Sunday, February 19, 2012

Dickens, McLuhan and the B.V.M.


There is a story in Britain's The Catholic Herald about the night Charles Dickens may have had a vision of the Virgin Mary. The English novelist was certainly no Catholic, and at times revealed his own prejudices about "popery", typical of his time. Yet this unusual account reveals how quickly Catholicism leapt to Dickens' mind, in a moment of rather dramatic religious experience. 

It's worth reading in its entirety, but here is the kernel of the account, from a letter Dickens wrote to his biographer John Forster:


Let me tell you of a curious dream I had, last Monday night; and of the fragments of reality I can collect; which helped to make it up … In an indistinct place, which was quite sublime in its indistinctness, I was visited by a Spirit. I could not make out the face, nor do I recollect that I desired to do so. It wore a blue drapery, as the Madonna might in a picture by Raphael; and bore no resemblance to any one I have known except in stature … It was so full of compassion and sorrow for me… that it cut me to the heart; and I said, sobbing, ‘Oh! give me some token that you have really visited me!… Answer me one… question!’ I said, in an agony of entreaty lest it should leave me. ‘What is the True religion?’ As it paused a moment without replying, I said – Good God in such an agony of haste, lest it should go away! – ’You think, as I do, that the Form of religion does not so greatly matter, if we try to do good? or,’ I said, observing that it still hesitated, and was moved with the greatest compassion for me, ‘perhaps the Roman Catholic is the best? perhaps it makes one think of God oftener, and believe in him more steadily?’ 
‘For you,’ said the Spirit, full of such heavenly tenderness for me, that I felt as if my heart would break; ‘for you it is the best!’ Then I awoke, with the tears running down my face, and myself in exactly the condition of the dream. It was just dawn.

Dickens, of course, never became a Catholic (that we know of), but it is interesting to speculate about what this mystical experience was. Was the Madonna sent to warn him, a maternal Marley to a relatively benign but searching Scrooge, that his soul would be best served in the Church of the poor -- the very folk he championed? Dickens is known as an early advocate of social justice in the industrial age, and his heart (and humour) for humanity comes out in his many memorable characters. Perhaps this love of his called forth the love of heaven,  both to ratify and encourage.
Dickens' experience reminds me of an enigmatic anecdote concerning media philosopher Marshall McLuhan. The Toronto don famously kept his Catholic faith separate from his oracular observations, although he could be open about it if asked (there's a short audio clip of him talking about his conversion here). According to his biographer Philip Marchand, a number of McLuhan's associates speculated about a certain intellectual relationship McLuhan had to the Virgin Mary. One of them reported:
He had a direct connection with the Blessed Virgin Mary. He alluded to it very briefly once, almost fearfully, in a please-don’t-laugh-at-me tone. He didn’t say, ‘I knew because the Blessed Virgin Mary told me,’ but was clear from what he said that one of reasons he was sure about certain things was that the Virgin had certified his understanding of them. I have a feeling we have a saint in the wings.
While probably not a visionary in the literal sense, the anecdote suggests that McLuhan may have had an intimate spiritual link with the Mother of God, although, as with all things intimate, we may never know exactly what that meant. But devoted to her, it seems, he was.

"At a time like this,” McLuhan remarked in a 1971 interview, "there is a very great role for her to play, because the things that we now have to study in the world are rather tremendous, and new."

McLuhan was deeply, though privately, concerned about electronic media obstructing real communion between people. In a letter to Jacques Maritain he shared his fears that the emerging "electronic consciousness" might be a dangerous "facsimile of the body of Christ". Behind the sometimes stiff demeanour of the celebrated professor was a heart concerned for the modern poor: the digitally stuffed, but spiritually deprived.

Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980)

The experiences of these two literati underline Mary's special role in the unfolding drama of the world. She is the feminine and the maternal, calling all to friendship with God and fellow creature. She has always been the figure that points to Jesus, especially when accessibility to her Son may otherwise be difficult or obstructed. She calls hearts to repentance. She intervenes when humanity is about to make big mistakes, and begs us to pray more. Sometimes she cries. Her mission appears to be that of helping the great hapless "we" reach the final communion with her Son in the Trinitarian vision.

If both Dickens and McLuhan had special Marian connections, I believe it was because they both loved the family of God in their own quite distinct ways. Perhaps their particular genius and sensitivity -- like that of many saints and scholars -- made them receptive to the ministrations and mercies of heaven.  Mostly, however, I see the longing, hidden but implicit in their works, for a unity that encompasses both heaven and earth, a union of hearts and minds that can only be called ecclesial, in an ultimate sense.

G.K. Chesterton's 1906 biography of Dickens, a book that sparked a revival of interest in the novelist's work (T.S. Eliot would call it the "best on that author that has ever been written"), ends with this rather moving passage:
Comradeship and serious joy are not interludes in our travel; but... rather our travels are interludes in comradeship and joy, which through God shall endure for ever. The inn does not point to the road; the road points to the inn. And all roads point at last to an ultimate inn, where we shall meet Dickens and all his characters; and when we drink again it shall be from the great flagons in the tavern at the end of the world.
The joys of eschatological friendship and merriment are common undercurrents in Chesterton's works. Perhaps Dickens' nocturnal vision, like McLuhan's "intimate connection", was a foretaste of that great celestial family gathering, a specially-granted "inn-stop" with the mother for the sake of the journey home. May we all make it there safely.

2 comments:

  1. Christine SchintgenFebruary 27, 2012 at 7:00 PM

    Thanks for that post - I wasn't familiar with that story about Dickens. It's funny how the most seemingly anti-Catholic Victorians had Catholic sympathies, beneath it all. George Eliot loved the Rosary, for example.

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    1. I would not have guessed Eliot loved -- prayed? -- the rosary. My Anglican great-grandmother also prayed the rosary (and, not to mention, shocked her family by marrying a Irishman). She was born in Queen Victoria's last year, 1901, so I suppose could be considered a Victorian as well!

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