I MUST admit that I had never heard of the Spanish playwright
Tirso de Molina before. Roughly a contemporary of Shakespeare, de
Molina was a priest of prodigious ability, producing hundreds of
plays, including the extraordinary Damned by Despair,
which is being staged at the National Theatre in October in a new
version by Frank McGuinness.
It was a real thrill to be asked to talk to the cast, in advance
of rehearsals, about its theology - not least because the theology
it espouses is both shockingly subversive of much of what passes
for orthodox Christianity these days, and yet is shocking precisely
because it is so orthodox.
The two main characters are Paulo, a pious hermit, and Enrico, a
murderous crook. Paulo, obsessed with his own salvation, is told by
the Devil - or rather by a character who seems to shape-shift
between an angel and a devil - that his salvation is to be found by
matching Enrico. When Paulo finds Enrico, he is astonished to find
that he is lacking in all moral virtue. How can this person be a
signpost to his own salvation?
Here I ought to issue a spoiler alert: don't read on if you
don't want to know how things turn out. But it will not completely
surprise those familiar with the tradition of Catholic
Christianity, as it came to be decisively shaped by St Augustine,
that the moralistic Paulo (who is a little like Pelagius in his
belief that morality and religious practice place a person on a
conveyer belt to heaven) ends up being the one who is damned.
Yet the terrible Enrico, eventually facing and accepting his own
depravity, ends up being saved. Like the parable of the prodigal
son, the whole thing seems deeply unfair. We are saved by grace,
and not by being good. We cannot manufacture the conditions of our
own salvation; we can only accept that we are all broken and unable
to get fixed - unless we are prepared to receive the gratuity of
God's love, over which we have no control.
I suspect that the play will flummox some, because traditional
Christianity still gets confused with various versions of
Pelagianism, in which God rewards moral uprightness with a trip to
the heavenly banquet. What this gets wrong is the idea that sin is
fundamentally a moral notion; that sinning is all about being
The whole idea of original sin, however, is that sin is more a
part of the human condition, which is something about our
fundamental brokenness. This is something that we cannot fix on our
own. Paulo can be as moral and religious as he likes, but, unless
he faces this, he is going nowhere. And so, tragically, it turns
Canon Giles Fraser is Priest-in-Charge of St Mary's,
Newington, in the diocese of Southwark.