A Tale of Two Cities

[Week 6 of the “Imagination in Action” reflection series. Theme this week: true Charity]

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” This famous line begins the book “A Tale of Two Cities” by Charles Dickens. The introduction continues: “it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”

The story is set during the French Revolution, and Dickens characterized the time period in this way because he saw the way that it highlighted many of the best and worst parts of human nature. It was “the best of times” because it was a time of great hope. The people of France hoped to cast off the injustices of the old regime and establish one of greater peace and parity. However, it was also “the worst of times” because the Revolution devolved into what came to be known as “The Reign of Terror.” The guillotine had been invented as an efficient way to execute the enemies of the revolution, and these executions began with the leaders of the old regime. Over time, though, the executions became more and more capricious, based instead on the personal hatreds of those in power. For example, many religious sisters were killed merely for wanted to pray in their convents, reflecting the bigotry against religion of those in power. In the end, a number of the earlier leaders of the revolution were themselves killed as the tide turned against them. What resulted was not a renewed free society, but a renewed empire under Napoleon.

Nevertheless, Dickens ends the story with a tremendous seed of hope: “I see a beautiful city and a brilliant people rising from this abyss, and, in their struggles to be truly free, in their triumphs and defeats, through long years to come, I see the evil of this time and of the previous time of which this is the natural birth, gradually making expiation for itself and wearing out.” These words are placed on the lips of a character who is laying down his life for another (I’ll avoid names for limited spoilers). The character who is laying down his life is not laying it down for a close friend, but for the man that has been a particular object of his envy and frustration. The character has seen this other man succeed everywhere he has failed, and in a sense has every reason to want him dead. However, he choses to save this other man, and the reflection before his death ends with the powerful words, “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”

(On a side note, some may recognize that these words are read at the funeral for Bruce Wayne at the end of “The Dark Knight Rises.” The story is based on “A Tale of Two Cities” – with Bane encouraging a revolution in Gotham that he says will mean the end of the injustice of the rich, but in fact is part of his plan to ultimately destroy Gotham)

What we find at the end of this story, then, is the triumph of true charity. “Charity” comes from the Latin word “caritas,” and means more than just giving aid to those in need. The theological virtue of charity is the perfect, infinite love of God poured forth into the hearts of human beings by grace. In seeking true charity, we seek to love God and neighbor as God has loved us. Charity inspires and perfects the love of family, friends, and spouses. In charity we seek the true good of our neighbor, through thick and thin. A profound reflection can be found in First Corinthians, Chapter 13: “Love is patient, love is kind. It is not jealous, [love] is not pompous, it is not inflated, it is not rude, it does not seek its own interests, it is not quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury, it does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails.”

True charity is more than the emotion of love, which grows and fades. It is a firm choice of faithfulness to another. We see its ultimate expression in Christ on the Cross. He is not there because it is convenient, comfortable, popular, or for His own benefit. No, Christ is there to give His life for every one of us, and to show the perfect love between the Father and Son. He embodies what is expressed in the wedding vows, loving us “in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health, until death do us part.” Holy Week can aptly be described in the words that began this post: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” We saw all the ugliness of human hatred and sin, and all the perfection of the love of God.

In the end, true charity is the path to true community. “A Tale of Two Cities” highlights the way that a desire for justice without a foundation in true love of neighbor corrupted the great expectations of the French Revolution. It ends, though, with the confidence that the desires of the human heart are not impossible. May we always turn to Christ as the model of true charity, and its source in our life.

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