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A Prayer for Owen Meany — “The Little Lord Jesus”

In Books, Movies and Television on September 20, 2014 at 6:30 pm

Owen MeanyIn A Prayer for Owen Meany, Owen and Johnny function as foils in Irving’s exploration of faith and doubt. Owen represents an incarnational position where transcendence is seen to be within the material world, and the young Johnny sees the transcendent as far off and irrelevant (likely nonexistent) to the world in which we live.  The young Johnny resists Owen’s belief that objects have inherent meaning, because he first rejects the presence, or at least relevance, of the transcendent in the material world.

This difference between the Owen and Johnny is brought out in several episodes in the chapter, “The Little Lord Jesus.” One occurs during the Christmas holiday when all the boys’ rooms at Gravesend Academy are vacant. As drama teacher at the Academy, Dan Needham lived in the residence and had keys to all the rooms. During Christmas holidays Johnny and Owen borrowed Dan’s passkey and explored each room. Owen

looked in every drawer, examined every article of clothing, sat in every desk chair, lay down on ever bed—this was always his last act in each of the rooms: he would lie down on the bed and close his eyes; he would hold his breath. Only when he’d resumed breathing did he announce his opinion of the room’s occupant. (Irving 155)

Using all the objects in the room, he would interpret the relative happiness of each resident with school or their home-life. For Owen, meanings are not exclusively in the mind, and so he falls under the spell of significant objects. Johnny, however, insists that the contents of the rooms are “just things” (156); what they found in the rooms was “random disorder and depressing sameness” (157).

In Owen Meany, Irving has created a character who is open to the supernatural, but Irving has gone further. In an attempt to emphasize the importance of the transcendent in and through Owen Meany, he has given Owen the burden to symbolically embody the incarnational view of reality–to embody the transcendent while at the same time remain profoundly immanent.

The transcendent qualities of Owen Meany are apparent in the first pages of the novel. The Sunday school children “thought it a miracle” (2) how little he weighs and so, made a game of lifting him into the air. When the Sunday school teacher returns from her cigarette and finds Owen up in the air she would always command, “Owen Meany . . . . You get down from up there!” (5). The narrator derisively comments on the stupidity of Mrs. Walker to miss the obvious cause of Owen’s levitation. Yet in the final paragraphs, he acknowledges that they did not realize there were “forces that contributed to [their] illusion of Owen’s weightlessness,” suggesting that there was a transcendent tug on Owen that they “didn’t have the faith to feel” (617). Furthermore, Owen Meany had a peculiar voice; it was a “strangled, emphatic falsetto” (5) or a “shout through his nose” (3). In any case, it was a voice that was “not entirely of this world” (5). It was also observed that “light was both absorbed and reflected by his skin, as with a pearl, so that he appeared translucent at times” (3). The overall effect of these elements on others was significant. Hester later says of her first encounter with Owen, “I didn’t think he was human” (69) because he looked like a descending angel . . . a tiny but fiery god” (69).

Irving has not made Owen wholly transcendent, but grounds him is such a way to blur the boundaries between the immanent and the transcendent. Owen is extremely small and light, yet he lives, and later works, in a granite quarry. His name—Meany—suggests his humble origins and his littleness, yet he sees himself as an instrument in the hand of God and acts the part. The cumulative effect of grounding the transcendent Owen Meany is that Irving is attempting to locate transcendence in immanence. By doing so shows that Irving understands the importance of the incarnation to Christian faith and in the novel, Owen continues to represent an integrative faith in contrast to other characters.

Although it is one of the funniest episodes in the book, Owen Meany as the Little Lord Jesus in the Christmas Pageant is also one of the most significant. Irving has explicitly linked the Incarnation of Jesus with Owen Meany.   In the preceding pageants, Owen played the transcendent announcing angel, but for the pageant in 1953 he has come to earth as the baby Jesus. For the Christian, the key to the unified view of reality is the Incarnation. In the Incarnation, the Word became flesh, God became human without ceasing to be God; he became temporal without ceasing to be eternal and immanent without ceasing to be transcendent. By linking Owen to the Incarnation, John Irving shows that he understands the importance of the Incarnation in Christian belief.

Read the next chapter, “The Ghost of Christmas Future,”  in A Prayer for Owen Meany and read my commentary here.

“A Prayer for Owen Meany” — “The Angel”

In Books, Movies and Television on September 17, 2014 at 5:31 am

Owen MeanyBefore I get into chapter 3 in A Prayer for Owen Meany, I wanted to point out the pattern of rebirth that is built into the structure of the novel. Tabitha Wheelwright’s death is recounted in the first chapter, but in the following chapters we meet and get to know the living Tabby; after her death in chapter one, she is, in effect, brought back to life in chapters 2 and 3.

The episode when Owen saw an Angel illustrates the essential difference between Owen, with his incarnational view of reality, and Johnny, who sees the immanent and the transcendent as radically separate.

‘THAT’S SO CATHOLIC . . . TO GET VERY RELIGIOUS ABOUT OBJECTS.’

This was a theme of Owen’s–the Catholics and their adoration of OBJECTS. Yet Owen’s habit of collecting objects that he made (in his own way) RELIGIOUS was well known” (270).

Owen’s understanding of objects is definitely incarnational rather than secular. In the secular worldview, an object has only meanings that are attributed to it by a human subject. In Owen’s incarnational view, the objects possess inherent meaning and value without the help of any human subject.

In the eyes of Owen Meany, the objects are subjects–that is, they are something meaningful in and of themselves.   The dressmaker’s dummy is one such object. The boys use Tabitha Wheelwright’s dressmaker’s dummy as an object of entertainment, but it seems to have special meaning for Owen. After Tabitha’s death, Owen commandeers it from Dan and takes it to his house, bedecked in the mysterious red dress. Although he provides the excuse, “YOU’RE NOT GOING TO STARE AT THIS DUMMY AND MAKE YOURSELF MORE UNHAPPY” (140), he takes it because of the meaning that is inherent in it. The narrator suggests “that it had a purpose” (142) which only Owen could see.

The dummy, and other objects, possess significant meaning for Owen. Johnny observes Owen’s obsessions with them, but does not understand them, for he views these objects from a secular framework where the only meaning in an object is that which the individual human subject attributes to it. Regarding Owen’s engagement and use of these objects, we might go so far as to suggest that, in Charles Taylor’s words, as Owen enters “the zone of power of exogenous meaning,” the meaning includes or perhaps penetrates him. The important thing is that “the meaning can no longer be placed within; nor can it be located exclusively without. Rather it is a kind of interspace which straddles what for us [in the modern world,] is a clear boundary” (A Secular Age 35).   In other words, for Owen, the boundary between nature and supernature is porous. The transcendent isn’t way off somewhere, but within the physical world of objects and persons and actions.

How one interprets events is influenced by how one understands the relationship between the transcendent and the immanent. With his secular view, Johnny interprets Owen’s sighting of the angel much differently than does Owen with his incarnational view. Owen was sleeping over at 80 Front Street and was feeling sick, so Johnny told Owen to go tell his mother. Anticipating a reaction from Owen, as he is bound to be startled by the dressmaker’s dummy which stands near Tabitha’s bed, Johnny is not surprised when Owen returns saying, “YOUR MOTHER IS NOT ALONE . . . I THINK IT’S AN ANGEL” (101). It soon becomes apparent that Owen was not reacting to the dummy because the angel was standing on the other side of the bed. The secular Johnny is very quick to touch Owen’s forehead, and conclude that because he has a fever, the entire incident was imagined. Owen never accepts this explanation; he lives in an enchanted world where such visitations are possible. Later he concludes that he had interrupted the Angel of Death at its work, and in so doing, received responsibility to complete the task himself.

Here is the analysis of chapter 4, “The Little Lord Jesus.”

 

Heirarchy and the Windows of Prague’s Cathedral

In False Dichotomies - the lines between, Worldview on August 22, 2013 at 11:55 pm

829St. Vitus has a commanding view of the city of Prague.  This Gothic structure  is visible  from all over the city since it stands within the castle complex situated on top of the highest point in the city.   

Getting into the service was a little bit of a trick because church officials stood at the door so as to prevent tourists from entering the church before mass, while at the same time allowing worshipers to pass.  We fell into both categories, I suppose, but we entered unimpeded because we approached the door with confidence of a parishioner.  Others more hesitant, were refused and had to wait in the long line until 12 when the last mass was over and the camera toting tourists would be let in.

This was the oldest of the cathedrals in which we worshiped on this trip; parts of the structure date back to the 14th century.   The age of the church facilitated a connection to the medieval worshipers who also looked up into these same ceiling vaults.

The homily was in Czech, so I had no chance of getting anything out of the sermon.  Instead, I studies the stained glass windows that rose far above the old priest who was delivering the homily.

Prague Stained GlassHighest and most central was depiction was of God, represented by God the father embracing his crucified son.  Beneath  these figures were smaller haloed saints and kings.  All these figures were attended to by angels which were arranged according to their heavenly status.  Beneath these were even smaller images of priests and nobles.  From my position in the pew, I looked up to them all. The windows reinforce the worshipers correct place in the hierarchy of the universe.

This idea is alien to us today–we know that “all men [and women] are created equal” and wage war against any notion of the inherent superiority of one individual over another.  We understand the individual to be autonomous and equal.

Not so in the medieval world. Mankind was seen as higher than the animals and the rest of the created order, and a lower being than the angels.  God, as creator and savior, was sovereign above them all.   No living human beings were could be measured against the greatness of the saints who came before, and no ordinary human could be compared to the greatness of one’s king.

The people who lived in the medieval world, those who built this cathedral, accepted this hierarchical nature of reality.  An appropriate response to those above oneself is awe and a solemn respect, and this beautiful window would have evoked this response.

We are no longer as capable of experiencing the same sort of awe and solemn respect as our ancestors, because there is no other self that is inherently superior to my self. 

Living in medieval society which reflected the hierarchical view of the universe was often a restriction of freedom.   But at the same time as they restricted, these orders also gave meaning to life and the idea that some occasions warranted pomp and ceremony.   This idea is natural to a people who understand that the universe is full of things greater than themselves.  Although it is hard for us to understand, those honoured through pomp and ceremony in medieval society did not think of themselves in a self-important sort of way; they were living in obedience to the structure which undergirds the universe. 

 We sometimes struggle to understand occasions of pomp and ceremony.

I recently heard a person who had only recently moved to Canada express incredulity over reaction of  many Canadians (and of course the English) over the recent birth of a son to William and Kate.  He couldn’t understand what makes this birth any more special than any other?  The same question would likely be asked of royal weddings and coronations.  The overwhelming expression of joy over a royal birth or other special event in the life of the English royalty is a vestigial response to a world that understood the relationship between hierarchy and awe, and the relationship between awe and ceremony.  Perhaps, the more peculiar we find this behavior, the flatter our world is.

In The Malaise of Modernity, philosopher Charles Taylor suggests there have been significant consequences to this shift from the medieval vertical to the modern horizontal understanding of humanity and society.  He says we have lost “a heroic dimension to life.  People no longer have a sense of a higher purpose, of something worth dying for” (4).  Another consequence is we have become more self-centred “which both flattens and narrows our lives, makes them poorer in meaning, and less concerned with others or society” (4). 

We Christians have a problem in that we tacitly embrace the modern, flattened view of the universe, except we retain one aspect of the older view–God retains his position at the top.  The rest of the hierarchy has been disassembled, and with  it we’ve lost much of our capacity for awe, and pomp and ceremony no longer make much sense.  If this is the case, are we not missing something as we approach the throne of God in worship?

The cathedral is a celebration of another view of the universe.  It’s not necessarily a true view of the universe, but neither is the modern one.   The vast internal spaces overhead and the beautiful stained-glass windows begin to evoke the sense of awe that would of powerfully affected the experience for those who first worshiped in this space. What my experience in the cathedral in Prague did, was give me a hint of my capacity to experience my own smallness and, consequently, awe for He who is so much greater than myself.

Previous Cathedral Post: Reflections in the Cathedral