“I am the Resurrection and the Life” — Sydney Carton, Love and Redemption

No matter how far from the light we think we are, we should hold fast to the certainty that God will never abandon us.

Jacob van Oost the Younger (1639–1713), “The Vision of St. John of the Cross”
Jacob van Oost the Younger (1639–1713), “The Vision of St. John of the Cross” (photo: Public Domain)

If you’ve never fallen in love with a literary character, I’m truly sorry — and I hope you do someday. To me, falling in love with a character means that their story resonates with us on such a deep level that we feel their emotions as if they were our own; we fear for them, we hope for them, we weep when they fall, we cheer when they get up again. It’s what keeps us watching that show long past our bedtime, or what keeps us turning pages when we should be turning out the light. It’s as simple — and as profound — as that. And when I read Charles Dickens’ novel A Tale of Two Cities, I fell head over heels for Sydney Carton.

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When we fall for a character, I think it’s because we see something in their story that we need to understand in our own lives. The power of story to help us to reflect on the direction of our own lives is unparalleled because stories play on our fascination with “what if”: “What if that were me? What would I do?” When I was writing “The Dark Night of the Soul,” Episode 4 of The Quest, I spent a long time reflecting on the saints and mystics whose spiritual experiences with the desolation of the Dark Night have been so profound. But I also kept returning to Sydney Carton’s story, trying to understand how he pulled himself out of the depths of drunken despair to die in another man’s place for the sake of the woman he loved.

And that’s where I found the answer to my question.

But before we jump to the ending, let’s lay a bit of groundwork so that we can understand why Sydney’s arc of redemption is so powerful. At the beginning of the novel, Sydney is lost. He’s drunk, dissolute and despairing. But there are three important things we learn about him from the first moments we see him. He is keenly aware of Lucie Manette, with the awareness that only a deep and passionate love can bring. He is quietly but genuinely brilliant. And he’s a dead ringer for Charles Darnay, the man Lucie eventually marries.

Because he is a dissolute and a drunk, Sydney writes himself off. He undercuts his abilities as an attorney, and more importantly, he has no hope that Lucie will return his love, so he doesn’t fight for her. But even as he lets her go, he wants her to know that she has been “the last dream of [his] soul.” He tells her that she has made him want to come back from the brink of the darkness that has consumed him for so long. But at this point in the story, he still despairs of the possibility that he could find this kind of redemption.

He doesn’t fully realize it yet, but his love for Lucie has in fact opened the door for a complete shift in his character — and the promise he makes her ensures that he will step through it. He tells Lucie as he departs, “think now and then that there is a man who would give his life, to keep a life you love beside you.” He asks nothing for himself, because he counts himself utterly unworthy of her. But should she ever need him, he will lay down his life for her or someone she loves. 

And so, when Charles Darnay is detained in France by the Revolution, we realize how the golden thread of Sydney’s love for Lucie will spin itself out. The way out of the darkness for Sydney is through the action demanded by the intensity of that love. As events force him to face the consequences of the promise he made, he doesn’t back down or turn away. Instead, he discovers the true depth of his courage and his strength, a strength which flows not only from his love for Lucie, but from someone else’s promise: “I am the Resurrection and the Life, saith the Lord: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: and whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die.”

Sydney not only finds the courage to fulfill his promise to Lucie, but also finds enough strength to comfort the terrified young woman who is guillotined with him. And then, as he faces the moment of his own death, he recognizes what this journey has done for him: “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”

The dissolute, despairing drunkard we knew at the beginning of the story is no more. Love has carried him out of the shadows and brought him back into the light. 

Love is the answer to the Dark Night of the Soul.

And before you accuse me of being simplistic, or idealistic, or a hopeless starry-eyed romantic — I challenge you to name one story of salvation and redemption that isn’t a love story. 

I humbly submit that one doesn’t exist.

The love that pulls us out of the depths might be the love of a woman, a man, a parent, a brother, a sister, a child or a friend. It might be the love of a coach, a teacher, a priest, a mentor or a loyal animal companion. But working behind all of these loves, as deep and powerful as they might be, is an even stronger Love — a Love that cannot and will not fail. A Love that works through everything else in our lives — even, and perhaps most especially, the darkness — to draw us closer to himself. And a Love who has himself endured the darkness, and who is the Light that never goes out.

There is always hope, no matter how dark or desperate our circumstances may seem. And no matter how far from the light we think we are, we should hold fast to the certainty that God will never abandon us.

“I am the Resurrection and the Life, saith the Lord: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: and whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die.”

The Quest will air March 27-31 at 10pm CT on EWTN.

Ivan Aivazovsky, “Walking on Water,” ca. 1890

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