Where Is the Valuable Pearl?: On “Of Human Bondage” by Gene Ciarlo

“He was thankful not to have to believe in God, for then such a condition of things would be intolerable; one could reconcile oneself to existence only because it was meaningless.” Thus the feelings of a former believer, Philip Carey, the main character in the novel Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham.

The story begins with the orphaned nephew Philip’s pious intention to follow in the footsteps of his uncle, the Vicar of Blackstable. He assumes the family mindset that he should become a clergyman, until, alas, he became his own person, mindful of the self and personal integrity. Taking this view to the limit, he concludes that religion and belief in God are a thing of the past, for weaklings and the needy.

Of Human Bondage is semiautobiographical, and it seems that Maugham submitted to and endured many of the trials of the apparently godless but compassionate and caring Mr. Carey. Written in 1915, the story is told as only a British sophisticate and aristocratic author could tell it. Without admitting it, it becomes apparent that Maugham is class conscious and used to refinement in culture, if not in actual lifestyle. The narrative of his own life implies that he had religious intentions as a youth but finally discovered the “truth” about life and religion and settled into an ethic spawned from something within himself. In this he is reminiscent of Philip Carey, who has a simple rule of thumb for living life on a day-to-day basis: “to follow one’s instincts with due regard to the policeman round the corner.” I suspect that these “instincts” are more developed habits, nurtured by a certain upbringing and lifestyle, fundamentally a Christian one fostered in his youth. “As the twig is bent . . .”

The Vicar of Blackstable is a smug creature, used to lots of comfort, good food, pious nosegays, and a slow but steady pace. Philip becomes disillusioned about religion, thanks to his uncle’s example: “As he grew up he had learned to know his uncle; Philip was downright and intolerant, and he could not understand that a man might sincerely say things as a clergyman which he never acted up to as a man. The deception outraged him. His uncle was a weak and selfish man, whose chief desire it was to be saved trouble.”

I dare say that the vicar’s attitude is at the root of many defections from the church and religion that characterize our time. His talk does not match his walk. In numerous ways the church lives its social message and carries on a grace-filled apostolate to the poor and downtrodden. But its most visible and highly placed leaders very often do not live the life of Jesus the Christ, and therein lays the rub. Is it possible that all religious and clergy be Mother Teresa and Saint Francis of Assisi? Are we asking for the unattainable or just a different style of training in the ministry? Are priests educated to be administrators, theologians, ritualists, and orators, or is seminary life and rectory living keyed to spiritual growth?

It took Maugham 431 pages to summarize his thoughts on the church and religion. At one point in the book, Philip is chatting with some wonderful new friends he has made on his way to becoming a medical doctor. Athelny and Betty are Londoners who never really left the sod of rural England. Athelny’s exchange with Philip is worth quoting in full:

“I think women ought to be religious,” [Athenly said]. I don’t believe myself, but I like women and children to.”

“But how can you look on while your children are being taught things which you don’t think are true?”

“If they’re beautiful I don’t much mind if they’re not true. . . . Besides, religion is a matter of temperament; you will believe anything if you have the religious turn of mind, and if you haven’t it doesn’t matter what beliefs were instilled into you, you will grow out of them. Perhaps religion is the best school of morality. It is like one of those drugs you gentlemen use in medicine which carries another in solution: it is of no efficacy in itself, but enables the other to be absorbed. You take your morality because it is combined with religion; you lose the religion and the morality stays behind. A man is more likely to be a good man if he has learned goodness through the love of God than through a perusal of Herbert Spencer.”

This was contrary to Philip’s ideas. He still looked upon Christianity as a degrading bondage that must be cast away at all cost; it was connected subconsciously in his mind with the dreary services in the cathedral at Tercanbury, and the long hours of boredom in the cold church at Blackstable; and the morality of which Athelny spoke was to him no more than a part of the religion which a halting intelligence preserved, when it had laid aside the beliefs which alone made it reasonable.

In order to sort through the theological claims of this passage, we need a prototype, and that prototype is Jesus, son of Joseph, who is called Christ, the Son of God. Did Jesus “do religion” because it was beautiful, or because it established in one a certain moral sense, or because it offered some sort of acknowledgement of the God responsible for all this? In fact, there are very few indications in the Gospels of Jesus going to the Temple or to local synagogues to pray. If he did go, the Gospel writers didn’t seem to think it was important for them to note it. Instead, the stories that remain are about Jesus’s interactions with people. Compassion is key. Throughout his public life, Jesus set the example of conversion from focus on the self, on the world, on religion, to an altruistic “other-centeredness.” He seemed to say that everything of value comes from within, and that we need only become mindful and aware of who we are and what we possess. Where is the valuable pearl? What is the field in which the treasure is buried? Never the Temple or synagogue. Always within. We are made of godliness, and it is for us to find it and then explode it upon the world. This is Christian humanism.

Look at the Catholic Church and its primary offerings, its Mass and sacraments—more specifically, its Sunday Mass and Holy Communion. Do these principal acts of worship cause individuals and a community of people to acknowledge the sacred within and give their most and best to themselves and their neighbors? Only very indirectly, in my estimation. The Mass remembers Jesus: “Do this in memory of me.” These words are more important than “This is my body; this is my blood.” Unfortunately, history and tradition have made those latter words the high point of the Mass and the sacrament.

But “Do this”—do this life, this whole life—“in memory of me” is the point at which all the bells should ring and the incense pour out and the people stand up and shout halleluiah! We have put the emphasis in the wrong place, and that place is where it was in the Middle Ages, in the age of mystery and wonder, ignorance and miracles. No wonder we see people leave church swearing at their neighbors for parking in the wrong place or holding up traffic. The message of Jesus has not come through in the ritual they just performed. Our religion does not teach us the humanistic way of life that Jesus proposed, and that should be its first intention.

By the end of Maugham’s novel, Philip has found peace and success as he lives out his twenty-something years and enters into maturity:

Life was before him and time of no account. He could wander, for years if he chose, in unfrequented places, amid strange peoples, where life was led in strange ways. He did not know what he sought or what his journeys would bring him; but he had a feeling that he would learn something new about life and gain some clue to the mystery that he had solved only to find more mysterious.

We too go on, looking for meaning in life, in religion—and lo, we hear, “The kingdom of God is within you.” Better to look in there than out there or up there.

Gene Ciarlo is a priest no longer active in the ministry. Ordained from the American College, University of Louvain, Belgium, he spent most of his ministry in parish life. After receiving a master’s degree in liturgical studies from Notre Dame University he returned to his alma mater in Louvain as director of liturgy and homiletics. Gene lives in Vermont, where everything is gracefully green when it is not solemnly white. 

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