Saturday, November 5, 2011

It's Not a Job, . . .

In Sidney Lanier's book of Arthurian legend, the first version I ever read, several tales begin with the King and his knights sitting down for the feast of Pentecost, determined not to eat until an adventure has come their way. And sure enough, eventually a dwarf or a girl or a dirty young man comes into the hall asking for a boon. These stories brought together in my mind for the first time the ideas of Christianity and adventure. Later, I would read several times in Chesterton (in Orthodoxy, "On Running after One's Hat," and elsewhere) about the adventure of Christianity. Even later, thinking about many of my favorite books and movies, I would come to the conclusion that most (all?) adventure stories come from the soul's longing for Christ. The prince kissing the girl, the knight storming the castle, Frodo entering Mt. Doom, and Luke shooting a bolt down that airshaft are all types of Christ.

These ideas of adventure have popped into my head a lot again recently while reading my second Patrick O'Brian novel for the year: The Letter of Marque. I have no idea if Patrick O'Brian sees adventure in the sacred light that covers it in my view. His wonderful lead characters, Captain Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin, each have somewhat complex relationships with the faith, so I don't know that either of them see the adventures that come their way as God's Pentecostal signs. But I certainly have seen an inspiring view of life's adventure in this latest book.

Luck plays a prominent part in this series of sea yarns. The captain is referred to often as "Lucky" Jack Aubrey. Finding an enemy ship in the wide Atlantic is never a given thing. Bullets and cannonballs flying through a battle scene hit one man and miss another without apparent purpose or plan. Governments change, and stocks rise and fall with the ocean winds. The whole series seems set in a world that bounces around on the unpredictable wheel.

This setting, though, becomes theme in the previous installment, The Reverse of the Medal, which centers around the end of Jack's luck. Happily for Jack and his readers, his luck returns in the twelfth volume. But it seemed to me while reading that the lesson O'Brian offers out of all the reverses of fortune is not acquiescence in the indeterminable but a healthy view of luck as opportunity. In Reverse of the Medal, Jack may fall for a con and lose his post because of it, but Stephen takes the opportunity of an inheritance he just happens to come into, and buys Jack a ship to run as a privat . . . – oops, Aubrey looks down on that term – as an independent ship authorized by a letter of marque.

In Letter of Marque, several opportunities come Jack's way by happenstance. He hears of one French ship expecting to meet up with another that happens to be the same size as his Surprise. He hears of another ship moored in St. Martin's and loaded with valuable quicksilver. And he hears that his father has died, leaving an open seat in the House of Commons. Taking these prizes, both naval and political, will help him reach his only goal: reinstatement in the Royal Navy. But Jack has to strategize to make the most of the opportunities luck has sent his way. He paints and rerigs the Surprise to look like the expected rendevous ship, he plans a diversion for the fort at St. Martin's, and he learns what promises (all respectable) to make to which prominent politicians in order to win the place in Parliament. Success never falls in his lap. Stephen gets a little success poured into his lap when a patient unwittingly weens him from his laudanum addiction by raiding the medical supply cabinet and watering down (actually brandying down) the bottle. But that's the only free gift for Stephen: at the end of the book he has to meet an opportunity with carefully chosen action in order to make up with his Diana, which he does through generosity, humility, humor, and vulnerability.

I've been saying "luck," when of course a strict belief in luck leaves God out of control of his own world. Trying to fathom God's purpose in every roll of the dice, though, leads to endless rabbit trails. Better to say with the writer of Ecclesiastes that "time and chance happeneth to all." But these stories are about both chance and intelligent, courageous responses. In looking for God in the world and in good stories about the world, it's hard to say where the chance comes from, but I have no trouble saying where virtues come from.

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