Friday, February 20, 2015

Of Rodents and Ashes

This being the first Friday of Lent, the season of penance, allow me to spend a few moments dwelling on the doctrine of Purgatory and its role in one of my favorite movies: Groundhog Day.

I had originally intended to post about this topic on, you know, Groundhog Day, but instead I was in the hospital watching my daughter, Agnes Callista, being born, and then, later on, sleeping fitfully in a hospital easy chair whenever I wasn't changing horrible, horrible meconium diapers (don't click the link if it's close to lunchtime). Still, though it may seem a bit silly, it was special to me that our daughter was born on Groundhog Day, which also happens to be Candlemas.

Before we begin, I would like to invoke the capybara as a beneficent animal spirit-guide in our quest. Why the capybara, you ask? For one thing, it is a rodent, like the groundhog. It is, in fact, the largest rodent in the world, and one of my favorite animals. The picture shown here is a watercolor painting I did a few years ago in its honor.

But, more than this, there is a legend that sixteenth-century missionaries to South America, in a quandary as to whether the creature was to be considered fish or flesh, obtained permission from the Vatican for Catholics to consume its meat on Fridays. (The word "fish" has not always been used in the current taxonomical sense – cf. Moby-Dick, Chapter 32 – so this is more plausible than it may seem.) Rumor has it that this permission has never been rescinded. Me, I'm not a big meat-eater, and don't particularly care for fish (or giant aquatic guinea pigs), so I'm more than happy to forgo the K of C fish fry in favor of pasta or saag paneer on Fridays. Living where we do, we have to substitute queso fresco for the paneer, so it's not quite the same, though our Indian friends to whom we introduced q.f. now do the same thing, and actually like it better.

But I digress.

Many years ago, when I was not a practicing Catholic, I came across Tolkien's short story "Leaf by Niggle," which is the "leaf" of his Tree and Leaf. It is the story of a niggling artist who, like me, is devoted to his art despite his obscurity and mediocrity, but who tends to be a bit negligent of the things of this world, i.e., the needs of his neighbors. He is compelled at last to start his journey (death) and is sentenced to performing mundane tasks (like painting boards) for a long, long period of time. This gradually changes him. He learns discipline, how to make the best use of his time. And then, at long last, he is judged fit to pursue...a new task, with the help of his old neighbor, with whom he is now reconciled.

It is, of course, a story about Purgatory, which I didn't believe in at the time. It made me see, if not the religious necessity of the dogma, at least the psychological necessity of thing itself. To tell the truth, I'm not all that interested in disputing the truth of the belief. Most people have a rather stupid comic-book idea of what it actually entails, whereas the official teaching is fairly agnostic. But let me at least say that I was at the time living in the Bible Belt, where altar-call, pray-this-prayer-and-you'll-be-saved Christianity reigns, and I always found the concept of faith-alone salvation without purgation repugnant. Because I knew that, deep down inside, I was a twisted, messed up person. Maybe I wasn't that horribly sinful, but at any rate I had a lot of problems. The idea of my getting "saved" without being made virtuous and strong seemed like putting lipstick on a pig.

One reason I enjoy Groundhog Day so much is that it gets at the same idea, at the psychological need for purgation. You see, everything we do affects who we are. That is why the Church insists on penance. A sin can be forgiven in a legal sense, but the damage done to the integrity of the person remains, and must be healed. You can't just wake up and say, starting right now I'm going to be a better person. You can change your actions in a superficial sense, but you can't change who you are, and who you are is what ultimately determines what you do. What is required, at least on this earth, is time. Sometimes – rather rarely, these days, but they're still around – you come across a Catholic who has a very literal tit-for-tat understanding of Purgatory and indulgences in terms of days and years. But even this simplistic understanding stands for the truth that a journey from Point A to Point B must be made, and that, for us, in the flesh, this means time. It's a truth often neglected in fiction, and people are generally quite sensitive to its absence.

Phil, Bill Murray's self-absorbed weatherman (who, amusingly, shares his name with the famous Punxsutawney rodent whose prognostications he's sent to report on), finds, as everyone knows, that his Groundhog Day repeats. At first he lives for material gratification. This leads to despair, and he begins committing suicide in an delightful variety of ways. But through all this he starts to see the goodness of his producer Rita, a woman he once despised, and determines to win her heart. Because of who he is, this takes the form of manipulation. He tries to learn what buttons to push to make her do what he wants her to do. She's still an object to him, not a person. His attempts at seeming cultured and kind are hilariously superficial. And she sees through him every time.

Here there is a turning point. Realizing that he will never succeed in making her love him as he is, but also having come to find some true love for her in his heart, he opens up to her about what he experiences every day. And she opens up to him in return. His day keeps repeating, but from that point on he seeks to better himself through hard work, reading, learning how to do things, performing good deeds, figuring out the best way to help the people around him on their own terms. This takes a long, long, long time. But in the end he is loved by all, including Rita; the breach between him and the human race is closed; the spell is broken.

Apart from all that, it is a hilarious movie, and one with amazing production values. It bears repeated watching, if only to observe the subtle similarities and differences in the background action from day to day.

So, there: I managed to write a post about the multiple connections between rodents and penance.


  1. Congratultations on the arrival of Agnes C.! My own Christian background is Lutheran and salvation sola fides is what I was taught. What I wasn't taiught but have come to believe that if it's a gift as is taught then it will be that real purging, remolding thing you describe. Have gone to evangelical churches for several years now, I don't often encounter folks who agree. It's altar call, testimony, baptism, boom! As much as the sacraments are rejected there clearly are evangelical practices that occupy a similar place though most would be loath to admit it.

    1. Thanks!

      In my own limited experience, the people who really hold that idea of "being saved" in its most fatuous form are pretty rare, whatever they might say they believe. Experience is too good a teacher. My wife and I belonged to an unaffiliated church that taught that idea, insofar as it taught anything, when we were in college. It had everything: worship with screaming, sobbing, dancing, leaping, running, speaking in tongues; former demoniacs & vampire cultists; prophets & prophetesses; "deliverance" sessions and exorcisms; deafening hour-long sermons. People would join with fanfare, proclaiming a radical break with their old lives, but vanish quietly. I've always suspected that they became despondent because their old habits caught up with them, and there was no room in their beliefs for the long road. (Well, and some people discovered that the pastor was stealing money, but that's another story.)

      Another good example in fantasy of the (psychological) need for purgation or healing is the departure of Frodo from the Grey Havens. Wounded by knife, sting, tooth, and long burden, he can't simply return to the way things were. But even the very protestant Pilgrim's Progress, something I read quite a few times back in the day, implicitly carries the same idea in its very conceit: faith as a journey rather than a destination.