04 October 2007

Expecto Patronum!

The Expecto Patronum spell in the Harry Potter books is the "Kyrie, Eleison" of faith. It is uttered in the expectation of help from the Father. In J.K. Rowling's fictional literary universe, it is a depiction — a tangible manifestation — of hope and happiness and love, even in the face of death. In actuality, faith is only ever as strong and as valuable as the object it lays hold of, as the only true and saving faith lays hold of Christ. The Expecto Patronum does not explicitly do that (not in so many words within the books), but it does rely upon the love of family and friends, and it looks for a salvation embodied outside of itself. Thus, the particular Patronus that Harry produces by this spell is a stag, like his father.

Harry is taught this very difficult spell at a remarkably young age by one of his spiritual fathers, Remus Lupin. And Harry, in turn, uses his Patronus primarily to protect and save others, as well as himself. What is more, he is instrumental in teaching this spell to his fellow students, encouraging them and helping them to produce Patronuses of their own. Allowing for poetic and literary license, this Expecto Patronum spell is quite a good analogy for Christian faith, which looks to the Father in Christ, calls upon Him in every trouble, and fully expects all good things from Him. It is the critical defensive armor and offensive weapon against doubt and despair.

Throughout most of the Harry Potter books, Expecto Patronum is the pivotal way in which Harry wards off dementors, those vile creatures which otherwise cause doubt and despair to the point of robbing people of their very souls. J.K. Rowling has described her entire series of books as an artistic expression of her own personal struggles to keep the faith and believe, such as every Christian wrestles with to one degree or another. If the dementors portray such demonic temptations, the Patronuses are the retaliation of persistent faith, which stubbornly refuses to succumb when threatened and attacked. Faced with hardship and loss, suffering and death, it is only faith in the Gospel of the Cross and Resurrection of Christ that rescues and preserves us in the love of God.

The frequent confrontations of Harry's Patronus with the dementors are among the most poignant and revealing aspects of the series. They depict the crucible in which the Christian faith is lived and worked out with fear and trembling. The devil, the world and our sinful flesh are dementors, all-too-real, which constantly assail us and tempt us to false belief, despair, and other great shame and vice. In truth, we have no magic spell with which to defend ourselves against such assaults, but we do pray to our Father in faith, that He would lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil, that He would guard us and keep us. We pray in the hope of the Resurrection, else we should have no hope at all and would be the most pitiable of men.

It is the Resurrection of Christ — who was crucified, dead and buried for us — that sustains us and gives us confidence against even the gates of hades. Appropriately, therefore, it is only the members of Dumbledore's Army and of the Order of the Phoenix, which is to say, only those who believe in the life after death, who ever use the Expecto Patronum spell. Voldemort and his Death Eaters never do. They fear death and finally have no real hope. They are driven by their fear, which produces hatred and violence. But Patronuses spring forth out of a hope and happiness that even death cannot destroy. To forfeit one's soul to the dementors would be the ultimate evil, but to die in faith and love is simply to go on to the next great adventure.

Such faith in the Gospel is no easy thing; indeed, one cannot produce this faith by his own reason or strength. It must be taught and given from outside of oneself. So it is that Harry learns the Expecto Patronum spell from Professor Lupin, who loves him and cares for him and persists in catechizing him, so to speak, for the sake of his soul. And actually being able to produce a Patronus depends upon the happiness and hope that come from being loved by family and friends. Real Christian faith is not so different from this. Of course, the truly saving faith is far more than optimistic reliance upon loved ones; it is confident trust in Christ and His forgiveness of sins. But that very faith is given through the catechesis of the Gospel by fathers in Christ who speak it faithfully and lovingly for the salvation of our souls; and it is supported and sustained by the mutual conversation and consolation of the brethren, by Christian family and friends, and especially by the congregation of the faithful.

I was powerfully reminded of these things last night, as I was reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows to my Monica and Ariksander. We're nearing the end of the book at this point, and yesterday we came to a particular passage that I had largely forgotten in its details, but which I have found to be quite moving each time I have enountered it (this is now my fourth time through the book). Some of my close friends have mentioned junctures in the story that have hit them close to home and brought them to tears; that's how it was for me last night.

It's at a point when Harry has just witnessed the shocking and sudden death of his close friend, Fred Weasely, and he has just seen another of his dearest friends, Hagrid, carried off by a mass of giant spiders, presumably to die. Harry is making his way to Voldemort, because he knows that he will have to confront him in order to bring an end to all the warring madness. Yet, Harry has no idea what he will find or how he will be able to accomplish the task. He is already feeling overwhelmed and on the brink; death has him surrounded and appears to be closing in fast.

All of this is threatening enough, but then Harry and Ron and Hermione are set upon by a huge swarm of dementors, a hundred of them. Their faith and hope are most sorely tried and tested, as follows (from Deathly Hallows, pages 648-649):

The air around them had frozen: Harry's breath caught and solidified in his chest. Shapes moved out in the darkness, swirling figures of concentrated blackness, moving in a great wave toward the castle, their faces hooded and their breath rattling.

Ron and Hermione closed in beside him as the sounds of fighting behind them grew suddenly muted, deadened, because a silence only dementors could bring was falling thickly through the night, and Fred was gone, and Hagrid was surely dying or already dead.

"Come on, Harry!" said Hermione's voice from a very long way away. "Patronuses, Harry, come on!"

He raised his wand, but a dull hopelessness was spreading through him: How many more lay dead that he did not yet know about; he felt as though his soul had already half left his body.

"HARRY, COME ON!" screamed Hermione.

A hundred dementors were advancing, gliding toward them, sucking their way closer to Harry's despair, which was like a promise of a feast.

He saw Ron's silver terrier [Patronus] burst into the air, flicker feebly, and expire; he saw Hermione's otter twist in midair and fade; and his own wand trembled in his hand, and he almost welcomed the oncoming oblivion, the promise of nothing, of no feeling.

And then a silver hare, a boar, and a fox soared past Harry, Ron, and Hermione's heads: The dementors fell back before the creatures' approach. Three more people had arrived out of the darkness to stand beside them, their wands outstretched, continuing to cast their Patronuses: Luna, Ernie, and Seamus.

"That's right," said Luna encouragingly, as if they were back in the Room of Requirements and this was simply spell practice for the D.A. "That's right, Harry . . . come on, think of something happy."

"Something happy?" he said, his voice cracked.

"We're all still here," she whispered, "we're still fighting. Come on, now."

There was a silver spark, then a wavering light, and then, with the greatest effort it had ever cost him, the stag burst from the end of Harry's wand. It cantered forward, and now the dementors scattered in earnest, and immediately the night was mild again.

What really struck me was not simply the drama and suspense of this encounter. As far as that goes, I had largely forgotten the details of it, even after three previous reads. No, what moved me in this passage was the way in which Harry was rescued from despair and restored to faith and hope and happiness by the help and support of others.

Harry has by this point become the master of Patronuses. Time and time again, he has cast the Expecto Patronum spell and produced his stag to impressive effect. He learned it from Lupin, but he is the once who has since taught the spell so efficiently to many others; though no one else is ever as adept at it as Harry. Now, especially, everything hinges on Harry; everyone is depending on him. But see how weary and beleaguered he has become. See how close he has come to abandoning hope, to giving up and giving way to oblivion. He cannot save himself; how shall he save anyone else? It needs to be remembered that Harry is not Jesus, not even by fictional analogy. He is as an example of discipleship, of one who bears the cross in faith. And just now he is very near to collapsing under the weight of the cross and succumbing to unbelief.

That is how it can become for any Christian, and no less so for a pastor. Indeed, just because a pastor is the one upon so many others depend for the catechesis of the Word, for the nurturing of faith, he is for all of that attacked more fiercely and perhaps even more prone to melancholy. As for myself, there have certainly been times (and I expect there will be more to come) when I have known exactly the way that Harry feels at this point in the story. With an army of dementors closing in on me, and seemingly everyone depending upon me, it's all I can do to hold myself up or stammer a word; far less am I be able, by myself, to muster the strength of faith, hope and love. I may know all the right answers, and know exactly what I ought to do — what I so desperately need to do, for myself and for the sake of others — but there's nothing doing.

But this goes back to not going it alone. Often as not, my dear God and Father does not even wait for me to call upon Him before He answers with the help and comfort of my siblings, even younger siblings, as it were, or maybe my own spiritual children and students. Suddenly there are other people there, other Christians, emerging from the darkness with their own confident confession of the faith. Their Patronuses leap into the fray and begin to scatter the demons that torment me like the pale ghosts they are, so that my own heart can take comfort again and rejoice in the Gospel. What hope? What happiness? What life in the midst of death? It is Christ the Crucified! He has come to my rescue by the way and the means of my fellow disciples, and, calling me back to repentance, enlivening my faith and strengthening me for the fight, He again serves them through me. He reawakens the song of salvation within me, and puts the prayer and confession of faith once more upon my lips, so that I am enabled to slay dire doubt and deadly despair with the very breath of life, which is the voice of the Gospel.

When his beloved godfather, Sirius, was killed near the end of The Order of the Phoenix, Harry was beside himself with grief and guilt and anger and frustration. Indeed, he was inconsolable, and little interested in even being consoled. It was his friend Luna Lovegood, then, who cheered his spirit and lifted his countenance with her word of the resurrection, of the life after death. I do not think it was a lark when J.K. Rowling put that same Luna at the front of those three who emerged out of the night with their Patronuses to rescue Harry, Ron and Hermione from the dementors. That dear sweet girl, loopy perhaps, but innocent and without guile, had lost her own mother to death at an early age, and she had learned to live in the hope of the resurrection. There is a bit of J.K. Rowling in Luna, I think, but the author puts upon her character's lips the confession of hope that Harry and all of us can sometimes find so elusive, if not impossible.

Come on, Harry, think of something happy. "Something happy?" If Christ has not been raised, our faith has been in vain. But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of all those who have fallen asleep in the faith of His Gospel. Where He is, there shall we be also.

I thank God for those loony lovers of good that He sends to speak the sweet Word of Christ to me when all hell is breaking loose and the gates of hades are threatening to overpower me. For then it is not just "me, myself and I," but We are still here; we are still fighting; we are still believing, teaching, confessing, and praying: Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed by Thy Name; Thy Kingdom come; Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Yea and Amen! It shall be so.


Lotzastitches said...

Excellent post!

While I was reading the post I couldn't help thinking of the third verse of "A Mighty Fortress"...

Though devils all the world should fill,
All eager to devour us.
We tremble not, we fear no ill,
They shall not overpower us.
This world's prince may still
Scowl fierce as he will,
He can harm us none,
He's judged; the deed is done;
One little word can fell him.

Rev. Rick Stuckwisch said...

Good one, lotzastiches!

It's interesting that you should cite a hymn stanza like this - and I agree with you, completely, that this one you have cited fits very nicely. I was also called to mind of several hymns, as I was thinking about Patronuses and their striking similarity to faith. Among those that occurred to me were Luther's "Christ Jesus Lay in Death's Strong Bands," and a number of Paul Gerhardt's hymns.

Anyway, thanks so much for the observation and comment.