Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Forming the Watchman

Have you read Harper Lee's Go Set a Watchman?  There was certainly a lot of hype prior to its July release -- everything from the seemingly new racist tendencies of Atticus Finch to whether the novel is the sequel or prequel to Lee's other novel, To Kill a Mockingbird.

In all of the monologues, dialogues, reviews, praise and criticism surrounding the novel, is enough attention being paid to the origin of the title and its meaning for 26-year-old Jean Louise ("Scout") Finch, the main character?

The title, Go Set a Watchman, comes from Isaiah 21:6: "Go, station [set] a watchman, let him tell what he sees."  This verse is the focus of the Methodist minister's Sunday sermon in the novel.  However, during the sermon, Jean Louise pays little attention to this verse as she daydreams about the music director's use of a new musical setting for the Doxology.  She wonders what could have possessed him to replace the Doxology music that had stood the test of time since her childhood with something so modern, northern and, quite possibly, Catholic.

It seems that the incorporation of the "watchman" verse with Jean Louise's internal railing against the loss of her childhood Doxology brings us closer to the point of the novel -- that is, Jean Louise's painful acceptance of becoming an adult.  While the Doxology music will return to "normal" the next Sunday, what Jean Louise is asked to endure during the 24 hours following the church service will affect her forever.

With the help of her uncle, Dr. Jack Finch, Jean Louise is brought to the realization that she is holding on to a childlike, uninformed conscience ("watchman"), largely the result of her father's influence and her lack of effort toward ongoing formation of  her own conscience.  Dr. Finch says:

"Every man's island, every man's watchman, is his conscience. . . .  Now you, Miss, born with your own conscience, somewhere along the line fastened it like a barnacle onto your father's.  As you grew up, when you were grown, totally unknown to yourself, you confused your father with God.  You never saw him as a man with a man's heart, and a man's feelings. . . . You were an emotional cripple, leaning on him, getting the answers from him, assuming that your answers would always be his answers.

"When you happened along and saw him doing something that seemed to you to be the very antithesis of his conscience -- your conscience -- you literally could not stand it.  It made you physically ill.  Life became hell on earth for you.  You had to kill yourself, or he had to kill you to get you functioning as a separate entity."  [Note:  The killing reference is not literal.]

As Jean Louise struggles to understand her uncle, he drops this bombshell:  "You're very much like your father. . . . Except you're a bigot and he's not. . . . What does a bigot do when he meets someone who challenges his opinion?  He doesn't give.  He stays rigid.  Doesn't even try to listen, just lashes out.

"You've no doubt heard some pretty offensive talk since you've been home, but instead of getting on your charger and blindly striking it down, you turned and ran.  You said, in effect, 'I don't like the way these people do, so I have no time for them.'  You'd better take time for 'em, honey, otherwise you'll never grow.  You'll be the same at sixty as you are now. . . . You have a tendency not to give anybody elbow room in your mind for their ideas, no matter how silly you think they are."

We would do well to reflect on Dr. Finch's words to Jean Louise:
  • How has my conscience matured as I have aged?  While I am grateful to those on whose shoulders I have stood, have I allowed their influence on me to be a crutch that prevents me from embracing my own, well-informed conscience?
  • How do I continue to educate my conscience?  Do I regularly speak with people who will present opposing viewpoints?  Are those people welcome within my "circle"? Do I read books and articles that will open my mind to how "the other side" feels?  
  • Who is my "Uncle Jack" -- the one who will say the tough things to me whenever I need it?  Do I speak with this person when I am making a decision or do I avoid him or her, thinking I know best?
Conscience formation is an important element of our Catholic faith.  According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, "The education of the conscience is a lifelong task. From the earliest years, it awakens the child to the knowledge and practice of the interior law recognized by conscience. Prudent education teaches virtue; it prevents or cures fear, selfishness and pride, resentment arising from guilt, and feelings of complacency, born of human weakness and faults. The education of the conscience guarantees freedom and engenders peace of heart" (1784).

How and when did you last educate your "watchman"?

[If you've read the novel, why not start a conversation here?  Click on the comment section and let me know your thoughts about the book or about my interpretation of it.]

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