The spirit of the Christ who is not in churches. John 15:11-17
Oscar Wilde, the insanely popular playwright and novelist of late Victorian England, author of The Importance of Being Ernest and The Picture of Dorian Gray, was a gay man in a rabidly anti-gay society. His public antics in both high society and in the sexual demi-monde of London earned him the notoriety he purposely courted, but it also trapped him into a court case that his cleverness could not out-wit. Accused of sodomy by the father of his lover, Oscar Wilde was convicted and sentenced to two years of hard labor in the most abusive prisons of the English penal system.
This morning, I want you to hear a unique man’s unique testimony of Love—not love as a feeling, but as a state of being. This story is one fulfilment of Christ’s command to the disciples in the Upper Room—“to love one another as I loved you.” We are here this morning to learn from someone who wrote a letter during his prison sentence for a crime of which he was admittedly guilty, though accused by someone as guilty as he. His 120-page letter was destroyed by the recipient, but it was only a copy. We have it today because Oscar Wilde had sent the original to his literary executor!
Oscar Wilde was sentenced to two years of hard labor in the most abusive prisons of the English penal system. Prison nearly killed him before his sentence was up. Prison is like nothing else on this planet. Where else are you never alone but always feel lonely? Where else are you sequestered in a locked space but never feel safe? Where else does violence function as the coin of the realm, and the more arbitrary the better? Wilde complained bitterly, which only made the guards double down. His smallest infractions were cause for magnified penalties. His friends complained on his behalf after they had visited him and seen his broken state. Oscar Wilde actually wanted to die, was about to die, and very nearly did.
Then, because a new superintendent was appointed to his prison, Wilde’s physical and mental condition improved enough for him to be able to read and write again, which they had never permitted him to do. At this point, six months before the end of his sentence, began what deserves to be called the resurrection of Oscar Wilde. The complete resurrection of Oscar Wilde happened because now he wanted to live and felt he could face the world again. The accumulated and unexpressed emotions of anger, resentment, and shame had buried him. The spirit wants to move, you know, to sing, to dance, to speak—to write. The human spirit, the genie in the proverbial bottle, will out—or die. Even a letter will do, and the letter Oscar Wilde wrote to his former lover is the scriptural evidence of his resurrection. It was published for the first time in 1962 under the title, De Profundis, from the depths.
The letter was addressed to the young Lord Alfred Douglas, “Bosie,” who was a heedless, spoiled dandy with whom Wilde cavorted. But Bosie abandoned Wilde when he was convicted. The letter begins with disappointment and a long castigation of Bosie, which was nevertheless expressed in the most humane and compassionate of terms, the first sign of Wilde’s resurrection. This fact in itself is evidence of the transformed nature of Wilde’s soul.
But this long letter continues into a more personal confession revealing a fresh clarity about his responsibility for his fate and his purpose in life. Wilde owns up to bringing his suffering upon himself. He does not repudiate his sexual orientation, of course, but he does concede that he dove headlong into pursuits and pleasures and people of the most superficial sort. He doesn’t regret them as such, except to the extent that they were substitutes which blocked his experience of life. He blames society, justly, for deeming what he did a crime, although he was willing to admit what he did was a sin, because it was loveless. And here came his spiritual turn, toward Christ from whom he learned about Love, Forgiveness, Humility, Sorrow, and Beauty. It was not the church’s Christ who he learned from. It was the Christ of the Greek New Testament which he read at Oxford who never left him it seems until he got to prison. It was not the church’s Christ, over whom the doctors debated the Immaculate Conception. He found the spirit of Christ in the Bible he requested in prison.
The lesson for us to learn from Wilde is that Christ is not the private property of the Church. Wilde, and we ourselves, benefitted from two lightning bolts. One, when Luther broke the iron grip of the Church on the Bible by translating it into the vernacular. And Two, when the higher criticism of the 19th century broke the iron grip of Protestant Orthodoxy on their “paper Pope.” They freed us to establish an original relation to Jesus, freed us to see our lives entirely through Jesus’ eyes, freed us to love, forgive, accept sorrow and be inspired by the beauty of a so, so fallible world. The person “who can look at the loveliness of the world and share in its Sorrow, and realise the wonder of both, is in immediate contact with divine things and has got as near to the secret of God as anyone can get,” as Christ did.
Church people will argue whether this is a high or a low Christology. They will dismiss Wilde because nowhere does he say things like Christ is “the only way,” although he says repeatedly that Christ was unique. While his church contemporaries were arguing, Wilde looked forward to living. And this letter was the evidence of his resurrection.
Wilde’s letter is also a lesson in personal theology. He shows us what it means to write a personal credo out of materials owned by the churches. Additionally, it is full of trenchant observations about the failings of the churches. “There were Christians before Christ. For that we should be grateful. The unfortunate thing is that there have been none since (with the exception of St. Francis).” On the other hand, Wilde gives us a lovely revelation when he says, “Christ is just like a work of art himself—Christ doesn’t really teach one anything—by coming into his presence, one becomes something.”
Is there any role left for the church? In the eyes of an iconoclast like Wilde, probably not. But as an artist himself, Wilde would have had to concede that it is in the churches that the story of Jesus is preserved, it is remembered and retold, it is performed and sung, as for instance in the very Catholic Mass he enjoyed. Wilde wrote that Jesus himself was a poem, or like a poem, meaning that Jesus contained more than can be paraphrased. But each person must come to Christ in their own way, bringing every bit of ourselves that makes us cringe.
We are suffering through a pandemic right now, itself a kind of “prison,” and the closest we will ever come to one. But think of all those who suffer from racial prejudice and discrimination—just leaving home is to walk into a strange, perpetual confinement, a prison without walls.
May God find us here this morning, ready for our personal, and we hope, worldwide Resurrection.