Wednesday, May 25, 2005

"O Lord, oure Lord, thy name how merveillous"

My fiancé and I are reading Ways of the Christian Mystics. Because he doesn't like to read together—and I love to—we compromise by not reading together very often; though, we often choose to read the same books. As a result, it doesn't come as a great surprise that he sometimes falls asleep when we read together; it's tempting to finish the book without him, but that would defeat the ends of romance and sweetness that our reading together serves (it’s not so romantic when set against the sounds of his snoring). Anyhow, Ways of the Christian Mystics begins with a discussion concerning the history of pilgrimages. It explains that pilgrimages encourage "the spiritual dialogue between man and creation," as the journey to a sacred shrine or place brings them closer to God. Redemption comes from being close to God. Marching quickly through hundreds of years of pilgrimage history, Ways entertains secular and religious folk alike. It shares how Celtic monks traveled to shrines and/or the Holy Land to bring themselves closer to God, and that is when I thought of the Canterbury Tales, specifically the Prioress's Tale. I recalled that the Prioress and many other pilgrims had less transparent motives for their pilgrimages—and, yes, I know the difference between history and fiction.

The Tales begin with the General Prologue where Chaucer introduces all of the pilgrims. The Prioress is described as a gentlewoman, possessing all the etiquette/manners and sympathetic trappings of nobility. She keeps pets, including little dogs, which she feeds scraps from the dinner table. She wears a bangle on her wrist and a brooch/necklace (rather than a rosary, I assume, if rosaries existed yet) that reads "Amor vincit omnia" (the phrase "Love Conquers All" could be evidence of her hypocrisy, and/or symbolize an interest in physical love—sex and motherhood are probably not a terrific obsession for a Prioress). Notably, she doesn't act like a pious nun. In the prologue, she's a coquettish social climber who’s more reminiscent of a woman attempting to maneuver her way through a royal court than a House of God.

The Prologue introduces the idea of an entertaining storytelling contest, and so each character tells a tale. The Prioress tells a violent, sentimental, religious tale that makes listeners weep and turn away in horror. We empathize with the story’s main character, a young child (or, at least, I think we’re supposed to); thus, when she draws parallels between herself and her Tale’s main character, she wants the reader to feel sorry for her as well. The problem: She isn’t an innocent child. So why does she want us to see her as innocent and pitiable?

She sees herself as being childlike and innocent, but she comes across as childish, envious, and unforgiving and merciless. She hasn’t given up worldly possessions and pride; she sports jewelry and wears her habit so that her prominent forehead is exposed. My version of the Tales, in a footnote, indicates that in Chaucer’s time, the prominent forehead indicated status and noble or aristocratic bloodlines. As a Prioress, her pride and materialistic nature would probably have verged on being sinful, but must have been, at the very least, uncharacteristic of a Prioress.

She has abandoned some nonmaterial aspirations by giving up the ability to have her own children and marriage. The difference, though, between The Prioress and her Tale’s main character is that she, unlike he, chooses to give something up for her faith, whereas he has faith without knowledge. (He willingly sings Latin hymns without knowing their meaning, and sings them as he wanders through a Jewry. Notably, he sings the Alma Redemptoris Mater, yet the Prioress always leaves the word Mater out until the young boy has already died and is sprinkled with holy water.) Or, did she? Did the Prioress knowingly give up motherhood for her faith? In other words, does she have faith coupled with knowledge, or, is she like the character in her story, which would mean that she doesn't understand the demands of her own devotion and calling? While she sees herself as being like the boy in her Tale, Chaucer certainly intends parallels between the Prioress and the boy’s mother, the widow, and that may tell us something about how Chaucer sees her to understand her faith.
The Prioress mourns the loss of her own motherhood via the pathos of the widow’s character. The widow cannot locate her son, so she becomes whiny and plaintiff, inadequate, and ultimately has to seek the help of others in order to find (or care for) her child. Ultimately, the Prioress’s behaves the same way when it comes to articulating that for which she has abandoned ordinary motherhood, namely her faith. She even draws attention to the fact that she has faith without knowledge by making fun of the Monk (Shipman’s Tale) for having the exact opposite--knowledge without faith. She apologizes for that weakness, and we are left to draw our own conclusions and compare her weaknesses to the strengths of one of the only other female taletellers, the Wife of Bath. The Prioress is like the widow, namely incapable of caring for her own son (faith), protecting him from the evils of the world, and helpless, because she lacks the knowledge and rationality to do so.

Because she lacks a rational understanding of faith, and is at the same time attempting to explain what faith is, she tells a violent, gruesome, anti-Semitic Tale. At the end of that tale, she asks for mercy for herself, sinners, and her listeners, but she doesn't appreciate the paradox between asking for mercy, wearing the Amor vincit omnia, and being so blatantly vindictive. The choice is either (1) the prioress understands the paradox of mercy and the violence in her tale, or (2) that she doesn’t realize her own vindictiveness. It's hard to imagine what she believes that phrase means in light of the story she tells, but it seems she’s genuinely clueless as to her hypocrisy.

Aside from not living the phrase “Love Conquers All,” her faith without knowledge keeps her from grasping the fullness of the Virgin Mary (that she is the mother of a man in the flesh and of the divine). In other words, she doesn't reconcile the earthly nature of motherhood with the heavenly nature of being God's mother. Although laudable to empathize with Mary’s motherhood, faith loses meaning without an understanding of being “The Mother” as well. Instead of seeing herself as a strong protector of the innocent and of the faithful, she sees herself as an infant, drawing parallels between herself and a young boy. Yet, she isn’t an infant, she’s a woman.

As a Prioress, she would have had authority over young women and some responsibility for teaching “the faith.” Would a story about a young boy having his throat slit to the bone by Jews bring young women closer to God, would it entertain a party of pilgrims? Hm. Maybe she did join the pilgrimage to have a “spiritual dialogue between man and creation,” but the Prioress will always be a pilgrim, perpetually struggling to reconcile her calling with her loss of motherhood. She has faith in the redeemer but uttering the complete phrase Oh Loving Mother of the Redeemer will never come easily. Faith without knowledge still seems to leave the Prioress in a dark place where mercy falls on only those with her sort of faith, and Love does not conquer fear and longing.

So, in the end is faith enough? I hope so, but the Tale isn’t very encouraging.

I really put too many different things into this, but it'll have to do.


K Anderson iv said...

I love your site! I might have to do a site like this myself oneday! Your anecdote about your romance and sweetness oriented reading together reminded me of of myself and my wife. He doesn't snore everytime does he?

Voracious Reader said...

Oooh, thank you so much. The noise you hear...that's my head swelling.

It's nice to hear that other people enjoy reading together too. I'll gladly share that with my fiance in an effort to make him feel guilty for often, but not always, falling asleep while we read. He doesn't snore everytime (but that's not what I tell him).

I've noticed and enjoyed your posts before. You're a C.S. Lewis fan. Wonderful isn't he. Do you have an opinion of the Chronicles movie that's coming out in December?

Gone Away said...

I love your idea of reading together! If you can maintain it (in spite of all his resistance), it must surely result in a closeness that will last.

lrb said...

Last year I used this text to discuss narrative strategies and the rhetorics of torture, comparing it both to THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST and episodes of SOUTH PARK in the context of a university English Literature class in Mar del Plata, Argentina. It took a little patience, but I think these people will never see torture the same way again. Even though most of their partents lived through the realities of torture during the "Proceso" of the '70s, they were initially blind to the power of terror.

Voracious Reader said...

You have my attention...what was the argument concerning the rhetoric of torture?

Geez, teaching under those circumstances must be reallllllly difficult.

lrb said...

In simplistic terms, from the 12th century on you can find examples of literature to incite hatred. It builds a character worthy of reverence--a beautiful, tender, innocent figure, oftentimes a child or a woman (cf. cult of the virgin, James Caviezel, or Thomas Monmouth's version of William of Norwich)--then describes the most gruesome torture possible, with the result of the speaker's ultimately receiving the awe of the listeners. The Prioress wanted love, reverence and power through telling such a story, which was frowned upon by the Church, so as to take the spotlight during the pilgrimage. This contributes to the mocking of women (and of the other characters in their performances, obviously) in the CANTERBURY TALES.