I am currently reading the 2015 Pulitzer Prize book, All the Light we cannot See, a book about World War II. I have only got about thirty or so pages under my belt and already I know that this is going to be a winner. It is very rare for a book to introduce the two main characters early on and have the reader become totally involved with them almost from the very first page.
One of the themes in the book is blindness. Marie Laure, a French girl, becomes blind in very early childhood. As one reads the world begins to emerge through her way of seeing, where everything is mediated by sound, smell, touch, feelings, strange vibrations, memory and intuition. It is a world ‘we cannot see’ but she sees it.
Against the backdrop of a dawning reality of what war will mean, she begins to grow as a young person and is courageously living fully within her experience as a blind person. Early on, because of the encouragement of her devoted father, she learns braille, becomes a proficient reader and begins to explore the outer world through books. Her advanced ability to revel in sensation awakens her to the beauty and scientific interest of the artefacts in the museum of natural history where her father works as a locksmith.
Her counterpart character is a young German boy genius, Werner Pfennig, growing up in an orphanage in Germany under the tutelage of a kindly Lutheran nun. His sister, Jutta, is also in the orphanage. Both together discover the world of radio and begin to encounter the world they ‘cannot see’ through listening late at night under the light from a dormer window to foreign broadcasts.
Not having finished the book I cannot go any further in outlining the story.
What strikes me, though, is how the ability to see the world around us, the capacity to experience its mystery, is a gift beyond the mere physical ability to see. There is a kind of awakening to mystery that takes place, a willingness to be totally present to what is before us. In Marie Laure’s case her acute awareness of the world around is mediated by the intensity of her presence to even the slightest and most delicate things, such as the curves and texture of a murex shell in the laboratory of one of the museum researchers, Dr Geffard.
As it happens, Bishop Robert Barron has a YouTube review of the book which I have viewed only enough to know that he too discerns a spiritual message in it that lifts the novel out of the ordinary. Not to offer a s ‘spoiler’ to anyone, I refrained from listening to his comments in their entirety. You may not be so constrained.
So, what has all of this got to do with Lent? I think that the call of the Lenten practice is, in fact, to awareness and presence. First of all, to the people around us and to the relationships that shape our lives. The relationship of Marie Laure with her father (her mother is dead) is marked by an uncommon quality of love and self-sacrifice.
A second dimension of presence to which we are called, is, I think, to the world of the senses. It is through them that we experience the natural world. Maybe that has been the real point of abstinence, a willingness to refine our sensual experience so that we can be more present to things.
May the Light we cannot See fill your hearts this Lent.