“When half way through the journey of our life
I found that I was in a gloomy wood,
because the path which led aright was lost”.
It may have begun innocently, out of curiosity or under stress, or resonating with something in our pasts. It may have been something noble at first—art, work, a pastime, friendship, defending somebody in need—and afterwards became increasingly more ambiguous. Perhaps we got carried by the circumstances, or suddenly found we had been deceiving ourselves. I have talked of the discovery of romantic love, its calling, its weapons. But it can also be our enemy. Shoujo is famous for its love triangles, which, from the point of view of the story, usually have a right and a wrong answer (in real life, things may not be so clear). The character may come to see it, too. And yet…
The thing is, we may find that a twisted love, or its attraction, or the subsequent dependency, has trapped us. We have become entangled. An affair, pornography, prostitution, an undue interior attachment, fantasies, an abusive relationship on either end, grave mistreatment of ourselves and others. As in Broadway’s Hamilton (or Adam and Eve), there is a moment in which we don’t “say no to this,” and then it happens again and again. An entire forest grows from the first seed, and its roots are deep. And in there, things looks increasingly bleak. St. Paul calls Satan, “the Accuser.” When we fall into temptation, he tempts us further, this time to despair. He has been attacking with lies, but now uses harsh truths. Never the whole truth, but enough of it to hit us hard.
Only the bravest romantic stories are willing to face the consequences of these situations. We know and feel that taking the right way will mean pain and loss. We may find ourselves in the same spot again. We may doubt if it’s really worth it. Many who once were near God drift away from the faith and leave, maybe after trying for a while. It ain’t all roses. The despair, the promises of the attraction, the bitterness, the compromise, just win. One of the Twelve became entangled, betrayed Christ, left and despaired. The “path which led aright,” our bond with Christ, the Church, may become something we have left behind at some point.
While money issues, work, intellectual doubt, pride, wrath, or ambition may be the rival instead, it would seem that the dark forests of sexuality and romantic love are the most painful. Why is this? Attraction, sexual impulse, and the love between man and woman called to integrate them were God’s idea, and are good. They are a door to a greater, firmer, shared personal world. To a reflection of God’s love and new life. But the corruption of the best is the worst. The highest angels, when adored as idols, become the worst demons. The same is true about our bodies and our human hearts. Misused, they destroy us from the inside.
The verses at the beginning are from “The Divine Comedy,” a long narrative poem from a Catholic poet, Dante, written a year before his death in 1321. It turns out that he wasn’t “half way through the journey of our life.” Conscious that his life has taken a dark turn and that he is ruining himself, he is visited by another famous poet and storyteller, Virgil, sent by Beatrice, Dante’s first love. They were never a couple, and she died young, but in having clung to Christ until the end, something did not die.
In Heaven, she remains an active agent, personal and real, as well as a warm, powerful memory that motivates him to walk towards her and God through the Universe (Middle Ages version), including Hell, Purgatory and Heaven, and finally beyond Beatrice herself, to “the Love who moves the Sun and all the stars.” I read “The Divine Comedy” when I was 16, experiencing temptations and lapses into sins that, every few months or years, come again to me, even now, and especially in times of stress. I have had help, but some of the darkest moments I remember are those of coming to terms with what I had done, and contemplating on the future.
Like Dante, I found that beauty, stories, and (more so) the direct experience of having loved or being loved with purity, even for a moment—be that love romantic or not—is a sign of hope that can bring us to walk again to God as the Church, come hell or high water, because the love of God shines through it. It reflects His own gaze. “Blessed are the pure of heart, because they will see God” (Matthew 5:8). Romantic love, the most sensory and manifest, exists in a world where death will separate the lovers, a world of dark forests. Yet it is filled with hope. Every love is called to be pure, and to fight to be even more pure. It may call us to stay, to reach, to let go, whatever the good of the loved one requires in our circumstances. But it is always a path. The Comedy works because romantic love defies death, and has a cosmic dimension. It keeps calling us to go beyond.
Most shoujo stories are hopeful dreams about love, a love which wants to be eternal, to be expressed endlessly, to be proclaimed, known to the whole world, to bear fruit, to reach the life of the other on its entirety, to achieve union, to transform everything in the universe. To save. Trying to find our completion there, putting all our hopes in romantic love, usually leads to falsification, self-enclosure, cynism, to asking from the other what he or she cannot give and abandon the actual possibility, what could be in truth. The other path, limited, fragile and incomplete, is nevertheless a powerful weapon, a sign of hope, a signpost on our journeys which points us to the meaning of our world. To Christ, without Whom the promises of human love cannot ultimately be fulfilled.
He fulfills them in His Church, His new Covenant, cosmic in its scope, reaching the past, the present, the future, all Creation, death and beyond, every specific human person. Both realities help understand each other, and in charity and marriage under Christ, also complement each other in practice. That’s what St. Paul tells us. So, let’s walk the way of Dante.
Jeanne de la Motte and Babylon
“And the woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet colour, and decked with gold and precious stones and pearls, having a golden cup in her hand full of abominations.” Rose of Versailles, one of the most acclaimed of all shoujo, takes place in a very Japanese pre-revolutionary France. Medievalotaku has commented on the story, which follows the life of a fictional noblewoman, Oscar François de Jarjeyes, who, raised as a soldier by her father and having embraced the role, serves as the commander of the Royal Guard of Marie-Antoniette. You should expect plenty of tragedy, love, duty, war, death, opera-like displays of passion and beautiful visuals.
The Queen and the Commander are represented with roses, white and red, while the main villains are three ambitious temptresses whose unbound appetite for power and riches prompt them to enslave those around them, or lead them into destruction. Madame Du Barry clashes with the young and innocent Princess, who disapproves of her illicit relationship with Louis XV. The sophisticated Duchess of Polignac manipulates the naive Queen for her own advantage, leading her to the vices and habits that will be her downfall. Jeanne de la Motte, the adventuress behind the Affair of the Diamond Necklace, is an astute, manipulative mastermind and (in the show) poisoner, her cup indeed “full of abominations,” who has her counterpart in her kindly sister Rosalie. We also have the bloodthirsty St. Just, the corrupt nobles and, behind the scenes, “Monsieur” perpetually pulling the strings. A war beneath the bright surface in a world at sunset, the guillotine looming at the horizon.
In the book of Revelation, the one which describes the Church as the Bride of Christ, we also see a dire war in a twilight world. On the side of Hell, the Beast, representing the brutal, worldly power who rules things, persecutes Christians and wants adoration. The false prophet the deceiver who falsifies the meaning of the events to favor the Beast. The Antichrist, a false Messiah. Pulling the strings, the dragon, the old serpent of Eden. And riding the Beast, the woman called Babylon the Great, everything Du Barry, Polignac and, especially, La Motte aspire to be. Clothed in luxury, riding the imperial Beast, full of jewels and riches, drunk with pleasure and the blood of her enemies, seducer of the kings of the world, she keeps them under her control. On the side of Heaven, the Church is being martyred.
Babylon is the capital of the Pagan empire that defeated and enslaved the people of Israel after the Kingdom. An event, the prophets warned, that was a consequence of their sins, a punishment, as the downfall of Marie-Antoniette and Versalles (in the show; those reading our Light Novel Club discussions know that I’m skeptical about the French Revolution). With everything they hold dear either lost or desecrated, Israel was exiled to a foreign, cruel land, hoping for a return. At the time Revelation was written, Imperial Rome was similarly crushing and persecuting its Christian citizens. Every time this happens, many will leave, choosing Babylon and not Jerusalem. The enemies seem triumphant. It seems it’s the end. According to St. Augustine, Babylon and Jerusalem are two spiritual cities at war with one another throughout all of human history, and in every soul. And too often, Babylon appears to be winning.
“Two loves make up these two cities: love of God makes Jerusalem, love of the world makes Babylon.” Christ’s Bride, the Church, a personal and collective alliance with Him for the sake of true love, or the unfinished tower-city of human pride, love turned into an instrument. Every act is part of one or the other, reinforces Jerusalem or Babylon in us, with everything they bring. In the end, it comes to a “yes, in spite of everything,” or a “no, in spite of everything,” an “I do” or an “I don’t.” If we have been created for love, if love is the meaning of the Universe, it is coherent that it must come to this. In the meantime, the wheat and the tares grow together. Christ will continue giving life to His Church, again and again. That is His plan. Taking His hand is enough. Every “no” makes the “yes” more difficult, but, like the Good Thief, you may be saved in the very last moment. As long as we are alive, our Jean may still turn into a Rosalie.
Marie Antoniette and the Exile
So, what are we to do from our dark forests? The Prodigal Son remembered about the food. Dante remembered about Beatrice. They were being called. Cling to hope, to Christ, one more time, and separate the “yes” and the “no.” Our Lord starts His mission talking about repentance and conversion. Peter, in Pentecost, likewise calls the people to repent. Reading Dante closely (C. S. Lewis, inspired by him, does it more openly), his Hell turns out to be, in his intention at least, a place of distorted, bitter, self-justifying narratives about sin. But the punishment tells us the truth. Fight to see things with Heaven’s eyes.
The Marie-Antoniette of the show is guilty of many of the things she is accused of. In the judgement of the world, Jeanne is the heroine. But at the Mount, Christ taught that we should not disdain those the world, our flesh, and the devil call the losers, or follow those whom they call happy. Repent, look into Hell, into the hellish self-enclosement every sin brings, and dare to call things by their name. Confess. “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” To the Apostles it was said, “If you might forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven.”
“Come now, let us argue it out, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.” Antoinette comes back every time to be again the White Rose, aided by the love of those who serve her faithfully, even knowing her faults. They, in turn, are inspired like Dante. Babylon was a punishment, but a salutary one. “You say, ‘I am rich; I have grown wealthy and need nothing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind, and naked. I counsel you to buy from Me gold refined by fire so that you may become rich, white garments (…) and salve to anoint your eyes (…). Those I love, I rebuke and discipline. Therefore be earnest and repent. Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in and dine with him, and he with Me.”
Christ takes the sin we give Him and gives it back to us as something He has suffered for love. In the Church, as the Church, against whom the gates of Hell shall not prevail, we will be able to repent again and again, to go forward, to truly love. Those are the true riches, the powerful seeds of hope. In a marriage blessed by Christ, we may become such a sign for the person we have chosen and has chosen us with a lifelong “yes,” to be renewed again and again.
Oscar François de Jarjeyes and the long way home
Back to the Red Rose whose dreams and hopes are doomed. Versailles will end. The Queen will die. A glorious Kingdom of Israel was the dream of those who returned from the exile. Instead, there was a Greek invasion, and violent persecution under Antiochus IV. The Macabees, a family of rebels devoted to God and the Covenant, fought against him and won, though most died in battle. In sixty years, the Romans would conquer the country, and keep it since. As Lady Oscar, the Apostles kept dreaming about thrones, battles, triumphs. Those were, perhaps, noble dreams. But as the Church, they would have to learn to live in a different, greater but less manifest Kingdom, like a seed of mustard, the smallest of seeds for the greatest of trees. They would have to leave the earthly Jerusalem for Rome, the ends of the world and in time, celestial Jerusalem.
Sometimes we remain in Christ, repenting and walking with Him, willing to fight, firmly set against Hell, come what may. But perhaps the entanglements remain there, darker than ever. They are not anymore (or never were) a will set against God. They are, instead, twisted branches, the lost opportunities, the places left vacant by the idols, mistaken notions, evil raising against the good, or the mysterious sufferings of Job. The right choice is taken, yet the love triangle remains. In the opening, we find Lady Oscar, with her body and hair literally entangled in thorns while firmly holding a sword, her eyes closed. “But I was born for a destiny of roses, to live with glory and passion (…). Roses, roses, they flourish in nobility. Roses, roses, they scatter in beauty.” The red is Oscar’s blood.
She bears the extravagant caprice of her Versaillesque father, the sins and the scars of her world as well as its splendor and virtues. She struggles with loyalty to the throne and a growing compassion for the suffering people, her shining knight persona and her thirst. Her world crumbles, its beauty is compromised, and she suffers. She is both a fighter and a captive, a Macabee and Israel in Babylon. As she says, there is a love of joy and a love of agony. In this world, they cannot be separated. Love brings with it suffering, and thus, sometimes, “Blessed are those who mourn.”
The lowest point of her mysterious path may be episode 28. So, spoilers ahead. Lady Oscar makes a point of always wearing her officer uniform and being devoted to the Army. The only weak spot in her armor will be Fersen, a foreign nobleman who becomes her friend. As much as she tries to reverse course and show her charms, Fersen does not see her as a woman, but as a soldier, a comrade. Instead, he, who could love her licitly, becomes instead the adulterous lover of the Queen. For years, she has to separate them again and again, rebuke Fersen, deal with Antoinette’s solitude and her own. In the end, she confesses her love. It cannot be. Fersen answers that it is better to not see each other again. She gives farewell to her “wasted youth,” to love.
But the worst blow is yet to come. Andre, a commoner, is Oscar’s oldest and closest friend, whom she unconditionally trusts from childhood. He knows her every thought and has been by her side at every fight, having recently lost an eye protecting her, and stopped her from getting revenge in a disgraceful way. But precisely at this time, when she is hardening her heart and resolving to live without love or close bonds, he starts losing sight of his other eye, and with it, his mental stability. Not knowing this, she dismisses him. He tells her that she will always be a rose, a woman, and she slaps him. In a very dark scene, he then grabs her, forcefully kisses her, and does something that may imply a willingness to assault her. Lady Oscar is known for her fiery courage, but, in shock, she doesn’t defend herself. She just asks, in tears, “What will you do with me, Andre?”
It is enough for him to come to his senses and get away. But there is no way back now.
Or is it? To be frank, I think Rose of Versailles cheats sometimes, including here. But to the point: Commenting on the sadness that hides beneath the brilliant surface of Mozart’s operas, a world not too far from Versailles, a blogger priest once said that “on contemplating how people suffer, and how they suffer from their inability to feel their suffering, how the instinctive hardening of the heart that is meant to protect against suffering is itself suffering, when one sees all this one can only weep.” Those are, again, the eyes of God in our sufferings, including those we don’t know.
Lady Oscar and her world need to change, so that the love and justice she fights for is made manifest in its brightest form. They need healing, sometimes painful and mysterious, sometimes meaning the death of noble hopes and dreams for something even greater. By meeting the Crucified Christ and following Him, participating in Christ’s love for herself and for others, by offering herself with Christ, the Bride manifests her union to the work of grace in her soul. It is a noble, beautiful, sometimes heartbreaking fight. But this martyrdom, this Lent, this penance, this purgatory, will be fruitful.
“These are the ones who come out of the great tribulation, and washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Therefore they are before the throne of God (…) And He who sits on the throne will dwell among them. They shall neither hunger anymore nor thirst anymore…”
Apart from the red rose and the white rose, there is a third, Dante’s rose, a rose of light. But that’s for the next and final article. Happy Easter!
Rose of Versailles can be streamed at Amazon Prime Video.