Sunday, March 18, 2012

A Meditation on W. Somerset Maugham's "Rain"


     A group of travelers find themselves stranded on an island in Samoa.  The schooner which is supposed to bring them to their destination has been quarantined because one of the crew has contracted measles (a serious and often fatal disease in that place and time).   Among the travelers are two couples (the Macphails and the Davidsons) who have become somehow close in the course of their journey.   But, the intimacy that has arisen between them (Maugham quickly points out) is due more to propinquity rather than to any community of taste.   Indeed, no men can be more different from each other than Dr. Macphail and Mr. Davidson.  Dr. Macphail is an open-minded physician who has a lot of empathy for other men’s peculiarities and frailties, while Mr. Davidson is an overzealous and self-righteous missionary who cannot hide his contempt for other men’s weaknesses and sins.   Mr. Davidson is, in fact, obsessed with fighting sin with all his might and “saving” sinners no matter what the cost

     Also stranded on the island and billeted in the same inn as the Machphails and the Davidsons is a prostitute named Sadie Thompson.   Young and, in a coarse fashion, pretty, but expectedly uncouth and “immoral,” she soon earns the ire of Mr. Davidson.  At first, she proudly defies and challenges Mr. Davidson’s “right” to intrude into her life.  But, when Mr. Davidson utilizes his political connections to show her how capable he is of punishing her for her defiance, she capitulates and even acquiesces to his efforts to “convert” her from her sinful life.  The strange thing, however, is that despite her “conversion” and the “spiritual bond” that has developed between her and Mr. Davidson, the latter is still bent on giving her the punishment he believes she deserves:  sending her back to San Francisco where she has a standing arrest order for her past crimes.  In fact, Mr. Davidson relishes, in a rather demented way, the prospect of seeing her suffer in prison.  To him, such “cleansing” – no matter how painful -- is a necessary step to her salvation.  His convoluted theological rationale for such a stance is summarized in the words he says to Dr. Macphail, in reply to the latter’s intercession that Ms. Thompson be spared such punishment:  “Ah, but don’t you see?  It’s necessary.  Do you think my heart doesn’t bleed for her?  I love her as I love my wife and sister.  All the time that she is in prison I shall suffer all the pain that she suffers…  You don’t understand because you’re blind.  She’s sinned, and she must suffer.  I know what she’ll endure.  She’ll be starved and tortured and humiliated.  I want her to accept the punishment of man as a sacrifice to God.  I want her to accept it joyfully.  She has an opportunity which is offered to very few of us.  God is very good and very merciful.”  He continues:  “I want to put in her heart the passionate desire to be punished so that at the end, even if I offered to let her go, she would refuse.  I want her to feel that the bitter punishment of prison is the thank-offering that she places at the feet of our Blessed Lord, who gave his life for her.”1  No amount of pleading and weeping on the part of Ms. Thompson can make Mr. Davidson change his mind.   And as the day of her deportation to San Francisco nears, Mr. Davidson is filled with an inner excitement that makes him behave almost like a man going insane.  

     When the day of her deportation arrives, however, Mr. Davidson’s corpse is found lying on the beach with its throat cut.   In Mr. Davidson’s right hand lies the razor with which the deed has been done.   All indications point to the fact that Mr. Davidson has taken his own life.

     Dr. Macphail cannot, at first, understand what made Mr. Davidson do it.  Until he learns from Ms. Thompson that the night before her deportation, Mr. Davidson had succumbed to his carnal desires and taken advantage of her like all the other men she had known. 

     We can better understand the strange character of Mr. Davidson if we take a closer look at his “spirituality,” i.e., the kind of relationship he had with his God.   And since one’s relationship with God is largely determined by one’s view of God, it would be instructive for us to examine Mr. Davidson’s peculiar view of God. 

     Mr. Davidson obviously looked at God as a vindictive judge who could never be satisfied until a sinner had fully paid for his sins.  It was, therefore,  inconceivable to Mr. Davidson that God could forgive a sin as deep as the one he had committed:   destroying the soul of a person he was so close to “saving,” and ruining his own soul in the process.  He could not bring himself to believe that God could forgive any sin as long as there was a sincere repentance on the part of the sinner.  His distorted view of God precluded such a possibility.   In the end, believing that he was “doomed” beyond redemption, he saw no other way out besides taking his very own life.

     Incidentally, Mr. Davidson’s view of God and the despair to which such a view drove him echo those of another man who lived almost two thousand years ago.  Judas, unable to believe that God could forgive him no matter how humanly unforgivable his sin was, also felt that he was beyond redemption and consequently killed himself.

     The truth is:  many of us will probably do the same thing if we view God in that same manner.   For, whether we like it or not, we shall all fall into sin, in one way or another, in the course of our lives.  No amount of human effort towards untainted holiness can eradicate our human propensity to sin.  To put it figuratively:  no matter how hard we try to reach the heavens, we shall always fall back to the earth -- just like the rain (hence the title of Maugham’s story).  We are human beings and we will remain so as long as we live.  Our humanity and all the weaknesses that it contains will always remain a part of us.  We can only go so far when it comes to transcending our human limitations.  This painful reality is part of what the writer Stephen Vincent Benet once called the “sadness in being a man.”2

     The good news, however, is that our God does not really expect us to fully overcome our humanity while we are still in this world.  He accepts and loves us for what we are: human beings who can never save their own selves by their own efforts, human beings whom He and He alone can save.  Certainly, He wants us to do our best in trying to transcend the limits of our humanity.  But if we fail – as, for sure, we often will, despite our sincere efforts – God will, so to speak, bend over backwards as many times as necessary to forgive us and offer us the chance to start anew.

     The Bible proclaims this good news about our God in a number of gospel parables:  the prodigal son, the lost sheep, the lost coin…  It is also touchingly expressed in psalms like Psalm 30, verse 6:  “For his anger lasts but a while, and his kindness all through life.”  Our God is an infinitely merciful God.  While He is also a God of justice, His mercy far outweighs His sense of justice.

     Unfortunately, this good news about our God often sounds too good to be true to many people.  I remember the worried reaction I used to receive from some parishioners whenever I proclaimed this good news in my homilies while I was still a priest.   The reaction was worse whenever I mentioned the position of the Swiss theologian Hans Urs Von Balthasar:  that God’s mercy is so unfathomable, it is possible that even Judas had been spared the punishment of eternal fire.  They would point out to me the negative implications of such a position for our practical life.  They would retort:  “If God is that merciful, then what’s the use of trying so hard to live a Christian life?  I might as well live my life as I please.  After all, as long as I repent just before I die, God will surely forgive me.”   “And what about justice?  If God will likewise forgive the serial killer who murdered my father, or the young drug addict who raped my daughter, where is His sense of fairness?”   “How will God do justice to the victims of willful mass murderers like Adolf Hitler?”

     Von Balthasar, of course, clarifies that “the defense put forward by ‘our advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous’ (1 Jn 2:1)…  does not give us carte blanche for new sins; on the contrary it presents us with the most urgent challenge to start loving, at last.”3   Still, I must accept that his position indeed poses a number of complications when applied to our practical life.   Even the so-called “Final Option Theory” (which proposes that no matter how sinful our lives have been, God will still give us the chance to make our “final option” at the end of our lives; and it is our “final option” – either for or against God – that will determine our ultimate fate) is not without similar complications.  

     But then, doesn’t the Bible itself remind us that God’s ways are not men’s ways?  Our human mind can never fully comprehend how God can be infinitely merciful without violating the other values that we hold dear, such as justice and fairness.  It is one of those things about God which we can never fully understand while we are still here.  And we are definitely in no position to require God to make His actions and decisions neatly fit the pigeonholes of our minds.


     1W. Somerset Maugham, “Rain,” in A Pocket Book of Short Stories, M. Edmund Speare, ed. (New York:  Pocket Books, 1998), 159-160.
     2Stephen Vincent Benet, “The Devil and Daniel Webster,” in Speare, 22.  
      3Hans Urs Von Balthasar, Prayer, Graham Harrison, trans. (San Francisco:  Ignatius Press, 1986), p. 47.