If I loved God, then I would believe in His love for me. It’s not enough to need it. We have to love first, and I don’t know how. But I need it, how I need it…
What are we doing to each other? Because I know that I am doing to [Maurice] exactly what he is doing to me. We are sometimes so happy, and never in our lives have we known more unhappiness. It’s as if we were working together on the same statue, cutting it out of each other’s misery. But I don’t even know the design.
-Graham Greene, The End of the Affair
Fifteen college freshmen are seated in a round-table formation under the vaulted, chandeliered ceiling. I am one of them. It is a windy autumn day, and I am staring through the glass doors at the whirling leaves caught up in gust after gust. I let the question we are discussing sink slowly into my heart: Is hate so very different from love?
We are in the final days of my first semester of college, and in this particular class, we have just finished reading a novel by Graham Greene entitled The End of the Affair. After weeks of muddling through Aristotle’s Ethics, this modern British novel is wonderful change. It is a work of fiction, not philosophy, and it simply tells a story. It tells the story of a single man and a married woman, caught up in a torrid, sordid love affair. It tells the story of belief, of the tiresome fight and the reluctant conversion. It is, in all honesty, a blend of harlequin romance and conversion narrative. An unconventional mix, I’d say.
In fact, when I finished The End of the Affair that autumn, I was completely stunned. The novel does whitewash or euphemize anything at all. It is about sex, duplicity, seduction, betrayal, and hate. But at the same time, it is about desire, sin, belief, and most unexpectedly, spiritual love.
In my understanding at the time, those were two separate worlds. In this story, they interpenetrate so masterfully so that you can’t extricate one from the other. The discovery of the love of God comes through the affair. Illicit sex is the medium through which Maurice Bendrix and Sarah Miles come to understand hatred, love, and ultimately, belief.
This is the novel’s magic, and its allure, and also its surprise: it blurs the line between the sacred and the profane. It introduces the idea that in profanation there is purification, that God is present everywhere, at all times, and that even in “ordinary corrupt human love” there is no place, no situation or event or matter at hand where God isn’t.
“People go on loving God, don’t they, all their lives without seeing Him?”
“That’s not our kind of love.”
“I sometimes don’t believe there’s any other kind.”
Simone Weil introduces a similar idea in her philosophy. We love with our bodies because “we haven’t anything else with which to love.” Lissa McCullough writes that for Weil,
Sexual love, and all attachments analogous to the sexual, are vital resources to be converted and transfigured rather than extinguished or squandered. To reproach mystics with loving God by means of the faculty of sexual love, Weil writes, is as though one were to reproach a painter with making pictures by means of colors composed of material substances (212).
This idea renders Sarah Miles, the unfaithful heroine of The End of the Affair, a mystic in the most unusual sense. It is she, the self-proclaimed whore, bitch, and fake, that is also healer, lover, saint.
I think The End of the Affair is onto something; namely that while we might like to distinguish between the sacred and the profane, to tie things up nicely into two boxes, we do so at the risk of neglecting the true nature of things. In An Altar in the World, Barbara Brown Taylor writes that the act of blessing does not actually confer blessing onto something or someone; instead, it recognizes the holiness that is already present in that person or thing.
I wonder if the same sort of thing is at play here. God does not dwell only in the things we perceive as sacred. God is present in all things. We have no way of conceiving the holiness bursting from what we condescendingly mark as profane. We are not God, and we cannot see as God sees.
In one of my favorite scenes from The Brothers Karamazov, the novice Alyosha goes to visit the local call girl, Grushenka, who attempts to seduce him. Through the course of their conversation, Grushenka, who considers herself a “low, violent woman,” recognizes that Alyosha is a holy man, and he also recognizes the holiness in her. Alyosha exclaims to a friend, “I came here looking for a wicked soul – I was drawn to that, because I was low and wicked myself, but I found a true sister, I found a treasure – a loving soul…She spared me just now…I’m speaking of you, Grushenka. You restored my soul just now” (351).
If we, as readers, didn’t know any better, we’d think Grushenka was anything but sacred. But Alyosha reveals to us that she is holy, a treasure.
In Graham Greene’s novel, we find that the end of the affair of betrayal, profanation, and hate is the love of God. “I thought, sometimes I’ve hated Maurice, but would I have hated him if I hadn’t loved him too? Oh God, if I could really hate you, what would that mean?” Sarah Miles writes in her journal. “For he gave me so much love, and I gave him so much love that soon there wasn’t anything left, when we’d finished, but You. For either of us.”
This is the gritty, rough honesty of the spiritual life – sin, hate, belief, redemption, love, in no particular order, over and over. Here, as in The Brothers Karamazov, fiction tells the truth. It is painfully familiar to us as we read. It is incisive, cutting past what we like to think we are to what we really are — sinners, tired and worn and holy and profane, fighting against belief until we don’t have any fight left, and then, finally, falling into belief like falling in love. Profaned sacraments. Sanctified profanations.
And so, if conversion is like falling into belief, like falling in love, perhaps Sarah Miles’ final letter to Maurice is its own creed, a creed that blends the sacred and the profane into truth.
I believe there’s a God – I believe the whole bag of tricks, there’s nothing I don’t believe, they could subdivide the Trinity into a dozen parts and I’d believe. They could dig up records that proved Christ had been invented by Pilate to get himself promoted and I’d believe just the same. I’ve caught belief like a disease. I’ve fallen into belief like I fell in love. I’ve never loved before as I love you, and I’ve never believed in anything before as I believe now. I’m sure. I’ve never been sure before about anything…I fought belief for longer than I fought love, but I haven’t any fight left.
Dostoevsky, Fyodor, The Brothers Karamazov, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1990.
Fujimura, Makoto, Sacrificial Grace, Gold on Kumohada, 1997.
Greene, Graham, The End of the Affair, Penguin Books, 1951.
McCullough, Lissa, “Simone Weil’s Phenomenology of the Body,” Equinox Publishing, 2013.