(This blog post contains major spoilers for the novel Crimson Bound. If you have not yet read the novel, consider that you have been duly warned. I discuss a major scene, a turning point in the novel, in great detail. Caveat lector.)
I recently finished re-reading Rosamund Hodge’s second novel, Crimson Bound. Like Cruel Beauty, it’s a sort of retelling of a couple of fairy tales, in this case Red Riding Hood and the more obscure fairy tale The Girl With No Hands. The setting is a sort of alternative world France, the court of Versailles; but, you know, with magic.
Where the religion of Cruel Beauty was pagan Graeco-Roman, in Crimson Bound, it’s a sort of parallel to Christianity, not exactly the same; but close enough for recognition of a system of shared symbols and language. The Dayspring is a definite Christ figure, a deity who was slain by soldiers of the Imperium and then resurrected. (Dayspring is one of the titles of Christ, used during Advent evening prayer) Unlike Christ, he wasn’t crucified but was hacked to death. A painting shows “a gory jumble of limbs” another one shows “his severed head in the arms of his weeping mother”. People wear jewelry in the shape of the Dayspring’s feet and hands. They pray with rosaries, strive “to see the Dayspring in the unfortunate”, believe the Dayspring to be “the image of the invisible God”, pray in “the name of the Father and of the Dayspring and of the Paraclete”. The Holy Virgin appears as the Lady of Snows, dressed all in white, with the great eagle wings she had been given to fly to the mountains and hide from the Imperium’s soldiers while she gave birth to the Dayspring. So does La Pucelle (a title of Joan of Arc). They have chapels where people light candles and where they attend mass, they have clergy, priests and bishops, who are addressed as “Father”. And they have the sacrament of confession.
My favorite scene in Crimson Bound is the confession scene. When I first read the novel in 2015, it blew me away. I never got around to writing a full review or anything more than a quick reading note for the book, but I did include an excerpt of that scene in my note. At the time I knew I had something to say about it, but didn’t know what and didn’t have the time or energy to tease it out. But now that I’ve reread the book I’m ready for a second try.
One of the things I love about this scene is that Rachelle doesn’t set out to go to confession. In fact, it’s a diversionary tactic. She’s been in the chapel searching for the magical sword which has been stolen from her when the Bishop and his bodyguard, Justine, walk in. Rachelle’s anti-religion stance is well known. She does not want anyone to start wondering what she’s been doing in the chapel and she doesn’t want them to attack her either. So she does the only thing she can think of. She falls to her knees and asks the Bishop, for whom she feels “bone-deep revulsion and mistrust” to hear her confession.
She dropped to her knees and said, “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It has been three years since my last shriving.”
There was a short and brittle silence. She saw the horror flicker across his grim face. I think he just got more than he asked for, she thought with bleak humor. I suppose now I find out if her really believes what he preaches.
But Rachelle finds out more than that. She discovers that she is in fact sorry for her sins. She too gets more than she asked for. This confession which begins as a ploy to distract her enemies is a true moment of grace when her own heart is revealed to her and she is able to finally experience healing for the terrible murder of her beloved aunt and mentor.
Rachelle has thought the Bishop a hypocrite. She also thinks that she is a monster not deserving of mercy or grace or forgiveness. In this moment both beliefs are shown to be untrue.
Her stomach curled. What had she been thinking? She was on her knees before the man who hated her and whom she had always hated. She was going to die on her knees, because who would believe a monster? And who would refuse to strike it down?
Incredibly the Bishop chooses to take her confession seriously. Much more seriously than she herself takes it. He is a true spiritual father and, while personally he doesn’t like her or trust her, he takes his office seriously. And in response, Rachelle begins to take it seriously as well.
It was the worst mockery of repentance to speak these words simply so he would trust her. It was the worst mockery of Aunt Léonie to think she could ever be sorry enough to win forgiveness. Who did the Bishop think he was, to act as if he knew she could?
Rachelle doesn’t quite understand that forgiveness isn’t something one earns but a gift freely given, a grace. She doesn’t have to be perfectly contrite. That she is sorry that she killed her aunt, that she regrets it, that she has regretted it the whole time, that is enough.
+ + +
Rachelle first realizes that she regrets when she comes to understand that Erec, by contrast does not regret at all. He accuses her of not really feeling remorse:
“I’m only wondering if you truly regret your choices as much as you claim,” he said.
“Do you?” she asked, and she truly wondered.
“I think it doesn’t matter what either one of us regrets,” said Erec, “We are going to live forever, in darkness and in dancing. Because I know you, my lady, and you don’t have it in you to be a lamb for the slaughter any more than I do. The same wolfish greed beats in your heart: to have what you will, and kill for it. Or why would you be alive? And you are alive, and have your will, so what should you regret?”
It was like when Justine dislocated her arm: something familiar, swinging painfully out of place. Because Rachelle had told herself those same words, or near enough, a thousand times. She had wanted to live. She had gotten her wish. She could not claim to regret. Only minutes ago she had snarled at Justine: *If you were really sorry, you would get out a knife and cut your throat.*
But now that she heard Erec say those words to her . . . they sounded wrong.
She thought, *I regret.*
[. . .]
Rachelle had always thought Erec understood her. No matter how she hated him, she had always loved him a little too, because he knew what she was in the darkest part of her soul. And yet now he really thought that she was speechless with desire for him. He really thought that she did not regret what she had done.
[. . .]
It was the most exquisite kind of freedom to realize that he could be wrong. It was terrifying too.
+ + +
And now this realization that she *does* truly regret bears fruit in the encounter with the Bishop, despite the most unpropitious circumstances. Both of them are afraid, almost in fight or flight mode, and yet in the midst of revolution and rebellion there is this taut scene in the chapel, one of the most beautiful literary depictions of the sacrament of confession I’ve ever seen. While Rachelle deeply regrets the murder she committed, she still doesn’t really believe in the possibility of forgiveness. And yet the Bishop’s reaction to her isn’t judgmental or angry or punitive, it’s totally pastoral. He acts as a wise spiritual father, a healer of the soul, whose only aim is to guide her back into relationship with God and to help her to apprehend the depths and healing power and grace in the sacrament of confession. God wants to heal us, wants to love us, wants us to love him back, and yet never coerces, always, only, extends an invitation.
The efficacy of the sacrament doesn’t depend on there being a trusting relationship between priest and penitent, as Rachelle remembers her village priest telling her, in confession, you “speak your sins to God . . . the priest is just his messenger.” Rachelle humbles herself to confess to a man she hates, believing that she truly is confessing her sins to God, trusting in the sacrament as a channel of God’s grace, even if she doesn’t fully understand, she takes the first step, she decides to trust and to act, to confess.
One thing this is not is a moment of cheap grace. Every step of the way is difficult and the imagery underlines that. By the end of her confession “it felt like every inch of her was raw and bleeding.” And as she begins to confess: “The words were like two boulders grinding together.” The image of the grinding boulders is repeated again: “Her words were boulders and she was being ground between them.” It reminds me of St Ignatius of Antioch, the early Christian martyr who was thrown to the lions, who said that he would be ground between the lions’ teeth like grain ground for bread, as if the lions’ teeth were millstones. It’s a Eucharistic image, the grain becomes bread, the bread becomes the body of Christ… and so if Ignatius is ground up like grain it means that the lions are the means by which he becomes one with Christ. Likewise, Rachelle’s act of penitence, her humility and trust, are the means by which she is healed, reunited with God, grafted back onto the vine which she had cut herself off from, the source of life and wholeness. Where killing Leonie had seemed to make permanent the mark of the forestborn, marking her for sin and death, damning her to hell, confession washes away sin and reimposes the mark of baptism. While it does not literally remove the mark on Rachelle’s cheek or the red string that binds her to Erec, it does give her the strength to fight and the grace to face the Devourer and not be consumed. Erec dies, marked for death, having chosen the way of death and the path of darkness— though even he was given a choice at the end, perhaps he was no longer truly free enough to make any choice other than that of destruction. But Rachelle, freed from the burden of guilt is able to accept the past and it is when she stops running from the memory of what she has done that she is able, finally, to find Durendal the lost sword, the sword of endurance. Because she perseveres in a small thing, confession, she is given the gift of final endurance to withstand the terrible power of the enemy.
And at the same time as she speaks, to translate her terrible deeds into words, Rachelle begins to realize the inadequacy of language:
The words were ragged, insufficient. They made everything she’d done sound so stupid. But also much smaller, and the words started to stumble out faster and faster.
Sin, dragged out from the darkness and into the light of day, seems much less glamorous, much less potent, it seems small and stupid. Just the act of confessing them begins to remove some of the sting from the sin.
Rachelle’s confession is thorough. She doesn’t only confess Aunt Léonie’s murder and all the other people she’s killed. She also confesses to lying, stealing, missing chapel, and sleeping with Erec d’Anjou. This detail is part of what makes this scene ring so true and makes Rachelle’s confession a genuine one. She is truly contrite for *all* the things she has done, for all the ways she’s turned away from God. She truly wants to heal that relationship, to be forgiven, to be reconciled.
And yet when she receives her penance from the Bishop, Rachelle thinks it’s too little for all the things she has done.
“For your penance,” the Bishop said finally, “say three rosaries, one for each year of your sinful life, and offer them for the people you have harmed.”
“That is not remotely enough,” she snapped.
“Do you need also to confess doubts about the power of God to forgive sins?”
“Yes,” she admitted after a few moments.
“In that case, for your penance, say only one rosary.”
This exchange, more than just about anything I’ve read, gets to the heart of what it means that grace is a free gift from God which we do not, can not earn. Rachelle thinks the penance isn’t nearly enough to balance out the terrible things she has done. And she’s right it does not, it cannot. There aren’t enough prayers in the world to undo the damage her sins have caused, to bring back the people she has killed, to unravel the mess she has made, or to wash away her sins. But the act of praying for her victims helps her to realign herself with God and her fellow man and to conform herself to God. And the Bishop’s modification of the penance in response to her protest, to make it less, is so beautifully pastoral, so wise, so gentle. That more than anything else makes it clear that Rachelle has profoundly misjudged him as she has misjudged so many people.
All her sins, gone like that. She didn’t feel relieved or joyful; she felt dizzy and confused, and the Forest still hummed in her veins. She had groveled and begged and told the most horrible truths. And nothing had happened, except that a man who once hated her had said she was forgiven.
She opened her eyes and climbed to her feet. The Bishop was still watching her, his shoulders tense, and she realized that he still was not entirely sure she wouldn’t attack him.
And yet he had absolved her.
“Thank you,” she said.
I love that the healing of this moment doesn’t depend on the two of them liking each other. That it happens despite their not totally trusting the other. And that the emotions Rachelle feels throughout feel honest and true: she feels dizzy and confused, she doesn’t feel relief or joy. The idea that one’s emotions have to be in a particular arrangement for grace to happen is nonsense and we don’t always feel appropriately to the experience. But feelings aren’t necessary for the spiritual action to occur. And I’m so glad confession doesn’t magically relieve her of the mark of the Forest, her healing is a spiritual one, not a magical one and confession only removes sins, not the effects of our sins in our lives. Rachelle still has a battle to fight. But in a way the most important battle has already been fought and won in this scene: Rachelle has conquered her own pride, she’s forgiven of her sins and relieved of their burden. Now the only enemy is the Devourer out there and not the one within her own heart.