June 21st, 2012The Great Divorce and the Greater Marriageby Kevin O'Brien | http://www.thewordinc.org

In both C. S. Lewis' novel, and in reality, "The Great Divorce" is between Heaven and Hell, not between Heaven and Earth.


Dena Hunt on the Ink Desk has a thoughtful post about the loss of innocence and wonder.

She points to the Romantic poets, and particularly Wordsworth, as those who best articulate this sense of loss.  I would say this sentiment is expressed well not only by Wordsworth, especially in Intimations of Immortality, but also by modernists like Matthew Arnold in Dover Beach, where he ties "disenchantment" (as Dena would phrase it) specifically to the loss of Faith ...

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

But is this, as Dena argues, the fault of the Enlightenment?  Is it the "Great Divorce" (as she calls it) between (in effect) matter and spirit, knowledge and wisdom, the subject and the object?  Is Mark Twain right when he blames the loss of our sense of the mystery of the river on our knowledge of its currents for the sake of utility and navigation?


But my sense is this is a false dichotomy, that this is a flaw of Romanticism, an over-reaction to the errors of materialism and the Manichean spirit of the Reformation and its step-child, the Enlightenment.

As Dena correctly concludes, the "re-enchantment of nature" has, in a way, nothing to do with the disenchantment we feel if we study too much molecular biology.  That nagging sense of despair and futility is easily exorcised if you simply turn away from it and gaze again in wonder at the wonders around you.  But there's more to it than this.

Disenchantment is also disillusionment, and in both senses what we are freed from is a kind of spell or falsehood, we are dis-enchanted or "un-charmed", the spell being broken; dis-illusioned or no-longer-"mistaken". 

Take marriage.

When you love a woman, she can do no wrong.  When you marry her, suddenly you can do no right.  I'm trying to be funny here, but not only does her "enchantment" with you end when "the honeymoon is over", so does yours with her. 

Or take, for example, show business.  I am writing this from Buffalo, New York, where the Theater of the Word is currently on tour "evangelizing through drama".  On the one hand, we lead an "enchanted" life - we travel the country touching people's hearts and minds in very profound ways, doing what we are called to do and being treated with great graciousness and hospitality.  On the other hand, we lead a very "disenchanted" life, dealing with the hassles of travel, with the expense of being on the road, with clients who often do not want to pay us, with nutty Catholics, with resistance on the diocesan and parish level, where shows are sometimes cancelled once words gets around that the content is profoundly pro-life or orthodox, with situations where we are housed in a seminary and they turn off the heat and refuse to feed us (this actually happened) - and where, from a worldly perspective, we are utterly wasting our time.  You can love this woman, but once you start to live with her you see she's not so pretty when she wakes up in the morning; as, in the same way, you can love the spirit of the river, but get awfully angry at her when you're driving several tons of coal and she keeps trying to ground you into a sandbar.

Now which perspective is true? 

Are we itinerant Apostles of Drama serving our Lord through both consolations and sufferings?  Or are we selfish sinners speaking a message to other selfish sinners that they really don't believe and typically don't want to hear?  Are we reservoirs of love and vessels of the Holy Spirit - or are we starving actors working against the grain of a culture we should long ago have sold out to?

The fact is that both are true, and neither fully contradicts the other.

This is a mean and brutal existence.  This is a vocation filled with wonder. 

This is a calling to suffer.  This is a great blessing filled with the presence of God and the reality of His Kingdom. 

This is foolish and stupid.  This is a devotion to and an incarnation of a deep Wisdom.

Nature is full of spirits and elves and fairies and wonder.  Nature is a biological machine that is red in tooth and claw.

And what makes sense of the paradox?  What unites these apparently disparate truths?

As I told one of our actresses recently ... love. "This is an act of love.  No amount of failure or frustration can change that.  And that is the Kingdom," I wrote.  The act of love I referred to was our foolhardy attempt to evangelize through drama; but the act of love can also be life itself - for any of us. 

If we love, disillusion and disenchantment are redeemed.  If we love, the warts we see on our wife's face in the daylight are as endearing as the glow her make-up enhanced in the moonlight.  If we love, even the knowledge that disappoints our innocence can be lovable.

What are your thoughts on the subject?

Remember my personal information

Notify me of follow-up comments?

Submit the word you see below:

  • June 22 2012 | by Dena Hunt

    Dear Kevin,

    I'm glad "Mark Twin and Modernity" inspired in you such a luminous reflection on marriage, but I have to quibble just a bit. I didn't say there had been a divorce between wisdom and knowledge; rather, that it was an "*artificial* sundering," that the "Great Divorce never really happened." Also, I didn't say that the apparent separation was "the fault of the Enlightenment'; rather, that we knew only vaguely that "the long slow death" began around that time, and implied that we, consequently and mistakenly, assume the Englightenment to be causal when it's actually symptomatic.

    Your quotation of Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach" and your own following praise of love leads me to think that you and Arnold are in accord ("Ah, Love, Let us be true to one another!"). I know this would sound blasphemous to most moderns, but I think Arnold places quite a heavy burden on finite man's capacity for love. Human love is indeed a participation in the divine, but it's a gift that's given to clay-footed creatures, and I suspect that we (Arnold, Christians, secularists and neo-pagans all alike) expect rather a lot of ourselves and each other when we demand that it supplant love of God ("faith") to be the meaning of our lives. And even if it could do that, we, as Arnold did, overestimate our capacity to sustain it.

    And I always thought it was such an irony that the romantic poets, in their declarations of war on all the "rules," held so steadfastly to their own rule of never once, even briefly, considering that their loud laments might be attributable not to the arrival of crass materialism but to the departure of their own faith. It is one thing to praise abstract childhood when you believe it's lost to you forever; it's quite another to have the spiritual courage to re-claim that personal childhood that you yourself have abandoned. Wordsworth is the only one who ever came close--but his adherence to the unspoken rule precluded any possibility of real success, as he mused "in years that bring the philosophic mind". Coleridge actually did it, but since it was only with the aid of opium, he didn't believe it. It's too bad that his brilliant mind could not in sobriety grasp the import of his former friend Wordsworth's line in "Intimations...", that something "having been, must ever be."

    It remained for J.R.R. Tolkien to stumble on it accidentally, whilst telling a tale to his children.
  • June 24 2012 | by Dena Hunt

    does this ever happen to you? I hope it does, so you'll maybe forgive. My response to your beautiful post (yes, really) was dry, academic, yada-yada.

    Mea culpa.

    (But also, just a thought: Make sure you put a deposit sometimes into that account from which you make such heavy withdrawals.)