As I teach literature at the Academy of the Holy Family, I am often aware of the blessing I have received in being able to teach at this school. At the Academy of the Holy Family, I am able to teach the works of literature through the lens of Christianity. Literature written in a Christian culture posits a worldview that includes knowledge of Scripture and an understanding of the basic teachings of the Christian faith. Much literature simply does not make sense if it is lifted out of its Christian context. At the Academy, the works can be presented in the fullness of the Christian faith, without which the works would not have been written.
When we read The Canterbury Tales, we enter a thoroughly Christian world. The work is written by Geoffrey Chaucer, a Catholic writer writing for a Catholic audience. The modern view would say that, of course, Chaucer’s purpose was to satirize the Church. Why else would the author present such corrupt ecclesiastical characters as the Pardoner and the Friar? But as we enter into the work, we note that Chaucer’s deft and ironic portraits take the measure of his characters character by the level of virtue of each, and by how closely and well each is living out his or her vocation. While the Friar has attributes that the audience of the Middle Ages would have immediately recognized as being characteristics of the devil, Chaucer also gives us the Parson, gentle and holy, a shepherd who would never abandon his sheep, nor ever commit the sins common to the age, for, if gold rust, then what of iron? Finally, when we learn to read through the lens of Christianity, we see that the Host, who acts as Guide and Judge of the pilgrims, also provides them with “the best of victual (food),” and though the character does have a name, is referred to as “the Host” sixty-six times. The word “Host” would mean only one thing in the Catholic Middle Ages- Jesus Christ in the Eucharist. Once we begin to see this reality, we cannot un-see it. The Catholic universe is a given in Chaucer’s work.
The plays of Shakespeare, too, we read through a Christian lens. Indeed, there is no other way to fully understand the works of Shakespeare. In recent decades, many scholars have offered evidence for the Catholicism of William Shakespeare, and find the evidence, not only in the biography, but in the plays themselves. Understanding Shakespeare’s plays from a Catholic perspective allows us to see them in a new- and very old- way. Is the play, Romeo and Juliet simply about two star-crossed-hapless- lovers who, due to the constraints of society and parents, end up dead because of loving too much? Or is it, when we look closely and from the point of view of Catholic philosophy, about the deadly consequences of intemperance, and lack of restraint? When we read The Taming of the Shrew, do we find a play about male dominance and female submission? What we actually find is a play about the acquisition of virtue. From the opening lines, when Lucentio arrives in Padua, to study “virtue, and that part of philosophy…that treats of happiness/ By virtue specially to be achieved” (1.1.21-2), we see that the play is grounded in Catholic philosophy, which presupposes an understanding of the will and the appetites, and the need for virtue to restrain the passions. Lucentio, a few lines later, is swept up by the passions after seeing the beautiful Bianca, with whom he falls in love. He expresses himself in the language of the passions: “I burn, I pine, I perish, Tranio/ If I achieve not this young modest girl” (1.1.155-6). Petruchio, on the other hand, is not swayed by the passions, and boldly acts out of the will: “And will you, nill you, I will marry you” (2.1.271). Petruchio models for his bride the folly of vice, of anger and distemper. If the play were about male dominance and female submission, then we would not expect that Katherine would be happy in her marriage. But virtue does lead to happiness, and that is what we find at the end of the play, when Petruchio, dumbstruck with admiration as he hears his wife’s speech, finally says, “Kiss me, Kate.”
As we move forward through the literature, we find that reading through a Christian lens allows us deep understanding of the works, and of the author’s purposes. The British Literature course begins with the short stories (including Graham Greene’s “the Hint of an Explanation,” about nothing less than transubstantiation), then goes back to the beginning of British literature, to Beowulf. As we reach the end of the school year, we are reading Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre,
a novel long claimed by feminists that, upon close reading, turns out to be about conversion and the value of redemptive suffering. When Jane makes the agonizing choice to do the right thing and leave her beloved Rochester, whom she now knows is married, she prays in the words of Psalm 22. Jane wanders on the moor, penniless and starving, and is taken in and sheltered by a family of three grown siblings with whom she feels an unexplained affinity. During this time, she learns that she is not an orphan, but an heiress, and she discovers the family for which she has always longed. When pressured into marriage to a man she does not love, she prays to God for direction, again in the words of the psalms, Psalm 25. It is then that she hears Rochester’s voice, calling to her. Although she does not realize it, in having made the morally right choice, she has saved not only herself, but Rochester as well. Rochester has suffered a calamity of Biblical proportions, losing his eye and his hand. Upon her return, Jane she finds a man chastened by suffering who has experienced a conversion of heart. He is now able to see in his afflictions the infinite mercy of God. Reader, Jane marries him. This great novel ends with a line from the book of Revelation, Come, Lord Jesus.
It is a blessing to be able to teach what I know to be true about the literature, here at the Academy of the Holy Family.