Saturday, January 25, 2014

The Death of the World


Probably my biggest reading challenge of the year was starting and not stopping Robert Hugh Benson's Lord of the World. I almost gave up at many different points, telling myself that it was just not "the right book at the right time" for me, but somehow I powered on . . . After a long while, I got to the last page and learned that several bad beginnings are nothing next to one good, strong ending.

Let this be your spoiler warning. The Lord of the World is a story of many endings and also a meditation on death.

* * * * * 

We first see death in what happens to be my favourite dystopian moment: the unexpected wreck of the volor. I love how quickly Father Franklin rushes to the scene and gives a final blessing to every dying man and woman he can find. The hour of death is the front line in the war for souls, and it gladdens my heart to read of a priest--even a fictional one--braving the battle to reach every last soul who may need him. But it is not this minister of the sacraments who makes this moment, but the "ministers of euthanasia." It is the latter whom, it is implied, the desperate dying are most relieved to see.

What does it say about our world that a significant number of people really would choose a so-called "death with dignity" over the "happy death" or "beautiful death" (We don't really have a proper term for it any longer do we?) that Catholics used to pray to St. Joseph for?

* * * * * 

Then there is the papal court, which I absolutely loved, though I may be in the minority here. I appreciated the reminder that the royal trappings of yore, which modern Catholics can't seem to live down (If racing to rationalise the sedia gestatoria were an Olympic sport . . .), had a value far beyond their appearances. A crown means nothing unless the head which wears it has true authority. But how poignant to see this principle in reverse, in the deposed monarchs who hold their heads high although their crowns have been taken from them.

Benson's description of them as "shepherds without sheep, captains without soldiers . . ." is perfect, and doubles as a description of us. While I think that a political system in which sheep elect their own shepherd can be as legitimate as a hereditary monarchy, I agree with Benson that one great fault of the modern world is taking for granted that we are so much smarter than previous generations--that, in fact, if they had only known what we know today, they would have become republicans hundreds of years ago. And I'm kind of partial to the idea that the death of a royal house is the first stage in the lingering death of a nation.

That body count after the leveling of Rome is sobering for one more than one reason.  
* * * * * 

Then there is the ending of The Lord of the World, which completely blew me away. (Pun intended, of course.) Suddenly, the volors made so much sense! Heck, the whole novel made so much sense--and I found myself thinking that Benson's vision of a second Pentecost, with a wind and fire which are of the world rather than of the Spirit, preceded everything else in the story, which was then constructed around it, though not always seamlessly. It shows.

Yet to criticise anything that comes before the final pages is almost to miss the point. The ending is the point, and this novel about endings ends well--and you don't have to have found Benson's dystopian utopia the least bit believable to appreciate it.

What impresses me the most is not the huge shock of it, but the obviousness of it. We could have seen all of it coming from two thousand years away . . . The destruction of Rome . . . the return to Nazareth . . . the eleven faithful cardinals and one traitor . . . the nine days of prayer capped by a Mass in a locked room . . . These are all "codes" we could have "cracked" just from reading the Scriptures--and goodness knows, everyone from fundamentalist scholars to Hollywood screenwriters have made a go at it. But I think I can say, without reservation and without needing to do a more thorough survey of "End Times literature" (both fiction and non-fiction), that Benson's interpretation is the right benchmark.

When was the last time you reflected that the end of the world is inevitable? That the destruction of all we love and the deaths of all we hold dear are part of a greater plan? I have a friend who is very critical of certain Christian fringe groups which believe in a different vision of the end times: he says they don't mind the Middle East being blown to bits in the long process of literally restoring the Temple in Jerusalem, as long as the believers themselves will get to witness the Second Coming from the comfort of their First World homes. (Or from the comfort of Heaven, to which they would have been "raptured." Because somehow the Rapture makes more sense than the Assumption. But that's just me showing why I never win Miss Congeniality at the Ecumenism Pageant.) Clearly, there's a difference between their vision and Benson's vision: one has much more of that "dying to self" imagery.

There is also an unsettling similarity in the popular support for politicians who don't mind raining death from the skies. Shall Benson turn out as much of a prophet as his contemporaries Orwell and Huxley?

* * * * *

The death of individuals, the death of nations, even the death of the Church . . . It's one horrific catastrophe after another, but if you've read The Lord of the World, you know what I mean when I say that the death of the world was blessed and beautiful.


Otepoti said...

Hi, E., thank you so much for that post; you've really extended my thinking about the book (I loved the dispossessed monarchs still honouring the King of kings, too.)

One of the things that gave me pause was the inclusion of the words of St Thomas Aquinas at the end of the world. I muttered, why did Benson use those rather than words from the Revelation to St John? I decided he was tying the whole history of the Church together, taking St Thomas as the mid-point, the apogee of the visible church militant. His life would be about the halfway point, according to Benson's chronology. That was a striking thought for me, because I'm still very much getting used to the idea of the visible church.

I was also very struck by Benson's picture of a Church Militant that deliberately gathers itself together, in one place, first, Rome, and then Palestine, paints a target on its own back and waits for the world to do its worst. It's a judo fall, really, isn't it, the apparent weakness that wins the fight. Martyrdom as the winning move. Hmm.

I shivered at the scene of the volors meeting unexpectedly over the Alps.

Thank you again for reading the book with me and for this wonderful thoughtful post.

Enbrethiliel said...


You're welcome, Otepoti! If it hadn't been for you, I don't think I would ever have read The Lord of the World, so the thanks should really go both ways. =)

The Church Militant's insistence on being visible seems to echo Jesus's own words: "A city seated on a mountain cannot be hid." It makes Her vulnerable to enemies, but that seems to be part of the deal and not a wrinkle in the plan.

The encounter over the Alps was a powerful moment for me as well, especially since the emotion of foreboding gets to linger for the rest of the novel. We don't actually see the volors destroy Rome, although we are guaranteed that they did, and this keeps a spark of habeas corpus hope alive. (I'm struck by the contrast to our world, where one can't so much as smash a window without TV cameras racing to broadcast images all over the world and bystanders with smartphones uploading their own footage to social media. It's a far cry from a telegraphed report! =P But what does all this immediacy mean for us? By getting more perspectives and letting the media tell us what to believe, do we actually lose perspective and stop believing?)

Anonymous said...

I did not finish this book either but I shall now. thanks