in the church, it felt like a great deal of stress was always laid on the idea that humility was a virtue. Between the be-attitudes in the New Testament and the teachings in Sunday school, the importance of being meek and humble seemed to be everywhere–especially if you were a girl.
My mother, from my early teen memories, was determined that I would be able to take advantage of rights that women had only gained in her lifetime (and some in my, then young, life). In particular, I remember her telling me that I should always have my own credit and bank accounts because it was only in the 1970’s that women could have their own credit cards independent of the men in their lives.
Needless to say the idea I was getting from the church that girls should be meek and humble was in direct opposition to what my mother was teaching me. She stressed the importance of being independent and of standing up for myself. As a result of this conflict and aslo of the churches own abuse of the ‘Mary meek and mild’ stereotype to keep women in their place, humility, as a concept has been contaminated for me. I was never able to see it as a good thing.
What I realized through the fictional exploits of Mr Tredgold and Father Dowling is that humility can protect us from hubris.
It is so very easy to slip into the idea that if we just know enough we will be able to have some measure of control over our lives.
Jesus comes to tell us to put down that burden. Only God can know all. We are imperfect and so our understanding is also imperfect and prone to error.
It is one of the reasons we say the Confession of Sin every week. Our own imperfections combined with a sometimes misplaced enthusiasm can lead us astray.
Embracing the idea that we can not know all, that we can not be all, and that we definitely can not control anything but our own choices is my new working definition of humility.
Like Mr Tredgold, I hope to go forth with knot in my handkerchief to remind me of the protective qualities of true humility.
As the celebrant says during the Great Thanksgiving: In him, you have brought us out of error into truth, out of sin into righteousness, out of death into life.
May we always choose to be brought out of error into truth.
Quotations are from the Book of Common Prayer and from “Unnatural Death” by Dorothy L. Sayers, (c)1927.
Kristin Fontaine is an itinerant Episcopalian, crafter, hobbyist, and unstoppable organizer of everything. Advent is her favorite season, but she thinks about the meaning of life and her relationship to God year-round. It all spills out in the essays she writes. She and her husband own Dailey Data Group, a statistical consulting company.