My pal Jim turned me on to The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey, a Scottish author born Elizabeth Mackintosh (1896–1952). With our wives, Jim and I recently saw a production of Shakespeare’s Richard III, and Jim thought I might be interested in Tey’s novel about a police inspector who becomes curious about the real character of this alleged murdering hunchback, the last Plantagenet.
I’m sure Jim never suspected that he could be firing a shot across the bow of my Christian faith.
Inspector Alan Grant of Scotland Yard is confined to hospital following a plunge through a trapdoor while chasing a villain. So bored that his greatest source of interest is the pattern of cracks on his ceiling, Grant picks up a packet of historical portraits left him by a visitor and tries to guess the identity of each. He is stumped by a portrait of Richard III (pictured here), the murderous last Plantagenet accused by one and all of the murder of the Princes in the Tower, and other atrocities. To grant, the portrait doesn’t look villainous at all. A surgeon popping into Grant’s room says Richard looks like he might have suffered from polio. A nurse says she never saw more suffering in a human face. Grant asks a colleague from the Yard whether this face belongs “in the dock or on the bench,” and the colleague replies without hesitation that it is the face of justice, not crime.
Grant becomes intrigued and spends the rest of his hospital stay developing a case file on Richard III, using modern investigative methods. His conclusion—here comes a spoiler, dear reader, although the surprise spoiled is faint if it is a surprise at all—is that the “wicked uncle” who murdered the Princes in the Tower was in fact a respected, beloved ruler whose reputation was falsely muddied by slander of his successor to the throne, Henry VII. The trail of evidence exonerating Richard and Henry’s motives for sullying him are too complex for this short post.
The effect of Grant’s investigation, however, is simple: It undermines Grant’s—and the reader’s—faith in history, as written and received. Of course, Richard III was not the only historical figure modified by revisionism. Paul Revere is another example. The Boston silversmith and midnight horseman was the beneficiary of revisionism, not its victim. One of many riders on the evening of April 18, 1775, Revere now stands in the American imagination as the lone hero on horseback, thanks in part to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “Paul Revere’s Ride” (“Listen my children and you shall hear . . . ”).
But what of Christ? That was my next thought.
If we can be so wrong about the historical Richard or Revere, how can we be sure we are not all wrong about Jesus? Here comes all the folly of accepting a book, any book, even the Bible, as the sole source of Truth, as our Protestant brothers and sisters do. But of course the Catholic Church and Her traditions could be wrong too, couldn’t it? How much was image and reality of Christ “massaged” by the early Fathers? I’m sorry if it sounds blasphemous, but this question occurs to me, and often.
Which is exactly why the “contemporaneity of Christ,” in the phrase of CL leaders Giussani and Carrón, becomes a make-or-break matter. History may not be all bunk, as Henry Ford wrote, but it is a discourse, a narrative, always subject to interpretation. If Christ is not with us until the end of time, and therefore with us today, He eventually becomes a mere tale, legend, figment, as He is in fact for so many people today.
I sat with my friends Frank and Carrie yesterday afternoon watching a Corpus Christi procession, televised live from Rome by EWTN. It presented the fascinating, totally contemporary image of Pope Benedict XVI mounted on a flatbed truck and kneeling before the Blessed Sacrament as the great rolling altar was wheeled through Rome—not just the safe confines of the Vatican City but out onto the streets of the Eternal City. It was a striking image, a powerful witness—both personal and institutional—to the enduring presence of Christ, today, in the city, in the very mess of life.
I cannot say that these images prove anything finally. But they have greater power of persuasion than any lecture proving or disproving the details of the life of the historical Christ. They’re better than any book. As is the presence of Benedict among us today, and of his successor, John Paul, yesterday, and of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta the day before that, and so on back through the whole litany of saints and blesseds.
One thing these images show, like the portrait of Richard III, is that the human face is witness to a greater truth than history itself. One look at that face, Richard’s face, and it was not possible for Alan Grant to believe a thousand tales of villainy.