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For They Will See God: Seeking Catholic Truths in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Benediction”
Literary Issue: Essay by Kathryn Sadakierski
Owing to its clear Catholic symbology, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story “Benediction” is hailed as the definitive work referencing the faith of the author. While all the outward signs of the Faith may appear in the story, from monstrances to candles on the altar, what is there to say of the inward in this work of short fiction- are its themes truly Catholic? What is it that defines a story as “Catholic,” breaking away from stereotypes, to provide a fuller sense of what it really means to celebrate the Faith? Through the lens of literature like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short stories, another perspective into the perennial wisdom of Catholic truths is offered; readers can learn through the medium of art that God is present in all things, bringing messages of hope in trying times.
We’re swept into the story by way of a train station, where we meet Lois, our heroine, at the telegraph desk, as a clerk calculated the number of words in her “lady’s day message” (to add up the total bill, in those days well before characters in Twitter posts were being assiduously counted), which happened to be to her beau, Howard, promising to meet up with him after visiting her brother, Kieth (yep, that rare breed, an “i before e” Keith- no typo here!). “Lady’s Day” is synonymous with the Feast of the Annunciation, an appropriate date for Fitzgerald to choose for the setting of his story, in which announcements come via telegrams, something like Jazz Age text messages, so different from the Blessed Mother’s message from the Angel Gabriel that She would give birth to the Son of God. Aptly, though, these announcements in “Benediction” ultimately come to call attention to spiritual rebirth, the changes that Lois undergoes as she comes to know Kieth, a seminarian.
The age difference between Kieth and Lois meant that they didn’t grow up together, as Kieth left home in Lois’ childhood, so at this juncture, they are meeting for the first time as adults. When Lois arrives at the seminary, Kieth greets her joyfully, exuding warmth. He repeats her name in his salutations, saying it “as if he loved the word, as if it had an in inherent meaning to him” (124). Kieth’s greeting is like a blessing to Lois, hearkening back to the story’s title- it’s not unlike Elizabeth’s “Hail, Mary” at the Visitation, a benediction unto itself. Though apart for most of their lives, the siblings become a blessing to each other, and the deep spiritual connection that is forged in the course of their visit over a couple of hours is profound.
As Lois tries to discern what it is that has endeared her to Kieth so quickly, she realizes it’s that he’s “sweet,” but, as she remarks, “Sweetness is hard” (125). It’s an observation that comes to underline her relationship with her Catholic faith, too. She sees the light of Christ in Kieth, as well as in his fellow seminarians, the sweetness of a love that transcends the earthly and transient, though she struggles with her faith, the commitment, the relinquishing of the worldly. More than that, she grapples with letting go of fear, of surrendering herself to the peaceful detachment from the temporal that she notices in Kieth.
There’s a stark contrast between love and fear, light and dark. Conversing with Lois, there is a “brightness” in Keith’s eyes (127). “Sunny fields” are what he looks upon, out in the distance, as he tells Lois about his vocation, reminiscing about when he received his calling from God, who came to him as a fellow traveler on a Pullman car (124). Love illuminates- there’s a palpable love for God and others at the seminary, where laughter and ice cream are shared with Lois, brightening her visit. She is made to feel part of a community, a family, everyone’s sister in Christ.
It isn’t long, however, before shadows of doubt trouble Lois. While at Benediction in the seminary chapel, Lois experiences a dark night of the soul, “the weight upon her heart suddenly diffused into cold fear” (128). Undergoing an internal spiritual battle, in which she experiences intense anxiety and dread, it is as though she is withstanding a literal storm: “she heard a great rushing noise in her ears,” and “in a moment that seemed eternal a great torrent rolled over her heart- there was a shouting there and a lashing as of waves…” (129). This imagery calls to mind the Pentecostal winds ushering in the Holy Spirit, and raging tempests ultimately calmed by Christ, because while Lois wrestles with her fear, terrified of losing control as she feels faint, unsteady, she ultimately finds healing. When she clings to the rock amidst the storm, balance is restored: “out of the great stillness came a voice: ‘Blessed be God’” (129). The repeated blessing is something she can hold on to, constancy and continuity that overpowers the nightmarish, vertiginous feelings of doubt and fear that, in a moment, had overwhelmed Lois, but that didn’t remain, as eternal light shone through the dark.
Aided by Kieth, Lois recovers, feeling the support of the community- it is as though she becomes part of the prayer itself, feeling the omnipotence of God buoying her, symbolized by the rising incense: “The words sang instantly in her heart; the incense lay mystically and sweetly peaceful upon the air” (129). After this serenity washes over her, the candle on the altar goes out, her fear extinguished. The coldness and darkness of fear felt before was less a fear of worldly detachment, and more one of separation from God, emphasizing the disorientation felt when one is not in alignment with His will, severed in their relationship with Him, until they again open their heart to reconciliation.
Afterwards, Lois opens up to Kieth about her anxieties, revealing something of how “broken” she had felt, and her insecurities ((“’I guess the truth is I’m not much used to Benediction. Mass is the limit of my religious exertions” (130)), before telling him about those around her who had left the Faith, or never believed (like her love interest, Howard). Kieth’s response captures the heart of the story: “I know it’ll come out all right, child. There’s that gift of faith that we have, you and I, that’ll carry us past the bad spots” (131). This line more than any demonstrates how Kieth is like Lois’ angelic messenger, guiding her back to God, reflecting back His fatherly love. We see that faith is never a solitary walk. Kieth’s “you and I” expresses solidarity, the conviction that any cross can be carried, so long as it is done with love, and in that, as a family, part of Christ’s Body.
Amazingly, though it would seem that Kieth is the one encouraging the conversion of another, he shares how God used Lois to bring Kieth to Him, demonstrating the full-circle nature of God’s work, the complex ways in which He brings about salvation through interweaving the threads of peoples’ lives in the tapestry of time. As Kieth divulges to Lois, when he considered leaving the seminary, dealing with temptations, shadowy promises of what could be, a sense of unreality, he thought of her to ground him. She served as a rock of faith, “something living to cling to.” Thinking of the pure soul of his baby sister, Kieth explained that God “taught me to want more. I wanted to know you moved and breathed in the same world with me. I saw you growing up, that white innocence of yours changing to a flame and burning to give light to other weaker souls” (132). It wasn’t only that thinking of Lois as a model of virtue, and as someone he, too, wanted to inspire by being a strong example of faith, grounded Kieth in reality, however. He also was grounded in a clear concentration on the eternal, a shared faith, love, and hope, lasting beyond the earthly: this reality, of seeing life through the lens of God, is what would put them in the “same world,” because it is the pure in heart who are “blessed,” and “will see God,” as the Beatitude says. That candle on the altar, the “flame” Kieth envisioned, was emblematic of what they could be to others, illuminating the world with hope for Heaven. Kieth’s speech vaguely echoes what Howard had written to Lois in a letter telling her that she is his “dream,” but Kieth leads her to the understanding that there is more beyond this life, that new dreams can grow in her own heart. While Howard’s words are empty, his dreams anchored to the secular and fleeting, Kieth’s are transcendent, based on a vision for what is to come, which inspires Lois.
At the conclusion of the story, after Lois has departed from the seminary, we learn of what has happened to her only indirectly, through the conversation of the clerks at the telegraph desk in the same train station where the story started. Beginning and ending the story in the same place only further show the cyclical nature of God’s plan, life continuing. As the clerks puzzle over the telegraph Lois had written out, the contents of which reveal her intent to break off her relationship with Howard, and not meet with him after all, we learn that the message was ultimately torn up, and never sent- the pieces of it, picked up from the wastebasket, are what the clerks are reading. Here we see again the “brokenness,” unsteadiness and doubt, in Lois’ indecision, her struggles in her faith journey. It’s appropriate that the last line of the story is a question- “‘Tore it up, eh?’ said the second clerk.” Such an open-ended finale suggests the mysterious nature of faith, of the complexity of the human soul, warring between choosing the way of God or man. Though it would appear that Lois didn’t go through with her plan to leave Howard, we don’t know for sure where her path led her. In this sense, “Benediction” illustrates the process of seeking and searching in pursuing truth, realistically exhibiting how change is gradual, and that while “the spirit is willing, the flesh is weak.”
However, “Benediction” is not a story without the light of hope, for what is a benediction, a blessing, but a transmission of sight, knowledge of what lies beneath the surface. The bond forged between Kieth and Lois demonstrates that it is never too late for a new beginning, to turn away from the past, and start afresh, just as the time is always ripe to find God, accepting His eternal love. At its core, “Benediction” is a story about how we bless each other when we share our faith, not keeping light under a bushel basket, but incandescing it on all those we meet, out of love. What makes a story like “Benediction” Catholic, then, is not just its outward symbols of faith, the sacramentals (i.e. candles), per se, but its embodiments of faith, hope, and charity, theological virtues that stem from the interior life, manifested in actions, the blessings given. The love of Christ is the root of every sacrament, His sacrifice, made in self-giving propitiation, rendering each sacrament not merely symbolic, but efficacious. Graces conferred from the sacraments stem from this love, and “Benediction” is a story of transcendent love, of seeing Christ in the people around us who touch our souls. “Benediction” examines what is real, lasting, and true, not simply symbolic, contrasting the worldly with the eternal, so as to urge us to similarly see with pure hearts, filled with God’s love, that we may see what truly matters, and be blessed. Like the Benediction at the end of the Mass, at its essence, it calls us to go forth in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.