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With her circle of Romantic, ‘free’ spirited friends, Mary Shelley perceived the dark side of the ascendancy of scientific, materialist rationalism over nature, poetry and feelings. She was less aware of the dangers to humanity of her own set’s elevation of emotional passion and nature worship into the vacuum left by the Enlightenment’s dismissal of God. Their reactionary pull to the opposite extreme placed the demi-gods Artist and Lover on the throne that Science had usurped.
There are traces, in Frankenstein, of the author’s emerging awareness that her own position was somewhat shaky. The mad overreach of the scientist makes Victor Frankenstein the story’s villain, but the possibility that the monster is culpable makes him also a candidate for this role. The monster’s failure to be perfectly humanized by his amazing self-education, time spent in nature, and appreciation of beauty and human goodness may be the most human thing about him. If ever a ‘Noble Savage’ (the Romantic conception of a purely natural man) was shown to have an irreparable wound, and a bent toward evil despite his initial ‘innocence,’ and his humanistic education, it is this creature.
If Victor aspires to be God, the monster surely aspires (like Enlightenment Man) to be godless, to bring his creator down to his level, and to have vengeance upon God for the pain and suffering of his life. We wondered, as we read, whether Shelly recognized herself as her lover’s self-reflecting creature, who became less valuable to him as she was tarnished by grief at the deaths of her babies. How many modern lovers lose that romantic feeling if a baby threatens to displace them in a woman’s affections, or if her longing for a child reflects back their own infantilism instead of their perfections? Were these babies just ‘her problem’?
Was Mary awakened to her own blind adoration of Percy as she wrote Frankenstein, and described the worshipful and ridiculously uncritical regard that Victor’s father, teacher, fiancé and friend had for him despite his most erratic and selfish behavior? Perhaps she had already begun to long for the stability of some of the staid, boring conventionality they represent. Maybe she had intimations of danger, or inability to love, in “the one who rises above and flaunts moral norms and limitations.”
Might Mary have seen in herself a monstrous and unnatural creature, brought to ‘life’ by the spark of romantic love by a demi-god who then could not bear the actuality of her womanly being, her pain and depression, her grasping need of him? Surely she did experience being made unfit for and outcast from society. It must have hurt her deeply to look in upon hearth and home, family love, simple human goodness with yearning, but to be shunned as something like an abomination. Did Mary fantasize just a little about loosing rage upon those who rejected her – of being a monster with no culpability for its actions?
Notice that Victor was not so much horrified by the idea of meeting the monster’s demand for a female creature, but by the possibility they might procreate and their offspring wreak havoc in the land. How surprising to a congenial, conversational, romantic couple must be the reality of an impending child. And oh, how the babes do wound you as a woman – open up depths far below the surfaces you might have lived on, otherwise; ruin you for ‘Love Lite’ by eliciting a new and sacrificial and imploring love that is a constant prayer – whether God exists or not – from a mother’s heart for the life of her child. Can a creature be human who has not sprung from a womb, affected a mother in this way, but only is a combination of man’s mind with inert matter?
Could a woman living as an abstraction of a man’s self expect him to comprehend, to share, even to sympathize with the piercing actuality of her grief at the loss of her baby? I think not. Mary wrapped her story in a story, with another layer of (Walton’s) narration. Our study group thought it still peeked through. Ultimately, Mary’s humanity found no correspondence in the being of her ‘creator,’ just like the monster that emerged from her imagination. How different their lives might be in a world where God still reigned supreme.
Note: I chose Frankenstein for a Moms and Sons literature group and a Moms and Daughters lit group. Then I found it in the lineup for this year’s Well Read Mom readings. Great minds…same ruts! Do pull a lit group of some kind together for fun like this, or join WRM.
This feels awful, and it’s only partially helpful to know that someone’s inability to love you is their problem, not yours. The only real cure is to love. Find somebody you can love hugely, with open affection, with words and deeds, with generosity. As you give, so it will be given back to you, but a hundredfold! Fill your love bucket by pouring out love wherever you can.
It’s an uncomfortable thing to become aware of your own lack of excellence. The only cure is to work at and to give of your less-than-greatness. The work may improve you, and the giving-anyway will help teach you humility. Humility is a plus for the greatest and least of artists, learners, mothers, or whatever your area of weakness.
Being in Pain
Whether your pain is emotional, or physical, you’ve got a real burden to bear. The only cure is to suffer creatively. There’s no good way to avoid pain entirely (distraction and drugs may help, but one doesn’t want to go too far in that direction). To suffer it creatively is to release it to Christ as whole-heartedly as possible, turning it into a prayer for your intentions, or asking Him to use it as He will.
Hard things often need a simple, direct approach. When you’re suffering, a complex one may make things worse.
Sometimes, my heart is breaking for a friend, or I have pain of my own to bear. Often, the tears are joyful. The sight of a baby can bring me to tears, or of a dear friend. My tears may be both sorrowful and joyful at once.
More often, though, my weeping begins and ends in the Mass itself – without reference to the circumstances of life, or the people around me. I’ll just be heart-pierced by the reality of the Real Presence of Christ, or the nobility of the priest as he reaches up to bear the Unbearable Beauty for my sake. The words to a hymn, or psalm will pierce my soul. The beauty of Christ’s people – His Body in the world – often breaks my heart wide open. I’m struck with affection for all these people, in every sort of ‘distressing disguise.’ Size, age, handicap, crummy clothing, beauty and finery, tattoos, attitude – none of it hides the glory that seems to shine through in those first moments after they receive Christ in the Eucharist.
Sometimes tears begin with contrition for my sins, or with a particularly urgent prayer request, but for the most part, they signal that I am deeply affected by the actual people with whom and through whom I’m to realize Christ in the world. He remains in me, within His Church, and I remain in Him by building community with these people. It’s an amazing reality that moves me to tears!
Since my middle name is Elise (German for Elizabeth), I asked God to help choose from the various Saints Elizabeth an appropriate patroness. As an adult convert, I hadn’t had one chosen for me by my parents, but trusted He would find a way to introduce me to just the right one. I met St. Elizabeth Seton in the pages of a biography and knew that I had discovered a woman who would help fit me for the challenges facing me as wife, mother, friend and disciple of Christ.
Elizabeth Bayley was born in 1774, into a young America. The fiesty and fun-loving daughter of an Episcopalian doctor and his wife, Elizabeth thoroughly enjoyed the fashions and New York social whirl of her day. She caught the eye of William Seton, son of a well-to-do merchant family, and shared with him a love of music, dance and theater. Their marriage was considered by friends and family an excellent match.
By 1802, she and William had five children. They made the wrenching decision to take only Anna Maria, the youngest daughter, with them to Italy where they planned a stay with friends for the good of William’s failing health. The ocean voyage was not the cure they had hoped for, and the Setons were forced from the ship into prison-like quarantine by Italian medical authorities. For six weeks, Elizabeth and Anna tended him with devotion and prayer as he lay dying. When the ordeal was over, his dear friends the Filicchis, opened their hearts and home to his widow and child.
The Filicchis marveled at the strength of Elizabeth’s faith, and willingness to accept the most difficult trial of her life as the will of God. She was deeply impressed by their strong Catholic faith – stirred by its depth and beauty and by a longing to possess their confidence in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. After three months she felt anxious to return to her bereaved children, and departed with every assurance of the Filicchis’ love, prayers and willingness to help her as they would have helped their beloved friend William in any way possible.
Long after her return to New York, she struggled with her doubts, and with the seemingly insurmountable difficulties of a conversion hotly opposed by family and friends. Ultimately, she could not resist the growing certainty of God’s will in the matter, and was received into the Church at St. Peter’s in March 1805. She considered her Catholic faith a great gift from God, and was willing to endure any loss for the sake of following where He led.
Disowned and shunned by many because of her scandalous conversion, the gregarious Elizabeth clung to her faith for strength to face a loneliness she could never have chosen for herself. She had been refined by fire during her husband’s last days, and now she grew in spiritual maturity bearing the loss of goodwill, friendship, social standing and financial help. The young widow patched a living together, gratefully accepting the charity of family and friends and tutoring a few young boarding students.
In 1808, Elizabeth accepted an offer to open a Catholic school for girls in Baltimore. The school’s stress on the integration of religious and spiritual instruction with academic pursuits was unique, giving rise to her reputation as ‘foundress of American parochial schools’. In the midst of the dawn to dusk duties of mother and schoolmistress, Elizabeth kept up a rich correspondence with loved ones. Her letters were full of heartfelt concern for others’ needs, spiritual encouragement, honest reflections on her own weaknesses, and humorous observations on the ups and downs of her busy new life.
During the year she spent in Baltimore, plans were made to start a religious order to teach girls and serve the poor, with Mother Elizabeth as its directress. Thus, the first American religious order, the Sisters of Charity, was born in 1809 in Emmitsburg, Maryland. Special provision was made to accommodate Elizabeth’s primary responsibilities to her children. Taking as their habit her own simple black mourning dress, cape, and white tie-on cap, seven sisters began life in community under a rule patterned on that of St. Vincent de Paul.
Over the next twelve years, Elizabeth endured the deaths of sisters and daughters, desperate concerns for the spiritual welfare of her sons, difficulties in disagreeing with and submitting to her superiors gracefully, recurrent physical problems, and all the trials of overseeing the life and work of the community. Her letters and journals open to view the spiritual wealth gained through these years of struggle to submit entirely to the will of God in all circumstances. During her final days, in 1821, she often repeated a prayer of Pius VII:
May the most just, the most high and the most amiable will of God be in all things fulfilled, praised and exalted above all forever.
The study of her life brings home to me the message that it is real people who become saints! Through earnest intention to receive all that God would give in the form of hardships and suffering, responsibility, spiritual direction, and the authority and sacraments of the Church, Elizabeth Ann Seton moved through doubt, discouragement, stumbling, frustration, failure, heartache, and pain to become the first native-born American saint.