I still vividly remember the moment when I began to love that singular Knight-Errant, Don Quixote de la Mancha. I had been reading Cervantes’ masterwork with certain enjoyment already, but when I came to the eighteenth chapter of part one, something changed. It’s a well-known episode: Quixote and his loyal Squire, Sancho Panza, are riding along after some set of misfortunes when they spy two great clouds of dust rising in the distance. Convinced they must be two rival armies set to meet in battle, the Knight launches forth into the kind of quixotic phrase which has come to bear his eponym:
“This is the day, Sancho, on which shall be seen the good fortune which fate has in store for me. It is on this day, I say, as much as any other, that the valour of my arm shall be displayed. To-day I shall perform deeds that will remain written in the book of fame for all future generations…’ For every hour and ever minute his mind was always full of those battles, enchantments, adventures, miracles, loves, and challenges which are related in books of chivalry.”1
In reality the dust is thrown up by two large herds of sheep being driven along in opposite directions, but so deeply invested are Knight and Squire in the world which they inhabit that they take up position on a nearby hillock to scope out the forthcoming skirmish. And from that humble hillside Don Quixote describes the two imaginary armies and their champions to Sancho with such luminous wonder that you cannot help but fall in love with him, and desire (even just for a moment) to live in his world too:
“That knight over there, in bright yellow armour, with a crowned lion couchant and a damsel’s feet on his shield, is the valorous Laurcalco, Lord of the Silver Bridge. The other in armour flowered with gold, and with three crowns argent on a field of azure on his shield, is the redoubtable Micocolembo, Grand Duke of Quirocia…In that other squadron come men who drink of the crystal waters of olive-bearing Betis; men who burnish and polish their faces with the ever-rich and golden Targus; dwellers in the Tartesian plains with their abundant pastures; men who enjoy the elysian fields of Jerez…”2
And on he goes, describing a world full of wonder, a reality so complete and authentic that it is able to stand up to the challenge of any who might say otherwise, simply by the power of his own belief in it. It is a world of possibilities unseen by others, realities missed by them. It is, to Quixote, a fuller world. A richer world. An enchanted world.
In the scope of Cervantes’ vision, that enchantment is played for laughs. It is an object of ridicule or pity, something the mad old Quexana (Quixote’s real name) must be healed of. And indeed, he eventually is ‘cured’ through the combined efforts of concerned friends and family, including a young student named Carrasco who quite literally knocks a sense of the real world back into Quixote by felling him from his horse in a duel. The final line of Cervantes’ opus seemingly leaves the reader in no doubt as to the author’s purported position: “…My sole object has been to arose men’s contempt for all fabulous and absurd stories of knight errantry…”3 It is the real world, the world where a sheep is a sheep (and windmills are only windmills) which wins the day in Cervantes’ novel. And so it did for two centuries.
But with the Romantic movement of the Nineteenth Century something begins to change for the great man of La Mancha. The perception of Quixote shifts from that of a deluded fool to a romantic hero, one who suffers greatly at the hands of a ‘real’ world far faker and crueller than the one he envisions and lives out. Two examples may be taken to demonstrate the point, one negative and one positive. On the negative side, you have the really reprehensible way in which Quixote and Sancho are treated by the supposedly noble Duke and Duchess, tricked and troubled for fun, near the end of the book. The erect a whole façade of pagan magic, all under the auspices of their daughter Altisidora’s resurrection from the dead, who had earlier professed great love for Quixote as a lark. Such a longing going unrequited on the part of the Knight is cited as the cause of her fictitious demise. The cure? To capture the pair with spearmen and horses, drive them in fear, to the Duke’s castle, and once inside “…one and all mark Sancho’s face with twenty-four slaps. Give him a dozen pinches and six pinpricks on his arms and loins, for on this ceremony depends Altisidora’s restoration.”4 The two men become props, not people. Objects of a joke, whose minds and bodies are only worth the fun others can glean from their misfortunes.
On the positive side, there is the example of the two women Quixote meets at the inn on his first expedition. Though they are women of the night, he takes them for maidens of a castle and addresses them as such: “The time will come when your ladyships may command me and I shall obey; and the valour of my arms will then disclose the desire I have to serve you.’ The girls, who were not used to hearing such high-flown language, did not say a word in reply, but only asked whether he would like anything to eat.”5 Though it may not correspond to the reality in which these women found themselves living, through his higher treatment of them they are raised to a higher level and act accordingly. For that one night they are noble maidens. Quixote’s desire is not for their sexual favours, but for how he might serve them.
Don Quixote is in many ways a Christian story. Dostoevsky called Quixote the most beautiful character in Christian literature.6 It has lessons which go on teaching us in generation after generation, perhaps none more pressing for our current Western world than its desperate need for a Quixote-like re-enchantment, and the particularly Christian calling to do so.
In a firm (but hopefully not final) bow to the Aristotelean logic so ubiquitous in the history of Western Christendom and basic to the Western Canon, our day seems to have capitulated to a raw and stark sort of logicism which locates the primary reality of life in matters empirical and practical. This has left the Western world somewhat bereft of deeper moorings or spiritual purpose. What was once the domain of religion (or at least great art) has now largely been taken up and filled by extreme political ideologies, technology, social media, and entertainment. We have become, in a word, spiritually dull because of what we ‘know’ cannot be there. For the spiritual is untestable, therefore unknowable, therefore doubtful. Our world has been disenchanted, and as a result, we as a people are disillusioned. We are like the ladies of the night outside the inn; we have allowed this current Western mindset to lower us from the kind of creatures we truly are: Human beings made in the image of God, with souls and bodies. Creatures which belong in both physical and spiritual reality, who are called to enjoy both. We need someone with a Quixote-shaped vision to come along and raise us to our proper level again. This is precisely where the Church has her greatest opportunity and greatest risk, both of which are contained within the word Doctrine.
Western Christian doctrinal education has capitulated far too much to the modern and bereft academic ideal: To the arguable, provable, systematic and logical picking at of texts to determine definite meanings. For far too many in the pews and on the street, words like doctrinal or theological don’t only fail to fire the imagination: They douse the whole thing with cold water! But this was not always the case.
In the early Christian centuries, the word doctrine connoted not a cold and rational system of tenets, but a dynamic means of living a truly human way in the world. Theology was not shorthand for a type of academic degree, but for a lively relationship with the living God. The ancient theologians saw the world as a creation shot through with the reality of that God, brought closer now than ever in the incarnation of Christ and giving of the Holy Spirit, though never distant before that. The whole earth seemed to bubble and simmer with Presence, the very rocks and trees singing its glory. Thus, the created world and its inhabitants (including other human beings) could become a place and means of encounter with the God who made them. For those Christians who may find the word enchanted problematic in describing that kind of worldview (Acts 19:19!), perhaps a worthy Christian substitute would be to call it Sacramental. How might we again go about encountering this sacramental reality in the world around us? Of the other human beings around us? Don Quixote was driven to his ‘mad’ way of viewing reality enchanted through reading old tales; perhaps we should take a page from his book.
The Scriptures as interpreted through the ancient Fathers (i.e., through Holy Tradition) have always held the primary position in Orthodox and Catholic (and some Anglican) Christian life and worship. Whenever I return to the treasure store of the Bible and the Fathers, I find my heart as quickened, my love as kindled, and my desire for the kind of life they describe as enflamed as is Quixote’s on that hillside. Through them we may return to a time of deep theological sophistication before the modern mores of the academy snuffed the dynamism out of the enterprise. A return to a living doctrine, a sacramental world.
St. Irenaeus, for example, in his masterly On the Apostolic Preaching describes a creation which is totally flooded with the Word, i.e., the Son of God. A creation in which the Word of the Father’s love (who is his Son) is unceasingly speaking the “Let there be” and bringing all things into being (“sustaining all things by his powerful Word…” Hebrews 1:3). This is a reality on which several of the Fathers draw, the ever-speaking, creative, sustaining, and redeeming Word of God dwelling in all things.8 Nowhere, however, is this sacramentally-charged worldview more present than in the Fourth Century Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, still the regular form of worship for Chalcedonian Orthodox Christians worldwide.
In the Divine Liturgy, Christians are brought into the very presence of the Kingdom of God, the spiritual reality of heaven becoming really present in the life of the worshipping community in the physical world. (This is what icons of the Angels and Saints are meant to represent, that when we worship we are in heaven on earth.) The climax of the Divine Liturgy is the Eucharist, communion with God through the mysterious real presence of Christ in bread and wine. Something of earth becomes a heavenly reality, offering God “Your own of Your own,”9 and sharing here on earth the body and blood of our Lord in heaven. Fathers of the Church point the way back for us to a deeply sacramental reality, a world full of the best kind of enchantment. One in which all things are “charged with the grandeur of God.”10
We end as we began, with the knight of La Mancha riding into battle. After a devastating defeat at the hands of the goatherds driving their flocks along (who did not take at all kindly to the intended destruction thereof by a deluded old man), Don Quixote’s family and close friends take it upon themselves to exercise the him of his fantasies by burning the old books of chivalry in his library. (Notably for our purposes, the village priest is the chief arsonist.) And yet, even in a world where the old books are lost, the spirit lives on:
“In short, then, he remained at home for fifteen days very quietly…and during this time he held lively discussions with his two gossips, the curate and the barber, on the point he maintained, that knights-errant were what the world stood most in need of and that in him was to be accomplished by the revival of knight-errantry.”10
- Don Quixote, Miguel Cervantes, 134.
- Don Quixote, Cervantes, 135-136.
- Don Quixote, Cervantes, 940.
- Don Quixote, Cervantes, 911.
- Don Quixote, Cervantes, 39-40.
- Dostoevsky & 'Don Quixote' | Simon Leys | The New York Review of Books (nybooks.com) .
- St. Athanasius On the Incarnation, St. Gregory Nazianzus On the Human Condition, St. Maximus the Confessor On the Cosmic Mystery of Jesus Christ, St. John Damascene Three Treatises on Divine Images. For an excellent modern discussion, see chapters 2 and 3 of Rowan Williams’ Tokens of Trust.
- Part of the Offertory Prayers in the Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom.
- The Grandeur of God, Gerard Manley-Hopkins.
- Don Quixote, Cervantes, 73.