Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Abide With Us

by Edward Waverley
And they said one to another, Did not our heart burn within us, while he talked with us by the way, and while he opened to us the scriptures?

Today our spotlight falls upon one of the forgotten knights of Christian chivalry and the immortal hero he created. The novelist’s name is Jack Schaefer (1907-1991) and in his debut novel, he introduced the man who rode, “out of the heart of the great glowing West and when his work was done rode back whence he had come and he was Shane.”

As the blogger CWNY has said, “The best works of Western civilization are the ones in which the author tells a simple story well.” I believe that Shane belongs on the same shelf of great European folklore with Don Quixote, the Grimms’ fairy tales, and the novels of Scott and Dickens, for it is a simple story told very well. The novel is narrated by young Bob, a boy basking in his family’s affections, and struck with love at first sight for the magnificent stranger he spies from afar.

“He rode into our valley in the summer of ’89. I was a kid then, barely topping the backboard of father’s old chuck-wagon. I was on the upper rail of our small corral, soaking in the late afternoon sun, when I saw him far down the road where it swung into the valley from the open plain beyond…He was clean-shaven and his face was lean and hard and burned from high forehead to firm, tapering chin. His eyes seemed hooded in the shadow of the hat’s brim. He came closer, and I could see that this was because the brows were drawn in a frown of fixed and habitual alertness. Beneath them the eyes were endlessly searching from side to side and forward, checking off every item in view, missing nothing. As I noticed this, a sudden chill, I could not have told why, struck through me there in the warm and open sun. He rode easily, relaxed in the saddle, leaning his weight lazily into the stirrups. Yet even in this easiness was a suggestion of tension. It was the easiness of a coiled spring, of a trap set.” (Shane, 1949)

Like all of the princes and squires who sit at the round table of European literature, Shane is in many ways a type of Christ. And like the Man of Sorrows, Shane is also an easy rider whose supernatural personality encompasses many moods, from the tenderest exchanges of friendship to the dispensing of rough justice.

Shane rides abruptly and irresistibly into the lives of the youngster Bob Starrett and his parents, homesteaders in the old Wyoming Territory who are deeply committed to living out their simple faith while working their family farm. When Shane stops to ask for a drink of water for himself and his horse, Joe Starrett does what the good peasant always does in a fairy tale: he insists that Shane stay the night.

“He stopped the horse and looked down at us. He was refreshed and I would have sworn the tiny wrinkles around his eyes were what with him would be a smile… ‘Thank you,’ he said in his gentle voice and was turning into the road, back to us, before father spoke in his slow, deliberate way. ‘Don’t be in such a hurry, stranger.’”

This is a representation of the encounter between the risen Christ and two of his disciples on the road to Emmaus. The Gospel of Luke says that after they had spoken for a while with Jesus without recognizing Him, “he made as though he would have gone further. But they constrained him, saying, Abide with us: for it is toward evening, and the day is far spent. And he went in to tarry with them.”

Once Shane has complied with Starrett’s entreaty of hospitality, bad weather necessitates a longer stay, and by the third day under Starrett’s roof, there is an unspoken bond between the stranger and the family. In the same way that Christ entered human history on a quest to make peace between God and man, Shane quickly begins to clear the ground of Starrett’s homestead in order to plant the family deeply and firmly into their promised land.

Shane does not come to give the Starretts peace as the world gives peace. The peace that he offers is the kind that can come only from manly adherence to His heart. His pistol is an object of fascination and awe for Bob, who has a natural curiosity about this man who never wears a gun but who has an otherworldly mastery of his weapon.

“His right hand closed around the grip and you knew at once it was doing what it had been created for. He hefted the old gun, letting it lie loosely in the hand. Then the fingers tightened and the thumb toyed with the hammer, testing the play of it. While I gaped at him, he tossed it swiftly in the air and caught it in his left hand and in the instant of catching, it nestled snugly into his hand too. He tossed it again, high this time and spinning end over end, and as it came down, his right hand flicked forward and took it. The forefinger slipped through the trigger guard and the gun spun, coming up into firing position in the one unbroken motion.”

The best part of the story is of course Shane’s confrontation with incarnate evil in the person of the meddling rancher Luke Fletcher and his hired gun, Stark Wilson. Wilson and Fletcher have declared that the whole valley belongs to them and their gang, and they have the government contract to back up that claim. They are trying to cut in on the homesteaders, and they naturally sneer at any consideration of the aspiring farmers or their families. But Shane is neither a farmer, in spite of his adoption into the Starrett family, nor is he a hired gun. He is a man of the old code, an antique European clinging to the permanent things, who sees what must be done and does it very well. Here is the prelude to the showdown at Grafton’s saloon:

“Shane stopped about three quarters of the way forward, about five yards from Wilson. He cocked his head for one quick sidewise glance again at the balcony and then he was looking only at Wilson. He did not like the setup. Wilson had the front wall and he was left in the open of the room. He understood the fact, assessed it, accepted it.”

Those of us who are still fighting the good fight under the old code are in the same position that Shane faced in the saloon. We do not like the setup of open combat with one enemy before us, and his legion behind us. But we need to acknowledge the reality of the situation, assess it with courage, and press on into the fray. It is either Shane’s code or the weary way of the world; it is either Christ or the abyss.

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