Tuesday, June 16, 2009

“Elizabeth’s Pain”: A Review of Ancient Rage, by Mary Lee Wile

(Published for the Paul Brunton Philosophic Society by Larson Publications, 1995, www.larsonpublications.com)

In the promotional material for this poetic and compelling book, Mary Lee Wile’s biography says that she “wrote this book as a way to fathom her own feelings of grief and rage at the loss of children.” The book’s dedication is to “The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo,” whose children, according to Wikipedia “‘disappeared’ during the [Argentinian] Dirty War, the military dictatorship between 1976 and 1983.”

It has been said that outliving one’s child is life’s most profound injustice, and the depth of emotion and meaning in the 144 pages of Ancient Rage are a testament to the deep river of sorrow that the parent of a dead child has to plumb the depths of.

Creating a successful narrative about New Testament matters is no easy task, as evidenced by the poor outcome of Anne Rice’s Christ the Lord, Out of Egypt, and Wile overcomes potential obstacles by letting the story tell itself virtually unencumbered. She carefully chooses her Emphases and Perspectives, which I will discuss briefly as the substance of this review.

Wile’s prose is woven together like a fine linen with historical facts, religious practice, and Biblical references. Her knowledge of Jewish practice and ritual is considerable, and makes for an educational as well as moving read.

The beheading of John the Baptist on orders of Herod by request of the infamous seductress Salome (who was operating on orders from her mother…) is a Biblical tale almost as well known as the crucifixion of Jesus, which also figures prominently here. One doesn’t have to be especially religious to embrace the themes that resonate through this book. A mother’s love, a child’s resistance and rebellion to his parents’ path and wishes, and the effects of the larger political world on the family unit are the main themes, and they are indeed Universal.

Wile does an excellent job of painting a rich and detailed picture of the landscape, practices, foods, fabrics, and daily lives of the people living in Elizabeth’s time. The scenes at the Jordan river, the Passover meals, and the preparation and consumption of the chief food and drink of the time are especially vivid, as are the Temple ceremonies presided over by Elizabeth’s husband, the High Priest Zachariah.

Readers interested in the mysterious group known as the Essenes, of which John was a member (and perhaps Jesus as well) will find a great deal of information in Ancient Rage about their practices and how they were perceived by the Pharisees, Sadducees, and others of their time.

Elizabeth was the cousin of Mary, the mother of Jesus, and Wile’s exploration of the trajectory of their relationship from when their children are young, to the two men’s rise to “fame,” and the aging women’s dealing with their sons’ subsequent violent, unnatural and very public deaths provides the narrative spine of Ancient Rage and in the end, it all comes down to Faith.

The book opens well after the death of Jesus (Elizabeth is in her 90s and Mary in her 60s), with the provocative line, “‘What’s it like to drink your son’s blood?’” The two women had not seen each other for nine years, due in great part to Elizabeth’s anger at both God and Jesus for not intervening in John’s fate. The historical explorations of the relationship between Jesus and John—Were they rivals? How many of Jesus’ disciples were former followers of John?—are brought into sharp focus by Elizabeth’s feelings in Ancient Rage.

Another related, equally provocative piece of the puzzle that Wile explores is the question of just why Zachariah and Elizabeth’s prayers for a child late in life were answered. Was John merely a messenger for Jesus, to be sacrificed when he was no longer needed? Could God be so unfeeling and cruel? Anyone who has ever had a prayer answered only to see the ultimate outcome turn a seeming blessing into a scalding curse feels Elizabeth’s pain and prays along with her that God, through Wile, will provide an answer, but none comes.

Once more, it all comes down to Faith. As it must.

Ancient Rage, as both poetic meditation and philosophical treatise on God, parenthood, and loss, is a must read. It is as simple as that.

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