“So he had lived in childhood and adolescence in the same country rectory, taking part each Sunday in a familiar liturgy which reflected, interpreted and sanctified the changing seasons of the farming year.”
Reading one more novel of P.D. James, a master of murder mysteries who understands us, glorious ruins that we are, knowing the way things should be, even as her stories were about the way things should not be, I was struck by her simple description of seeing seamlessly.
Why and how do we learn to see heaven touching earth all around us, in and through every square inch of the whole of reality? For her, it was from a life where liturgy and labor were not finally different, where worship and work were intertwined, weaving a tapestry that gives us eyes to see the way things ought to be, even as we take into our hearts what is so painfully not supposed to be.
The best art always does that, and good books are one window into what that means, page after page drawing us into the truth of the human condition, facing as we must our dignity and our shame. Mysteries are always that story, and murder mysteries even more so. They are good stories only because they take us into the heart of our hearts, requiring that we ponder the perplexity of desire, the complex nuances of imagination and motivation.
This is never romanticism, but rather an honest wrestling with the fact of our humanness, glorious ruins that we are. Made in the very image of God, and yet and yet, able and capable of the most horrific decisions with the most heart-wrenching consequences, we are disposed to dualisms that drive wedges between heaven and earth.
“A masterful writer…” was the Wall Street Journal’s description of her gift, the New York Times described Devices and Desires as “better than her best.” Through the years of her writing, she found ways to tell tales the whole world wanted to hear. And what is fascinating is that she resisted compartmentalizing her life and work, her beliefs about the world from the way she lived in the world— in fact, to press the point, her deepest convictions about God and the human heart shine through the stories of frail human beings who live in this frail world, longing for lives that are impossible to find, apart from grace.
When someone like James simply says that that her chief detective, Adam Dalgleish of Scotland Yard, learned to see sacramentally, she reminds us that the truest vocations are formed by a seamless understanding of life, torn as we are— as he was —by the painful reminders of our bent hearts, our mysterious capacity for twisted and wounding choices, even as we long for something more.
(The Angelus by French painter Jean-François Millet, completed in 1859, a painting of two peasants bowing in a field over a basket of potatoes, with the ringing of the bell from the church on the horizon marking the end of a day’s work.)