My family has never met a Jane Austen story we didn’t like, and that goes for screen adaptations as well. It’ll come as no surprise, then, that we were all grins when we stumbled across a film version of Northanger Abbey we’d never seen while perusing our public library’s streaming Hoopla offerings.
“What’s it rated?” I asked my wife.
“Looks good – 79% on the Tomatometer,” Nancy replied. “It’s a BBC production from 2007.”
“How’d we miss it?” I marveled. “Let’s give it a go.”
The story itself was Austen’s first completed novel, and it includes many of her characteristic plot elements: class struggle, wealth and penury, single women yearning for marriage, marriageable women yearning for love. And, of course, a young, single, female protagonist – in this case, Catherine Moreland.
Catherine, the daughter of a rural clergyman, accepts an invitation to visit Bath from the wealthier (and childless) family friends, the Allens. Just before her first night out in the “big” city, Catherine gazes from a window and wonders aloud at the hustle and bustle in the streets below. “So many people!” she says. “I wonder who they can be, and what their stories are.”
It’s a minor moment in a minor scene, and apparently not a line penned by Austen herself, but it caught my attention immediately. It was nearly word for word the same idea expressed by my own Katharine just the day before.
We were driving to the pool, me in the front, Kath and her brother, Nick, in the back. As we made our way up a fairly busy Miami Street, Kath watched all the vehicles moving past us in the other direction. “You know, Papa, I see all those cars and wonder about the people in them,” she said. “Who are they? What are they doing?”
It was a golden opportunity for a wise fatherly insight – a “teachable moment,” as it were – and I began to wax eloquent about empathy, about the communion of persons and grace. However, Kath cut me off with a shake of the head. “I just see them and wonder, that’s all – just see them and wonder.”
The teachable moment, turns out, was for me: When encountering others, pondering ought to precede analysis and action.
Pope Francis gets at this idea in Misericordiae Vultus, the document that announced the current Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy.
Jesus, seeing the crowds of people who followed him, realized that they were tired and exhausted, lost and without a guide, and he felt deep compassion for them (cf. Mt 9:36). On the basis of this compassionate love he healed the sick who were presented to him (cf. Mt 14:14), and with just a few loaves of bread and fish he satisfied the enormous crowd (cf. Mt 15:37).
Perhaps it’s a truism that mercy, like love itself, is primarily a verb rather than an emotional state or abstract concept – that feeling merciful isn’t the same thing as performing a merciful act. Even so, the verb of doing real mercy, at least as Jesus modeled it, has to be rooted in authentic human mutuality. “What moved Jesus in all of these situations was nothing other than mercy,” Pope Francis notes, “with which he read the hearts of those he encountered and responded to their deepest need” (MV 8).
It’s what the philosophers term “personalism,” and it’s at the heart of what it means to live as a Christian. We don’t simply assent to dogma or follow Gospel commands to do generic “good deeds” – like Russell, the Wilderness Explorer in the movie Up, who needs to “assist the elderly” in order to win a merit badge. When Mr. Fredrickson turns down his offers to help him cross the street, the yard, and the porch, Russell complains, “Well, I’ve got to help you cross something!”
That’s us when we undertake generic good deeds to help generic persons. Instead, in the words of the Catholic Worker “Aims and Means,” we’re called to regard the “freedom and dignity of each person as the basis, focus and goal of all metaphysics and morals.” Each individual is a child of God, a unique son or daughter of our loving Father, with particular wants, needs, and aspirations – each with a unique story, as my Katharine (and Austen’s Catherine) observed. “The neighbor is not a ‘unit’ in the human collective,” in the words of the Catechism. “He is ‘someone’ who by his known origins deserves particular attention and respect” (#2212).
It’s hot in South Bend, and we’ll be returning to the pool again tonight. As we make our way down Miami Street, I intend to slow down and ponder along with my daughter: Who are all those people driving past? What are their stories? And how might our lives intersect someday?
Imagine, a simple drive to the pool – or a shop at the grocery store, or a stroll in the park, anywhere! – becomes an adventure of speculative personal encounter. Not a bad way to live, that (thanks, Kath). And if speculation does indeed lead to encounter and relationship, God grant us quiet hearts to listen well and listen long. It’s the essence of friendship, and we all need friends.