“He went into the chapel and looked at the pictures she had studied, and saw them through her eyes. He looked at the picture of the blind man and Sophia, her gesture so tender, his so responsive, and saw again how she had made it her own. She had lost herself in this old work, her personality dissolving into it, so that she had been set free. The immortality of the soul lies in its dissolution.”*
This post is stimulated by a novel, but too personal to be a book review. It is energised by my belief that the best poetry and fiction are more supportive of spiritual inquiry than most texts designed specifically for spiritual teaching. The same can be said of visual arts and music. For me, spiritual understanding is not a body of information available for download from the cosmos. It does not arise from surrender to a persistent monologue. A certain kind of peace and safety might come from this, but the full fruits of the meeting between wisdom, love and creativity are missed.
Iain Pears’ novel The Dream of Scipio has inspired my spiritual direction whilst not directly defining it. I like novels as a medium for their ability to shift between different points of view and see people developing in a context of living relationships and events. They can look at the cultural and political impact of belief systems over time, as well as personal experience in the moment. The main protagonist in this novel is a philosopher and teacher from late antiquity. Actually named Sophia, she is in the tradition of Hypatia of Alexandria, now celebrated as both a Pagan and an Atheist martyr.
Pears’ story has three timelines, with two main point of view characters from each. We are presented with thoughtful people doing what they see as their best in specific contexts of time, place and culture. In each case the setting is the south of France, east of the Rhone. The first and in many ways defining period spans 475-486 and the ending of Roman rule. The second is 1342-8, mostly set in Avignon during its period of Papal residence. It includes the devastating outbreak of bubonic plague known as the Black Death. The third is 1940-1943, covering the defeat of France, the Vichy regime and then full German occupation as resistance strengthens and the tide of war begins to turn. In each case the plot turns on experiences of a Sophian figure and a man in some form of relationship with her. On the political level the focus is on crisis, choices, and consequences – especially for the Jewish community of the region.
In 475 Sophia runs a modest philosophy school in Marseille, inherited from her father Anaxius. They are insecure migrants from Alexandria. Anaxius had been a pupil of Hypatia and can’t live there anymore. Marseille is relatively small, provincial and in decline. But it is a Greek city in origin and part of the Mediterranean world. Southern France is a land of highly Romanised Celts, with significant Greek and Jewish communities in the larger towns. Both as an independent woman and a philosopher in the Greek tradition, Sophia is an anomaly in a society of increasing religious conformism and narrowing cultural horizons. She presents herself as a guide, not a teacher, available to help without being an instructor. She asks people to speak freely and not to believe anything she says. She wants to emphasise the distinction between understanding and believing. Her theology is a rather austere neo-Platonism. “Let us take the premise” she says, “that the individual soul likens himself to God through the refinement of contemplation, and that virtue is a reflection of this understanding”.
Sophia’s main pupil is Manlius, a Gallo-Roman aristocrat who provides protection for Sophia as the school dwindles away and life gets more difficult. This supports his self-image of upholding the best of an old culture in bad times through an act of discerning patronage. They are attracted to each other, but the relationship is not consummated. They are holding to an ideal that “pure love is a reflection of the beautiful and a striving to return to it. Only through its accomplishment is the soul freed”. They both agree that Manlius should take a role in public life by making a formal conversion to Christianity and accepting the offer of a Bishopric. With the collapse in Roman military capacity the Romanised upper class is dependent on what we now call ‘soft power’. The church is its vehicle, and wants Manlius for his wealth, his family name and his administrative capacity. Manlius goes on to use his new office to negotiate a Burgundian occupation of his region as a means of maintaining order and keeping out the harsher Goths. This is presented as realistic in its own terms, though it involves the betrayal and killing of old friends who still want a Roman solution. However, even with the political settlement achieved, Bishop Manlius still needs to enhance his Christian credentials with the local population. They are not quite sure of his faith. So, taking advantage of a disturbance involving a Jewish criminal, he gives the entire local Jewish population three choices: conversion, exile or death. Most choose one of the first two options, but some are killed. From this time on Manlius is treated as a saint. He has solved the issue of the Christ killers on his patch.
Sophia is appalled. The point of public office lies in the opportunity to exercise virtue. Manlius was meant to take it to avoid it going to someone worse – someone bigoted or cynical. His behaviour is a betrayal of everything her teaching stood for. Manlius thinks of it as effective statecraft through the willingness to take hard decisions. Sophia still has to rely on Manlius’ protection – at one point to obtain her release from prison – and she moves to a small hermitage on his land. She and her role are no longer possible in the city. However, this doesn’t stop her from confronting him, expressing shame at being his teacher and breaking off the friendship. Manlius writes A Dream of Scipio (where she is his guide in the dream) as a kind of apology and tribute to her teaching, and to express his private opinions. Sophia refuses to read it.
Sophia survives Manlius. She lives on at the hermitage, protected by the good will of a Burgundian war lord who inherits the estate. He feels an odd respect for her though he can’t make her out and is easier to deal with than Manlius had become. Over time local people, especially women, have begun to treat her as a holy woman and seek her advice on personal and family problems. After her own death, she is woven into legend as St. Sophia – the most faithful of a group of women gathered around Mary Magdalene when forced to leave the Holy Land. On arrival in the south of France, Sophia becomes a teacher and healer second only to Mary herself. A favourite story is the curing blind of Manlius, for example, who went on to become the holy Bishop of Vaison after regaining his sight and who rewarded her with the hermitage. The chapel built on the site becomes a centre of pilgrimage.
In the medieval part of the story, a young Italian painter experimenting with a more humanistic and representational art paints scenes from St. Sophia’s life on the chapel walls. They include the saint curing the blind Manlius. Real people, younger and naiver than their originals, are used as the models. The Sophia figure is Rebecca, an orphan from the officially extinct Cathar community, working as the servant of a Jewish rabbi. Manlius is Olivier (and actually Rebecca’s lover), the young secretary of a Cardinal and also a poet in a new and evolving style. He finds an old manuscript of The Dream of Scipio. Its language is haunting and challenging. Some of the things Rebecca says, when she lets him know who she is, remind him of this manuscript and this is woven into the attraction. The chief political event is a knife-edge Papal decision to prevent a massacre of Jews rather than promote one as strongly advised. (The plague is widely blamed on the Jews.) The connection between Olivier and Rebecca makes a difference to this outcome, though at the eventual cost of Olivier’s life.
In the World War II part of the story, Julien is an academic and Julia a painter. They’ve known each other, on and off, for some years. Julia comes from a Jewish family but doesn’t think of herself as Jewish until forced to. After the occupation Julia manages to get exit papers from France but her ship is diverted to Cuba where U.S. authorities deny her permission to enter the United States, thus getting round a promise that no Jewish refugee will be turned back from a U.S. port. No other country will take her and she is forced back to France. Julien has a job as a Vichy censor based in Avignon (accepting it to prevent someone perceived as worse from having it). He is able to help Julia hide out discreetly, and she enters a highly productive phase as an artist. An important source of inspiration is the old Chapel of St. Sophia, its legends, and the medieval paintings that, somewhat the worse for wear, are still there. She makes use of the themes – especially the healing of blind Manlius by Sophia. However, she also becomes more visible – used by the Resistance to forge money and documents, and also because a Resistance co-ordinator flown back to France from Britain creates a cover role as an art dealer and sells some of her pictures. Julia is supposed to be put on a flight and taken out of harm’s way, but she is just too skilled and useful and her extraction keeps being delayed. When arrested she affirms her Jewish identity to half-hearted French police who are hoping that she will deny it (the arresting officers don’t know about her connection to the resistance, which one of them will shortly join). She is last known of on a train taking Jews to the camps. Julien, remorseful about failing to save her, dies whilst trying to save another resistance member from arrest.
There is a good deal about this book that is grim, and a good deal that is inspirational. If Sophia represents a spiritual wisdom, love and creativity, then the book has something to celebrate about these wonderful qualities as true human resources. Yet they are fragile. The book also speaks of dark times and the choices people make. The culture of the three periods is presented as accurately as possible and the major events all happened. Many possible lessons are suggested, and none are imposed. I found it very rich, and it’s one of the few novels I reread from time to time.
*Pears, Iain The Dream of Scipio London: Vintage, 2003