He turned into the woods and walked aimlessly, trying to escape from his thoughts, and to do so he admired the pattern of the leaves, the flight of the birds, and he stopped by the old stones that may have been Druid altars; and he came back an hour after, walking slowly through the hazel-stems, thinking that the law of change is the law of life. At that moment the cormorants were coming down the glittering lake to their roost. With a flutter of wings they perched on the old castle, and his mind continued to formulate arguments, and the last always seemed the best.
At half past seven he was thinking that life is gained by escaping from the past rather than by trying to retain it; he had begun to feel more and more sure that tradition is but dead flesh which we must cut off if we would live. . . . But just at this spot, an hour ago, he had acquiesced in the belief that if a priest continued to administer the Sacraments faith would return to him; and no doubt the Sacraments would bring about some sort of religious stupor, but not that sensible, passionate faith which he had once possessed, and which did not meet with the approval of his superiors at Maynooth. He had said that in flying from the monotony of tradition he would find only another monotony, and a worse on–that of adventure; and no doubt the journalist’s life is made up of fugitive interests. But every man has, or should have, an intimate life as well as an external life; and in losing interest in religion he had lost the intimate life which the priesthood had once given him. The Mass was a mere Latin formula, and the vestments and the chalice, the Host itself, a sort of fetishism–that is to say, a symbolism from which life had departed, shells retaining hardly a murmur of the ancient ecstacy. It was therefore his fate to go in quest of–what? Not of adventure. He liked better to think that his quest was the personal life–that intimate exaltation that comes to him who has striven to be himself, and nothing but himself. The life he was going to might lead him even to a new faith. Religious forms arise and die. The Catholic Church had come to the end of its thread; the spool seemed pretty well empty, and he sat down so that he might think better what the new faith might be. What would be its first principle? he asked himself, and, not finding any answer to this question, he began to think of his life in American. He would begin as a mere recorder of passing events. But why should he assume that he would not rise higher? And if he remained to the end of his day a humble reporter, he would still have the supreme satisfaction of knowing that he had not resigned himself body and soul to the life of the pool, to a frog-like acquiescence in the stagnant pool.
I picked up The Lake inspired by Kay Boyle’s comments about it in Writer’s Choice:
The Lake, which I first found in Paris in 1923 among the tattered second-hand books on one of the stalls along the Seine, gave me the courage then, and through the years, at least to attempt to live and to take action without moral or physical fear. The young Irish priest, whose story this book is, spoke to all my uncertainties, and I came to see his love story not only as metaphor for his country’s long political and religious conflict, but metaphor as well for the condition of all mankind.
A powerful claim to make. The Lake tells the story of Father Oliver Gogarty, who has spent his whole life around the large Irish lake of the title. Coming to the priesthood at first from a sense of mission, as he comes into his thirties he finds himself in great distress over his treatment of the woman who was his organist and choirmistress.
Rumors begin to spread around the small rural parish about the woman–that she has been meeting an unknown man, that she is pregnant with his child. Father Oliver confronts her and she admits it. Mistaking his jealousy for righteous indignation, he condemns her at the next mass, and she is forced to leave the parish.
Within a few months, he begins to regret his actions and becomes distraught over the thought of her plight as an unwed mother. Eventually, a priest in London writes to say that she has given the child to be raised by a farm couple and is making her way giving music lessons. The priest chides Father Oliver that his “responsibility is not merely local, and does not end as soon as the woman has passed the boundary of his parish.”
The woman, Nora Glynn, is clearly strong and independent, and when Father Oliver writes to beg her forgiveness, she is far more ready to move on than he. He first tries to entice her back to the parish with the offer of a job teaching music at a nearby convent and girls’ school, then stoops to telling her that she must save him from an eternal damnation for allowing her soul to be lost.
Nora finds a job as secretary to an agnostic writer working on a book about the historical roots of Christianity, and travels with him around Europe and the Middle East conducting research. Father Oliver continues to torture himself over her situation, long past the point where it’s clear she no longer needs or cares about his anxious attention.
In the end, Father Oliver realizes that his feelings for Nora were intimate, not religious, and with that, he comes to accept that he must let her go. But this realization also forces him to confront his reasons for staying in the priesthood, serving a parish he’s known since childhood. He has to decide if he will stay in hopes of someday recovering his faith, or go and risk taking his chances in a larger world without the familiarity and structures of the priesthood and the lake he’s lived beside every day of his life. I leave it to the reader to learn what he decides.
Most of The Lake is told through the thoughts of Father Oliver, along with the letters he exchanges with Nora and Father O’Grady, the priest in London. Moore is particularly effective in capturing the changing features of the landscape around the lake, the woods and fields that Father Oliver often walks among to escape from his parishioners. He sees not only the life of the plants and animals around the lake, but also its history–the Welsh castles, an abandoned abbey, a mill town passed over by the Industrial Revolution.
The result is a highly effective balance between the exterior and interior worlds, which keeps The Lake from becoming morbidly introverted. The love story is really just the mechanism through which Moore brings about Father Oliver’s awakening, and he never tries to make it anything else. Even though The Lake was written over a hundred years ago, it’s a remarkably fresh and alert narrative, very much to be recommended to any fan of Irish literature. W.B. Yeats considered it, along with A Drama in Muslin, one of Moore’s two masterpieces.
Although Amazon lists The Lake as out of print, it is still available from Colin Smyth Publishers, Ltd. in the U.K..
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The Lake, by George Moore
First published 1905