Be My Light, Catholic, Culture of Death, depression, Doris Lessing, Literature, mental illness, Mother Theresa, To Room Nineteen, Worldview
A long time ago, in an undergraduate degree far, far away, I studied Doris Lessing’s short story “To Room Nineteen.” I was in the first bloom of being a newly minted English major, and was quite taken with the story, if in a fairly simplistic manner. For those who don’t know the story, it is, as the opening line highlights, a story about the failure of a certain kind of intelligence. Susan and Matthew Rawlings are a progressive, reasonable couple, who live in what reads like a suburban version of Eden. Despite having done everything “right,” however, and being ever so enlightened about “insignificant” matters such as marital affairs, Susan’s life begins to unravel from the inside, to the point that she invents a fake lover to hide from her husband the fact that, when she sneaks off during the days, she is really sneaking off to sit silently and obliviously in room nineteen of the seamy and generically titled quarters of Fred’s Hotel. At the end of the story, when her husband (being “enlightened”) suggests that they should meet each other’s lovers, she instead goes to room nineteen and turns on the gas, killing herself on account of the vague and mysterious “thing” that has driven her from her family and that haunts every inch of her life.
My first interpretation of this story focused on the historical context. This is what happens in “progress,” when humans think they can best everything with an enlightened reasonableness, and think they can simply slough off real human urges, such as the urge to be angry when one’s spouse cheats on one. Though I wasn’t aware of it at the time, my first thoughts were along the lines of those of Pope John Paul II when he described the modern world as a culture of death; it is no surprise that a world stripped of transcendence and meaning should end in a self-imposed gas chamber of a tawdry hotel room gauded by the stains of habitual lusts that had no wherewithal to become love.
To a certain degree, I still feel this is what the story is about. Yet, when I taught it the other day, a good ten years after first encountering it, I noticed something else – everything that I had once attributed simplistically to moral decline in culture and the overarching master rhetoric of postmodernity could be equally attributed to depression. It is even accurate as a description of depression down to the smallest details; it knows, for instance, that those in the deepest depression never feel sad – sadness would be a mercy. No, they feel blank. And it is that blankness that is held in room nineteen.
I will not here get into the complications of what causes depression – it really is all sorts of things, such as environment, biology, relationships, etc. etc. – so one cannot entirely discount the idea that part of this depression is in fact induced situationally; unrealistic ideas about the ideal and “perfect” intelligent life have led to a break with reality. And yet, if this is a factor, I think I may have been mistaken when my younger self saw this as the only thing going on in the story, because things, it turned out, were more complicated than this. Figuring out the world was not simply a matter of showing up an instance of despair that one could then, in the margins of the pages, patch up with Jesus. This is what I had initially assumed, but the reality is more complex.
My assumption of this for the most part came out of something that I imagine many of my readers will be familiar with, a school of thought that approaches Christian thinking as a process of identifying various “worldviews.” The various worldviews are then assessed by the degree to which they do or do not match up with the so-called “Christian worldview.” By doing this, one could see how various cultures, literatures, etc. were implicitly protoevangelia, pointing up the failure of non-Christian worldviews and gesturing toward the truth of the Christian worldview.
And of course there is a sense in which a Christian can’t believe anything other than this; if the fullness of truth is found in Christ and His Church, it makes sense that those means by which we engage the world around us would analogically point back to these, as per the old idea of the “Book of Nature.” However, you will notice a slight difference between what I just said and the “worldview” perspective I presented prior, and that is that “Christ and His Church” are a good deal different than a “Christian worldview.” Both of the former are mysteries, insofar as, while they can be understood sufficiently, they cannot be circumscribed in their entirety by human reason. But a Christian worldview, it seems to me, comes across more as a neatly packaged set of instructions, a little like the programs we install on our computers – install the right software, and things will be good, but install the wrong software, and there will be problems.
And this brings us right up against the problem with worldviews. Worldview thinking too easily permits us to construct a narrative of the world wherein deep depression – like that found in Lessing’s room nineteen – is a problem that can be magicked away if one just replaces the nihilism with the right “worldview.” In many ways, it is the intellectual version of the prosperity gospel: think rightly – have a Christian worldview – and things will go well. Get the wrong worldview, and things will be dismal. It is something very comforting to imagine for those who do not get depressed or who have not experienced deep suffering. For those who have – and here I think of the book of Job – it is like acid poured on an open wound.
And this is what I realized as I taught the story the other night, something I have been learning for a long time now but that very much crystalized in this experience: a Christian worldview is no talisman against sadness and deep incomprehensible suffering, and those who spoke as though it were, largely had, for the price of a messless world, underestimated the deep suffering of their Christian brothers and sisters who do have Christ and who also know the inexplicable hollowness that can simultaneously occur within their hearts. The recognition of this, though, raises another question: if this hollowness is not dealt with simply by an easy adjustment of one’s worldview, how is a Christian to deal with it?
It was at this juncture in my thinking that I thought of the recently published book on Mother Theresa, Come Be My Light. My reason for recalling this is that what she describes – a deep spiritual darkness that haunted her for much of her life – is a little like what Lessing identifies in room nineteen. The circumstances are of course very different; Susan Rawlings is a suburban wife in an “intelligent” and “progressive” family, whereas Mother Theresa gave her whole life to serve the poor of Calcutta. But their experiences have in common a certain terrifying darkness and a particular kind of incommunicability – of the relatively few things we know about Theresa’s darkness, one is that she sometimes found it impossible to explain to others, leaving her often feeling even cut off from her confessor. Thus, the life of Mother Theresa puts the lie to the kind of thinking that suggests a change in worldview is all we need to guard against such darkness. Theresa knew Christ – and that did not keep her from also feeling the confusing frustration of his apparent absence so palpably that she could barely speak it.
Such darkness is indeed terrifying to us, unprotected as we are from it by our faith in Christ. Yet I think it is in the midst of such darkness – in the lives of those who experience it, such as Mother Theresa – that we see a Christian alternative to a simplistic worldviewish read on this hollowness. What we find in the life of Mother Theresa is that her practice was to consecrate this internal darkness as a sacrifice for Christ, to make this internal blank itself a marker for her faith, and a prayer to the One in whom she trusted. This it seems did not make it any easier for her – and it would in fact by definition not be such deep darkness if this approach magically took it away. But it does suggest to me what a real Christian approach to Lessing’s bleak enigma might look like. What it looks like is the figure of a woman willing to offer room nineteen to God as a house of prayer. It does not take away the tawdry blankness or soften the seamy scents of ruined lust, the unholy sacrifices of other inhabitants. But it does allow us to rest in the – I don’t want to call it knowledge, but something in fact beyond knowledge – that this space in our hearts so little understood can in fact become the central altar of the temple of ourselves, our bodies. It can be lifted up to God, if not triumphantly, at least in faith, and it can become – even if not seen by ourselves – a testament to the love of God. It can mean that even for those who feel their legacy is darkness – when they trust in Christ – there is even hope for them. And it finally means that there are other options than denial or turning on the gas. We can withdraw into our closets – into the seedy and disreputable room nineteen of our hearts – and pray to our Father Who is unseen. And He who sees what is done in secret will reward us; he will turn our darkness into prayer.