John Updike’s In the Beauty of the Lilies is a multi-generational story of search for a lost faith. The Rev. Clarence Wilmot lost his faith in the first decade of the last century under the influence of the atheist arguments of his time. Clarence never found himself in life after that and died a failed door to door peddler of second rate encyclopedias.
His son Teddy, an affable duffus, became a mailman in a small town in Delaware. Teddy stayed true to his father’s atheism out of loyalty, yet inconsistently blamed God for not giving his dad a sign to shore up faith and save him from mediocrity. Teddy clearly hadn’t thought things through. But his faith was in Emily, a devout young woman with a deformed foot.
Their daughter, Essie, was a true believer because only God could have made someone so perfect as herself. Her narcissistic faith sustained her through the rise and fall of her career as a Hollywood star. It was a convenient faith to shore up her ego, but it made no moral demands as she lived recklessly and brought her son up in chaos.
Clark, the son of chaos, was on his road to being a random loser when he joined an apocalyptic cult of the Jonestown genre. His faith was fanatical but with a certain division. He was loyal to the cult leader but was not sure that loyalty to God was the same thing. And he had his reason engaged as a third voice. We don’t know how his final verdict on God, but he clearly came to himself before it was over, and did well.
I am not sure what Updike is saying in Lilies, but I think it is that faith is necessary and if we deny it in its reason-rooted sanity, it will pop up in problematic ways. “Even the stones will shout.” But shouting stones are unnerving.
I knew Lilies would be a theological novel. It was after all Updike, but I did not expect Frank Waters’ The Man Who Killed the Deer to be such an apt next read. Martiniano was a Pueblo man who didn’t fit. As a boy, he had been taken to the “away school,” then sent home a misfit. He wouldn’t cut the heels off his boots or the seat out of his pants. He would not adhere to the old ways but he discovered that he too needed some kind of faith.
Martiniano discovered guilt when he killed a deer the wrong way – wrong in the white way because it was out of season; wrong in the Pueblo way because he did not say the proper thanks for the life of the deer. And so the deer haunted him, created a coldness in his marriage, left him uneasy, restless (Augustine) until he found a faith to redeem him.
He tried the Peyote Cult for awhile but one evening the deer came and blocked his way to the Peyote meeting, and he knew that he could go no further on the Peyote road. And so he was all the more trapped. His wife said, "You are seeking a faith . . . . Let us keep faith together. It is our darkest hour." When faith was absent from his heart, it still glowed like an ember in his relationship with his wife, Flowers Playing. Eventually Martiniano paid a penance of being whipped, ostensibly for the Peyote, but really for the deer. After that and at the time his child was born, Martiniano came to an insight, “There is but one true faith, the strange quick thought came to him, and it is faith in the mystery of life . . . ‘That it may be so.’ He prayed. ‘that it may be so . . .” Would that the Wilmots had seen this.