So goes the dramatic description of a bitter, revengeful woman. She was brought low long years before, partly through her own weaknesses, used and cast aside. Jilted at the last moment by a conman conspiring with her jealous brother, she was robbed of her wealth, marriageability and hope. This, in a society where an impoverished, single woman was nothing, an aristocratic one less than nothing because she couldn’t earn a living.
Miss Havisham, from Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, is an icon of injury and smouldering anger, packed down with grief and anguish. She’s unusual because she wears it on the outside, still sitting in her ancient crumbling wedding dress beside the decayed wedding banquet, one shoe on and one waiting. But she’s not so different from any of us whose hurt and grief have hardened into bitterness.
A bitter thing is acrid and sharp. Injustice and hurt happen, and so suffering comes and eats away at us; we may find ourselves, too, growing acrid and harsh. A little bitterness is a fine thing, as any beer drinker can attest. But too much bitterness is corrosive, so we need to air out our souls.
It’s astonishing, not that people become bitter, but that they don’t: the world is often harsh, and its hurts come to the young and tender as well as the mature and resilient. I’ve observed my friend Pat with awe, a heart-bleeding, broken man, battered almost from his first day in the world. He was born into generations of hand-medown pain. Now in adulthood he rejects bitterness, claiming love and freedom instead. Where did that come from? Where did he get his desire to forgive?
Forgiveness is costly and difficult. It means facing injustice. It requires entering into our sorrow and suffering, letting our hearts be softened, accepting our own power of choice, risking our lives by laying down our arms and armour (how, when the world remains violent and unsafe?), and choosing love when we have no idea what that means or even if love exists. Pat could seek revenge rather than forgiveness, and wreak havoc in his turn instead of wreaking love.
Desire, the fire inside us all, gets twisted up into bitterness and helps give it energy to smoulder and scorch. As with Miss Havisham’s once-white dress and veil, bitterness takes the lustre out, leaving things and people dreary and destructive. Overcoming it may seem impossible, even once we decide we want to. “Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger,” admonishes St. Paul (Ephesians 4:31-32). But how?
Miss Havisham’s appalling state is the more poignant because it’s witnessed through the eyes of a boy — Pip, already abused and battered, terrified but also led by her. The desire in him gets distorted and disfigured, with her “help.” That fundamental, Godbreathed desire still burns with a divine flame that can’t be extinguished and longs to be renewed. St. Paul says we, even we, can be “kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other.”
Two hundred years ago, in Italy, another boy had a dream. Youngest of three brothers, whose father died when he was two, he dreamt of a field full of angry, violent children. He tried to shout and fight them into order. A figure told him he could lead them using kindness and compassion. Nine-year-old John, with a child’s wisdom and enthusiasm, protested this was impossible, but couldn’t let go of the dream. His heart open to listening, he followed his desire to lead and serve children, taking strange and unusual steps.
It was in Italy a time of poverty and strife, the Church there needing renewal. John, improbably for a boy in his circumstance, succeeded in studying and becoming a priest. Seeing many boys in prison and on the streets, he turned to helping them. He went where they were, under bridges or in slums, becoming so close to Italy’s wild children that he himself received criticism and rebuke. His “preventive system” of education was so simple we might ignore it: boys must be loved and know they are loved. This echoes St. Paul’s remedy for bitterness: loved and forgiven by God in Christ, we can love and forgive.
John Bosco and his movement were revolutionary in his lifetime and since. It’s neither easy nor painless. In a later dream, he walked through a garden of roses, but as he passed his feet were cut and torn by ever-multiplying thorns. Bitterness is always available. Even more so are love and forgiveness.
The Feast of St. John Bosco is Jan. 31.
(Marrocco can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)