Tuesday, January 10, 2012

True Grit on the Pilgrimage of Grace

“You must pay for everything in this world one way and another. There is nothing free except the Grace of God. You cannot earn that or deserve it.”

In 1536, during the reign of King Henry VIII, over 22,000 Catholic insurgents from northern England gathered in Lincolnshire to protest the dissolution of the country’s monasteries.   This revolt was referred to as the Pilgrimage of Grace.  Unfortunately for these religious insurgents, Henry squashed the movement by early 1537, executing Catholic leaders and several abbots.  The question remains: Why risk so much when the odds of success were so low?  By September 1536, Henry had broken with Rome, executed Anne Boleyn, and married Jane Seymour.  (His favorite wife because she gave him a son and then no more trouble.)  These Catholic warriors knew their actions might well end in their own demise.  Yet, they fought nonetheless.  Why?  The answer, in my opinion, comes down to a belief in grace.  Leaders of the Pilgrimage believed they were fighting on God’s side.  Thus, God would give them grace and grant them the victory.  Of course, that did not happen.  The crusade failed.  The leaders died.  But when I think of the Pilgrimage of Grace, I think not of the loss, but of the faith.  In my opinion, we spend most of our lives struggling along our own lonely Pilgrimages for Grace, fighting to stop the dissolution of our personal identities and relationships.  Looking to heaven and one another, in hopes of finding forgiveness for our failings, acceptance of our person, and love despite our idiosyncrasies.

The quote above is from Charles Portis’ TRUE GRIT, a narrative of justice and revenge.  Maddie Ross, the fourteen year old protagonist from Yell County Arkansas, is a Bible quoting Presbyterian who demands an “eye for an eye” when her father is murdered by his hired hand Tom Chaney in Fort Smith. Young Maddie leaves home, arrives in Fort Smith, collects her father’s body, barters for his horses, and then hires the most ruthless US Marshal in town, Rooster Cogburn, a man with true grit, to avenge her father’s death.  The fourteen year old, as the quote indicates, believes in no grace or mercy but that provided by God. Rather than allowing Cogburn to take his pay and collect Chaney himself, Maddie demands to ride along and see the job done. As the story progresses, Cogburn develops an affection for young Maddie who possesses much grit of her own. While justice and revenge certainly lace the novel, Portis is careful to highlight the high cost of that pursuit. Maddie pays dearly for her vengeance on Chaney, losing her horse, Blackie, her arm, and her innocence.  

“We must stop! He is played out…his heart burst and mine broke.”

While Portis’ book is well written, I prefer Joel and Ethan Coen’s film version of this narrative because it adds the theme of grace.  I can no longer imagine the death of Blackie and Cogburn’s race to save Maddie without hearing a soft piano solo playing Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.  Through this theme, the Coen brothers humanize the story.  Maddie's quest for revenge transforms into a Pilgrimage of Grace.  Like her, during our own search for salvation, we wear out, give up, and admit: “We must stop!”  Our hearts break.  We can hold onto anger, lash out in rage, stand our ground, and cling to hope for only so long.  Eventually we must confess: “I am played out.”  But, perhaps, the moment  when we call game and admit defeat, that is when our real Pilgrimage of Grace begins.  If doubt is pain too lonely to know faith is his twin brother, than I believe the parents of grace are forgiveness and love.  I like to think that Cogburn's kindness and the loss of her arm changed Maddie's view of grace.  Suffering alters our perception of the world, smoothes away our rough edges, softens our judgments, and breaks our strict rules.  Grace makes room for hope and empathy.  Even when the battle costs us dearly, if we are lucky, like Maddie, we find sturdy arms to carry us when we fall and lean on as we heal, stumble forward, and survive.  At some point, like the Catholic leaders who faced execution in 1537, we reach the end, but, perhaps, its how we handle that Pilgrimage of Grace, when our hearts are broken and our hands are played out, that defines who we are and who we will become.   

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