Today is Ash Wednesday and marks the beginning of Lent, which traditionally for Christians is a period for deeper reflection on one’s weaknesses and on how one can improve oneself through prayers, alms giving and abstinence or fasting with a view to getting closer to God. Today’s readings at Mass remind us that when one does any one of these things – prayers, giving or fasting – one should be mindful of why one is doing them and the motives for such actions, such that one should not do that so that others notice what one does, and so on.
Prayers can be very powerful. Most of us pray, regardless of our religion. Many people pray to get what they would like to have or achieve, and would make substantial offerings in thanksgiving for what they get, which is all well and good. Personally, I pray when I feel thankful for what I have, when I am upset, when I am confused, and most often, when I am weak and helpless. I have come to appreciate more and more what St. Paul said in his letters of his own weaknesses about which he was not ashamed to boast, for it was the realization of one’s weaknesses that would draw one closer to one’s God and Creator.
On fasting and abstinence, one of my drinking friends would abstain from alcohol during Lent, which I find most admirable, but which I have never thought of emulating until this morning. So here I am, making it known my decision that I intend to stay away from alcoholic drinks throughout this Lent. Even as I am typing the pledge, I am only too keenly aware of my own weaknesses and the temptations abound and about that could frustrate the undertaking, but I would try. I think to myself that if I have it in writing and on public record, it might make it easier, but we would see.
Still on scripture readings, the readings in the last two days, which coincide with the beginning of the Lunar New Year, were taken from Chapter One of the Book of Genesis, which is rather appropriate in some sense. Father Robert Ng, the celebrant at Mass, urged the congregation to reflect in particular on the phrase repeated a number of times, namely, “…and God saw that it was good.” The phrase marks the end of each day in the Creation, implying that everything God created was good, that God created only things that are good, and hence evil was not created by God.
The choice between Good and Evil, the question of why Evil exists, and the even more complex question of why God allowed Evil to exist – and Evil in this context would include such imperfections as suffering, pain, sickness, war and wickedness in Man and so on – have always baffled the minds of many over the ages. I was asked by the niece of a very good friend only recently such questions; and there are no easy answers without bringing in Faith or some theological fundamentals. In the end, who are we, mere mortals, to fathom the will of our Creator. The longer I live, the more prepared I am to accept that one cannot possibly understand or know the answers to such questions, nor even the issues involved.
Coincidentally, a paperback published around 1993 fell off the shelf recently and had Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger on its cover – Shadowlands.
Now, the more senior readers may know that Shadowlands is a 1985 television film, written by William Nicholson, a British screenwriter, playwright and novelist, who also authored Les Miserables and Gladiator, among others. Shadowlands, the film was made and released in 1993, also with a screenplay by William Nicholson. The paperback I was re-reading is authored by Leonore Fleischer based on Nicholson’s stage play.
The story, and “not an untrue one” as described in the author’s Prologue, is about the love and relationship between an Oxford don C. S. Lewis and an American poet Joy Davidman (Gresham). Both were real people. The setting is in the Fifties when Lewis, who was called Jack by his close friends and by Joy, was a middle-aged bachelor and an Oxford University professor at Magdalen College. Jack was author of a very successful series of children’s books, the Chronicles of Narnia, and had everything he needed and nothing he did not need, when he met Joy Gresham and her young son Douglas during their first visit to England. Jack was unaware of the troubled marriage of Joy at the time. Soon, Jack and Joy decided to enter into a marriage of convenience to allow Joy to remain in England, but when Joy later was diagnosed with cancer, deep seated feelings between them surfaced which challenged Jack’s faith in God and everything including love. Joy died, followed by Jack three years later.
I don’t know whether the film, the play or the book is more successful, but Evening Standard called the play “unbearably moving” and that “the themes of Shadowlands – love, loss and the wonder of life – transform the lives of the people in it and reach out to touch us all.”
Shadowlands has produced a few rather interesting and unforgettable quotes, including: “Why love, if losing hurts so much? I have no answers anymore: only the life I have lived. Twice in that life I”ve been given the choice, as a boy and as a man. The boy chose safety, the man chooses suffering. The pain now is part of the happiness then. That”s the deal.” In response to a quip from Harry the Chaplain about God answering his prayers, Jack said, “That”s not why I pray, Harry. I pray because I can”t help myself. I pray because I”m helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time, waking and sleeping. It doesn”t change God, it changes me.” And then, we have, “Pain is God”s megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” And “We can”t have the happiness of yesterday without the pain of today. That”s the deal.”
Critics of the film had said it was a first class or high class tear jerker. Well, even as I was re-reading the paperback, I could not hold the tears welling in the eyes at times. It could be the nostalgic Oxford setting – Rosita, the children and I lived for nearly a year in Headington, Oxford – which was the setting of much of the story, not to mention the wood-panelled tearoom of the Randolph Hotel, the dreaming spires of the colleges and the detailed description of the places we had been to. Then, it could be Joy’s cancer; and it could be Jack’s Faith and the challenges he faced when Joy was dying, “Why, if a good God made the world, why has it gone wrong?”
Towards the end of the story, the professor asked a young man who came to his tutorial, “We read to know we’re not alone. Do you think that’s so?” The question was actually inspired by a former student who left Oxford before graduation. When the undergraduate responded that he had not thought of it like that before, Jack said quietly, “Nor had I. I suppose some people would say we love to know we’re not alone. Would you?”
Would you? I hope to talk to you again.