Authors: John Updike
In the Beauty of the Lilies
is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places,
and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination or are used
fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons,
living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Random House Trade Paperback Edition
Copyright © 1996 by John Updike
All rights reserved.
Published in the United States by Random House Trade Paperbacks,
an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group,
a division of Random House, Inc., New York.
are registered trademarks of Random House, Inc.
Originally published in hardcover in the United States
by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc., in 1996.
Cover design: Gabrielle Bordwin
Cover photo: JoSon/Getty Images
In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in his bosom that transfigures you and me:
As he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,
While God is marching on.
“Battle-Hymn of the Republic”
n those hot last days of the spring of 1910, on the spacious, elevated grounds of Belle Vista Castle in Paterson, New Jersey, a motion picture was being made. The company was Biograph; the director was David W. Griffith; the title was
The Call to Arms
. The plot took place in medieval times, and centered about a lost jewel beyond price. For the setting of a medieval castle, what better than this Belle Vista, popularly called “Lambert’s Castle” after its builder, the local silk baron Catholina Lambert? The rolling lawn with its groomed, medieval-appearing oaks and beeches commanded a hazy view of New York City, less than fifteen miles eastward of the crowded rooftops of Paterson lying sullenly snared within the lowland loop of the Passaic River. From this height the human eye could discern the strip of brick mills clustering about the Falls and its three millraces designed by Pierre L’Enfant, the dour but majestic brownstone spire of Father William Dean McNulty’s Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, the white wedding-cake tower of City Hall, the fantastical
varicolored Flemish façade of the Post Office, and the ribbed dome, not ten years old, of the Passaic County Court House, upon whose columned cupola a giant gesturing woman persistently kept her balance. The distant spires of New York City were a photogenic marvel, their apparently weightless suspension within the mists of summer heat belying the mass of human suffering and striving their enchanted profile rested upon. But the moving-picture camera was aligned to exclude any such modern view. The cameraman waited impatiently in the muggy, coal-gas-poisoned New Jersey sunshine, fearful that a random cloud might suddenly throw his aperture-setting out of adjustment. A faint scent of oil arose from the encased fine gears and sprockets.
It was two in the afternoon, and the heat was at its peak. In spite of it, the actors Mack Sennett and Dell Henderson had donned metal armor, and the star of the film, little Mary Pickford, sweltered in the tights, velvet cape, and heavy brocaded tunic of a page. She was to mount a horse and gallop with a supposedly momentous message across the wide castle lawn, whose every hard green blade reflected back colorless sunlight. The horse’s great barrel of a body, as several men in overalls helped Miss Pickford up into the saddle, felt hot, and emitted a stench of sweat and wet horsehair. The sunbaked leather of the saddle scorched her buttocks and thighs, and the tousled hair of her steed’s mane seemed to lead her consciousness invitingly down toward the roots of a shady tangle. The petite star was but seventeen. The hotel accommodations in jam-packed, clattering Paterson had not conduced to an easy night of sleep. She felt distinctly less than herself; however, it was not until the close-up—Griffith was mad for this new artistic toy of his, the facial close-up—that she lost consciousness. The page was, for the third take, excitedly delivering
the message whose exact words would be spelled out on the screen in white on black, ornately framed: “Sire, the king bids the troops to attack the Saracen infidels!” Two grips in shirtsleeves were holding large foil reflectors to bring further light to play on her fine young features, whose natural pallor was enhanced with powder. In this intensified heat a darkness welled up at the back of her brain and she fainted. The sweet moist scent of June grass and the ammonia of smelling salts seemed to rush simultaneously to her nostrils. When she came to, Mr. Griffith, though ever the correct Kentucky gentleman, was furious, as not only had she wasted a half-hour of daylight—this was Monday, and the schedule committed him to finishing the film by Friday—but she had besmirched with grass stains her expensive tunic of brocaded white silk.
At the moment when Mary Pickford fainted, the Reverend Clarence Arthur Wilmot, down in the parsonage of the Fourth Presbyterian Church at the corner of Straight Street and Broadway, felt the last particles of his faith leave him. The sensation was distinct—a visceral surrender, a set of dark sparkling bubbles escaping upward. He was a tall, narrow-chested man of forty-four, with a drooping sand-colored mustache and a certain afterglow of masculine beauty, despite a vague look of sluggish unhealth. He was standing, at the moment of the ruinous pang, on the first floor of the manse, wondering if in view of the heat he might remove his black serge jacket, since no visitor was scheduled to call until dinnertime, when the Church Building Requirements Committee would arrive to torment him with its ambitions. The image of the chairman’s broad, assertive face—the froglike, nimble, downturned mouth of Harlan Dearholt, a small silk-ribbon millowner, whose short blunt nose supported a pincenez
that gave off oval flashes of blind reflection—slipped in Clarence’s mind to the similarly pugnacious and bald-crowned visage of Robert Ingersoll, the famous atheist whose
Some Mistakes of Moses
the minister had been reading in order to refute it for a perturbed parishioner; from this perceived similarity his thoughts had slipped with quicksilver momentum into the recognition, which he had long withstood, that Ingersoll was quite right: the God of the Pentateuch was an absurd bully, barbarically thundering through a cosmos entirely misconceived. There is no such God, nor should there be.
Clarence’s mind was like a many-legged, wingless insect that had long and tediously been struggling to climb up the walls of a slick-walled porcelain basin; and now a sudden impatient wash of water swept it down into the drain.
There is no God
. The irregular open space of the parsonage in which he had paused and been assailed by this realization was defined by the closed door to his study, the doorless archway into the dining room, the inner front door with its large decoratively frosted pane framed in leaded rectangles of stained glass the color of milky candies, and the foot of the dark walnut staircase that, in two turnings punctuated by rectangular newel posts whose points had been truncated, ascended to the second floor. Drafts from the front doors, and the linoleum-floored vestibule between them, lifted dust up the stairs, Mrs. Wilmot often complained; and so it seemed that the invisible vestiges of the faith and the vocation he had struggled for decades to maintain against the grain of the Godless times and his own persistent rationalist suspicions now of their pulverized weightlessness lifted and wafted upstairs too.
It was a ghastly moment, a silent sounding of bottomlessness. Outside, on Broadway, a farmer’s cart was wearily dragging
its way uphill, turning up Straight Street to the bridge and the road to Haledon and the rural north of Passaic County after a dawn descent to the Main Street market. The horse’s metal shoes broke their syncopated music slightly as they crossed the double trolley tracks embedded in the cobbles; the hickory axles squealingly protested the moment of uneven stress, of torque. The driver was singing something to himself; Clarence first thought it was a hymn, in German, until a snatch of tune came clear, from the new waltz, “Let me call you sweetheart, I’m in love … with … you.” The driver had a young voice, or else there were two men mounted in the front of the cart, a man and boy. From the kitchen, behind a door that swung either way, came the voices of Mrs. Wilmot and Mavis, the little Irish servant girl, undertaking, in their armory of ponderous, pitted metal utensils, the daily labor of the evening meal; some members of the Church Building Requirements Committee, including the chairman and his ample wife, had been invited to dinner, along with a few of the parish orphans—a newly created Italian widow with her two daughters, and an aging broad-silk weaver newly unemployed, thanks to his political imprudence.
Life’s sounds all rang with a curious lightness and flatness, as if a resonating base beneath them had been removed. They told Clarence Wilmot what he had long suspected, that the universe was utterly indifferent to his states of mind and as empty of divine content as a corroded kettle. All its metaphysical content had leaked away, but for cruelty and death, which without the hypothesis of a God became unmetaphysical; they became simply facts, which oblivion would in time obliviously erase. Oblivion became a singular comforter. The clifflike riddle of predestination—how can Man have free will without impinging upon God’s perfect freedom? how can
God condemn Man when all actions from alpha to omega are His very own?—simply evaporated; an immense strain of justification was at a blow lifted. The former believer’s habitual mental contortions decisively relaxed. And yet the depths of vacancy revealed were appalling. In the purifying sweep of atheism human beings lost all special value. The numb misery of the horse was matched by that of the farmer; the once-green ferny lives crushed into coal’s fossiliferous strata were no more anonymous and obliterated than Clarence’s own life would soon be, in a wink of earth’s tremendous time. Without Biblical blessing the physical universe became sheerly horrible and disgusting. All fleshly acts became vile, rather than merely some. The reality of men slaying lambs and cattle, fish and fowl to sustain their own bodies took on an aspect of grisly comedy—the blood-soaked selfishness of a cosmic mayhem.