Wednesday, 18 February 2015

On not being a thief in the night

On Ash Wednesday I often think of the following passage from 'The Fellowship of the Ring':

Putting [the horn] to his lips he blew a blast, and the echoes leapt from rock to rock, and all that heard that voice in Rivendell sprang to their feet.
'Slow should you be to wind that horn again, Boromir,' said Elrond, 'until you stand once more on the borders of your land, and dire need is on you.'
'Maybe,' said Boromir. 'But always I have let my horn cry at setting forth, and though thereafter we may walk in the shadows, I will not go forth as a thief in the night.'

The connection with this holy day may not be obvious. I first thought of this passage not because of the line 'Sound the trumpet in Zion!' in today's first reading (although I will gladly take it as further justification), but because of some reflection on an apparent contradiction in the liturgy of Ash Wednesday.

In the Gospel reading Jesus tells us to fast in secret, unlike the hypocrites who 'pull long faces to let men know they are fasting.' He tells us to 'wash your face, so that no one will know you are fasting...' And then a few minutes later we're all queuing up to get ash on our foreheads, so that we can all walk out of church with a big mark that says, 'I'm starting Lent!'

Not wanting to assume that we're all just ignoring Jesus, I tried to think how this fits together. And the above-quoted passage from Tolkien somehow came to mind. Because I think what we're doing in our Ash Wednesday liturgy is like Boromir blowing his horn as he sets off, even though prudence will keep him from doing so again for many days to come. The safety of our souls will keep us from advertising our penances to others during the season of Lent, lest we fall into pride and vanity; but as we begin the journey we encourage each other and declare our intent to remain steadfast through the trials.

The smudge of ash on my forehead declares that I stand with all my brothers and sisters who are embarking on the same quest. The penances we undertake may be known to each one alone, but the fact that we're in the battle together is publicly acknowledged.

As the Collect for the Mass puts it, 'Grant, O Lord, that we may begin with holy fasting this campaign of Christian service... as we take up battle against spiritual evils'. 'Sound the trumpet in Zion', because we will not go forth like thieves in the night!

Sunday, 18 January 2015

Book review: 'I Am Margaret'

Ever heard the phrase, "I can't do maths to save my life"? Well, imagine if your life really did depend on passing a maths exam... That's the situation faced by Margaret, the titular heroine of this book, the first published by my friend Corinna Turner.

Margaret lives in the not-too-distant and not-too-unbelievable future, in a society that has a utilitarian approach to people's value. As one character puts it, "the human race is made up of... useful people and useless people". Those deemed 'useless' do, however, have one contribution they can make to society: their body parts. Make that 'many contributions' - Corinna makes it clear for us that very few parts of the unfortunate 'reAssignees' are left to waste.

The distinction between the useful and the useless is made at age 18, when everyone goes through 'Sorting' - a series of tests in various subjects, as well as a measure of the person's physical fitness. Margaret Verrall, otherwise highly intelligent and healthy, has a mental block when it comes to maths, so she fails her Sorting. But her boyfriend, who passes his Sorting, has no intention of leaving her in the Facility, where reAssignees are prepared for 'dismantlement'.

Corinna has a gift for gripping narrative - the book took me along fascinated, most chapters ending in such a way that it took quite an effort of will not to carry on to the next chapter, and the next... Written from a first-person viewpoint, the story keeps us well-acquainted with Margaret's fears, hopes, and dreams (especially her dreams of Bane, her boyfriend and fiance). The writing is at turns eloquent and punchy, and mixes humour and tragedy. There are many pleasing turns of phrase, the most memorable for me being, "It felt like cutting my heart out with my tongue."

As in all good fiction, we are slowly introduced to the world of the characters, little details at various points helping to piece together the sub-creation's inner logic. It's not until quite a while into the book, for example, that we find out that cars run on hydrogen - an important detail in a world that's dealing with the after-effects of climate change - yet Corinna does not labour the point and leaves the reader to make the connection.

But the greatest and most frequent pleasure in reading this book came from another important element in Margaret's peril: she's a Christian. In reading fiction, I have often had in the back of my mind the realisation that the characters would act a whole lot differently if they were Christians and true disciples of Christ. There's a constant slight dissatisfaction that the attitude of faith is not portrayed in so much otherwise-good fiction. Imagine my thrill, therefore, to read of Christians realistically portrayed - Margaret's prayers, her moral dilemmas, and her fears are all quite believable. And moving: I was particularly touched by a scene in which Margaret receives Communion for the first time in ages.

I said that being a Christian adds to Margaret's peril - that's because belief in God is illegal, and carries the death penalty. She and her family have lived their lives in the fear of being found out by the authorities; a danger compounded by the fact that the family home is a secret Mass centre. That and many other details echo the situation of Catholics in England during 'penal times' - a parallel emphasised by a quote from St Margaret Clitherow, the English martyr, which prefixes the narrative. The martyrdom scenario is helpfully clarified by the fact that Christians (or indeed any other believers in God) can escape the death penalty simply by making 'the Divine Denial'. As a judge puts it, "What's four little words? There. Is. No. God. That's all you have to say."

The normal death penalty is to be 'dismantled' while unconscious; but those found guilty of 'Inciting and Promoting Superstition' do not have the luxury of being unconscious for the process. Which leads me to a small 'health warning' - this book is not for the faint of heart. While Corinna does not go into unnecessary detail, she leaves us in no doubt about the suffering and terror that some characters have to go through. Most of the story is set within the Facility, which adds a claustrophobic atmosphere to the trials of the heroine and her fellow-inmates. I found myself emotionally worn out by the time I finished the book, after a rollercoaster ride of feelings.

All this, however, continually poses questions for the believer: Would I be able to cope? Would I keep true to love of God and of neighbour when in mortal peril? Would I make the Divine Denial?

Without the faith element, I would probably have merely liked this book. With it, however, I loved it.

Another warning: this book is the first in a series of four, and if you read it you will want to read the next in the series - 'The Three Most Wanted'.