In the abstract, “sanctity” is boring. Like its counterpart “sin,” associated far more in the public mind with lingerie and chocolate than with the seemingly inevitable dreariness of human dysfunction, sanctity as a concept too often feels Victorian, anodyne, and ultimately a little squeamish. We wonder if it can really be of much help in the face of human misery. We wonder, sneakingly, if sanctity is really worth the bother, particularly if we’ve been warned away from believing we can achieve sanctity by our own efforts anyway. Too often, we cry craven.
In a recent effort to put faces to the related and equally abstract concept of “character,” David Brooks has assembled a series of portraits ranging from Dwight D. Eisenhower to Dorothy Day. The Road to Character can be read as a call for a return to an older, more self-effacing code of morality, a more stoical set of American values. While I found myself cheering at the raw imaginative exercise this required of its reader I also found it an oddly joyless process. Tellingly, it is a book written to appeal to readers of all faiths or none: by itself, it is an argument for character for character’s sake.
Which is, of course, perfectly respectable, and even valiant. But I found myself returning to another set of character studies, C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce, in which the dreaming author encounters a series of souls in their moment of choice between the self-absorption of hell and the joyful loss of self found in heaven. The Great Divorce culminates in the dazzling figure of a saint of heaven, in life a completely ordinary woman, but “one of the great ones.”
“Her name on earth was Sarah Smith and she lived at Golders Green,” explains George MacDonald, playing Virgil to Lewis’s dreaming Dante. And MacDonald goes on to describe, if not the exact nature, then the ripple effects of Sarah’s sanctity: an ability to take in animals, children, and adults to renew, and restore them to their proper selves within their already existing relationships; a love that inspired love in return but did not steal what was not its own. Not the least part of Sarah’s charm is her sense of humor, a quality Lewis always maintained belonged to heaven in the face of the deadly seriousness of hell.
Although Lewis leaves his vision deliberately ambiguous, the work most clearly behind its conception and imagery is Dante’s Purgatorio. On the mountain of Purgatory all souls are ultimately saved; one does not watch, as in Lewis, the pathology of souls spitting “their contempt of joy” while they are standing within reach of it. But Lewis borrows from Dante, not only in The Great Divorce but also in his description of Aslan’s country in the Narnia books, what you might call the quality of the air of heaven: the feeling of altitude, and the breathless clarity of early morning. One image in particular, a great fruit tree standing under the cascade of a waterfall and wet with its spray, is lifted directly from Canto XXII. By default, as the only portion of the poem to take place on earth as opposed to under or above it, Purgatorio is the only part of the Commedia in which nature gets to make an appearance, and its role in both Dante and Lewis is deeply therapeutic. Even more important, however, for its power to restore the human soul is the role of human conversation itself, no longer wounding or damaging or violent but instead a safe space marked by consideration, humility, and an almost courtly politeness. It is “society” in the old sense: in short, the medieval virtue of courtoisie.
Sarah Smith of Golders Green represents the apotheosis of this quality, and her placement in The Great Divorce exactly parallels the appearance of Beatrice and her retinue at the climax of Purgatorio. Poignantly, however, here the divorce between heaven and hell becomes quite literal, as Sarah has come down from high heaven to attempt to reconcile with the soul of a man named Frank who must have been her husband once. In death, Frank has shrunken in on himself, and remains so consumed by his own self-pity that it has taken on a life of its own in the person of an animate doll, the Tragedian, which is beginning to take control of him. Like many of the damned souls in The Great Divorce, the distinction between grumbler and grumble is well-nigh impossible to make, although Sarah tries; like Orual’s scroll of self-justification in Till We Have Faces, Frank’s sense of grievance speaks itself endlessly under its own momentum. With deep irony, a woman on whom “few men looked … without becoming in a certain fashion her lovers” and few creatures could encounter without being transformed was paired in life with a man nearly impervious to love and with an entrenched habit of using pity as blackmail. While not precisely renowned as a feminist writer, Lewis here reserves some of his deepest contempt for Frank’s laughable final attempt to “mansplain” to Sarah, his spiritual magistra: “he was using his manly, bullying tone now, the one for bringing women to their senses.” Sarah, no longer needing to be needed, finally declares her spiritual and relational autonomy: “I am in Love and out of it I will not go.”
The Great Divorce was published in 1946. Five years later, Graham Greene would publish the last but one of his “Catholic” novels, The End of the Affair. Greene had converted to Catholicism in 1926, as part of his courtship of Vivien Dayrell-Browning. Like Lewis, he had been profoundly shaped by the work and presence of G.K. Chesterton as a public intellectual; like Lewis, his was an almost purely intellectual conversion, a gamble of faith worthy of one of his whiskey priests, with the emotional and relational dimensions of faith following, more problematically, behind. Famously, The End of the Affair concerns a love triangle between a married woman, Sarah Miles, her lover, the narrator Maurice Bendrix, and the woman’s increasingly all-consuming faith in God. Greene’s own affair with Catherine Walston is the obvious autobiographical backdrop to the novel: Bendrix, himself a novelist, observes in the course of the text that he started the affair with Sarah in part to provide inspiration for his own work, but as the affair progresses he admits he feels more and more like a character trapped in someone else’s novel.
In addition to these “meta” dimensions of The End of the Affair, I would argue also that Greene borrowed aspects of Sarah Miles and Maurice Bendrix from Sarah and Frank Smith in The Great Divorce. (To my knowledge I have not seen a critic make this particular connection, although I would not be surprised if it has been made before.) On a purely technical level Greene intended the novel as an exercise in the first-person, sustaining the single point of view throughout of an unreliable and flawed narrator; one is forcibly reminded of Lewis’s claustrophobic case studies of the solipsism of the damned. In contrast to Bendrix’s endless spiral of jealousy and possessiveness, Sarah Miles’s generosity and self-sacrifice exerts a growing influence touching every minor character in the novel she comes in contact with, inspiring love not only in Bendrix but in her priest, Father Crompton, and the man, Smythe, whose disfiguring birthmark she heals. Even Bendrix himself in the wake of Sarah’s death finds an oddly tender friendship springing up between himself and Sarah’s husband Henry. Greene makes one sly, coded reference to Lewis’s earlier work in a brief exchange between Bendrix and a journalist, when Bendrix explains that he must leave the interview early to go to Sarah’s funeral:
“I can’t stay long. I have to go to a funeral in Golders Green.”
“A funeral in Golders Green,” Waterbury exclaimed. “How like one of your own characters. It would have to be Golders Green, wouldn’t it?”
“I didn’t choose the spot.”
“Life imitating art.”
A passing reference to Sarah’s funeral at Golders Green might have been pure coincidence; the highly self-conscious exchange here rather suggests that the parallel by Greene was pointed and deliberate.
The triple portrait I have assembled here by Dante, Lewis, and Greene presents a very different model of sanctity from the one that many of us assume in the abstract, consciously or unconsciously. It is, for a start, intensely attractive, charismatic, relational, outgoing, at once transcendent and deeply practical; it looks, as Lewis once said of Christianity as a whole, like being a member of a secret, though non-exclusive, club. It looks at least as if it might be fun. It is no stranger to human beauty, or more accurately, to concrete human individuality: as many scholars have remarked, for all the intense thicket of allegorical symbolism that Dante erects around Beatrice, she remains resolutely Beatrice Portinari, ultimately occupying a place in heaven that has nothing to do with the poet. Dante’s gift, refracted via Lewis down to Greene, is a gift of real empathy, no less timely now than in the thirteenth century. It is an attempt, whatever the author’s personal failings might be, to think and feel his way toward respecting a woman’s spiritual existence in and of itself.
In a society of potential gods and goddesses, may we all learn to be gentler with one another.
The featured image is a statue of St Catherine of Siena, OP near the Vatican. It was taken by Fr Lawrence Lew and is licensed under Creative Commons.