Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein

Copyright © 2011 by Chris R. Glaser. All rights reserved.

The Christian teacher Abelard of the twelfth century explained the atonement this way: witnessing Jesus suffering on the cross awakens in us that which makes us one with God: our compassion. Compassion is our link to divinity. To witness suffering—whether firsthand or through the media—may draw out our divine urge to hold and help the vulnerable.

Zen teacher Jack Kornfield tells the story of a man in Southeast Asia whose work was enforcing drug laws through arrests, imprisonment, and even violence. A relative, a wise old Buddhist nun, told him there was a better way. Under her influence, he became a Buddhist monk who was known for his austere spiritual practices. He founded a drug treatment center that has one of the highest rates of success in the region. His principle therapy to bring people back from the abyss is holding them like babies, telling them how much they are loved. They cry, they sweat, they scream, they listen, they feel, and the healing begins—one day at a time.

A few years ago I watched for the first time the Kenneth Branagh film, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.  It prompted me to read Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel, discovering that the film reflects many of its insights. The creature who has been given his creator’s name in the public mind is not the monosyllabic grunter of gay director James Whale’s 1931 film classic (whose own story is the content of another worthy film, Gods and Monsters), but an eloquent philosopher on being a creature abandoned by his creator and rejected by fellow creatures.

Asking for a mate “as hideous as himself,” the creature explains to his creator, Victor Frankenstein, “If any being felt emotions of benevolence towards me, I should return them an hundred and an hundred fold; for that one creature’s sake, I would make peace with the whole kind!” His creator writes, “His words had a strange effect upon me. I compassionated him, and sometimes felt a wish to console him; but when I looked upon him, when I saw the filthy mass that moved and talked, my heart sickened, and my feelings were altered to those of horror and hatred.”

Branagh’s movie version of the creature’s words captures the sinister consequence of being denied: “I have love in me the likes of which you can scarcely imagine and rage the likes of which you would not believe. If I cannot satisfy the one, I will indulge the other.” And only then concludes, “For the sympathy of one human being, I would make peace with all.”

I attended an ordination in San Francisco which featured two pastors giving “the charge” to one who would be serving as a chaplain and director of a Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) program at a local hospital. The Presbyterian pastor gave an eloquent but long commendation whose content I do not remember. The MCC pastor gave a memorable two-point counsel. “The people you’ll be serving,” she said simply, “Basically want to know ‘Am I alone?’ and ‘Am I loved?’”

“For the sympathy of one human being, I would make peace with all.”

We are all creatures. We each have love in us the likes of which can scarcely be imagined and rage the likes of which can hardly be believed. If we cannot satisfy the one, we might indulge the other.

We need companions. We are all in need of being held. Maybe we should establish bars or coffee houses where we could meet someone simply to hold us for awhile or for the night! The only holding that many experience all week are the hugs before and after worship, and when passing the peace. Knowing that might slow us down when administering those sacraments.


  1. Goodness, how I do love monsters, and this is such an ideal posting for Halloween. I hadn't known what a philosopher Shelley's monster was.

    I think I've always related to the monster, the outcast, and seen them as someone who just wanted to belong, as we all do. At least, that was my feeling for the mid-century cinematic monsters of my youth. More recently, movie monsters are acting out without the sense of tragedy they once had. It's harder to sympathize with them. Can you imagine the gory villain of "Saw" just wanting to be loved?