Reading Jane Eyre as a Sacred Text

From The Paris Review:

The summer that I did my chaplaincy internship was a wildly full twelve weeks. I was thirty-two years old and living in the haze of the end of an engagement as I walked the hospital corridors carrying around my Bible and visiting patients. “Hi, I’m Vanessa. I’m from the spiritual care department. How are you today?”

It was a surreal summer full of new experiences hitting like a tsunami: you saw them coming but that didn’t mean you could outrun them. But the thing that never felt weird was that the Bible I carried around with me as I went to visit patient after patient, that I turned to in the guest room at David and Suzanne’s or on my parents’ couch to sustain me, was a nineteenth-century gothic Romance novel. The Bible I carried around that busy summer was Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre.

I love the idea of sacredness. I want to be called to bigger things, outside of myself. I don’t want my life to be a matter of distractions from death and then death. I want to surprise myself and to honor the ways in which the world surprises me. I want to connect deeply to others, to the earth, and to myself. I want to help heal that which is broken in us. Which is why I went to divinity school at thirty years old.

But God, God-language, the Bible, the church—none of it is for me. And halfway through divinity school, I realized that my resistance to traditional religion was never going to change. I wanted to learn how to pray, how to reflect and be vulnerable. And I didn’t think that the fact that I didn’t believe in God or the Bible should hold me back.

I, like many of us, have such complicated feelings about the Bible that it’s distracting to even try to pray with it. Too many caveats feel necessary to even begin to try. So I asked my favorite professor, Stephanie Paulsell, if she would spend a semester teaching me how to pray with Jane Eyre. Throughout the semester, we homed in on what I was searching for, a way to treat things as sacred, things that were not usually considered to be divinely inspired. The plan was that each week I would pull out passages from the novel and reflect on them as prayers, preparing papers that explored the prayers in depth. Then, together, we would pray using the passages.

This proved more challenging than I’d expected. I so resisted praying. In Judaism, prayers are prewritten and always in Hebrew. It felt like too much of a betrayal to my Judaism and to my family to pray in English. I just couldn’t do it. Stephanie would invite me, gently, to pray every once in a while. But I always resisted, so instead she would hand me books. She gave me Guigo II, a Carthusian monk who developed a four-step reading practice to bring his fellow monks closer to God. She gave me James Wood, a fellow atheist who wrote How Fiction Works. She gave me Simone Weil, a Jewish woman who escaped to America from Vichy, France, only to go back to Europe and die of starvation because she would not eat more than the prisoners of Auschwitz ate, unable to handle her privilege of escaping.

Eventually, we decided that sacredness is an act, not a thing. If I can decide that Jane Eyre is sacred, that means it is the actions I take that will make it so. The decision to treat Jane as sacred is an important first step, surely, but that is all the decision was—one step. The ritual, the engagement with the thing, is what makes the thing sacred. Objects are sacred only because they are loved. The text did not determine the sacredness; the actions and actors did, the questions you asked of the text and the way you returned to it.

This premise is obviously quite different from traditional ideas of engaging with sacred texts. What makes the Bible sacred is a complex ecosystem of church legitimacy, power, canonization, time, ritual, and other contributing factors. When the sacredness of the Bible or the Koran is questioned, great bodies of people and institutions will rush to defend them. Regardless of how these sacred texts are treated by an individual, they are widely considered to be sacred texts. In how I was treating Jane Eyre, I was saying the opposite: if one treats Jane Eyre as a doorstop, it is a doorstop. If one treats it as sacred, then it can be sacred.

Over the months we worked together, Stephanie and I discerned that you need three things to treat a text as sacred: faith, rigor, and community.

Faith is what Simone Weil called “the indispensable condition.” And what I came to mean by faith was that you had to believe that the more time you spent with the text, the more gifts it would give you. Even on days when it felt as if you were taking huge steps backward with the text, because you realized it was racist and patriarchal in ways you hadn’t noticed when you were fifteen or twenty or twenty-five, you were still spending sacred time with the book. I solemnly promised that when I did not know what a passage was doing, or what Brontë was doing with her word choice, rather than write it off as antiquated, anachronistic, or imperfect, I would have faith that the fault was in my reading, not in the text. In Friday night services, rabbis do not talk about what year the book of Genesis was most likely written and how the version we have today was canonized. A good rabbi instead considers the metaphor of God separating light from dark instead. That was how I set about considering Jane Eyre.

Link to the rest at The Paris Review

PG had never thought of identifying a candidate for the silliest post he had ever put up on TPV until he read the OP.

Per the author’s bio at the end of the OP, she has degrees from Washington University, The University of Pennsylvania and Harvard Divinity School. For those outside of the United States, that’s one highly-regarded liberal arts undergraduate university and two Ivy League institutions

During his years in the higher education system, PG met more than a few well-educated dumpkopfs, but he honestly struggles to recall a lighter-than-air mind to compare with the one revealed by the author’s article in TPR.

All of PG’s offspring are finished with their formal education, but he still remembers thinking about the cost/benefit ratio of some of the “parents’ share” of the financial aid statements and tuition bills from various universities. (To be fair, PG’s offspring were extremely hard-working students and also hard-working employees while they were in college and PG seldom had to pay anything close to the full amount of the “parents’ share” for the education of any of them.)

PG has no doubt what his thoughts would be had he contributed to a three-degree education at expensive educational institutions and saw the tangible evidence of a child’s learning included anything like the OP.

That said, PG realizes that he is being judgmental in the extreme, has never met the author of the OP and expects she has more than one redeeming characteristic. Besides, anybody can forget to take their meds.

If anyone feels PG has misjudged the OP and/or its author, feel free to set him straight in the comments.

PG doesn’t recall cutting any of his pills in half today, but, absent close medical supervision, one never knows for certain.

11 thoughts on “Reading Jane Eyre as a Sacred Text”

    • Given Charlotte Bronte’s opinion of Jane Austen I think we can conclude that the answer is no.

      I share your puzzlement as to the direction of her prayers and suspect that whatever she is wanting to do, she needs to call it something other than “prayer”. Maybe working out what that something is will help her in her spiritual quest. Or maybe she’s just a nutcase.

  1. This article goes into one of my Story folders along with this essay from the NYTimes.

    Thanks…

    I Was a Teenage Illiterate
    https://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/28/books/review/Schine-t.html

    [quote]
    Imagine the satisfaction, the exhilaration when, not long after, I stood as a newlywed surveying my husband’s bookcase. It reached from one wall to the other, from floor to ceiling. It had been culled and collected by a person of know­ledge and taste, a product of Columbia’s core curriculum, and . . . it was arranged alphabetically. I started at the upper left hand corner (Jane Austen! J. R. Ackerley!) and worked my way to the lower right (Waugh! Wodehouse! Woolf!). I got to read “Huckleberry Finn” for the first time when I was 35 years old. And when I eventually moved on to a different partner, there waiting for me was a new bookcase full of other books. I read “My Antonia” for the first time last month. That is a kind of grace.
    [/quote]

    I have a character that marries for the guy’s library. Reads it, then moves on to the next.

      • Oops, missed the question.

        I have her in the early 1990s. Most of the RomComs work best before the internet and smart phones started destabilizing society.

        In fact I don’t think that I’ve seen a RomCom where even cell phones are common.

        Thanks for asking, because I was writing in the world without seeing the context. In the verse I write in they have advanced portable laptops but no internet yet. That gives me more to build on for Story.

        The things that make the internet even possible are so rare that they don’t happen in most copy Earths, and usually lead to that society falling into madness.

        It’s similar to C.J. Cherryh’s Foreigner series where they limit access to direct communication between ruling parties. Instant access would lead to more conflict not less, as we have seen lately.

        The Singularity will not be evenly distributed.

        • In the early 80’s/90’s she’d be…quirky.
          By 2000…odd…and by 2010 wacko. 😉

          (Pre-1900 she’d be justified. C.f. Disney’s Belle.)

          As for social media, wait a bit. Eventually people will learn to deal with it. Disasters and wars have a way of teaching people what really matters in life…if they survive.
          (People who lived through the ’28-54 era and the 70’s stagflation are generally more hardheaded than the children of the 60’s and 90’s “You’re special” coddling.

          • Quirky works.

            In the verse she is in the networks only connect limited hubs and is not spread out everywhere. The protocols are not free like we have, there is a fee that makes it work only for business, so smartphones were never developed. They did not have the glut of fibre being laid everywhere the way we did before 2000, so there is no mass connection.

            I can’t remember the name of the company that went crazy putting fibre everywhere, then they went bankrupt. the current system was built on that glut, then expanded, but that is our copy Earth.

            I try to lay out the “rules and limits” for different verses and stick to them. Have each different verse showing what happens because of those differences.

            In one of the other verses I’m building, they had periodic culls of the population like the Cambodian Killing fields, because of the high level of connection the way we have today. That’s a classic trope going way back.

            wiki – James H. Schmitz

            Baen put out a nice line of the Schmitz stories. They learned how to detect and control “monsters” after whole worlds were killed.

            wiki – Strata (novel)

            The express purpose of the Company’s planet-manufacturing business is to create dispersed branches of humanity, diverse enough to ensure the whole species’ survival for eternity. The Earth’s population in the past has been decimated due to the lethal “Mindquakes”, epidemic mass deaths caused by too much homogeneity among the populace.

            Then there is:

            A brilliant concept — Compulsive Narrative Syndrome
            https://www.thenorth.com/apblog4.nsf/0/ECDCECD5A52E699785257DD1005993CB

            Then you have Stross’ Laundry Files where computation has grown so great that the Old Ones are showing up to feed.

            If you look back you can see how everything changed along the way. That if various steps did not occur the world would not have changed to the way it is now.

            I stumbled on a TV series that came out before 911, where it was “high tech” surveillance and it was canceled because no one was interested in the concept.

            wiki – Level 9 (TV series)

            Level 9 (2000) Season 1 Episode 1
            https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WztEPoTLnmU

            The you have 911 and it leads to:

            wiki – Jack Ryan (TV series)

            Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan Season 1 – Official Trailer | Prime Video
            https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1KsyZF590NM

            Also, compare:

            THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR (Masters of Cinema) Original Theatrical Trailer 1975
            https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sov8R9PNVwg

            To the current version.

            CONDOR – Official Trailer
            https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yWq6gHKzE1Y

            Almost fifty years of change. From phone booths to smartphones. Watching both versions, back and forth, gives me whiplash.

            Thanks for helping me focus.

              • Awesome.

                Thanks…

                I remember seeing decades ago either a NOVA or Frontline episode talking about the glut after it happened.

                What annoys me is that Santa Fe still has slow access compared to Albuquerque. They laid all that fiber but not to here. I get 1mps while my friend in Albuquerque gets at least 100mps in an older neighborhood.

            • BTW, Crowe wasn’t wrong about future bandwidth needs but he assumed the tech woud never improve so more bandwidth meant more cable.
              Uh, no…
              Techies keep finding ways of getting more and more data moving faster and faster through the same (or slightly improved) fiber channels.
              Or, getting the same speed without fiber. Or even copper. (Starlink, 5G). Life moves fast.

              There’s zillions of bucks to be made betting on tech but you have to make the right bet. Otherwise…

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