I’ll give thee armour to keep off that word:
Adversity’s sweet milk, philosophy,
To comfort thee, though thou art banished.
Yet ‘banished’? Hang up philosophy!
Unless philosophy can make a Juliet…
Well, yeah, that’s how it usually goes. Were I Fr. Laurence, I’d probably have gone for something more like, “Go play some Renaissance baseball analogue to exhaustion, sleep well, and let’s speak of this again tomorrow.” And yet, I think the poor friar has a point here. Because romantic love between man and woman is not only a life-changing discovery and a call to fight the good fight, but also, unavoidably, something of a comedy of errors, misunderstandings, and absurdities, some of that would benefit from some reflection and wisdom, especially taking into account that, given the centrality of love and its signs in human life, the errors may very well turn the comedy into a tragedy (which, as a matter of fact… but no spoilers).
I fondly remember my first date of sorts, during my Freshman year at university. It was a great time, I deeply cared about the girl, and I´ll always pray for her, wherever she is. But, you may have noticed the “of sorts” part. Man, it is amazing how two human beings can interpret the same set of facts so differently. You miss the signs, and in retrospect, suddenly, it is obvious. Not everything is as meant to be as it seemed. Ahem. Where was I. My point was that hope, self-deception, wild assumptions, strikingly different understandings of what is happening, rose-colored or black-colored glasses, dubious rationalizations or whirlwind rides from the summit to the pits of desperation are part of the experience of being in love, and may take us to absurd, or dangerous, or hurtful, or simply unhelpful paths. And there are some things we can prevent, too, if, without losing the hopeful, fiery, courageous impulse, we learn from our experiences, and try to discern carefully.
In the fallen world, we need this kind of armor, even if we also need to avoid become trapped in them. It may not be sweet milk, but we may need some of adversity’s Georgia MAX Coffee. To set our hearts ablaze, and yet think and decide carefully, soberly, set of being kind and just. We need a sense of humor, and a willingness to correct course. We need patience, to interpret what is happening rightly, to differentiate between truth and hope without rejecting either, to accept the less glamorous aspects of loving someone. Reflection certainly cannot make a Juliet, but may help me, well, knowing, courting and loving the real Juliet, and not just the one in my head.
In my last article, I mentioned how anime has a gift for vivid personal worlds which leads to great depictions of the discovery of romantic love. It also has a natural tendency towards introspection and flashbacks (slow motion means there is less drawing to do, while flashbacks sometimes mean that you can reuse some takes, or so I have heard). But from these technical conveniences, it has gone far beyond, and developed a remarkable artistic tradition of adding layers to the past and the present.
And so, you have many great stories in which you see again what you once saw, and everything falls into place. Tragedies and comedies alike rely on this tools, and so we have tricky stories of love, heroism, mysteries and fate like Madoka and Erased, Oregairu, Fate Stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works and Mawaru Penguindrum, Haruhi (like the protagonist, I just can’t escape Haruhi) or Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, Teasing Master Takagi-san and Princess Tutu.
In the shoujo genre, this tradition is just as strong. Reminiscence, interpretation, doubt, memories, hopes, the past, are often put to great use. So, let’s go on with my crazy (but St. Paul-sponsored) idea that the depiction of human love between man and woman, as well as a profound mystery, illustrates the relationship between Christ and the Church. What if I were to say that the illusions of love and their comical and tragic consequences are also helpful there? Once again, please bear with me.
Tohru Honda, and the Ugliness in the House of the Twelve
Just as compelling, super-strong warrior maidens, childhood friends in love since forever and ice queens who happen to be all interested in the same regular-looking, not-especially-popular guy are far more common in anime than the average high school, shoujo has its own wishful tropes. Rose-colored ambiences, Cinderella stories, roses framing the scenes, golden bubbles, and legions of strikingly good-looking characters with secret pains that only the protagonist can heal are among them. Fruits Basket (2001) takes some of this approach to the extreme. As a child, Tohru Honda would weep when the cat of a fable her mother told her was excluded by the twelve animals of the Chinese Zodiac. She was the same, as other kids at school excluded her, telling her that she was the onigiri (rice ball) in their fruits basket game, and letting her wait in vain to be called like the rest.
Since then, she has grown into an ever-optimistic, hard-working, generous, and extremely kind girl. Her mother has recently died, and, not wanting to bother anyone, she now lives…in a tent near a river. She cooks for herself, goes to school everyday, and works part-time in the evenings. But, when her place collapses during a storm, the elegant but distant school ice prince, Yuki Sohma, who lives with his older (yet also good-looking) cousin Shigure, takes her to his home. Soon, a loud, messy, athletic, troubled (and… yeah) cousin of Yuki and Tohru’s age called Ryo comes to live with them. As it happens, the family is cursed: They are the incarnations of animals of the Chinese Zodiac, and transform into animals when they are hold by someone (non-cursed) of the opposite sex. Learning of Tohru’s extraordinary circumstances, they offer her the job of housekeeper. And so it begins.
So, as you can see, not so much MAX Coffee so far. In the episodes that follow, Tohru increasingly becomes the loving, beating heart of the cursed Sohma family, able to help healing their wounds with her kindness, honesty and simple commitment. Everyone, or almost, is enchanted. It is a bit excessive. Honestly, I had to endure some parts of the story. And yet, why do I like it so? The answer is that, despite all the sometimes far-fetched circumstances, Tohru’s kindness is genuine. And I will never disdain genuine kindness, or laugh at it. And it did pay off. I won’t be too specific, but it did. “I have described it” says our Sensei of the entire Fruits Basket manga “as a giant wave of blessing, crashing on and overtaking one person after another after another in ever widening circles, all thanks to an unseen and unacknowledged God who also breaks real curses in real human lives”.
The Church of Christ, the prophesied new Covenant, is also like that. It’s the ultimate Cinderella story. Each of us Christians has been chosen by Christ. He has brought us home to a love like no other, to words of eternal life, to true communion, to forgiveness, to the Bread of Life, to miracles and wonders. To the key truths that the truly simple and the truly wise perceive. To true hope, to a love our deepest being is thirsty for, that transforms and solidifies us, that makes us ourselves. Open to those we love, too, and to everyone in this world. The joys in my life in Christ are unlike any others I have experienced. And that light, that goodness, are very real. But from there, precisely because it is so powerful, it’s easy to get things wrong. The Apostles imagined themselves reigning in a political Kingdom of Israel. St. Joan D’Arc thought she would return home to Domrémy. Lovers say that everything will be Eden now that they have each other. I may conclude that something is a date.
Tohru is a very optimistic character, and a very hopeful girl. But those are not always the same. While she feels blessed and fights her daily battles, both the evil and the good around her are beyond her understanding. When Israel, freely chosen by God, became a powerful nation free from its slavery in Egypt, completed its Exodus, sealed its alliance with God, conquered the Promised Land promised to Abraham and eventually became a great kingdom with a temple, everything seemed right. God walked with them, fought for them, was present. The Law described true goodness, in opposition to the idolatry, ignorance and self-enclosement of the Pagan world. There were miracles. But the real, deeper danger was there, mostly unbeknownst to them. So the Lord sent them inspired prophets, to awake them, to make them able to discern, to provide them with the right interpretation.
And then, He sent them His own Son, and He gave testimony to the truth, and was rejected and killed. And so the true darkness of Israel and the entire human race, the true enemy, came into light in all its ugliness. God tortured. God killed. But He is risen, and He has shown us a way: Himself. This is the story St. John tells us at the beginning of his Gospel. There is a moment (again, I won’t be very explicit) when Tohru’s previous love and kindness are not enough. When her commitment is tested and no one can help. When everything she has experienced, everything she has achieved, is put into question, and she has to acknowledge that she was wrong. When there are no easy answers. When she is forced to confront the genuine ugliness at the heart of the house of Sohma, the cursed monstrosity, the law of this world, without assurance that all will be well. It is the time to listen with faith. To embrace Christ in the Cross, and walk beyond anything we can see.
You may have heard the story of Emmaus. After the Crucifixion, two disciples walked away. Everything had collapsed. They had seen miracles and walked with Christ, but now their hope was dead. That is our Tohru, too. But a stranger walked with them, and asked them what had happened. They explained. And the stranger said: “O foolish ones, how slow are your hearts to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and then to enter His glory?” It was. “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, He explained to them what was written in all the Scriptures about Himself.” “Were not our hearts burning within us as He spoke with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?” Tohru’s Gethsemane experience was also necessary, and, for me, it was also the high point of the series. The character invested with a prophetic role also pointed her the way. And what happens in that place of darkness is believable, human, moving. Helpful.
From there, Tohru will be fruitful in a new world, because she can love in a way that can truly break the unmoving iron structure of her world. New possibilities of love are open. Being in the dream house of Sohma was not enough. For the Israelites, reaching the Promised Land was not enough. For a man and a woman in love, the moment of confession and corresponded feelings is not enough. For us, entering the Church, a personal bond with Christ, is not enough. We have also to experience, to witness, that whatever is born of God overcomes the world. That is our hope. From Pentecost to our days, Christ’s Church is prophetic, partaking in His mission as the teacher of true hope and true love. “He who hears you hears Me, he who rejects you rejects Me, and he who rejects Me rejects Him who sent Me.” She teaches us, warns us, reveals us the true meaning of what is happening, if we continue to listen, if we are humble, if we remain disciples.
How may this discipleship look in our lives? Tohru has many teachers. As the disciples of the first hour, we have the Gospel. In Emmaus, Christ pointed us to all the Scriptures. Also, the Catholic understanding is that, just as in Pentecost the inspired Apostle Peter stood up with the Eleven and proclaimed to the crowd the true meaning of what has happened, he being the spokesman, so their respective successors are invested with the charism in their announce and teaching, the Bishops in union with Peter. To them, it was said, “I have many more things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth.” I do believe that, from Pentecost and on, it has continued to be so. Also, Tohru had Saki, and Paul and the Acts tell us about prophets in the Church, and of ways to distinguish the true from the false. As the Spirit also lives in us, we have the signs, inspirations, even miracles, we may come to receive in our own prayer life. And lastly, we have a mind, created by God. We can reflect, taking all the above into account. And, as Tohru, the Bride of Christ, ears open, will learn how to be the Bride of Christ. I will. So I hope.
Only God knows what will happen in our lives, or why. Loving makes us both strong and vulnerable. We can be tempted, scandalized and hurt, sometimes terribly, even in the Church, by our teachers, brothers and sisters. We may discover we have hurt them terribly. In the course of life, we may suffer blows we didn’t expect. Our sins, our wounds, may overcome us. We may enter periods of spiritual darkness, or of depression. Signs may disappear. Everything may seem to collapse. But it is not over. The fight to truly love, to be ourselves in Christ, goes on. We will need to be vigilant, to check our assumptions, to be open to be corrected by God through the teachings of His Church. Because we need an armor.
“Finally,” St. Paul says to the Church, “be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand”. Fight with courage, Honda-san, and remain open. A deeper love, a new world, a path of salvation, lie ahead.
Yeah, I know I should watch the 2019 remake and read the manga. I will, eventually. No Divine Comedy for now, but it is near. And, as you may or may not know, the lady at the top is Mademoiselle de Jarjeyes, protagonist of another iconic shoujo, which is… not coincidental! Until the next time, stay strong, and Happy Easter.
Fruits Basket (2001) can be streamed at Funimation, Crunchyroll and Amazon Prime Video.