Swedenborg talks about how every person is a church. Within every individual there is a marriage of good and truth that creates the church within them. This doesn’t mean denomination or the building where congregations hold service, or even the group of people that call themselves a church. It is everyone’s personal spiritual identity.
Finding one’s individual and unique spiritual identity is a lifelong journey that I am only just beginning and already struggling with. I have often felt the need to conform and I can feel anxious or stressed when my church might be different from someone else’s. This might manifest as a need to make those around me believe what I do, but it might also make me feel that I must change what I believe to fit what someone else says is true.
But like most things in life, the trick is to find the balance between the two options. To listen to those around me in a way that allows me to find what I can accept as true or what I feel I need to change about my beliefs. If what someone is telling me feels uncomfortable or out of sync with what I believe it could be because what I’m being told is not true or maybe what I believe needs some refinement. We have to not only follow the Lord’s Word and bend our will to His, but also not let ourselves get trapped by what others say is true.
This past year I took an english class in which we read Jane Eyre. This is my favorite novel and I have read it many times but it wasn’t until this most recent reading that I really appreciated the spiritual journey that Jane goes on through the course of the novel. She goes through a significant transition from a dependent and downtrodden orphan, to an independent and self-confident woman all the time finding confidence in her own spiritual identity.
Spoiler Alert! From here on out there will be many spoilers for those who haven’t read Jane Eyre. If you are in that group I would highly recommend you go read it! But it’s a pretty popular book for students to study . Jane Eyre was published in 1847, so hopefully you’ve had plenty of time and opportunity to be exposed to this great piece of fiction. If you haven’t read it and still choose to read on, just know that this a very brief overview that only focuses on the elements of the story that are relevant to my topic and there is so much more to this story that I won’t even touch on. You have been warned!
Jane Eyre is a character who I aspire to be and can sympathize with. She has strong opinions, yet doesn’t force them on others. She is loyal to the good in people and encourages those around her to enhance that good while discouraging the bad. She is a hard worker who cares for anyone who needs it, even if they do not treat her well in return. She is passionate but is careful to temper her desires with a firm sense of morality and truth.
But one of the most compelling things for me about her character is her devotion to her own spirituality. She does her best to do what she believes is right. Her moral compass is strongly tied to religion and an image of God and yet it is an image and an understanding of the Divine being that she formulates for herself by observing the world and the people in it with a non judgement and open mind. She is practiced and skilled in recognizing truth and accepting it while pointing out and rejecting falsity. Very Swedenborgian terms, I know, but the more I study this novel the more I see parallels between Jane’s worldview and Swedenborg’s writings.
Orphaned at infancy, Jane is raised by her Aunt along with her cousins. She is treated badly and abused for being poor and “plain”. Her religious experiences were no better due to her rebellious nature labeling her as a bad child and therefore destined for Hell. When Jane is 10, her Aunt sends to her a Christian boarding school run by a Mr. Brocklehurst. The Lowood school and its headmaster are Jane’s first opportunity to reject the harsh and unforgiving model of Christianity represented by Mr. Brocklehurst. He is a cruel and hypocritical man who proclaims that Jane is a liar and commands that none of the other girls should associate with her. He requires that the girls wear plain clothes and cut off natural curls while his own daughters are allowed to wear fine gowns and artificially curl their hair. Brocklehurst’s brand of Christianity is easy for Jane to reject. An easy start to formulating one’s unique church is to identify what definitely isn’t part of your belief system. Jane is able to see the harm that can come from a religion that ignores the importance of love and compassion.
Thankfully Brocklehurst is not the only religious influence at Lowood school. Another pupil, Helen Burns and the superintendent Miss Temple, are spiritual and natural role models for Jane. They show her compassion and the power in kindness and patient endurance. With their guidance, Jane begins to form her personal moral code as well as an image of God that does not condemn little girls for being high spirited but is rather an understanding and forgiving Heavenly Father. I know for myself that looking at those around me whom I respect and see as wise and good people has a huge influence in how I shape my church.
At age 18 there is nothing more that Lowood can offer her, and Jane takes her first step towards independence by seeking and obtaining a position as a governess at Thornfield Hall. She is tutor and companion to a young French girl, Adele, who is the ward of a Mr. Rochester. It is in this position that Jane’s skills as a caretaker, teacher, and employee are put on display. She makes a home at Thornfield and has found a place where she can be of use and is valued for her talents. She creates a close bond with the inhabitants of Thornfield. She cares for Adele as her pupil, Mrs. Fairfax as her friend and colleague and Mr. Rochester as her intellectual if not social equal. Even when Mr. Rochester brings high class guests to his home and Jane becomes acutely aware of society’s view of governesses, she feels secure in her identity. Thornfield is the first place where there is no real obstacles for Jane to feel at home.
Part of Jane’s confidence and commitment to truth is seen in her acceptance of her own place and personal attributes. She is not pretty and she knows it, but it is not a particular sadness for her. She knows for herself that an intelligent mind and loving heart is more important than a handsome face. She compares herself to the conventionally beautiful Ms. Blanche in order to remind herself to be grateful for the home she has made in Thornfield and to not get caught up with material matters. Of course the reader knows that really Jane is trying to talk herself out of feeling affection for Mr. Rochester beyond what would be appropriate for an employee. Her attempts are unsuccessful but in end it is for the best when Mr. Rochester asks her to marry him.
Despite the doubts of Mrs. Fairfax, the couple happily spend the days leading up to the wedding together. But it is in these days of engagement that we see some inequalities crop up between the two. Mr. Rochester is a product of his time and social status. He automatically believes that Jane wishes to be beautiful and wealthy, praised and pampered. But this shows just how much he doesn’t understand Jane and her values. She refuses his gifts and chides him for calling her beautiful. She doesn’t want to pretend that she is anything more than she is and wants him to love and value her for being her plain and humble self.
Jane’s security and confidence in herself is inspiring and yet sometimes feels like an impossible feat. Self-confidence and strength in myself is something that is slow to learn and grow, but I know that I have already come a long way and have the rest of my life for refinement.
Despite Mr. Rochester’s misunderstanding of Jane, it seems that the couple will be able to be happy and that they don’t have any differences significant enough to keep them apart…
Then the wedding day comes. Jane is on the verge of what she believes will be her happily ever after. She endured so much and it seems to all be leading up to the moment that she can marry the man she loves. It is not until they are at the altar, however, that it is revealed that Mr. Rochester has a still living wife.
Suddenly the future happiness that Jane had imagined is taken from her as she learns the story of Mr. Rochester’s first marriage to Bertha Mason. It was after their marriage that Bertha showed her true self and eventually went insane. Rochester had kept her housed and cared for in the attic of his home and had hoped that she would be a secret forever, hiding her even from Jane.
When the truth comes out, Jane finds herself facing the greatest test of character in the novel. Rochester pleads with her to stay with him. He promises her a life with him free of any judgement or prying eyes. He never explicitly asks her to be his mistress, but Jane knows that this would be her moral status if she gave into his request. And yet, Jane loves him. He has created the space that she was most happy in. But if she stays with him she will be going against every part of her moral code that has guided her thus far through her life.
Jane decides that her only option is to leave all that she had come to love, to separate herself from temptation and try to start again. With this decision Jane rejects a life of passion without truth. She realizes that she must reject a life without truth just as much as she rejected a life without compassion in her childhood.
Though Jane’s integrity remains in tact, she finds herself without a home or friends to turn to. This is the worst part about striving to commit to one’s personal religion. Often times you find that you have to choose between comfort and integrity. Sticking to what you believe can distance you from those who disagree with you or who are antagonistic to your beliefs and that can be painful and lonely. Even when we succeed against temptation, the hells are quick to make us feel miserable or to question our decision.
Jane wanders for days before she finally finds a resting place in the home of Reverend St. John Rivers and his sisters, Diana and Mary. Jane becomes fast friends with these kindred spirits who provide her with work as a teacher at the new village school. Jane once again finds herself in a position where her talents are appreciated and where she has the opportunity to learn and refine her intellectual skills. Her comfort is upended once again when St. John asks her to marry him.
The prospect of marrying St. John is completely different to Jane’s engagement to Rochester. St. John is Rochester’s foil in every respect. St. John is a man driven by duty and service to God. His is a product of the traditional Christianity that Jane was raised in and rejected. However, he escaped the hypocrisy of men like Mr. Brocklehurst. Jane even looks to him as a “paragon” of Christianity. But he is not a passionate or emotional man.
Where Rochester was motivated by love and desire, St. John is motivated by ambition and obligation. St. John wishes to marry Jane not because he loves her but because he believes her to be well equipped to join him in a life as African missionaries. By the time St. John proposes to Jane, she has come to have great affection for him. She respects him as a greatly religious man who is guided by God in a similar way to herself. So a part of her wishes to accept him. But he is so cold and his reason for matrimony so calculating that Jane knows that if she were to marry him, she would never be happy. She would wish to be his moral and spiritual equal, but she would never be able to reach his high expectations for her. He looks on passion as sin and love as fruitless. Jane has lived a life without love and she does not want to return to it. And yet she cares for St. John as a brother and would not like to disappoint him.
In some ways I think it is harder to disagree with someone who agrees with you on every other point, than someone with whom you have nothing in common. This is when you find someone who has built a church that is very much like your own, but there is just that one point on which you don’t agree. In those cases it can be hard to state your opinion with confidence for fear of alienating that person. It is only after a spiritual call from the man she does love that Jane has the confidence to refuse St. John. She hears Rochester call to her from miles and miles away and resolves to discover what happened to him while she had been with the Rivers.
With her rejection of St. John, Jane has fully formed her spiritual identity. Not only has she rejected the religion that isn’t part of her church, found a balance of truth and love in her life, but she has also defended her beliefs and values against those who would question it.
With herself fully realized and her spiritual independence achieved, she can return to Rochester with confidence in herself and the spiritual freedom to do as she chooses. When she finds Rochester, Jane discovers that not long after she left, Rochester’s insane wife caught Thornfield on fire, burning it to the ground, blinding and crippling Mr. Rochester and killing herself in the process. Rochester has been humbled but also freed from his own dark past. Jane finds him a changed man who no longer presumes to value physical appearance over spirit. Jane is now in a position where Rochester doesn’t need to provide for her but rather she can provide happiness and care for him. They can marry and live as equals.
Over a lifetime we change a million times and in a million tiny ways and I’d say that with each change we have the opportunity to come closer to who we want to be. But that change is caused by the choices that we make that add to who we are and are part of the church building process that is going on inside everyone. I love that at the end of Jane Eyre’s story, she is rewarded for all the good choices she made. She gets a happy ending because she worked to find and defend her spiritual identity. It’s hard work but that sounds like a good goal to me.