Sunday, January 8, 2017

The Meaning of Communion in “A Painful Case” and “The Dead”

A throwback to graduate school.  Hope it holds up.  It was just sitting on the hard drive collecting virtual dust, and I was reminded of it by our associate pastor's review of what Epiphany means and how we use the term 'epiphany' (with no reference to Joyce, regrettably...):

Throughout Joyce’s Dubliners, the characters’ lives and their experience of reality are informed by the Sacraments of Catholicism, particularly the Sacrament of Eucharist, or Holy Communion.  Here, it is perhaps more useful to use the term “Communion,” which stresses the connection between the individuals partaking of the sacrament as well as their connection to the “Communion of Saints”—living and deceased—rather than the term “Eucharist,” or “thanksgiving,” which seems to have little connection to the themes expressed in the stories.  The chalice, a concrete symbol of Communion, figures prominently in “Two Sisters” and “Araby.”  However, the Eucharistic imagery combines with the plot and interaction of characters to capture the concept of “Communion” as a sacrament—sometimes defined as a physical manifestation of spiritual truth—in “A Painful Case” and “The Dead.”
Taken as individual stories, outside of the context of the work as a whole, both “A Painful Case” and “The Dead” may be read productively without any knowledge or consideration of Holy Communion.  In the context of Dubliners, however, which is peopled with priests and Catholic school boys, and littered with chalices and sacramental symbols, certain aspects of these stories take on additional meaning.  In “A Painful Case,” Holy Communion is suggested, first of all, by constant references to another sacrament—Confession (also Penance or Reconciliation).  This sacrament is considered necessary for the purification of the sinful individual—the individual who is out of communion with the Church—to allow for the reception of Holy Communion.  In the context of the story, Mr. Duffy, who “lived his spiritual life without any communion with others” (71*) becomes enamoured of a Mrs. Sinico, who “be[comes] his confessor” (72).  Their “union,” which may be read as a (comm)union resulting from the connection of their minds, “exalt[s] him,” and he expects that “he would ascend to an angelic stature” because of it (73).  When he suspects a physical attraction on her part, he refers to the scene of their meeting as a “ruined confessional” (73), making reference to the actual locus in a church in which confessions are made/heard.  His spiritual elation, made possible by the union with Mrs. Sinico—in essence, a spiritual communion—is ended, he believes, by her physical response to him;  however, the reader may conclude that he pulls back from the necessary physicality of the communion. 
Here, the image of Holy Communion, and Communion as a sacrament, becomes particularly important.  The spiritual communion within the plot is clear;  its physical implications are less so.  However, as a sacrament must have some physical sign, and since, according to Catholic belief, one makes physical connection to the Body of Christ through Holy Communion, the physical, corporeal nature of Mrs. Sinico is vital for the success of their spiritual communion.  By rejecting this, Mr. Duffy denies the reality of the sacrament, which is emphasized by his reading of Nietzsche.  The result is eventual self-annihilation.
When Duffy reads the news story of Mrs. Sinico’s death, his complex reaction is further defined in terms of the Sacrament of Communion.  When he rereads the newspaper story, he does so silently, “moving his lips as a priest does when he reads the prayers Secreto” (74).  In the Catholic Liturgy as it is celebrated today, the priest says prayers Secreto in preparation for the consecration of the host—the transformation of the physical by way of the spiritual that allows for the validity of the sacrament.  Though in the Latin Liturgy of the Catholic Church, with which Joyce would have been familiar, prayers are read in Secreto more frequently, a key moment is during the introductory Eucharistic prayer.  Upon reading of her death, then, he remembers his incomplete sacrament, which may be seen as ironic, as it is Christ’s death that allows, in Catholic belief, for the Sacrament of Communion.
His reaction to her death is defined first, perhaps, by shock, followed by disgust and realization.  When Duffy does begin to revisit Mrs. Sinico’s memory in more sympathetic terms, it is again in terms of a communion.  He senses his connection with her in spiritual and physical terms—feeling her touch and hearing her voice and her name, but also recognizing their common situation, including loneliness and the finality of death that joins all of humanity in a kind of communion (this communion of all humanity in the inevitability of death is related, though negatively, to the Catholic concept of the Communion of Saints).  Significantly, this loneliness is represented in terms of estrangement from a communal meal:  “He gnawed the rectitude of his life;  he felt that he had been outcast from life’s feast” and “No one wanted him;  he was outcast from life’s feast” (77).  This repetition, which also resonates with other themes and scenes from Dubliners, draws attention to the phrasing, which echoes the language of the Catholic Mass—the Eucharist is described as a “feast,” a “supper,” while the altar is a “table.”
The insistence of the imagery in a story that is, on the surface, so far removed from religiosity as to imply an adulterous (if platonic) affair leads to the question of how Joyce, presumably subversive of Catholicism, is using this fundamentally Catholic imagery.  In “A Painful Case,” as elsewhere in Dubliners, Joyce emphasizes the sacramental nature of life—a fact that his characters can not escape even when the seek to deny it, as does Mr. Duffy.  Thus, physical existence always reaches toward the elucidation of some non-physical truth.  However, Joyce is not dealing in divine absolutes.  While the sacraments of Catholicism put humans in physical contact with divine truths, allowing for spiritual development, Joyce’s sacraments put humans in touch with purely human truths that are nevertheless hidden from humanity, due in part to the mundane operations of daily life.  However divorced from religious belief, the “sacramental imagination,” a term used by Andrew Greeley, is a fundamentally Catholic way of understanding the world.  Joyce draws from this rich source to inform his exploration of the human condition, almost celebrating the Catholic heritage of Ireland as he does so.  He certainly does not cancel out Catholicism by his appropriation of its imagery, and nowhere in Dubliners does his representation of Catholicism cancel or subvert its practice, however this position may have modulated in later works.
It is in “The Dead” that the image of the Communion of Saints comes to its fruition in Dubliners.  Gabriel, though comparable to Mr. Duffy in the sense that he feels alienated from the life around him—which, significantly, culminates in a communal meal—nevertheless seeks to understand his place among the living, especially his relation to his wife, as well as his communion with the dead.  Though the feast in “The Dead” can be read at face value, as an example of holiday cheer and hospitality, the Eucharistic themes in Dubliners, combined with the religious discussions and religiosity of the aunts, suggest that the feast be read in terms of an alternate, human communion feast.  Gabriel presides over the table—not preparing the meal, but carving it as an offering to the Three Graces—and later offers a thanksgiving—a sort of Eucharistic “nod”—to his aunts as representatives of a generation that has passed, with clear references to other generations that have died.  While the struggles of the main character in this story point to an alienation, even though he is not excluded from the feast, it is presumably the fault of the individual and not the sacrament.  Gabriel seems alienated from the living—most notably, from women—and from the dead, whom he fears, though life continues around him with its welcoming warmth.  Those around him carry on sacramentally, demonstrating to each other, through their physical presence and partaking of the meal, certain truths about hope and human connectedness, while Gabriel, who has somewhat ironically played the part of the Presider over a Mass, struggles with his relationships to others, which have been modulated by his education and emotional restraint.  Through his “epiphany,” Gabriel is able to enter into a fuller understanding of his communion with the living—his wife—and the dead, though his attempt at physical demonstration toward his wife was ill-timed and selfish in nature.  Nevertheless, he begins to understand the common humanity represented by (c/C)ommunion in the presence of snow, which becomes (like water) the physical sign of the sacrament:  “His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead” (152).  Though the specific truth is not easy to identify, the sacramental presence of the snow, it is presumed, causes development in Gabriel’s soul and leaves the reader with a glimpse of a higher spiritual plane.



* My page numbers refer to the Dover Thrift Edition of Dubliners.

1 comment:

Melanie Bettinelli said...

So I just posted a poem on my blog whose opening stanza borrows from the famous closing paragraph of The Dead, snow is general over Ireland. And as I was re-reading the ending of the story after I'd finished writing the poem three images jumped out at me: the cross, nails, and thorns in the graveyard in the snow. I was playing around with images of snow, nails, and thorns in my poem so they really popped. Interesting to think of those symbols of the Passion alongside this reading of the Eucharistic theme. Does it suggest that Gabriel's suffering has a redemptive element?