Universe Column for August 20th 2006
by David Alton
The chance to explore other people’s bookshelves is one of the additional delights of renting a holiday cottage in some out of the way place. People’s books tell you a lot about them – as does the total absence of books in so many homes today.
This summer we were lucky enough to stay in a Cornish cottage which was once a lady writer’s home – and it was replete with an eclectic mix of hard backs and paper backs.
One which caught my eye was a 1911 edition of Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis. First published in 1905, Wilde wrote it during the final months of his imprisonment. It was the only work he wrote in prison and the last piece of prose he ever wrote.
As its title suggests, Wilde was writing from the abyss of personal suffering, from the depths of public humiliation and shame. It is a deeply spiritual work – not self pitying, not maudlin, but the journal of a man whose own deeply traumatic experience – of falling from the glittering heights of acclaim into the opprobrium of a prison cell – entitles him to utter the Psalmist’s cry, so familiar to Jews and to Catholics: “Out of the depths I cry unto Thee O Lord, O Lord hear my voice.”
Wilde’s De Profundis experience has taught him that “the secret of life is suffering. It is what is hidden behind everything.”
Traditionally, Catholics recite the De Profundis at the time of death and Wilde sees his imprisonment as the death of the old man. He has learnt to embrace the scorn and derision and through suffering has discovered a new man on whose life God’s provident hand rests.
“Where there is sorrow there is holy ground”, says Wilde. “ Some day people will realise what that means. They will know nothing of life until they do.”
As De Profundis unfolds Wilde frequently returns to the theme of passion and how he had allowed it to dominate him: “I ceased to be lord over my self. I was no longer the captain of my soul and did not know it.”
Wilde’s ill starred relationship with Alfred Lord Douglas – Bosie – was the catalyst which led to his two years imprisonment, the loss of his wife and children, and, in 1900, to a lonely death in an obscure Parisian hotel. Yet this awful experience also led to “a self realisation” and to the strong belief that he must “free myself from all possible bitterness of feeling against the world.”
Through this self realisation Wilde discovers the love of Christ: “It is man’s soul that Christ is always looking for. He calls it God’s Kingdom and finds it in everyone.” Of his encounter with Christ’s love he movingly writes that “Love is a sacrament that should be taken kneeling and Domine non sum dignus should be on the lips and hearts of those who receive it.” He says that the new man emerges at “the moment of repentance, the moment of initiation. More than that it is the means by which one alters ones past.”
In his final illness, in November 1900, a Passionist priest, Fr. Cuthbert Dunne, was called to his bedside to receive him in to the Church and to baptise, absolve and anoint him. On his death a rosary was placed in his hands. It brought full circle Wilde’s declaration that “Catholicism is the only religion to die in.” Twenty years later Alfred Lord Douglas took the same decision.
In De Profundis Wild bequeaths a memorable and challenging testament. It is the story of a witty and generous man: gregarious and gifted, a man who sinned and was sinned against.
For all of us the De Profundis is always a cry from the heart. It is a cry we must all utter. The certainty that Wilde’s own cry was heard becomes clear from the heights to which this moving testament takes us.