Skip to main content

Christ, My Hermeneutic

The grad school workload has officially arrived.  I am meeting with every one of my professors this week about topics for my final papers and am in the thick of midterms.  It's a ton of work and sometimes I get pretty stressed out, but I haven't yet lost sight of my love for all of this learning.  Aquinas, the Italian Renaissance, Chaucer, and a scholarly look at the Hebrew Scriptures - I will always be glad to have this knowledge in my head.  

We had a great Chaucer class last week.  We read The Franklin's Tale (one of the Canterbury Tales you may have had to read in your freshman English survey course).  In this story, a married couple perfectly exemplifies courtly love by making a pact of mutuality and equality in their marriage - each simultaneously the master and servant to their spouse.  Then the husband goes away to be a knight and conquer things, and the wife is heartbroken by his absence.  She paces along the cliffs by their house and stares at the black rocks on the shore beneath her, terrified that her husband's ship will be destroyed upon them when he finally comes home.  One day, another guy in the town approaches the wife and tells her he's in love with her.  She responds, "Sorry buddy, I'm definitely spoken for."  And then, joking, she says, "But boy, if you could get rid of every rock on the Breton shore I'll give you all the love you want!"

The other guy finds a "magician" who accepts a ton of money to solve this problem for him.  Really all he does is figure out when the tide is going to be uncommonly high and will cover up all of the rocks.  The other guy times it perfectly, and makes the lady come to the shore to see that the rocks are "gone" when the ride is at its peak.  Oh no!

She tells her husband what she told the other guy, and he says that she had better keep her word and sleep with him.  Better to dishonor herself and their marriage in that way than to break her word (you are correct, this makes no sense).  He forgives her for making that promise.  

She meets up with the other guy, and when he hears that her husband forgave her for making the promise, he decides to rise to the level of the husband and forgive her promise and let her go free.  But then he realizes he still has to pay the magician, and he can't afford it.  He approaches the magician, and, upon hearing of all this forgiveness, he wants to be noble too and forgives the debt of the other guy.  

This is the first story from this time period I can think of where the most highly praised actions are acts of forgiveness.  We have been talking a lot about Christian morality and pagan virtue, and in Chaucer they seem to overlap and entangle and create a Christian-pagan idea of proper living that is really interesting to figure out.  The pagan virtue in these tales is all about rigor, courage, chivalry, competition, bravery.  The Christian morality here seems mostly to deal with chastity, along with some other pious characteristics.  But why, I ask, is grace and forgiveness not the hallmark of Christian virtue?  

The last chapter of my personal "faith-journey" was all about grace.  Christianity is about freedom, friends, and it is so deeply puzzling to me that it is so seldom portrayed this way.  Could Chaucer be commenting on that here?  Is he trying to elevate this virtue of grace and forgiveness amid the cloudy pagan-religious moral scheme of his tales (and his times)?

This is my paper topic for this class, and I am so excited to get to work on it.  

My good new friend Max came over the other night and we went to town talking about all of our favorite books.  The Brothers Karamazov, Jane Eyre, War and Peace, Middlemarch and Silas Marner, The Discarded Image and the Ransom Trilogy, a bunch of Austen, Dickens, etc. etc. etc.  After I'd shared my readings of these books with him, he told me with a laugh, "Christ is your hermeneutic."  

I haven't been able to forget those words.  Yes, He is, and I've never heard it said better.  And my methodology is being richly nurtured in this place.  In case you were wondering, there is no conflict.  The pursuit is only more fruitful here.  I love Yale.  So time to get to work:  Grace, where have you been?  I bet you're hiding in these texts somewhere.  


  1. Did you ever go to that Italian restaurant on 3rd St in Santa Monica (I forget the name) where they had painted "Forgiveness Is Greater" on the ceiling? This makes me think of that. These are beautiful thoughts Catherine, thanks for posting this!

  2. I never did, but I certainly will next time I'm home! I think this should be painted on EVERY ceiling - so we are always living "under" grace. :)


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

The Cocktail Party

I had drinks with a friend after a long seminar tonight, and for the first time in a while, I didn't stagger to my car exhausted and then sit in traffic for 90 minutes (that's right, it takes me 90 minutes to go 11 miles #LosAngeles) and then collapse for an hour and then go back to work for another 3 hours before crawling into bed (I am taking too many classes this quarter).  Instead, I had two glasses of wine and a little dinner, and I got to talk to a great person who is willing to share a lot of knowledge with me as well as some genuine pleasantness.  It reminded me of the olden days when my social life and my academic life were centered around the same place and task, and it lightened the load quite a bit.

That moment of levity at the end of the day.  Ah.  We need it.  No reading.  No striving.  No obligations.  The wine or cocktail is key.  You're always pausing when you have a drink.  You're being a little bad.  You're working against your evening productiv…

I Don't Know

I've noticed a phenomenon in many areas of my verbal life wherein the phrase "I don't know" opens, closes, or rests in the middle of a phrase.  The more I listen for it, the more I am struck by its ubiquity, yet these phrases have nothing to do with the parameters of the speaker's knowledge.

In a seminar:  "I don't know, but I think he's saying..."

Among friends discussing the news: "Um, I don't know, but I feel like this could have been avoided..."

Two girls shopping:  "Is this cute?  Right?  I don't know."

Some guys on a walk: "I mean, I don't know, but was that the best choice..."

High school students in class: "I don't know, but don't you kind of feel like..."

Are we really so tentative?  Is our own knowledge so slippery that we cannot be certain of our opinions?  Do we doubt our own knowledge, we who may spend about 15-20 years of our lives in full-time, formal education or many ho…

Life Craft

Finals weeks are misery for me.  Sometimes I catch a wave of inspiration and weep into my keyboard, but those moments are rare.  I am not having one yet this time around.  I took too many classes this quarter and thus couldn't start my papers until it was too late to wait around for Muses.  And when I say I took too many classes that is not a request for applause at my ambition.  It was a mistake.  A mistake that reflects how desperate I am to be finished with my coursework so I can move on to Dante and do some real thinking that is not geared toward a 3AM slapdash 25 page paper.  And hopefully then this program will become enjoyable for me and not a daily reminder of the huge mistake I made deciding to go here.

As I have been trying to piece together a Boccaccio paper over the past three days, I've spent way more time on the internet than I normally do.  Especially Vogue, a publication I used to read regularly and haven't honestly read in several years.  I watched a bunch…