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We Meant it For Evil

A Review of The Sparrow

When Emilio Sandoz, in Mary Doria Russell's novel The Sparrow, first sees the native ivy elegantly drooping along the walls on the planet Rakhat, he has no way of understanding what it symbolizes. Set in the near future, Russell's novel is science fiction with a twist, exploring not only the limits of anthropology, but also questioning the very nature of faith.

When intelligent life is discovered in the Alpha Centauri system, the Jesuits organize the first mission. Painstaking preparation and a humility informed by centuries of cultural disasters, bring a crew of priests and scientists to the planet of Rahkat, with Father Emilio Sandoz at the inspirational helm. Emilio is a linguist, trained in reading context and comparison. But when he is shown the sta'ka ivy and hears about the process of hasta'akala where hands are make to look like trailing branches of ivy, he doesn't understand the violent tension in the aesthetic relationship between vine and wall. And so he has no other way to interpret what happens than as betrayal. This is a story is about understanding, how it is lost and how painstakingly it is gained. It is a story of faith.

A bastard son to a slum drug kingpin, Emilio Sandoz entered the priesthood out of gratitude for the human kindness of the priest that rescued him. His faith started as an emulation of the compassion and service shown him. God was a hypothesis, and God's presence a remote possibility; he understood his celibacy as preparing a place for God. Meanwhile he focused on the practicalities of studying and pastoring . His gift with languages became his vocation, and led eventually to the Arecibo observatory and the discovery of sentient, singing life in the Alpha Centauri system. Because of the synchronicity of events, Emilio believes God is leading him to Rakhat, and he becomes instrumental in organizing the first Jesuit mission to the Alpha Centauri planet. He interprets the initial joy of meeting the Runa species as God's favour; God seems to be breaking his silence with irrefutable evidence of his existence. Everything in is life prepared Emilio for this, as he finally experiences the peace and joy he'd only know in theory before.

In spite of problems and conflicts, the mission to Rakhat seemed to be working out well. When the merchant Supaari VaGajur visits their village of Kashan to trade with the Runa, the humans meet the second sentient species on Rakhat , the Jana'ata. Supaari's physiology shows him to be a carnivore but his gracious relationship with the Runa masks the true nature of this inter-species relationship. No one suspected that planting gardens would unmask this relationship. As the Runa shifted from foraging for food to horticulture, their change in diet upset the delicate balance between Runa and Jana'ata. Emilio is completely unprepared for the violence as the Jana'ata attempt to re-establish balance. He is captured but Supaari intervenes to prevent Emilio's execution. Supaari promises to render Emilio hasta'akala to protect him. But the procedure that allows Runa fingers to fall like graceful ivy only maims and weakens Emilio. Motivated by both compassion for Emilio and ambition for himself, Supaari sells him to Hlavin Kitheri, poet and songwriter, the singing voice that led Emilio to Rakhat. Emilio's faltering faith rallies as he sees a possible meaning for his loss and grief; perhaps God was still leading him and his own faithfulness had not been in vain. But Hlavin's creativity had been perverted by a rigid social code. As Emilio stands with mutilated hands expecting God's favour, he is raped and ruined instead.

How is a story of vulnerability, misunderstanding, betrayal, human limitation and rape a story of faith? What does trusting God have to do with these atrocities? Surely a good and just God doesn't reward faithfulness with capriciousness?

Void, Enemy, Friend

H. Richard Niebuhr describes the journey towards faith in God as moving from void, to enemy to friend. We are always encountering mystery at the edges of our knowledge. We are not in control of either our coming into being or what happens after death. The Void is quite bluntly bigger than us, and it frightens us to the core. Almost instinctively we respond with suspicion; something that powerful cannot be beneficent towards us. Niebuhr would add that our sinfulness, our inveterate predisposition towards self-centeredness, necessitates our colouring the Void as Enemy. That which can curb my own sovereignty, must be opposed at every opportunity as Enemy. A more subtle twist on this is when we think that by cooperating with the Void we can appease it. We bargain with our lives, and inevitably find ourselves outmaneuvered. And in our obstinacy we often sow the seeds of our own destruction. If we allow ourselves to feel this deep enough, to admit that we're beat, a strange thing happens. We begin to see that we were accompanied all along, that we often created the very things that defeated us, and even when we didn't, we broke against the edges of fate because we didn't see God's deep abiding with us. Not that everything is our fault, but rather, we thought it all depended on us, and instead we begin to understand God can be depended on to walk with us through the shadow of the valley of death. The inconceivable has happened; the unknowable becomes Friend.

Setting the Captives Free

Emilio experienced the Void early in life as he tried to understand the meaning of his father's repeated beatings. Life in the slums teaches hard lessons about the limits of our control. Although one might think that becoming a priest, Emilio thought of God as his friend, in some ways he was still relating to the unknown as Void. He had created an elaborate bargain in apparently giving up so much in order that he might experience God. He claimed to expect no consolation, but was irresitably drawn to interpreting events as such. There is never the sense that the mission shouldn't have happened. Just that Emilio's unique historical stance made it impossible for him not to expect God's friendship in a certain way. He had been faithful in devoting his life and talents, apparently submitting to God's will in the guise of his superior's decisions. And God had blessed him, both with a fruitful mission and an abiding spiritual experience. How could God turn on his faithful servant so drastically? Emilio was not wrong to think God might be calling him to Rakhat. He had just missed a step in the process. One cannot move to Friend, until one has encountered Enemy.

As Emilio returned from Rakhat with ashes for faith, the hearings on Earth begin the exploration of God as Enemy. The priests who try to help his physical pain, the Father General who seeks to understand his soul, even his own body work against him in the role of Enemy. He is bitter, broken, self-pitying and proud. His experience of becoming completely vulnerable before the mystery of God was rape, his carefully tended garden despoiled.

"Because if I was led by God to love God, step by step, as it seemed, if I accept that the beauty and the rapture were real and true, then the rest of it was God's will too, and that, gentlemen, is cause ofr bitterness. But if I am simply a deluded ape who took a lot of old folktales far too seriously, then I brought all this on myself and my companions and the whole business becomes farcical, doesn't it?"

Emilio is isolated; he insists no one can understand what he's been through. True, the priests who want to help him think him guilty, informed by the rescue team's brutal but incomplete report. And Emilio's pride makes it impossible for him to ask for help when he can't understand his experience. Neither Emilio nor the priests understand the full story because at this point they are separated by isolation and judgement. Emilio's internal narrative and the priest's version attempt to describe the same thing, but they seem separate events. Niebuhr would say that until people stand in the same place, share the same story, understanding is not possible. So God remains Enemy.

The Father General knows this when he forces Emilio tell his story.

"There's a series of sculptures in Florence by Michelangelo that you should see. They are called The Captives. Out of a great formless mass of stone, the figures of slaves emerge: heads, shoulders, torsos, straining toward freedom but still held fast in the stone. There are souls like that. There are souls that try to carve themselves from their own formlessness."

Unwittingly they are all revealed to be statues trying to free themselves from the stone. As the priests understand Emilio was forced to prostitution, Emilio begins to see the first glimmer of meaning in his experience of rape. Now they are united with Emilio's painful question of God's presence. As the priests sit in the garden pondering on the parable of God watching the sparrow fall, we are reminded of Christ's crucifixion, where God emptied himself into and suffered with humanity.

The story of Jesus' commitment ending in human disappointment is perhaps the strongest example of Niebuhr's paradigm. Christ ended his life with "My God, why have you forsaken me?" At the point when God seemed to abandon all, new life emerged. In his resurrection, Jesus revealed God to be our truest Friend, faithful even in death. And from this Friendship, redemption for all humanity emerged. Like Christ, Emilio sought to be faithful to the end, and likewise struggled with despair at God's apparent abandonement. Emilio doesn't begin to see God as Friend until the end of the sequel, The Children of God. When because of his tragic experience and loss of faith Emilio has compassion on the children of the very men who ruined him, he begins to understand that God was suffering with him all along in order to redeem all God's children. "We meant it for evil but you have turned it to good."

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