Month: February 2022


Hawthorne in the 1860s
(Nathaniel Hawthorne, Public Domain, U.S.A.)

“Whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy” (Proverbs 28:13)

Here are the two quotes from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter I am referring to:

“To the untrue man, the whole universe is false,—it is impalpable,—it shrinks to nothing within his grasp. And he himself, in so far as he shows himself in a false light, becomes a shadow, or, indeed, ceases to exist” (Chapter 11).

“The judgment of God is on me,” answered the conscience-stricken priest. “It is too mighty for me to struggle with!” “Heaven would show mercy,” rejoined Hester, “hadst thou but the strength to take advantage of it” (Chapter 17).

I bring these two great quotes from The Scarlet Letter to your attention because I believe they are a powerful reminder of two of the most basic and fundamental aspects (or elements) of the Christian life – namely, that sin always harms us and that authentic repentance and acknowledgement of our sins heals us. The central message of The Scarlet Letter reminds us that man sins and God forgives; and that God’s forgiveness is infinitely more powerful and transformative than man’s sin, or even a community’s reaction to sin. The Scarlet Letter is ultimately about the triumph of the Divine Mercy! (see my post, “Who Was Saved in The Scarlet Letter?”).

With respect to the first quote from Hawthorne in Chapter 11 (who is, in essence, providing us with a theology of sin, “to the untrue man, the whole universe is false”), we have essentially a reflection on the tremendous psychological harm Rev. Dimmesdale endures due to the concealment of his sin, and Hawthorne draws this out in excruciating detail, and in a masterful way. Theological giants, such as Augustine and Aquinas, have commented that sin is “privatio boni, the absence, the privation, of good.” Sin is essentially “non-being,” or unreal, the very absence of all that is good. We might say, then, that “sin is the cause of all unhappiness,” and that is precisely the situation for Dimmesdale, who is profoundly depressed, and who is living an unreal existence. The point here is to come to grips with the harm sin causes in our lives. Thus, Hawthorne says, “To the untrue man, the whole universe is false,—it is impalpable,—it shrinks to nothing within his grasp. And he himself, in so far as he shows himself in a false light, becomes a shadow, or, indeed, ceases to exist”. Dimmesdale’s “diseased soul” is Hawthorne’s brilliant and remarkable demonstration of this principle (Dimmesdale “thus typified the constant introspection wherewith he tortured, but could not purify, himself.” – Chapter 11).

With respect to the second quote from Hawthorne in Chapter 17, we see that Dimmesdale lacks, of himself, the power and strength to properly repent of his sin, an effort which will require him to mount the scaffold in broad daylight and confess his sin! Dimmesdale is sort of like that Catholic man who lives just a few miles from his Church but somehow he can’t muster up the strength or the courage to get into his car on a Saturday afternoon and drive to church for Confession. He’s held back by some unknown force that makes the effort nearly impossible! And thus Hester cries out to Dimmesdale, “hadst thou but the strength to take advantage” of God’s mercy! Indeed, what do we need more in life than God’s mercy!

At some point when they meet in the forest, Dimmesdale and Hester decide on a purely human plan of (geographical) salvation: to leave Boston, to sail to Europe, and to get away from it all and start a new life. But after enduring vehement diabolical temptations on his walk home, Dimmesdale is given the grace to see that no amount of miles between himself and Boston can ever really solve his underlying problems of guilt and concealment. Thus, the true path to freedom for Dimmesdale will be to mount the scaffold of guilt and confession, to “unconceal” to all what he has been hiding for seven years. It is on the wooden beams of the scaffold that he can unveil his heart to the crowd, and reveal publicly his true situation. Hester, Pearl and even Mr. Chillingworth accompanied Dimmesdale onto the platform, and they too received life-changing graces there in solidarity with Dimmesdale.

CONCLUSION: The harm caused by sin and the great grace of true repentance are underlying themes in The Scarlet Letter. Hawthorne’s story reminds us that sin plunges us into an unreal life, where we become, in some sense, a “shadow” of our true self. But “If we confess our sins, [God] is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). The circumstances of Rev. Dimmesdale’s life teach us a great lesson: not only that sin does harm to our souls, but, moreover, that “God never abandons us in this mortal life,” giving us graces to the very end to truly repent of our sins, unhindered by concerns for human respect (an obstacle that Dimmesdale was ultimately able to overcome). Dimmesdale also teaches us not to delay repentance. God always gives us the strength to repent, and we simply need to take advantage of it!

Speaking of the grace of repentance in reference to that Catholic scaffold called Confession (see James 5:16; John 20:23) , Saint John Paul II makes the following profound observations:

“It must be emphasized that the most precious result of the forgiveness obtained in the Sacrament of Penance consists in reconciliation with God, which takes place in the inmost heart of the son who was lost and found again, which every penitent is.  But it has to be added that this reconciliation with God leads, as it were, to other reconciliations which repair the breaches caused by sin.  The forgiven penitent is reconciled with himself in his inmost being, where he regains his own true identity.  He is reconciled with his brethren whom he has in some way attacked and wounded.  He is reconciled with the Church.  He is reconciled with all creation.

As a result of an awareness of this…there arises in the penitent a sense of gratitude to God for the gift of divine mercy received, and the church invites the penitent to have this sense of gratitude.  Every confessional is a special and blessed place from which, with divisions wiped away, there is born new and uncontaminated a reconciled individual — a reconciled world!” (Apostolic Exhortation, Reconciliation and Penance, Paragraph 31, IV. (December 2, 1984).

Hawthorne emphasizes this “reconciled world” in the persons of Hester, Pearl and even Mr. Chillingworth, whose lives were profoundly changed for the better as a result of their solidarity with the dying Rev. Dimmesdale on the scaffold of redemption.

Tom Mulcahy, M.A.

References: An article from on sin states the Catholic tradition that “sin is a horrible voluntary lapse into nothingness against the interest of the being and good of the creature.  St. Augustine’s definition is famous: sin is privatio boni, the absence, the privation, of good.  We find this notion also in the Summa of St. Thomas Aquinas.  S.T., Ia, q. 48, art. 1 c. “

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Every now and then I get interested in poetry and spend some time reading a few poems. But to say I live immersed in the world of poetry would be flat out false! I’m no poet, and I owe it to you to say so.

But lately I’ve been listening to Christopher Lee’s enchanting recitation of Edgar Allan Poe’s disturbing but strangely enjoyable poem, The Raven, which has a certain “hypnotic rhythm” to it. The poem speaks to the narrator’s irreparable loss of the radiant maiden, Lenore, who has died (all of which haunts the mind of the narrator). Will he ever see Lenore again? The raven is sent to speak but one word to this man: “Nevermore.” Thus, those famous words from the poem: “Quoth the raven, ‘Nevermore!’ ” Could the poem possibly have any theological relevance? Is not the narrator living in a type of hell? And, theologically speaking, what is hell? “Approach the Father, Nevermore.” It seems to me that almost all the poems I have read contain theological relevance in one form or another, so that poetry touches upon theology, directly or indirectly.

Even Humpty Dumpty reminds me of my mortality, to wit: that there will come a day when even the best doctors won’t be able to put me back together again! And the memory of impending death is of incredible spiritual importance.

And Emily Dickinson’s depressing poem, “I heard a Fly buzz – when I died,” raises all those perplexing questions about the meaning of death and whether the soul is immortal. But for a Christian, if the evocative power of a poetic word is what makes poetry special, then a Word which actually became human very well might be the key to understanding everything. “And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us.”

C.S. Lewis says that there is “no general agreement as to what ‘poetical truth’ means, or whether there is really any such thing,” but he adds, nevertheless, that “man is a poetical animal and touches nothing which he does not adorn.” Lewis argues that poetry has a particular power “of arousing and satisfying our imagination,” and that “there are two things the imagination loves to do. It loves to embrace its object completely, to take it in at a single glance, and see it as something harmonious, symmetrical, and self-explanatory.” Lewis’ point is that theology, while it is not poetry, can certainly fit poetry into the grand scheme of things because “the waking world is judged more real because it can thus contain the dreaming world….” He says: “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see by it, but because by it I see everything else.”

Chesterton also speaks to the imaginative dimension of poetry. He says: “Imagination does not breed insanity. Exactly what does breed insanity is reason. Poets do not go mad; but chess-players do. Poetry is sane because it floats easily in an infinite sea; reason seeks to cross the infinite sea, and to make it finite. The poet only desires exaltation and expansion, a world to stretch himself in. The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. If the madman could for an instant become careless, he would become sane” (as edited). Mysticism, says Chesterton, “keeps men sane. As long as you have mystery you have health; when you destroy mystery you create morbidity. The ordinary man has always been sane because the ordinary man has always been a mystic.” It is because poetry can express meaning with less restrictions than a purely rationalistic approach to life, and is therefore not enclosed in the “prison of one thought,” that it more closely approaches the frontier of “first principles,” the light of which “we look at everything” else.

Gerard Manley Hopkins says in one of his poems, “There lives the dearest freshness deep down things.” This famous verse from Hopkins seems to me to be almost the very aim and purpose of poetry: to dig deeper into the meaning of things by producing for us a poetical freshness and originality carved out of symbolically transformative words that express the very depths and transcendence of the human experience in amazing simplicity, concurrently charged with poetical rhythm, all of which sheds light on the meaning of life. As W.H. Gardner once observed of Hopkin’s poetry, there is in it the “sensation of inscape – a quasi-mystical illumination, a sudden perception of the deeper pattern, order, and unity which gives meaning to external forms….” Hopkins is one of the great religious poets, and one of the greatest poets of more recent times.

Paul Roche speaks to the epistemological and even metaphysical dimension of poetry (and the manner in which poetry draws from the primordial reality of things). Roche states that “the reason why pure poetry cannot be immediately understood is because it returns us to that level of immediate contact which is inaccessible to the conscious mind except in so far as it is sieved through the subconscious.” He says: “a double thing takes place in poetry: the idea is broken down again into the sensory data that gave rise to it and is re-incarnated into the symbols which are stored in the treasury of the subconscious. In other words, the idea is returned to the stratum of primary knowledge from which it came, and at the same time the incantatory pulse of the rhythm flows into the blood-beat of the universe, thus coaxing the spirit away from from the tight limitations of the cerebral and letting the psyche merge again with subliminal experience.” It is thus, says Roche, that this “poetic transmutation” becomes “analogously divine in the way that the divine essence permeates equally all….” Thus, “poetry reaches universality not by being universal in its language, but by being specific and particular, just as the senses are. It cuts into and from reality magical facets each one of which shines forth the whole.” What is more, says Roche, these “symbols, these carriers and unifiers of being, are not only images but also rhythms, because the universe is constituted in rhythm.” And this is why, at least for a moment, poetry can make “the universe as coherent and translucent as a drop of water.

Bob Lerner (a distinguished, contemporary poet) says that “poetry arises from the desire to get beyond the finite and the historical – the human world of violence and difference – and to reach the transcendent or the divine.” If we were to point to a place where theology and poetry meet it is in the use of symbolic and imaginative language in order to arrive at a deeper, more unified, more comprehensive view of life. And, theologically speaking, only a symbolic or metaphorical language can express an ultimate, supernatural truth. “Divine truth and grace are conveyed to us in earthen vessels, the infinite of the finite; the ineffable and the transcendent is clothed in visible forms and signs” (Karl Adam, edited). As St. Paul reminds us, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face” (1 Cor. 13:12). Of course, Christianity also relies on historical facts and conceptual arguments in support of its truth claims. Poetry, and the poetic dimension of life, are contained within Christianity, with the added caveat that Christianity’s symbols and metaphors point to true, supernatural realities that represent a complete picture of life, therefore making sense of everything else. Could it be that man is a poetical animal because he is first and foremost a religious being?

Thomas Mulcahy, M.A.

References: Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton; “Is Theology Poetry?” by C.S. Lewis. Of Edgar Allan Poe, Chesterton states: “Poe, for instance, really was morbid; not because he was poetical, but because he was specially analytical.” And regarding the English poet, Cowper, Chesterton remarks: “…he was definitely driven mad by logic, by the ugly and alien logic of predestination…poetry partly kept him in health.”

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