Christian Castaways Part 1: Spiritual Shipwrecks

Garrett uses tales of shipwrecks as an allegory for the times where we feel spiritually distant from God.

Robinson Crusoe Wyeth 1920Robinson Crusoe, illustration by N.C. Wyeth

As an English Major, one novel that I keep having to read and re-read is Daniel Defoe’s novel Robinson Crusoe. As a boy, I loved the abridged version of the story that I owned, one that simplified the story of this intrepid castaway for children. So it was with some horror that I discovered that the original was a slow, plodding book that seemed to drag on a lot longer than it had to. To be fair to the writer Defoe, he was writing one of the first great English novels, and the art would slowly be improved upon later. So while the novel isn’t without its faults (namely, being pretty boring), I was eventually able to look past them and get a feel of what made this story so well-loved to this day.

Robinson Crusoe’s story is, as I said, a well-known one that has been adapted multiple times in various different ways. It is not the story of the guy who traveled to unknown places and went to the land where everyone was tiny. That gentleman would be Lemuel Gulliver from Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (which I was also forced to read). Interestingly, Swift and Defoe were on opposite sides of the political spectrum, and Gulliver was in some ways a response to Defoe’s novel.

The story of Robinson Crusoe could be summed up thusly: As a young man, Robinson Crusoe defies his father’s wishes and sets off to make his fortune by the sea-trade. He is shipwrecked, captured by pirates, escapes and becomes a plantation owner in Brazil. While taking part in a slave-trading expedition, he is shipwrecked again on a deserted island. Overcoming his despair, he is able to eventually eke out a comfortable if solitary lifestyle. This solitude is broken when he befriends a native boy whom he names Friday, and he eventually escapes the island after about 20 years.

However, what this summary leaves out is Crusoe’s conversion experience on the island. As my professor pointed out, Robinson begins the book by lamenting how he should have listened to his father all those years ago and stayed home where it was safe. But if you think about it, if he had done that, he would have simply carried on being the shallow and money-obsessed young man he was in the beginning. Some of the most poignant scenes in the novel are his religious awakenings, such as when he sees the hand of God in the events that led him to discover what kind of edible plants could grow on the island, and the touching scene where he wakes to his parrot saying the words he’s been repeating to himself:

…for in just such bemoaning language I had used to talk to him and teach him; and he had learned it so perfectly that he would sit upon my finger, and lay his bill close to my face and cry, “Poor Robin Crusoe! Where are you? Where have you been? How came you here?”

While at this point in the story Crusoe has come to a better understanding of God, we didn’t really know that he taught his parrot Poll to say these words. In fact, when he wakes up to Poll’s voice he has a moment of shock, thinking that he was being addressed by a Higher Power. And in a way, I think he was – it’s easy to imagine God using Poll to ‘parrot’ out some truths to Crusoe in his exile. It’s also easy to imagine Jesus saying these words to the worldly, fortune-obsessed man who was even willing to turn to the slave-trade in his quest for riches. Where are you? Where have you been? How came you here?

Crusoe thus shows himself to be not only physically shipwrecked on the island, but also spiritually shipwrecked and in need of rescue by his Saviour. Charles Dickens would later bring his famous miser, Ebenezer Scrooge, into dialogue with this scene in A Christmas Carol, when the Ghost of Christmas Past brings Scrooge back to the time where he read Robinson Crusoe as a lonely, isolated boy:

“There’s the Parrot!” cried Scrooge. “Green body and yellow tail, with a thing like a lettuce growing out of the top of his head; there he is! Poor Robin Crusoe, he called him, […] ‘Poor Robin Crusoe, where have you been, Robin Crusoe?’ The man thought he was dreaming, but he wasn’t. It was the Parrot, you know.

Scrooge, who up to this point in Dicken’s novel has been nothing but a grumpy, selfish old man, is shown to suddenly burst into boyish excitement upon remembering this scene. The reader is shown that the call of ‘Where have you been, Robin Crusoe?’ resonates with the old miser’s heart, and offers the hope that Scrooge too can be redeemed from his spiritual shipwrecking on the island of Greed and Isolation. And of course, at the end of the novel, he is.

Defoe and Dickens were both great storytellers, and their stories of conversion and rescue from the shipwrecks of our spiritual lives shines through their (occasionally dull) prose. However, it is important to remember that whether consciously or not, their stories contain elements of a story told by the Great Storyteller himself. Long before either author was born, Jesus Christ told the story of a son who ungratefully left his father’s house, fell into tragedy and came back contrite of heart. And also of a Father who ran pell-mell to welcome him back and tell him that he was still loved and cared for. We are never told if the son truly came to love his father more on his return, but what is important is that he has every opportunity to do so.

I feel that we all have Robinson Crusoe somewhere in our heart. We all have moments where we forget God and wish to act by our own will and our own strength. But this timeless story encourages us to use the inevitable disasters that we face in those moments to turn back to God, to love Him more and try to serve Him as best we can. As John Henry Newman said, ‘In a higher world it is otherwise, but here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.’

Speaking of Cardinal Newman, in the second and final part of this series, I will be introducing you a little more to him and his story. We will also be looking at Newman’s work St. Paul at Melita, a short poem in which he tells the story of the Apostle’s shipwreck near Italy, and how a true Christian reacts when facing the disasters of life. Till then, God bless!

© 2018 Christ Centered Conversations/Garrett Christopher Ng

Spiritual Battles and Fantasy Worlds Part 2

Garrett reflects on “epic stories” and their presence in Sacred Scripture.

This article is a continuation of my previous article with the same title, where I discussed Stephen R Donaldsen’s essay, Epic Fantasy in the Modern World, and how fantasy fiction can inform our Faith. While my previous article focused on Donaldsen’s definition of ‘fantasy’, how fantasy speaks to the human heart, and how Jesus satisfies that desire as in C.S. Lewis’ words, ‘a myth that came true’. This time around, I’d like to focus on Donaldsen’s other definition – ‘epic’. As Donaldsen himself states, the term epic is much better understood than ‘fantasy’, and indeed, a deeper look at this term can tell us much about Faith and Scripture as well.

I’d like to preface this article by saying that it’s going to be even more… ‘technical’ than what I usually write. In an article like this, context is important, and a large chunk of this article is going to be me paraphrasing and quoting stuff from other sources. But that said, I still hope that this will be an informative and interesting read. So, let’s get into it!

Continue reading “Spiritual Battles and Fantasy Worlds Part 2”

Fearful Friendship with the Lord? Or Friendly Fear of the Lord?

Greg talks about the line between familiarity and frivolity in our relationship and friendship with God.

One day, during a consultation with my Professor, he asked me what my shirt meant. It was a Catholic shirt that had a pun about Jesus being the “King of my Life”. So, I explained the pun behind it and the meaning of the shirt. As my Prof was Catholic too, I didn’t really need to go into why Jesus was King and all that. However, what he asked next really struck me: can we really be so casual in our relationship with God? How can we be so casual in the way we address the God who created the Heavens and the stars?

It’s true. There’s a lot more Jesus memes and comics being shared throughout the Internet nowadays. And I have to admit that I personally really like many of these comics and memes. So that got me thinking: where’s the line one draws between being affirmed in one’s identity as a beloved Child of God, and downright blaspheming through frivolity? CCC 2144 states: “Respect for his name is an expression of the respect owed to the mystery of God himself and to the whole sacred reality it evokes”. And so, should we really be propagating such comics or memes or even jokes about God? I think to answer this queston, we have to reflect on the image we have of God, which stems from our own relationship with Him.

Continue reading “Fearful Friendship with the Lord? Or Friendly Fear of the Lord?”

Spiritual Battles and Fantasy Worlds

Garrett muses on what fantasy fiction can teach us about our faith journeys.

In 1986, a writer named Stephen R. Donaldsen published an essay called “Epic Fantasy in the Modern World”. By then a renowned fantasy author himself, Donaldsen achieved fame through his Chronicles of Thomas Covenant series, which was famous for it’s handling of moral issues. In this essay, Donaldsen elaborated on the two terms he used to define his work – ‘epic’ and ‘fantasy’. It is these two terms that I’d like to look at and evaluate, not simply because I found the essay insightful, but because I believe that the terms epic and fantasy as Donaldsen describes them find their fulfilment in Jesus (as all things eventually do).

In part 1, we’ll look at the more familiar term, fantasy. The word itself when applied to entertainment needs almost no introduction, as shown by the popularity of the Lord of the Rings series of films, and more recently, the Game of Thrones television series, which seems to owe no small part of its success to scenes of sexual violence, torture and gore. The word ‘fantasy’ conjures up images of a pseudo-medieval world where men (or women) in shining armor prance about, alongside wizards and dragons. But is there really all there is to the Fantasy genre?

Continue reading “Spiritual Battles and Fantasy Worlds”

Thoughts in the Confession Queue

Garrett shares a reflection he had while queuing for the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

I arrived in the mostly empty main church hall about half-an-hour before Mass. With an inward sigh of relief, I saw that the queue for the Sacrament of Reconciliation was mostly empty. Only one other person was sitting in the pew placed strategically outside the Confessionals, an elderly lady. Giving her a smile, I sat down.

The priests of our parish usually start hearing confessions about fifteen minutes before Mass, but if you allowed the queue to build up, you might find yourself attending Mass without having received the Sacrament. So being second in line pretty much guaranteed my chances. Continue reading “Thoughts in the Confession Queue”

A Christmas Song for Three Guilds: An Analysis (Part 3)

In the third part of the analysis, Garrett shows how St. Crispin teaches us the virtue of humility.

Welcome to Part 3 of our analysis of G.K. Chesterton’s A Christmas Song for Three Guilds! Part 1 and Part 2 can be found elsewhere on this blog. I highly recommend giving a read through to Part 1 at least as over there I went through some important principles to take note of when reading this poem, especially on Chesterton’s use of violent imagery. In Part 3, we’ll be look at the second guild, the Shoemakers, who are addressed by their patron, Saint Crispin!

Now, Saint Crispin is a little obscure, so perhaps a bit of an introduction is in order. Crispin and his brother Crispinian are two martyrs from the time of the early Church, that mysterious, legendary group that I wrote about last month. The two brothers went to preach the Gospel in Roman Gaul, that is to say, modern-day France. Along the way, they earned their keep by making shoes, much like how Saint Paul supported himself through tent-making. Eventually, they were captured in the persecutions of the Emperor Diocletian and martyred for their Faith. So the legend goes.

What we are learning today from Saint Crispin’s address is the virtue of humility. So let’s get right into it!

‘St. Crispin to the shoemakers said on a Christmastide:
“Who fashions at another’s feet will get no good of pride.’

Continue reading “A Christmas Song for Three Guilds: An Analysis (Part 3)”