It’s Lent, and I’m a bad Catholic, or an ex-Catholic, depending on the day. Or the news. Still, Lent is time of introspection and repentance, as my friend and fellow writer Angela Johnson writes in a fine Lenten post here.
Ashes on the forehead (the all-day display of which feminist Catholic writer Kaya Oakes never liked, either)–
kaya oakes @kayaoakes · Feb 18
Ashbivalence: I do Ash Wednesday at night. Faith is one thing I write about, but that doesn’t compel me to walk around with it on my face.
–and endless forays into self-hate poorly disguised as self-denial are not exactly where I want to go for six weeks of Lenten observance.
On the other hand, who can afford to turn down opportunities for introspection and repentance?
I’m writing a novel about a man whose portrait Vincent Van Gogh painted when Van Gogh and he (anonymous in the painting, but whom I have named Benoît, which means “blessed” in Old French) resided in an asylum in St.-Rémy, France. (Stick with me, here–it’ll come around, I promise.)
Sometimes, regarding the I-don’t-want-to-admit-how-many-years of this undertaking, it’s all I can do not to respond to a Tweet such as the following by my writer-crush, Lydia Netzer (Shine, Shine, Shine and How to Tell Toledo From the Night Sky)…
Lydia Netzer @lostcheerio · Feb 14
Anyone who’s out there struggling to write a difficult book, and you worry it’s too weird and no one will want to read, please do finish it.
…with an embarrassingly Oh my God Yes response.
Most times, though, I think I will never enjoy writing any book as much as this one, for three reasons:
1. I’m hoping to use a dozen or more Van Gogh paintings to headline book sections and I’ve incorporated twenty to thirty additional Van Gogh images into the story. If you know your Van Gogh you’ll see his paintings in many passages.
2. Benoît is and Van Gogh was a lover of poetry, so when I’m not poring over Van Gogh coffee table books I’m flipping through poems that might have been read by an educated person in late-19th century France.
3. Benoît and several other characters in the story are prayerful (if not practicing) Catholics and the asylum at St.-Rêmy was, in fact, run by an order of Roman Catholic nuns. This has led to research/discovery of/making up prayers to incorporate into the text, a practice which I have found I like quite as much as #2, above.
See? I told you we’d get here.
In a recent revision I’ve been working to develop and deepen the friendship between Benoît and a childhood friend, a boy/then man named Jordi. Jordi’s favorite prayer (who knew?) turns out to be Suscipe, written, apparently, in the 16th century by St. Ignatious Loyola:
Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty,
my memory, my understanding,
and my entire will,
All I have and call my own.
You have given all to me.
To you, Lord, I return it.
Everything is yours; do with it what you will.
Give me only your love and your grace,
that is enough for me.
St. Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus, or the Jesuits, is [wise in the Catholic spiritual decision-making known as discernment]. His Spiritual Exercises, written over a couple of decades in the mid-sixteenth century and used by hundreds of thousands in the centuries since, is essentially the structure of a personal retreat dedicated to discernment of God’s will in one’s life. This retreat can take as long as thirty days, and one of its last elements is [Suscipe].
I probably would have hated the prayer in my youth, but I am utterly intrigued by it now. For example, what does “suscipe” actually mean? Amy Welborn says it is the Latin word for “take;” Wikipedia says it is the Latin word for “receive.”
Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty…
Is the prayer about taking or receiving? Who takes? Who receives? Only God? Is the taker always the receiver? The receiver sometimes the taker?
Then I found my favorite interpretation of Suscipe in the online Our Catholic Prayers: “suscipe” as surrender. Suddenly I no longer cared about who takes and who receives. Suscipe is, I think, a prayer, a poem, of surrender.
Why I would have hated it in my youth, why I love it now is reflected in the Van Gogh painting that opens this blog post, “First Steps (After Millet),” painted in January of 1890, while Van Gogh still resided at the asylum. It is, in my novel, the vision another of my characters, a young woman named Marise, has for a dreamed-upon, if uncertain, future.
Isn’t the painting beautiful? Can’t you feel its springtime warmth, smell the flowers of that fruit tree in blossom? And just look at Van Gogh’s classic rendering of the every day work of life: the father who labors in the fields, the mother who has laid out newly-washed linens on the fence; the child taking her first steps between them.
Who takes? Who receives? Who surrenders? Marise wants to know. I do, too.
In the painting the father and his daughter’s arms are open and raised. The mother’s arms are open, as well, but reach down, not up, to support her baby. And if the little girl is only a simple two-dimensional, stationary figure, why do we feel she is so entirely on the cusp of movement–of taking leave of her mother’s hold–even as we watch?
How is it, when we can’t even make out features of any subject’s face, we feel the tenderness, the excitement, the fear? How is it that we (or is it just me?) see these two parents’ inevitable surrender–to their child’s imminent stepping away?
When I started writing my novel-in-progress, I did not imagine where it or its characters would take me. But they have taken me here, to this place of surrender: surrender to imagination, surrender to decisions no longer mine. What would Benoît do/think/say in this situation? Jordi? Marise? Anaïs? Terèso? Sister Ephipanie?
Sometimes these people I have created are good, and sometimes they are not. I am merciless in trying to break them: sometimes they recover, and sometimes they do not. More often than I think they will, they try to do the right thing, even if it comes out wrong.
I am their god, and I love them all. It would never occur to me not to forgive them for everything.
A far cry, perhaps, from “ashbivalence” and “What are you giving up for Lent?” But when I turn the tables, when I switch from “take” to “receive,” from god-like creator to creation of God, this is when I see it best:
Everything is yours; do with it what you will.