Recently I have been searching for a kind of faith. Not particularly a religious kind, although I have looked in churches; run my fingers over the wings of cherubim, paid 50p to light cheap tea candles. But more frequently, I have been looking for a spirituality that lies in food, in friendship, in my own work. I have started to wonder if perhaps spirituality is time, effort put in without hope of return, discipline, care.
I’ve reread The Door by Magda Szabó many times, and on every occasion I come away feeling as though I see things a little differently. That they are both obfuscated and illuminated, like an optician twirling the dials on different lenses. In brief: the narrator is a writer in Hungary who is, after a decade of being blacklisted by the government, finally coming into acclaim. Her husband suffers from a chronic illness, and she decides to hire a housekeeper to help with cleaning and cooking. The woman recommended to her, Emerence, sets her own terms: she interviews her prospective employers, collects character references, dictates her own wage. From the start, Emerence is inscrutable, strange; affectionate one day and cold the next. She can be in turns generous and astonishingly cruel and vicious. Her language is one of traditions and routines, of gestures and sacrifices, both an Old-Testament God punishing his children and a Christ tending to his straying flock.
Emerence rejects organised religion, but her piety is underscored at every turn. ‘It was apparent to me that she had a sister in the Scriptures, the biblical Martha’, the narrator notes. Emerence is an ‘absurd Madonna’, and later we see a vision of her as Christ at the last supper, her supplicants lying at her feet. But she snipes endlessly about Christianity, rejecting church services and the Bible. ‘Emerence was a Christian, but the minister who might convince her of the fact didn’t exist,’ we’re told. ‘She refused to believe in God, but she honoured him with her actions’.
For Emerence, the religion of food, work and compassion surmounts the doctrines and theses of the Church. She possesses what can only be thought of as grace: ‘a pure love of humanity.’ She’s fanatical about her work, carrying out feats that seem impossible for an old woman: shovelling snow from all the doors in the neighbourhood, boiling laundry in a huge cauldron, hauling furniture. She accepts no help in these tasks. ‘There was something superhuman, almost alarming, in her physical strength and capacity for work,’ our narrator notes. ‘Emerence obviously revelled in her work. She loved it.’ An entire language of spirituality arises from the food she provides: honey cakes, crème caramel, thick-gold pastries, a cold platter of rose-pink chicken breasts. Her cooking is inextricably bound to her personal religion of compassion: ‘She served up food to anyone the local grapevine pronounced in need of a good meal.’ The food often seems to be semi-magical – the ‘steaming goblet containing a dark, fuming liquid, smelling of cloves’ that lulls the protagonist into sleep after her husband is taken to the hospital. She does not ask for anything in return. ‘The old woman was interested only in giving, and if anyone tried to surprise her with something she never smiled, she flew into a rage’.
I keep coming back to a quote from Emerence on the faith that lies in everything: ‘My god, if I have one, is everywhere – at the bottom of the well, in Viola’s soul, over the bed of Mrs Samuel Böőr because she died so beautifully.’ The Door is a book about faith, but not because it references the apostles, or ruminates on theological texts, or questions the institution of the Church. It provides an alternative lexicon for spirituality: an examination of the faith inherent in food, work, friendship. Szabó offers a veneration of the rituals of the everyday, for how pride in what we do, in how we give to others, can elevate us.
Image © Patrick Casabuena