In November last year, I attended four interactive lectures on the spirituality of novelist Jane Austen. They were presented by the Rev Preb Paula Hollingsworth, a sub dean of Wells Cathedral, who is also our Anglican parish vicar in my village of Priddy. She has been invited to write a book on this subject and her discourse on a ‘virtue centred approach to ethics’ has fired my imagination.
In New Church terms, my understanding of virtue based ethics centres on a person’s ability to consistently discipline and regulate herself internally; to behave in principled ways to support the neighbour through her external behaviour. In our case, these principles are informed by our Swedenborgian teachings, an open rational mind with a developed conscience and most importantly, a willingness to love the Lord and be led by Him. In essence, I’m describing our moral compass.
Today I’m sharing an anecdote about part of my formative education in romantic love and how this outlook is changing. It illustrates the impact that awareness of this particular ethical approach is having on my psyche. I hope it also demonstrates the Lord’s intimate attention to detail, when it comes to our individual spiritual healing. In my case, it is simply time to attend to another strand of the innocence of ignorance I ingested growing up. The Lord is gently re-educating me by the means I have at my disposal and the love I have for tales of romance.
I majored in English Literature at Durban University in South Africa, back in 1985. During my spare time however, I read hundreds of formulaic Mills and Boon books. You know the type I mean – 185 pages of woman meets man, they can’t communicate their attraction effectively, he’s indifferent and she’s anxious, finally he declares himself as her knight in shining armour, they embrace – end of story! I did not have the benefit of exposure to the Writings on conjugial love, so this was one of my key influences on how love works. And yes, it affected the type of man I was drawn to and my shallow expectations of relationships.
This may sound naive now, but I still retain a kernel of this repetitive bombarding of my neural passageways; complete with attendant emotions.
Paula’s sessions on Jane Austen gave me the courage to approach the classics – so far I’ve added George Eliot and Charlotte Bronte to the mix and my capacity to experience more is boundless! I have copied numerous passages that testify to virtuous ethics in action; focusing on characters’ internal reflections manifested as upright behaviour towards the neighbour and their loved ones. I’ve discovered a reading environment and time capsule that reflect so much of what we believe as Swedenborgians. And yes, there are clear representations of the qualities and depths of conjugial love too.
1) “Some real lives do – for some certain days or years – actually anticipate the happiness of Heaven; and, I believe, if such perfect happiness is once felt by good people (to the wicked it never comes), its sweet effect is never wholly lost. Whatever trials follow, whatever pains of sickness or shades of death, the glory precedent still shines through, cheering the keen anguish, and tinging the deep cloud.
… Let me not delay the happy truth. Graham Bretton and Paulina de Bassompierre were married, and such an agent did Dr Bretton prove. He did not with time degenerate; his faults decayed, his virtues ripened; he rose in intellectual refinement, he won in moral profit: all dregs filtered away, the clear wine settled bright and tranquil. Bright, too, was the destiny of the sweet wife. She kept her husband’s love, she aided in his progress – of his happiness she was the corner stone.
This pair were blessed indeed, for years brought them, with great prosperity, great goodness; they imparted with open hand, yet wisely. Doubtless they knew crosses, disappointments, difficulties; but these were well borne.
… In short, I do but speak the truth when I say that these two lives of Graham and Paulina were blessed, like that of Jacob’s favoured son, with “blessings of Heaven above, blessings of the deep that lies under.” It was so, for God saw that it was good.” (Extract narrated by Lucy Snowe in Charlotte Bronte’s ‘Villette’)
2) “… Warm, jealous, and haughty, I knew not till now that my nature had such a mood; he gathered me near his heart. I was full of faults; he took them and me all home. For the moment of utmost mutiny, he reserved the one deep spell of peace. These words caressed my ear: –
“Lucy, take my love. One day share my life. Be my dearest, first on earth.”
We walked back to the Rue Fossette by moonlight – such moonlight as fell on Eden – shining through the shades of the Great Garden, and haply gilding a path glorious, for a step divine – a Presence nameless. …” (Extract narrated by Lucy Snowe, including a declaration of love towards her by M. Paul Emanuel – from Charlotte Bronte’s ‘Villette’)
What a beautiful way to be renewed! I’m experiencing the joy of recognition and identification with more worthy, rounded heroines and their heroes. The question that’s forming on my lips is “how do we incorporate our New Church code of virtue based ethical conduct into meaningful self-expression, that the modern world can relate to?” Please join me in my modest attempts to keep our teachings relevant.