Sometimes I still get surprised. I mean, I get lots of bad surprises, like every time a sink in my house begins to leak. Or a tire goes flat. Or a kid gets sick. But good surprises seem to get fewer and farther between once you enter adulthood. This summer I had a good surprise, though, when I picked up a bargain copy of a collection of novels published by Agatha Christie under her pseudonym, Mary Westmacott. I have loved Agatha Christie’s work for years, but I thought I had read everything she ever wrote. Good surprise: I hadn’t! Then I actually read one of the stories and: another good surprise! They weren’t just fun to read, they were riveting and dripping with mockingbird-esque content.
Wondering if the thematic overtones were an “accident” or if she had, in fact, been a religious person, I sought out her autobiography. I soon came across the following passage in which Agatha recounts the memory of a math teacher who once interrupted a lesson to deliver a surprising message to her students:
“ ‘All of you,’ she said, ‘every one of you – will pass through a time when you will face despair. If you never face despair, you will never have… become a Christian, or known a Christian life. To be a Christian you must face and accept the life that Christ faced and lived; you must enjoy things as He enjoyed things; be as happy as He was at the marriage of Cana, know the peace and happiness that it means to be at harmony with God and with God’s will. But you must also know, as He did, what it means to be alone in the Garden of Gethsemane, to feel that all your friends have forsaken you, that those you love and trust have turned away from you, and that God Himself has forsaken you. Hold on then to the belief that that is not the end. If you love, you will suffer, and if you do not love, you do not know the meaning of a Christian life.’ … years later [those words] were to come back to me and give me hope at a time when despair had me in its grip.”
I find myself quite stuck on this quote lately. And obviously it must have stuck with Christie, too, because not only did it make it into her autobiography, it also became a recurring theme in her books. Christie never attended seminary, but she seems to have learned her theology in the school of suffering, like so many of us do. Her Westmacott stories, especially, come alive with meaning (while never failing to entertain) as she deftly combines her knowledge of human nature with her personal experience of suffering and “death.” At times, they almost make me want to look away from the sense of intimacy they convey.
Yet the stories come layered with meaning. For instance, Christie wields the law well as Westmacott, telling tales of “dark nights of the soul,” flaying open the hidden motives of her characters – and of her readers (In fact, another edition of this collection was subtitled “Love Stories with a Jagged Edge!”). But she holds out the offer of benediction and grace equally well, offering the hope of redemption and the freedom of love. It is the choice between life and death that has been echoed down the ages that is told again in these six riveting stories. No pat answers are to be found here, and no promises of happy-ever-afters, either.
The last pages of the last story in this collection, “The Burden,” illustrate the relationship between law and gospel more powerfully than any lecture could. In the story, we meet Laura, a “good girl,” who has lived a life of sacrificial love. Along the way, she makes an irreparable mistake. Her response is naturally a desire to “pay her dues.” One day she meets Llewellyn, who immediately recognizes her as a kindred spirit. Out of love and with gentle wisdom, he deals her spirit a death-blow:
Llewellyn: “You must face it, Laura, you can’t make amends.”
She stood motionless for a moment, like one stricken…
Laura: “You don’t understand. I’ve got to pay. For what I’ve done. Everyone has to pay.”
Llewellyn: “How obsessed you are with the thought of payment.”
Laura reiterated: “Everyone has to pay.”
Llewellyn: “Yes, I grant you that. But don’t you see, my dearest child – “ He hesitated before this last bitter truth that she had to know. “For what you did, someone has already paid. Shirley paid.”
She looked at him in sudden horror.
Laura: “Shirley paid – for what I did?”
Llewellyn: “Yes, I’m afraid you’ve got to live with that. Shirley paid. And Shirley is dead, and the debt is cancelled. You have got to go forward, Laura. You have got, not to forget the past, but to keep it where it belongs, in your memory, but not in your daily life. You have got to accept not punishment but happiness. Yes, my dear, happiness. You have got to stop giving and learn to take. God deals strangely with us – He is giving you, so I fully believe, happiness and love.
Accept them in humility.”
Only one who has felt the pain of powerlessness can feel the gut-punch that those lines pack. That is the same one who is able to feel the desperation in the prayer of the publican: “God be merciful to me, a sinner.” It is the one who realizes: there is nothing else to say in response to grace except “thank you…”, nothing else to do that has not already been done. What we find throughout this story, however, is that the being is harder than the doing. That is, being loved (i.e. accepting unconditional love) is often much more difficult than doing something to earn that love. We prefer to get busy offering sacrificial restitution, if you will, even when God seems to prefer the simplicity of, “Be still and know…”
Perhaps it is a mercy to find that my zeal is wearing down with the coming of middle age. By this point, I have experienced too many disappointments, failures, and shortcomings (both my own and others’) to easily maintain the strength needed for the kind of denial it requires! At 41, I find myself “mellowing,” and with that weariness of the soul comes a larger ability, by the grace of God, to accept my need, and welcome mercy. I was deeply touched to discover that Agatha Christie always kept her mother’s copy of The Imitation of Christ by her bedside, and in the flyleaf added her own inscription: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” She passed this habit along to her famous spinster detective, Miss Marple, who also had a copy by her own bedside. Miss Marple lived in a small village all her life and never wandered. How then, did she manage to develop that piercing gaze that unsettled everyone who met her, as if she saw into their souls? Like her creator, Miss Marple speaks with a prophetic voice. She understands original sin, with all its implications. Her mind is not fuzzy, despite the dithering and the knitting she comes wrapped in.
Is it possible, I have wondered, to reach the age of a Miss Marple, to gain such sobering knowledge of human nature (including our own), and yet retain that cheerful, hopeful, gracious disposition in this world? To “die to self” gracefully and without losing hope or joy? What a wonderful surprise to find so many, um, clues in the work of my favorite mystery writer! (Perhaps the Author of life knows a thing or two about creativity and surprise as well…) Indeed, the stories of Agatha Christie are the last place I would have looked for a glimpse of how death, at the hands of the jagged edge of the law, actually releases us into true life… how it is death that actually frees us to love and be loved in return, to live joyfully and creatively… to see clearly, and yet remain unjaded.
At her memorial service, Christie’s publisher concluded her eulogy with a simple, beautiful comment: “Agatha knew what true religion meant.” I think I’m starting to understand what she was talking about.