Some people who watch a lot of television are exhorted to turn off the tube and read something – anything – during Lent. I suppose the assumption is that if they are serious enough about their repentance to change their use of leisure time that drastically, they won’t waste the effort by taking up unedifying reading habits.
Our parish bookstore is full of titles obviously appropriate for the season, like the classic Great Lent by Protopresbyter Alexander Schmemann. And I know many people who read The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis, because the senior devil’s instructions on how to keep a man in chains are so revealing of all the subtle sins we like to ignore or make excuses for.
I didn’t get around to adding a Lent-specific book to my stacks this year, and I felt a little embarrassed about taking up a Jane Austen novel last week. If I had been more familiar with her books I might have known that there is plenty of material there for God to work with. But I blush to say that I hadn’t read one Austen book since high school.
I don’t remember what it was the particular bloggers said, but more than one book review that came my way in the last few months made me think I would like Mansfield Park. Soldier and Joy gave it to me for my birthday, and here I am.
The introduction by Amanda Claybaugh quickly piqued my historical/philosophical interest, as she explained the context of the story (The French Revolution) and Austen’s metaphorical connections with lines like this:
“The theater thus functions in this novel as the art form of unbridled ambitions and abrogated duties, as the art form of revolution.”
Right there, lines from our lenten prayer of St. Ephrem come to mind, the ones referring to Lust of Power and Sloth. I couldn’t wait to get into the story itself, where I was immediately introduced to sinners as common as myself.
Mrs. Norris: “As far as walking, talking, and contriving reached, she was thoroughly benevolent, and nobody knew better how to dictate liberality to others, but her love of money was equal to her love of directing, and she knew quite as well how to save her own as to spend that of her friends.”
Have you known anyone like Mrs. Norris? I have. Not being a delegating kind of person, I don’t fall into that particular type of sin. Mine are perhaps more along the lines of the Miss Bertrams, whose “vanity was in such good order that they seemed to be quite free from it, and gave themselves no airs….”
It’s these sins of vanity and pride that we who look respectable on the outside seem most prone to — and that are often invisible to ourselves. Self-centeredness is my default setting, after all, and feels perfectly natural, so why should I even think of changing the setting for a minute, much less manage to leave it at a strange place on the dial?
The same could be said of Mrs. Norris, of whom the narrator tells us: “…perhaps she might so little know herself, as to walk home…in the happy belief of being the most liberal-minded sister and aunt in the world.”
It’s good to read something during Lent that warns me not to think highly of myself, not to think I am “spiritual.” Something that facilitates my efforts to join those happy/blessed ones who in the Gospel Beatitudes are called Poor in Spirit. It’s toward that end that we pray along with St. Ephrem the Syrian: “Grant me to see my own errors and not to judge my brother….”
How can I see my own errors, when the window of my soul is all dirty with various sins? Perhaps if I repent of what I do know, I will find the window a little less dirty, so that I can see more to repent of. I’m hoping that as I progress through Mansfield Park I will encounter more stunning examples of smudged windowpanes that with God’s grace I’ll recognize as similar to my own, and get on with the scrubbing.