Saturday, November 13, 2010

"All at once, and with no two ways about it, I was being told to put my life in order."

". . . Yet more agreeable than bringing modern ideas and scholarship to the Poles was the sight of the old tried ways of Europe, thriving in the face of oppression, and awakening in the young British visitor the deep-down awareness of the Christian way of life. The Oxford students would come to Poland with left-liberal politics, agnostic beliefs, pleasure-loving ways and a habit of sneering at things old and venerable. All of them would leave in a thoughtful frame of mind, sceptical of political utopias, respectful of religion and with a new appreciation of the orderly soul and its destiny.
     "I differed from the students only in my starting point. I too was moved, refreshed and also troubled by those orderly souls that I encountered. . . . Most orderly of all was Barbara, and her beautiful lop-sided face with its high Slavonic cheekbones, dark eyes and left-handed smile gave the impression, when she looked at mewhich she did oftenthat she opened a door into my soul and stood quietly inside it. She was a messenger from another realman angel in the original meaning of the term; and she entered my life like an annunciation.
". . . it was no underground activist, no banned writer, no samizdat publisher, no chivalrous knight of a forbidden order who waited for me in the woods at Każimierż.  It was Basia, who stepped quietly across my path and looked with a disarming seriousness into my eyes.
     "'You have no ring on finger,' she said.  'But in West is freedom, and rings make chains.  So I ask a question.'
     "I took her hand, which was small, like a child's.
     "'Someone waits for you? You get down from that airplane and maybe a face with smiles and a flower comes out of a crowd?'
     "'No flower,' I responded truthfully.
     "'So, just a face.' She detached her hand. 'This is pity because already you are a little bit in my heart.'
     "I received this news in unastonished silence. All at once and with no two ways about it, I was being told to put my life in order.  I reviewed the chaos that had dogged me from year to year since my divorce, and to which I had never yet confessed.
     "'Well yes,' she said, 'you say nothing. It is not for a woman to tell feelingswoman must hide otherwise she is cheap. But you come here for truth I think. So it is much worse than I tell. I love you. I want to be yours. And it is impossible. This is God's work for me. Tohow do you saycome over my love?'
     "'Yes, overcome,' she said with a self-deprecating laugh. . . .
". . . Basia was young and her first need was to confess. I learned that the order in her soul was not innate but acquired, and acquired by swimming constantly against the current of sensual desire. She had visited England as an au pair to a Pakistani family, had been seduced by the husband, and had come back to Poland with his baby inside her. She had lived thereafter in the full consciousness of her body, knowing that it must be ruled and guided. She confessed to her unchastities with chaste and reverent words. And she brought home to me, then and subsequently, what is perhaps the most important truth conveyed by religion, . . . the truth that sex is either consecration or desecration, with no neutral territory between, and that nothing matters more than the customs, ceremonies and rites with which we lift the body above its material need and reshape it as soul. . . . Basia phrased [this thought] in the pure, simple, liturgical language of her church, and showed through her emotion that she had re-made herself, so as one day to give herself entirely. Perhaps she should have been a nun; but it was too late for that. Now her first thought was to encounter the temptation that I presented, not to flee from it, but to vanquish it. For the crazy idea had also come into her head that she could help me to salvation.
". . . [Basia] observed her world with the eye of religion, seeing in everything the sign of God's creative power and the call to free obedience. Hers was a simple, humble, priest-haunted life, and yet it was lived more intensely and more completely than mine. It was wholly natural to her to believe that fulfilment and renunciation coincide, and that a carnal love could be transcended, as the priestess Diotima revealed to Socrates, so as to rescue both lover and beloved from the dross of this world."

     Roger Scruton, "Stealing from churches," chap. 5 of Gentle regrets: thoughts from a life (London: Continuum, 2005), 72-76.

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