18 March 2012

Lancelot's Mistake

I've been reading T. H. White's The Once and Future King lately. I think Arthurian legend is worth knowing, and I thought this would be a good primer. It was actually written and published as four separate books, which were then abridged and modified and combined into The Once and Future King.

The third book is called The Ill-Made Knight and is all about Sir Lancelot's illicit relations with Queen Guenevere. I expected not to like it very much, but I actually enjoyed it more than I can say. Lancelot is the protagonist of the book, and he's a beautifully conflicted character that I connected with in a few different ways, but there's something about him that I've been reflecting on this Sunday afternoon that I think is worth sharing.

Here's a summary of the story of Lancelot for those of you who are unfamiliar. If you know it, feel free to skip down to the asterisks.

Lancelot's childhood obsession was to become a knight of the round table, and while most kids are out fooling around and playing games, he dedicated himself entirely to becoming the best knight in the world. By the time he became an adult, he was an unconquerable warrior because he had done nothing but work on becoming the best. He idolized Arthur, and he went off to Camelot and became a knight of the round table, and he and Arthur became best friends.

Guenevere and Arthur were already married when Lancelot joined the table, but their marriage had been more political than anything, I think. Guenevere and Lancelot fell in love at first sight, but Lancelot was a pious knight and fiercely loyal to Arthur and refused to do anything sinful, so nothing bad happened--for a while. He decided that his burning love for Guenevere was wrong, so he went out questing and was gone for a couple years, but he found himself unable to stop thinking about Guenevere.

One castle Lancelot came to during his journeys contained a young woman who was confined by witchcraft to a boiling bath. The curse she was under could only be broken by the best knight in the world (why do witches always make provisions like this?). Lancelot was the best knight in the world, and his reputation had proceeded him, so when he came to this castle, the people begged him to help. He entered the steamy bathroom and was able to lift the damsel from her watery prison, which she had been trapped in for something like 4 years because she had been more beautiful than the local witch woman. So of course she fell desperately in love with her rescuer (she was only 18, so we can't fault her for that), but Lancelot was burning for Guenevere, so refused the girl's father's offer of marriage.

That night, the girl's butler decided to be crafty, and he got Lancelot drunk. Lancelot told the butler all about Guenevere, so the butler got him to drink a little more and then told him that Guenevere had come without the King and was in a private room and wanted Lancelot to come see her. The drunken knight stumbled into the dark room and made drunken love with the woman inside, believing she was Guenevere, but of course she was not. In the morning, when he woke up and found the girl he had rescued, he became very distraught and drama ensued, but he ultimately decided that, since his virginity was lost and his honor and virtue were destroyed, he had nothing left to lose, so he returned to Camelot and became Guenevere's not-so-secret lover, and set in motion the downfall of Arthur's kingdom.


I don't fault Lancelot for saving a damsel from a witch's power, and I don't blame him for refusing to marry one person when he was in love with another, and I don't think it's fair to say he was wrong in harboring feelings for Guenevere (at least, I wouldn't know how to tell him to smother them), and I don't think we can even point to liquor as being his failing (even though drunkenness was out of character for him and unbecoming of a knight). I'll even go so far as to say that having sex with Elaine was not his Big Mistake (though it was certainly wrong of him). No, Lancelot's Big Mistake was thinking all was lost. He woke up, realized that he had lost his virginity, and decided that he may as well give up trying.

I understand Lancelot. I know what it's like to think I've undone all my life's goodness and may as well give up. I think it's common for people who are trying their best to do what's right to feel that way. We make one mistake, and we convince ourselves that it's a slippery slope with no hope of return, and we damn ourselves by thinking we're already damned. But it isn't true. The whole point of the Atonement--its purpose, its upshot, its summom bonum, its raison d'ĂȘtre--is to save us from such a fate. If Jesus hadn't saved us, then that slippery slope would be real--one misstep, and you slide straight to hell--but a good Christian knight--particularly a Catholic one like Lance!--should understand the power of Confession and the reality of Absolution.

Now I am not a Catholic, but I do believe in the forgiveness of sins. I believe that the Son of Man has descended below all things and has created a way that all men might be saved. I believe that Satan is the sower of despair, and that fatalistic thoughts of abandon come from him, not God. Jesus Christ has already paid the price of our sins and is therefore passionately invested in seeing that we're saved--otherwise he bled at every pore and trembled because of pain for naught.

It occurs to me that the Lancelots of the world are those who reject salvation when they are standing closest to it. People who don't know God at all would not despair after one lascivious night: that despair only comes to those who have scrambled so desperately for heaven all their lives. If only they could see that they are so much closer to the mountain's top than to its bottom, perhaps they would not be so insistent upon tumbling down its side.

Forgive the mixed metaphor....

15 March 2012


I don't kill spiders. I may have mentioned it once or twice before, but I don't expect you to remember. One summer in my teens, I went to take a shower and found a spider in the tub. This was not uncommon in the summer, and I generally washed them down the drain, but for some reason that particular summer day, I decided to capture the spider in a jar and take it outside, and that became my standard procedure for such situations.

That was probably a decade ago, and now I've grown into a man who is nearly unable to kill crawling things. I am puzzled by the culture I live in, which instills in young minds the belief that killing bugs is not only acceptable but actually a sort of duty--unless the bugs in question are ladybugs or butterflies, in which case it's a crime. I don't harbor any ill feelings toward our pesticidal society, but I've often wondered why it is we go out of our way to crush the poor boneless ones.

Here's the irony: I'm a bit of an arachnophobe. I think spiders are ugly, creepy, icky things, and I feel revulsion when I see them. I understand why people kill the spiders they find in their houses because even a decade of pacifism hasn't removed from me the natural inclination toward destruction. But I can't do it. Once, early on in my marriage, I killed a rather large spider that had found its way into our apartment. I did it to show my wife I wasn't a ninny. After I did it, I was so beset by guilt that I wasn't quite myself the rest of the day. So I've never done it again. Now whenever I find a spider in our apartment, I catch it and take it outside. My wife has laughingly pointed out that I do this even when the ground outside is covered in frosty snow or puddling rain, which may well dictate a crueler death for the spider than a quick blow from a shoe, but I don't do this because I love spiders--I don't love spiders! If I loved them, I might let them live with me. But they're frightening little beasts, and I hate them, so I don't let them live with me. But I do let them live--or at least throw them out to the elements where they can suffer a natural death and turn into dirt. The odd-shaped cog of my mind that dictates my conscience says that's better than killing them outright.

I've tried to come up with justifications for my behavior (I don't want insanitary spider guts embedded in my carpet. Spiders eat flies, and flies are more proactively annoying than spiders are.), but why should I feel compelled to justify my desire not to kill? The truth is, I'm deeply embarrassed by the fact that I can't kill spiders--especially since I hate them. See, if I had an academic interest in those eight-legged fiends and could discourse on their invaluable contributions to the local ecology and was fascinated by their anatomy, then it would make sense that I would not want to kill them, and if anyone asked me why I didn't kill them, I would have a good reason. But I'm not that guy. I see spiders as nightmarish creatures, and I wonder why God didn't make them more cuddly because, really, a fly-eating pet would be pretty awesome. And so I'm embarrassed that I feel guilty when I kill them, but guilt trumps embarrassment, so I go on not killing them.

I feel like Kierkegaard would have had something to say about this, but I don't know what it would've been. Perhaps he would've examined the paradox of harboring a murderous hatred for something but feeling a moral necessity to preserve its life--he might have called the paradox Love. Who knows....

There's got to be something to say about the way I treat spiders and why I do, and I'm convinced there's a parable in here somewhere. At any rate, there's a moral to this story, and it isn't, "Ugliness isn't a capital offense." It's something more than that. Something about love and hatred being totally unrelated to tolerance. I can't quite seem to formulate it, so I'll leave that up to you.

06 March 2012

Equal Partners

"By divine design, fathers are to preside over their families in love and righteousness and are responsible to provide the necessities of life and protection for their families. Mothers are primarily responsible for the nurture of their children. In these sacred responsibilities, fathers and mothers are obligated to help one another as equal partners." --The Family: A Proclamation to the World (a document written and signed by 15 men)

I'm sure it seems odd to many outsiders that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints proclaims equality between men and women but maintains a male-only clergy. Heck, I'm a lifelong Mormon, and I've had trouble seeing the equality at times. The search for equality seems to be an ongoing struggle in the LDS community, and I sometimes wonder if we're looking beyond the mark. Priesthood holders are so afraid of falling into the woman-go-make-me-a-sandwich brand of unrighteous dominion that we've started debasing ourselves and placing our women on unreasonably high pedestals: "Our women are so much better than us," we say; "they are spiritually superior and socially graceful and oh so very patient with our idiotic maleness--we men would be hopeless without them," and then we wonder why they always feel so inadequate.

The truth is, many LDS men are uncomfortable with the fact that they can be ordained to priesthood offices while women cannot. We really do believe that men and women are equal, but we can't seem to find an ideology that doesn't either keep women below us or exalt them above us. We're forced to say somewhat lamely, "Men hold the priesthood, and women are--um--great." However, as is often the case with gospel quandaries, a return to the basics is all that's necessary to resolve this problem, so let's talk about the purpose of life.

If you ask most any LDS Sunday-school class what the purpose of life is, they will say, "To get a body!" and "To return to live with Heavenly Father!" One of the most frequently quoted passages in Mormondom is Moses 1:39, wherein God explains that His work and glory is to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man. We believe that, because of the Atonement of Jesus Christ, everyone who comes to earth and receives a physical body will be resurrected someday and get to keep their physical body forever--that's immortality. We believe that the Atonement of Jesus Christ also enables everyone who comes to earth to be redeemed through priesthood ordinances so that they can one day live with God--that's eternal life. Immortality and eternal life are equally important: having a physical body while dwelling outside of God's presence (immortality without eternal life) is hell; lacking a physical body while dwelling in God's presence (eternal life without immortality) is the state we were in before we came to earth, the state that we came here to move beyond. God's work and glory is only fulfilled when we achieve both immortality and eternal life.

How do we do this? Well, first we have to receive a physical body, and the only way to do that is to be born of a woman. The work of clothing God's spirit children in physical bodies can only be accomplished by women. Even Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world, had to be born of Mary, and I have heard it argued that Adam was no exception, either: he was brought into mortality by a woman because Eve gave him the forbidden fruit. Half of God's work and glory--the half concerned with bringing about our immortality--is entrusted entirely to women.

What about the other half--the half concerned with our eternal life? This work is given to men. Worthy men are ordained to the priesthood, and they use that priesthood to perform the saving ordinances necessary for us to return to God's presence. Just as nobody comes to earth without being born of a woman, nobody returns to God without being baptized by a man. This half of God's work and glory is entrusted to men.

In Doctrine and Covenants section 132, we learn that exaltation (the highest form of immortality and eternal life) can only be gained through the new and everlasting covenant of marriage. It is only by the coming together of man and woman as husband and wife that exaltation can be achieved. No man, no matter how faithful he is to his priesthood, can be exalted without first being sealed eternally to a woman. Likewise, no woman can make it alone. Is it any wonder why this is when God's work and glory is divided evenly into male and female stewardships? Paul said it best: "Neither is the man without the woman, neither the woman without the man, in the Lord."

I believe that men and women are absolutely equal before God and that they are equally vital to His plan. I think we only lose sight of that equality because of our location in God's plan. If you are here on earth, reading this essay, you have already been born of a woman; your mother played her part in God's plan for you, and you are bound for immortality. But God's work and glory will not be fully realized in you until you reach eternal life, and to get there you must rely on the help of men--even if you are a man, you need the help of other men. And so we have a male clergy to guide you to eternal life. This is not to say that women cannot help and instruct you along the way, but just as it was by a woman that you were born and began your journey toward immortality, it is by worthy, priesthood-bearing men that you can be born again and begin your journey toward eternal life.

(I am deeply indebted to Valerie Hudson, whose article in SquareTwo inspired these thoughts in me.)