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Originally published on My Sweet Delirium at
What makes a book, film, painting, or song an enduring masterpiece? It’s one that awakens a slumbering memory, long forgotten, yet an integral part of one’s personality and perspective on life.
Typical for Panama, the power went out for most of the day. I worked until I drained the batteries of all my computers and devices. With no more electronics to shake any information gratification out of, I turned to my dusty bookshelf where the title Of Human Bondage caught my eye. I found this book when my mother-in-law was moving a few years ago and it’s been sitting there ever since. It’s the first real paper book I’ve read in a long time.
The story, so far, is about a boy named Phillip who is born with a clubfoot. When he is nine, his mother dies and he is sent to live with his Uncle who is a vicar. The boy is lonely and friendless and finds his solace in books. Phillip resigns himself to a peaceful existence, reading all day and accompanying his uncle to church at night.
His life becomes miserable when he is sent to school where he is teased and bullied by the other kids. He never has a moment’s peace as he limps around the campus. His classmates torment him wherever he goes. Phillip withdraws socially, trying to go unnoticed, and hides his deformed leg whenever he can. He turns to religion and studies it with fervor.
When he is home at the vicarage on break, he remembers a passage he read from the Bible:
“If ye have faith, and doubt not, you shall not only do this which is done to the fig tree, but also if you should say unto this mountain,
Be though removed, and be thou cast into the sea: it shall be done.
And all this, whatsoever ye shall ask in prayer, believing ye shall receive.”
Phillip asks his aunt, and his uncle, the Vicar, if it is true. Can a person really move mountains with faith? Phillip’s aunt tells him that if it says so in the Bible, it is so. His uncle confirms by saying, “By the grace of God.”
Phillip is bursting with excitement. It wasn’t like he was asking for a favor as grandiose as moving a mountain. God would surely cure his small deformity. He structured his days around praying for his foot to become normal, and set a date for the miracle to occur by the first day of school.
It’s heartbreaking. As the reader, you very well know that his prayer won’t be answered, and watching Phillip’s innocent hope just makes you ache for him. You know he is in store for life altering disappointment.
It reminded me of the time my parents took my sister to one of those crazy faith healing churches. There were no rattlesnakes or fainting women, but it was much different than the solemn Catholic Church we had recently abandoned. My baby sister, Tia, was born with malformed eyes and could see very little. Like most parents who have a baby with a birth defect, mine would try anything to make it disappear.
The congregation prayed intensely over her. I watched for a light from heaven or a subtle cue from angels, but nothing happened. Before we left, the pastor blessed a white handkerchief and told Tia to sleep with it under her pillow at night. He said that we all must pray.
I expected to wake up and see my sister looking at me with two clear blue eyes, but of course, she is with her condition to this day–one eye having died completely and the other steadily deteriorating.
As a kid, I felt it was my fault. Even though I believed with all my heart that she could be cured, I knew there had been a speck of doubt hidden somewhere in the deepest part of my heart, or in my family’s hearts, or even in some of the members of the congregation’s hearts. This insidious speck prevented the miracle from happening.
I think most of us have that crisis when discovering the Bible, or any religious book, is not literal–or in a child’s understanding, not real. The metaphors are lost on us as children and we feel we’ve been cheated into believing in what is nothing more than a grown-up’s fairy tale.
The same disorientation follows when we find out there is no Santa Claus or Easter Bunny. I think that loss of faith, that big lie told to us by the adults, plants a seed of suspicion that makes us doubt forevermore. We doubt our faith, we doubt our gods, we doubt our abilities, and we doubt our loved ones. If it’s too good to be true, it is… right?
Now, as I write about that memory with the faith healers and my poor sister, I’m wondering if that disappointment has not been my beef with The Big Guy all along.
As an adult I understand and appreciate the Bible’s mythos and how it fits within the context of life, but there is still the little girl in me that’s pissed when my baby sister strains to hold back her tears and says, “I don’t remember what your face looks like anymore.”
Of Human Bondage was written by W. Somerset Maugham. It’s a semi-autobiographical novel that was published in 1915, but almost one hundred years later I can pick up this book and relate to its author in the most profound way. That is the magic of the greatest artists.