“Jane Eyre” as Lenten Meditation

Fritz Eichenberg, "Jane Eyre and St. John Rivers"

Fritz Eichenberg, “Jane Eyre and St. John Rivers”

Spiritual Sunday

I’ve been teaching Jane Eyre this past week and therefore have an example fresh in my mind of what Lent is not. Lent is not St. John Rivers.

St. John is the fervent Calvinist who wants Jane to accompany him to India as a missionary—and incidentally, to marry him. When I teach the book, many of my students find it difficult to understand why St. John has such power over Jane. After all, why would anyone want to subject oneself to his austere discipline. Jane’s description of a sermon gives us a sense of the man:

It began calm—and indeed, as far as delivery and pitch of voice went, it was calm to the end: an earnestly felt, yet strictly restrained zeal breathed soon in the distinct accents, and prompted the nervous language.  This grew to force—compressed, condensed, controlled.  The heart was thrilled, the mind astonished, by the power of the preacher: neither were softened.  Throughout there was a strange bitterness; an absence of consolatory gentleness; stern allusions to Calvinistic doctrines—election, predestination, reprobation—were frequent; and each reference to these points sounded like a sentence pronounced for doom.  When he had done, instead of feeling better, calmer, more enlightened by his discourse, I experienced an inexpressible sadness; for it seemed to me—I know not whether equally so to others—that the eloquence to which I had been listening had sprung from a depth where lay turbid dregs of disappointment—where moved troubling impulses of insatiate yearnings and disquieting aspirations.  I was sure St. John Rivers—pure-lived, conscientious, zealous as he was—had not yet found that peace of God which passeth all understanding: he had no more found it, I thought, than had I with my concealed and racking regrets for my broken idol  and lost Elysium [Rochester]. 

Though Jane is disturbed, however, she can’t help but admire St. John’s deep devotion to God. He is a man of pure faith, so focused on union with the divine that he turns away from all worldly temptation. For instance, he rejects the beautiful and wealthy Rosamond Oliver because she doesn’t have the depth of spirit he is looking for, a depth that he does find in Jane. In other words, he has a quality that many associate with Lent: his life is a rigorous shedding of that which separates him from God.

Although Jane hears no call to undertake missionary work—in fact, she experiences St. John as an “iron shroud”–nevertheless she is prepared to accept his invitation. After all, did not Christ tell his followers to leave everything and follow Him?

[I]s not the occupation he now offers me truly the most glorious man can adopt or God assign?  Is it not, by its noble cares and sublime results, the one best calculated to fill the void left by uptorn affections and demolished hopes?  I believe I must say, Yes—and yet I shudder.  Alas!  If I join St. John, I abandon half myself: if I go to India, I go to premature death.  And how will the interval between leaving England for India, and India for the grave, be filled?  Oh, I know well!  That, too, is very clear to my vision.  By straining to satisfy St. John till my sinews ache, I shall satisfy him—to the finest central point and farthest outward circle of his expectations.  If I do go with him—if I do make the sacrifice he urges, I will make it absolutely: I will throw all on the altar—heart, vitals, the entire victim.  He will never love me; but he shall approve me; I will show him energies he has not yet seen, resources he has never suspected.  Yes, I can work as hard as he can, and with as little grudging.

One can understand why Jane would be attracted. A powerful strain within Christianity regards mortification to be in and of itself virtuous. Lent isn’t Lent unless it involves discomfort. This message is beaten into Jane at Lowood School where the girls are taught that Christian humility calls for them to have their beautiful hair cropped, to be half frozen and starved, to wear drab clothing, and to be harshly disciplined. William Blake had people like their hypocritical schoolmaster in mind when he sarcastically wrote, in his scathing poem about the church’s message to abused chimney sweeps, “So if all do their duty they need not feel harm.”

The training has influenced Jane particularly deeply because she has seen her admirable schoolmate Helen Burns getting with the program. Helen is periodically beaten and shamed but always forgives and blesses. By going with St. John to India, Jane can be another Helen.

What saves Jane, however, is her insistence on human love. She will not marry John, she tells him, but will go instead as his assistant. She believes in marriage too deeply to accept his sham version. He will not accept her condition and goes to India by himself, all but consigning Jane to hell. In the process, we are given insight into the true meaning of Lent.

Lent is following your own calling, not another’s, in a disciplined way. It must come out of a fullness of heart rather than self-laceration. Jane was made for human love, not the life of an ascetic, and when she prays for guidance, she hears the voice of her true love calling her. She couldn’t stay with Rochester originally because doing so would have meant abandoning her moral compass and losing herself in her passions. This time around, however, her Lenten discipline, if we can call it that, is to find him and, when she discovers that that he has been badly injured in a fire, to care for him, love him, and marry him.

We have no doubt that she is fulfilling God’s plan for her as she does so. By returning to Rochester in a spiritually disciplined way, she finds supreme joy.

Yet even so, she can’t help but see St. John’s path as nobler and greater than hers. She signals this by concluding the book with him:

St. John is unmarried: he never will marry now.  Himself has hitherto sufficed to the toil, and the toil draws near its close: his glorious sun hastens to its setting.  The last letter I received from him drew from my eyes human tears, and yet filled my heart with divine joy: he anticipated his sure reward, his incorruptible crown.  I know that a stranger’s hand will write to me next, to say that the good and faithful servant has been called at length into the joy of his Lord.  And why weep for this?  No fear of death will darken St. John’s last hour: his mind will be unclouded, his heart will be undaunted, his hope will be sure, his faith steadfast.  His own words are a pledge of this—

“My Master,” he says, “has forewarned me.  Daily He announces more distinctly,—‘Surely I come quickly!’ and hourly I more eagerly respond,—‘Amen; even so come, Lord Jesus!’”

No, Lenten self-sacrifice doesn’t have to look like this, although it can. We each of us must find our own way and, if it honors who we are, it is no better or worse than another.

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