Jarndyce & Jarndyce: Whitterings, May 2007

Jarndyce & Jarndyce

Bleak House is undoubtedly one of Charles Dickens’s finest works and C.K. Chesterton believed it was by far his greatest novel. The story revolves around a generations long protracted court case in the High Court of Chancery to settle the matter of the Last Will and Testament of a Mr Jarndyce. The case is known as Jarndyce and Jarndyce or Jarndyce verses Jarndyce. The estate left by the will is enormous and so the winners of the case will be immensely wealthy. There are two Wards of Chancery that might be the direct beneficiaries, Richard Carstone and Ada Clare. Mr John Jarndyce, another potential beneficiary, has long sense given up hope that the matter will ever be settled in court mostly as a reaction to his beloved Great Uncle committing suicide out of frustration over the case. He has turned his attention to ‘getting on with things’ and not worrying about the outcome of the case. He, out of kindness, attempts to mentor the two wards of court and attempts to disuade Richard Carstone from placing his hopes on the outcome of it. In this he fails and Richard, mistrusting Mr Jarndyces good motives, becomes more and more drawn in to the devious and financially runious world of unscrupulous lawers. At the end of the book The Lord High Cancellor, having confirmed the legitimacy of a newly found will of the origional Mr Jarndyce, finally closes the case and finds in favour of the two wards. Thus it ends happily ever after and Richard Carstone is justified in his attempt to settle the case and the serious risks he has taken with his health whilst doing so. Well, actually the book does not end like this. The Lord High Chancellor has one more announcement, the decades long court case has produced such significant legal fees that the entire estate has been consumned. There is nothing left. Richard, his health broken, collapses and dies in classic Dickensian fashion.

Thus the phrase Jarndyce and Jarndyce has become synonymous with anything that consumes ones life by enticing one to use all of ones time and energy perusing a future reward that never arrives. I do not think I need to be very persuasive to put the case that for most in our society a better epitaph than ‘Jarndyce and Jarndyce’ would be hard to find. We are always looking to the future, hoping for the day ‘when’. When we are young we worry and hope about what we are going to do with our lives, in middle age we wonder why we are doing what we are doing with our lives and look forward to better days, in retirement we wonder why we did what we did with our lives and look forward to finding the time to do things promised by retirement (often those in retirement are busier than they ever were before), and in our declining years we hope that the next life will be better. No matter what stage we are in we look forward to the day when there will be enough time to do what we want or find a way to be happy. We look forward to the day when we can spend quality time with our children. We bewail the fact that everything is so rushed and that there are always a million things to do. When we finally do have the time, our children are grown. We work ourselves into exhaustion to save the money to survive and ‘do something special’ but in the meantime our days are frustrating and meaningless. Even priests spend exorbitant time on administration and buildings and policy so that ‘one day’ they can have the time to have a healthy prayer life and be pastors to their people. The endless pursuit of escapism in recreation relationships and passive entertainment in reality eats up our hours and our days to such an extent that we often can not remember what we have actually done with our days. If we are not sure what we have done with our days it really means we do not really know what we have done with our lives.

The prince of this world holds the carrot of ‘tomorrow’ constantly before us so that we do not live ‘today’. We know that God is found only in the eternal present and never in the past or in the future.
St Teresa of Lisieux said:
“If I did not suffer minute by minute, it would be impossible for me to be patient, but I see only the present moment, I forget the past and take good care not to anticipate the future. If we grow disheartened, if we sometimes despair, it is always because we have been dwelling on the past or the future.”
St Francis de Sales said:
“Do not look forward to what might happen tomorrow; the same everlasting Father who cares for you today, will take care of you tomorrow and every day. Either he will shield you from suffering or He will give you unfailing strength to bear it. Be at peace, then, and put aside all anxious thoughts and imaginings.”

Mr John Jarndyce learned this lesson through the pain of seeing his Great Uncle, who was like a father to him, waste away in despair in Bleak House. The pain of loss made him, as the Prayer Book says, “deeply sensible of the shortness and uncertainty of life.” This realisation created in him a turn of heart that made him strive to live the way he wanted to live in the future, today.

There is little in this world that we need to live simply and in a relationship with God. Most of what we think we need to be happy actually leads us further away. Think of the happiest people you know. Do they not, for the most part, spend lots of quality time with those they love? Do they not laugh a great deal about things that others would be anxious about? Do they not have a simplicity in their way of living? Most of all, do they not march to a different drummer?

If the deceiver were to have his way all of us would get tangled up in our own Jarndyce and Jarndyce. We would never be happy with what we have but would sacrifice it all for a promise of a future glory that never comes. By so doing we would never be in the present and by never being in the present we would never know God. By never knowing God we would walk eternally in darkness.

The Church in today’s society is comparable to Mr John Jarndyce who took his uncle’s Bleak House and made it a place of life and beauty and truth. We have given a glorious hope to this age of darkness and, through the Incarnation of Our Lord Jesus Christ, have showed forth beauty and nobility in our fallen humanity. He has triumphed over Death and Darkness and the Bleak House of this world has been utterly changed. The Church continually tries to convince people that it is ruinous to pursue the paths of darkness that are renounced in our Baptism: the devil and all his works, the vain pomp and glory of this world, and the sinful desires of the flesh. We tell Richard over and over again to turn away from Jarndyce and Jarndyce and live.
Memento Homo Quia Pulvis Es: Remember man that thou art dust and to dust shalt thou return, repent and believe in the Gospel.
From the Service of the Imposition of Ashes on Ash Wednesday Liturgy

The Church stands as Moses on the plains before Sinai and says to the world
“I call heaven and earth to record this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life..”
Deuteronomy 30.19

Richard, as often as not, refuses to hear. Still it is our call to continue to preach the Good News and seek to be heard even if we feel that all we have is to
“Stand on street corners with nothing to sing but the songs which no one wishes to be heard sung.” T.S. Elliot, Choruses from the Rock

But for those of us who have heard the words of eternal life let us continue to call the case for what it is and let us disentangle ourselves from it and let the outcome of Jarndyce and Jarndyce be nobody’s business but God’s alone.