Now I’m going to shrive you, removing your guilt in the matter of Orpine’s death and any other wrongs you have done. Kneel here. You don’t have to look at me.
In case the odd name didn’t give it away, this line comes not from some scene of Catholic confession but from Gene Wolfe’s novel Nightside of the Long Sun, the first book in his tetralogy The Book of the Long Sun.
Wolfe is a Roman Catholic of a “Thomist tendency” according to the interwebs, and, in my view, he’s one of the best, albeit one of the more difficult, writers out there. Though almost always writing under the broad category of “speculative fiction,” Wolfe’s work spans everything from ancient mythology to sword-and-sorcery to far-future science fiction. (See an appreciation from a few years ago over at First Things.)
The Book of the Long Sun is, in a very rough way, a sequel to the earlier Book of the New Sun whose story took place in the far-future world of Urth. In the Long Sun, we eventually come to understand that the world, the whorl, is actually an enormous cylindrical space ship — with whole cities spread out on its inner surface — sent from a dying Urth. As in the New Sun, it’s a strange world of byzantine political complexity and complicated religious hierarchy.
In a way, far-future stories like this tell us something that we already know: the more technology we have, the less we understand it. Technology has become so old that it feels like magic. The religious system of the whorl is an odd hybrid of medieval Catholicism, ancient pagan cult, and space-age mysticism. Augurs (called “Patera”) sacrifice animals in their churches (“manteions”) before large electronics screens (“Sacred Windows”) where, every so often, the gods make theophanies. The augurs bless with “the sign of addition” and take away sins with “the sign of subtraction.” Male augurs are assisted by female sibyls called “Maytera.” The main character, Patera Silk, eventually finds his whole religious system unraveling as he understands that the gods are in fact warring computer programs modeled after the imperial family which first launched the whorl. He finds himself drawn to an unknown god called the Outsider.
When I hear confessions, I do not make the “sign of subtraction,” though I do of course make the “sign of addition” (er, the cross). And it is these moments of arcane gesturing — moments that fill the church’s traditional liturgy — that make our “shriving” not all that different from Patera Silk’s, at least in appearance. In this age of technology, such apparently “magical” acts will inevitably seem suspicious or, at best, merely symbolic.
Is the sign of the cross any more “magical” than my iPhone? On a psychological level, it is probably less so. At least when I make the sign of the cross or receive it, I understand most of what is going on; I understand the physical gesture and how it works; I understand something of the grace that it signifies. I haven’t the slightest clue how my phone works, even on the most basic physical level; I just know that it does, and that it performs all sorts of magical tasks at the wave of a finger. I trust the priests of Apple and Google and Intel to figure this stuff out.
Certainly as Christians we are right to avoid and even spurn “magic” in the sense of irrational superstition or diabolical manipulation of nature. But the alternative isn’t some kind of sterile scientific world where everything makes obvious sense, where we only do what we understand fully. Wolfe, like so many speculative fiction writers (Tolkien and Lewis among them), shows this alternative to be false. If magic is a way of describing something wonderful that we do not understand, the world is full of it. Our ultimate destiny in the knowledge and love of God (the Outsider?) is magical in just this sense: God’s own rationality and intelligibility is always just beyond our reach, always greater than our ever-expanding comprehension.
It may seem that by calling us to be “shriven” on Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday, the Church asks us to believe in magic. That’s not quite right if it suggests that by going to confession or receiving the sacraments we do something irrational or superstitious or supernaturally manipulative. But in another way, it’s exactly right: the Church asks us to accept that we do not understand the technology of our redemption. And though we can try to figure it out, try to take it apart and analyze its parts, our first response should be not all that different from seeing a new smartphone in action: childlike wonder. Wow … God can forgive my sins? Who knew? I guess the next big thing is already here.
The top image is a detail from the cover of Gene Wolfe’s The Litany of the Long Sun (Orb, 2000).