Now that Labor Day is past, and summer is practically over, I feel ready to make a guilty confession.
I read Chick Lit this summer.
Before you judge me, you should know that I tend to steer away from fluff reading, and I didn’t just read beach reads this summer. Nonetheless, I read one of the books in this genre and was (temporarily) hooked.
The book that hooked me was none other than Liane Moriarity’s What Alice Forgot. It is by no means high literature, but it also had more substance that I was expecting. For those of you who haven’t read it, the basic plot is that an almost-middle aged woman has an accident at her exercise class, gets amnesia, and can’t remember the last ten years of her life. The last memory she can recall is of being a newly pregnant, fairly newly-married young woman. Much to her surprise, she is now the mother of three children, separated from her husband, and on poor terms with her sister.
What ensues in the following pages is a conversion story of sorts. Alice re-learns what it is to love and communicate in her marriage, to show empathy toward her sister (who has suffered from repeat miscarriages and infertility), and to be an overall more humble, calm person.
However, what first ensues (as is the case in Moriarity’s other books, as well) is the standard fare in novels of this genres – marital infidelity. In the ending of this particular novel, there is (spoiler alert) a surprising testament to the enduring nature of marriage, but that is not the case in all of her books.
Interestingly, many of this author’s characters are Catholic, albeit of the cultural, mostly non-practicing variety. It is an interesting glimpse into the state of the lives of many in the Catholic laity. What does the faith look like in the lives of one who practices it because it is comfortable, not because it is challenging? How is that “cultural Catholicism” present in our own lives?
The real lesson behind these books didn’t occur to me until I was sitting in Mass at the seminary where my husband teaches, listening to a homily preached by the rector.
I can’t recall the Gospel for that Sunday, but I clearly remember the theme of the homily – the discernment of spirits. This is applicable to all of our lives, but it is particularly relevant to those of us living some sort of vowed life – that is the life of a religious, priest, or married person. In each of these cases, a vow has been taken that requires us to consider the direction the Holy Spirit is calling us in light of our particular vocation. In all three of these, that calling involves a vow of chastity (as is appropriate for each of these states of life; in marriage that vow takes the form of fidelity and self-control).
An example given was of a priest who has a beautiful woman come to him for spiritual direction or confession. He is faced with two possibilities – lusting after her and indulging his “instincts”…or choosing to view her as a daughter of God, worthy of dignity and respect. When faced with temptations that go against chastity in our own lives, we can choose not to indulge those feelings, but rather to tell those particular “spirits” to be gone; such temptation is not from God. In other words, we don’t have to be ruled by our feelings. We can discern and choose to follow the Spirit we wish to follow.
Although certainly entertaining at times, I was struck with sadness for the characters in Moriarity’s books. They were all ruled by what Aristotle called “the passions.” Rather than rationally evaluating the situation or – better yet! – relying on grace, many of these characters acted on their basic instincts and desires. Our modern society would laud their “freedom” to choose “who to be with”, including their freedom to choose to cheat on a spouse who had already cheated on them. Ah! The freedom of revenge!
Needless to say, this kind of freedom is no freedom. The passions are tyrannical masters and will not rest unless they are mastered.
This is where the discernment of spirits becomes a valuable tool. Basing decisions on emotions or physical desires results in being enslaved by those desires. Emotions are not evil, nor are physical (particularly sexual) desires. Both of these are gifts, and have been created to be used for good.
But, like an unruly toddler, emotional and physical desires are most pleasant to be around when they have been properly and lovingly disciplined. Emotional repression and physically flagellating oneself isn’t the solution. Through a disciplined prayer life, loving and chaste relationships, and regular reception of the Sacraments, these spirits can be discerned and these passions mastered. Once discerned, we can discover true freedom – the freedom to say no to that which is not of God.
If I were to offer one piece of advice to Alice and her peers it would be this. Don’t allow yourself to be ruled by your passions, Alice. Know the freedom of self-control.
Of course, the real challenge is doing a good examination of conscience, and discerning the ways I need to grow in self-control, too.