I’ve been attempting to read through the books I’ve had in my house the longest, with the goal of not keeping anything unread for more than four years (or so). So, with the end of 2013 approaching, I’m trying to read all the books I acquired in 2009. Which means I’m reading books that I don’t necessarily remember why I got. Some, like Lapsing by Jill Paton Walsh, I don’t remember seeing anyone talk about, although on investigation, I see that Harriet posted about it, which must be how I heard about it.
Published in 1986 but set in 1950s Oxford, Lapsing is the story of Tessa, a young university student who has always tried to be a good Catholic, but, as you might guess from the novel’s title, finds her faith is tested. In this case, it’s tested by love. Tessa falls deeply—and mutually—in love with Theodore, the chaplain who serves as guide to the cell group Tessa has joined for spiritual discussion and prayer. The couple meet secretly as often as they can, professing their love with warmth and passion, but never crossing the line into what would be obvious sin. Indeed, Tessa struggles with what it means to sin, as do her schoolmates, many of whom have their own struggles figuring out what it means to follow God’s will and what sacrifices God requires. Tessa leans toward pleasure over hair shirts, saying:
“I’ve never understood it. God makes this amazing, incredible, marvellous world full of delight and invites us all, as to a party; and then, we are told, is best pleased with those who refuse to enjoy anything and leave it all untouched. I must say, if I were giving two parties in succession, on earth and in heaven, I would invite to the second one the people who laughed and danced and ate most at the first!”
Tessa is no libertine, but she only denies herself as much as she considers necessary. But life are the people in it are too complicated to stand up to clear, bright lines. When Tessa seeks clarity, she is disappointed.
I had a lot of doubts about this book. As much as I love stories about faith and people’s struggles with it, I get tired of stories of how the church has gone wrong. They’re too predictable and often fail to take into account the many different ways people understand faith. And it didn’t help that in the first third of the novel practically every man Tessa meets falls in love with her. But in the end, this novel impressed me very much. It doesn’t seem to have an axe to grind against the church, although readers looking for reasons to be annoyed with church teachings will certainly find them. What’s nice about the book is that it just tells the story and lets readers take from it what they will.
One of the things I appreciated most about this book was how carefully Walsh rendered the sort of spiritual questioning that happens among devout college students. University is a time of setting paths and making plans—it feels monumental. But time brings its own lessons and unimagined choices, as it does for Tessa and many of her friends.
In the end, we’re left wondering how much lapsing Tessa actually has done. One friend, a lapsed Jew, tells her late in the novel that they, the lapsed ones, are the only ones who’ve taken their faith seriously enough. Although I do not believe that abandoning a faith is the only option for taking it seriously, I also believe that sometimes the path to God can take unconventional detours. Here, again, the novel allows for ambiguity, with a final image that shows Tessa reaching for something greater than she:
For though she had long realized that every Cathedral is empty, that every human shrine is empty, that all of them contain nothing, that they are all of them, even the loveliest, only intricate hollow shells, and we hear in them only the backwash of human sighing, yet she knew that somewhere, however far driven back, beyond the last inland farms, and though silted in occluded water, and welling sluggishly in foul narrows, there flows at every human limit the infinite water of the One True Sea.