Monday, November 5, 2007

"All human suffering is an act of repentance."

"The Keys of the Kingdom" by A. J. Cronin

Started: 27 September 2007
Finished: 23 October 2007

Tears filled my eyes when I read that quote -- flying somewhere over Europe -- which I put in the title line. I prayed silently that it may be true. 'Dear God, please let it be the case! Let us be able to repent for our sins through what we suffer. Then human pain and misery will not be such a mystery and a seeming waste.'

I watched the sublimely exquisite movie, starring Gregory Peck, made from this book some years back. In it, he plays the gentle, unambitious, and frequently-misunderstood Scottish priest, Francis Chisholm. Well...perhaps to call Father Chisholm 'unambitious' is misleading; he does have his desires and goals, the same as any human being. He just doesn't have the usual ones for a priest. Not that he doesn't want to win souls to Christ. He does. But that's just it--that is his sole aspiration. He is not concerned with: rising in the Church, making money or influential friends, nor even converting at any cost, but only in genuinely changing minds and hearts. Therefore, he is constantly at odds with the world around him--even with those from inside his own Church.

But to speak of the movie again; it was delightful as I remember. I haven't watched it recently. Now that I've finished the book, I must watch it again. As I recall it, however, it is nowhere so complete as the book of course. Books, by their very nature, can go into so much more detail than movies--although movies have their place as well.

The Keys to the Kingdom is achingly beautiful, packed with lines like the one above which just pierce the heart with their Truth and Wisdom. I read the quote above to several individuals on my recent pilgrimage and it struck them as it did me. To put the quote in context makes it even more poignant. Fr. Chisholm's childhood best friend, Dr. Willie Tulloch, has journeyed from Scotland to China to visit, only to find the land in the midst of the plague. Dr. Tulloch, although raised in a devout Catholic home like his friend, Francis, has grown up to be an agnostic--or perhaps an atheist--it's not really clear. In any event, near the end of weeks working side-by-side, treating hundreds of Chinese with the plague, Willie finally succumbs and lays dying in Francis' arms. Here is their conversation.

(Willie) '..."ye'll write the old man and tell him that his son died game. Funny . . . I still can't believe in God."

"Does that matter now?" What was he saying? Francis did not know. He was crying and in the stupid humiliation of his weakness, the words came from him in blind confusion. "He believes in you."

"Don't delude yourself . . . I'm not repentant."

"All human suffering is an act of repentance."

There was a silence. The priest said no more. Weakly, Tulloch reached out his hand and let it fall on Francis' arm.

"Man I've never loved you so much as I do now . . . for not trying to bully me into heaven. You see-" His lids dropped wearily...'

There are many other quotes by and about the good priest which I'd like to share with you; here are just a sampling. Fr. Chisholm says to the gardener, after he complains all his plantings are lost and he must begin all over again. 'That is life . . . to begin again when everything is lost.'

Another time he writes in his journal, 'But the joy of knowing that to one person at least one is dear . . . indispensable . . . ' Yes! I can agree, that is Joy!

And this after he had been captured by bandits, held hostage, tortured and had his leg broken, 'Clumsily, a stiff ungainly figure, he knelt down, and begged God to judge him less by his deeds than by his intention.'

Keys is such a superb story--elegant in its exemplification of the simple. It will wrap itself around your heart, touch places deep inside and stay with you long after you close the cover. If all priests were like Fr. Chisholm, there would have been no need for the Reformation. He truly carried the love of Christ wherever he went.

God bless you!


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