Certainly, if the headlines are anything to go by – and it’s better not to go too far beyond the headlines on this one – August was a wicked month for teenagers and their reputation for any kind of propriety and common sense this year.
Did “Slanegirl” and Miley Cyrus really say it all? Hopefully not. Nevertheless, something I found among some old papers – harking back to the month of August, precisely, 110 years ago – made me feel a little like old Tiresias contemplating more young men carbuncular than even he had to perceive. It was the contrast which hit home.
On an August day in 1903, a young 18-year-old girl was passing the time in her family home in Donegal when an inconsequential idea struck her. The house may have been undergoing repairs – or at least some floorboards were loose. She got the idea, executed it and then, probably forgot all about it. It took nearly a hundred years for her idea, in terms of the request which it embodied, to have any consequence at all.
Annie Brigid – for that was her name – wrote a message, put it in a bottle, and placed it under the floorboards in her house. Her little trick only came to light in 1997 when workmen with the National Parks and Wildlife Service – which now owns the house – discovered her bottle and its message.
That a young girl should do this in an idle moment is not what is particularly interesting. What her message reveals about herself and her time is what is remarkable. It is remarkable in the stark contrast it shows between her preoccupations, her vision of life and its ultimate destiny, and those reflected in the behaviour of our contemporaries of a similar age.
Annie’s message was this: “I, Annie Brigid Evangeline MacGlinchey, aged 18, write this on 27th day of August, 1903, and intend putting it in a bottle under the floorboards upstairs. Whoever finds it, I ask that person to pray for my soul. If not, my ghost will walk about upstairs. Annie B. E. MacGlinchey, Undergraduate, R.U.I.” (Royal University of Ireland).
A jest? Yes, but like many jests, revealing more than they may mean to reveal. The poignancy for us comes with the question, would any teenager in a thousand today, in a 100 thousand even, think of writing a message like this? Among the few million on Copacabana beach this summer would we have found even a few who might think it important to ask someone to pray for their soul?
I wonder what Annie Brigid might have thought of the preoccupations of contemporary Ireland this summer when a Bishop was heaped with sanctimonious opprobrium for failing to feel the pain of those who saw their relatives and friends pass from this life. He had the temerity to try to bring his Catholic people back to an understanding of what funeral Masses were supposed to be about, intercession with God for the souls of the departed. Annie knew, and we might remember her request in gratitude for reminding us of what we foolishly choose to forget.
Addendum – in case you don’t feel my Tiersian pain, read this from the Washington Post today.
What treasures there are in great literature – and what a pity that so much of it is unknown and unexplored? I am revisiting Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre and find myself astounded at some of the gems of human wisdom and spirituality you can find there. In chapter nine we have the awakening of the intimations of immortality and eternity in the ten-year-old Jane, as she confronts the experience of death for the first time.
Serious stuff. Perhaps it is not surprising that a very good friend should have queried my choice of Christmas reading. “Could you not have found something more cheerful for this time of year”, he asked? No doubt, the opening chapters make grim reading as Jane’s first person account – the first example of a child narrator in English literature, the second of which came five years later with Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield – of her horrific experiences as an unwanted child in the dreadful Reed household. But then, as the plot unfolds, a series of epiphanies reveal to Jane something of the true meaning of suffering and the beauties of humanity in a profoundly Christian way.
No one should regret choosing Charlotte Bronte’s masterpiece as Christmas reading – if only because of the spiritual depths of what is recounted in chapter nine.
Jane’s friend and confidant, fourteen-year-old Helen Burns, like herself abandoned to the not-so-tender mercies of the orphan school of Lowood, has been struck down with consumption. Many of the other children have fallen victim to a typhoid epidemic and classes are suspended. Some girls have already died. This all gives Jane – who has remained healthy – a chance to explore the grounds of the school and the surrounding woodland. But then she begins to think of the grimmer reality of which she is part. She says,
I was noting these things and enjoying them as a child might, when it entered my mind as it had never done before:-
‘How sad to be lying now on a sick bed, and to be in danger of dying! This world is pleasant – it would be dreary to be called from it, and to have to go who knows where?’
And then my mind made its first earnest effort to comprehend what had been infused into it concerning heaven and hell; and for the first time it recoiled, baffled; and for the first time glancing behind, on each side, and before it, it saw all round an unfathomed gulf: it felt the one point where it stood – the present; all the rest was formless cloud and vacant depth; and it shuddered at the thought of tottering, and plunging amid that chaos.
She then sees the doctor leaving the premises and discovers that he has been to see her friend Helen. When he leaves she asks the nurse how Helen is and is shocked to learn that not only is she very poorly but that the doctor has told them that “she’ll not be here long.”
This phrase, uttered in my hearing yesterday, would have only conveyed the notion that she was about to be removed to Northumberland, to her own home. I should not have suspected that it meant she was dying; but I knew instantly now! It opened clear on my comprehension that Helen Burns was numbering her last days in this world, and that she was going to be taken to the region of spirits, if such region there were. I experienced a shock of horror, then a strong thrill of grief, then a desire – a necessity to see her; and I asked in what room she lay.
Her request to go to visit Helen is rebuffed and she is sent to bed after supper. But her determination to see her friend is undaunted and when all are asleep she decides to act on her impulse, rises and goes barefoot to the room where the sick girl is lying. The narrative continues:
I dreaded being discovered and sent back; for I MUST see Helen,–I must embrace her before she died,–I must give her one last kiss, exchange with her one last word.
Having descended a staircase, traversed a portion of the house below, and succeeded in opening and shutting, without noise, two doors, I reached another flight of steps; these I mounted, and then just opposite to me was Miss Temple’s room…
Close by Miss Temple’s bed, and half covered with its white curtains, there stood a little crib. I saw the outline of a form under the clothes, but the face was hid by the hangings: the nurse I had spoken to in the garden sat in an easy-chair asleep; an unsnuffed candle burnt dimly on the table. Miss Temple was not to be seen…
“Helen!” I whispered softly, “are you awake?” She stirred herself, put back the curtain, and I saw her face, pale, wasted, but quite composed: she looked so little changed that my fear was instantly dissipated.
“Can it be you, Jane?” she asked, in her own gentle voice.
“Oh!” I thought, “she is not going to die; they are mistaken: she could not speak and look so calmly if she were.”
I got on to her crib and kissed her: her forehead was cold, and her cheek both cold and thin, and so were her hand and wrist; but she smiled as of old.
“Why are you come here, Jane? It is past eleven o’clock: I heard it strike some minutes since.”
“I came to see you, Helen: I heard you were very ill, and I could not sleep till I had spoken to you.”
“You came to bid me good-bye, then: you are just in time probably.”
“Are you going somewhere, Helen? Are you going home?”
“Yes; to my long home – my last home.”
“No, no, Helen!” I stopped, distressed. While I tried to devour my tears, a fit of coughing seized Helen; it did not, however, wake the nurse; when it was over, she lay some minutes exhausted; then she whispered –
“Jane, your little feet are bare; lie down and cover yourself with my quilt.”
I did so: she put her arm over me, and I nestled close to her.
After a long silence, she resumed, still whispering –
“I am very happy, Jane; and when you hear that I am dead, you must be sure and not grieve: there is nothing to grieve about. We all must die one day, and the illness which is removing me is not painful; it is gentle and gradual: my mind is at rest. I leave no one to regret me much: I have only a father; and he is lately married, and will not miss me. By dying young, I shall escape great sufferings. I had not qualities or talents to make my way very well in the world: I should have been continually at fault.”
“But where are you going to, Helen? Can you see? Do you know?”
“I believe; I have faith: I am going to God.”
“Where is God? What is God?”
“My Maker and yours, who will never destroy what He created. I rely implicitly on His power, and confide wholly in His goodness: I count the hours till that eventful one arrives which shall restore me to Him, reveal Him to me.”
“You are sure, then, Helen, that there is such a place as heaven, and that our souls can get to it when we die?”
“I am sure there is a future state; I believe God is good; I can resign my immortal part to Him without any misgiving. God is my father; God is my friend: I love Him; I believe He loves me.”
“And shall I see you again, Helen, when I die?”
“You will come to the same region of happiness: be received by the same mighty, universal Parent, no doubt, dear Jane.”
Again I questioned, but this time only in thought. “Where is that region? Does it exist?” And I clasped my arms closer round Helen; she seemed dearer to me than ever; I felt as if I could not let her go; I lay with my face hidden on her neck. Presently she said, in the sweetest tone –
“How comfortable I am! That last fit of coughing has tired me a little; I feel as if I could sleep: but don’t leave me, Jane; I like to have you near me.”
“I’ll stay with you, DEAR Helen: no one shall take me way.”
“Are you warm, darling?”
She kissed me, and I her, and we both soon slumbered.
When I awoke it was day: an unusual movement roused me; I looked up; I was in somebody’s arms; the nurse held me; she was carrying me through the passage back to the dormitory. I was not reprimanded for leaving my bed; people had something else to think about; no explanation was afforded then to my many questions; but a day or two afterwards I learned that Miss Temple, on returning to her own room at dawn, had found me laid in the little crib; my face against Helen Burns’ shoulder, my arms round her neck. I was asleep, and Helen was…dead.
Her grave is in Brocklebridge churchyard: for fifteen years after her death it was only covered by a grassy mound; but now a grey marble tablet marks the spot, inscribed with her name, and the word “Resurgam.”
Perhaps I am incurably sentimental but each time I read that passage it does not fail to move me. Coincidentally, just yesterday, I happened to read a passage in St. John of the Cross and I call on this Doctor of the Church to absolve me from such a charge with evidence of his words in his poem, Romance on the Gospel text “In principio erat Verbum,” regarding the Blessed Trinity:
“My Son, I wish to give you a bride who will love you. Because of you she will deserve to share our company, and eat at our table, the same bread I eat, that she may know the good I have in such a Son; and rejoice with me in your grace and fullness.”
“I am very grateful,” the Son answered; “I will show my brightness to the bride you give me, so that by it she may see how great my Father is, and how I have received my being from your being. I will hold her in my arms and she will burn with your love, and with eternal delight she will exalt your goodness”.
That the vision of Christian death given us by Charlotte Bronte should so closely mirror, I think, the vision of God’s love for humanity presented to us by St. John of the Cross is just one more discovered jewel in the untold wealth we have in great literature.