Times there are when readers will find books spiritual that were written with no intention of being spiritual books. The subconscious is often the best author, especially when it comes to the way divinity wends through the world it has woven. It is always good when books provide a revelation to their readers and writers alike. There is an unmistakable quality present when a novel strikes out to do or to discover something, and does and discovers something quite different. It is a quality that lends authenticity because it is true to life—and it is also true to Lent. Lent, like life, is a test to achieve and to bear up under the burdens that abound on the road despite difficulty and failure. There is a book about that road: the road of life, the road of Lent, the via dolorosa; or as Chesterton called it, “a straggling road in Spain, up which a lean and foolish knight forever rides in vain.” It is a book few would think of turning to for spiritual inspiration when ends become frayed, crosses heavy, and purposes blunted or even broken. The Adventures of Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes is that book, and it is a book that can bring the peace of divine madness to those tempted to surrender to worldly sanity.
Having lost his reason reading books of chivalry, Don Quixote dons armor, mounts his nag, Rocinante, and sallies forth on the dusty plains of Castile with his squire, Sancho Panza, to pursue all that he has perused, to live what he has loved. He rides in search of a glorious world as he upholds a forgotten code of honor, bravery, justice, and nobility, dedicating his heroic deeds to his imagined lady, Dulcinea del Toboso. Beyond his village, the self-proclaimed knight errant trots and trips headlong into Renaissance Spain with paradoxical delusions that try to resurrect a dead world. The result is a colossal confusion of logic and folly, of reason and madness, of laughter and tears. Flying wildly with horse, lance, and squire, Don Quixote takes the road seeking knights, wizards, ladies, kings, and castles. But the road carries him to hard knocks and harder realities. Don Quixote only encounters rogues, goatherds, convicts, chambermaids, and inns. Again and again, his imaginings are denied. His manners are ridiculed. His purposes are foiled. The Knight of la Mancha, the Knight of the Sorrowful Face, is beaten, buffeted, bruised, and broken at every turning. But Don Quixote is resilient. He continues to see giants where there are only windmills, and to challenge and charge them despite falls and despite scorn. He sees what he has trained himself to see. What Don Quixote brings to the Modern Age after failing to find the Middle Ages is an Age of Faith.
The quest of Don Quixote is the Lenten quest of every Christian soul: to bring harmony and order to times that are out of joint. What Don Quixote finds is that the world is sundered and senseless, and the work to rebuild among the ruins is treacherous. Though he is trampled and trounced time and again, Don Quixote resolutely rides on for the unity and wisdom of bygone days and is upheld by his vision as he battles through the divisions and disconnections of modernity. There is a wisdom that belongs to idiots. Truth can be elusive—even illusory. “The foolishness of God is wiser than men,” writes St. Paul in his letter to the Corinthians. Don Quixote may be mad, but there are forms of madness that are divine. Don Quixote may see things that are not visible, but only because he looks beyond the veil. The world is not broken. The pessimism that fragments reality is a falsehood. The world is not divided, but unified. Don Quixote is a hero of the indomitable power of Christian optimism, Christian imagination, and the glorious Christian folly that perceives the highest realities in the lowliest realities. Don Quixote is an icon of the chivalric Christian warrior because he has dreams that are out of reach, and he believes in them. He is a man of great faith. It is only when the illusion is lost, when sanity shakes off insanity, when dreams are replaced with reality, that Don Quixote is truly conquered. Dostoevsky wrote in his diary that Don Quixote was “the saddest book ever written,” because “it is a story of disillusionment.” If the logic of the world is all there is, what reason is there to be sane? Reality must be touched by the imagination if men are to escape from the madness of reason alone.
The Adventures of Don Quixote is one of the Great Books, but it is also a good book. In fact, what makes Don Quixote great is not necessarily more important than what makes it good. Why it is considered the first modern novel, or whether Don Quixote is mad in a sane world or sane in a mad world, or what the intentions and identity of the Moorish narrator are are really not as essential as the beautiful and brutal parable that Don Quixote presents in its episodic mishaps in the name of chivalry. The adventures of Don Quixote are a Passion where the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. The novel takes up its cross, chapter after chapter, and follows after Christ. Chapter after chapter, the Knight of the Sorrowful Face falls, and, chapter after chapter, he gets up again and continues on. It is a book that plays out with all the pain and poignancy, all the humanity and humor, that composes the chivalric call of the Christian life.
Though dauntingly long and famously repetitive, readers who can keep getting up, galloping, and falling again with Don Quixote page after page will build the resolve to do the same in their own lives day after day. Christianity is a chivalric religion, and, though knighthood is extinct, that is no reason why chivalry should be dead. Don Quixote’s anachronistic knighthood is a model for all when it comes to rejecting the world when the world is wrong. This course, this straggling road of sudden perils, is given prominence in the Lenten season, and especially during Holy Week. It is as the Lenten race draws to a close that Catholics feel broken, bruised, even beaten. But, like Don Quixote and Our Lord, all are called to pull themselves back up and carry on, to sally forth yet again undaunted by failure, beating down discouragement, and determined to be the enemy of evil. Catholics must learn to ride even if it be in vain; to tilt and be toppled; to be conquered for Christ and called fools for His sake. Again, from St. Paul, “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong, God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are.”
It is never wrong to play the fool for the greater glory of God and in the defense of His Kingdom. Miguel de Cervantes learned this from Don John of Austria at the Battle of Lepanto, recognizing the heroism of one who ran the risk of ridicule to uphold the sacred things forgotten by modern man. Cervantes sensed a new breed of hero in the madcap Don John, a hero whose heroism was new because it insisted upon ancient truths spurned by the modern world. Cervantes saw in him the inspiration for Don Quixote, whose heroism rejoices in the words of the Crucified King, “If the world hate you, know ye, that it hath hated me before you.” Don Quixote is a book about Christian knighthood and the Christian condition: the need to charge on; to be seen and mocked as mad; to be a fool for a good cause; to do what heaven deems right even when the world calls it wrong; to be a defender; to be principled; to be brave; to be unwavering; to be conquered again and again and keep rising from the dust. Being “quixotic” does not mean being quaint or charming or naïve. It means suffering rejection while, at the same time, rejoicing in the joy of the journey, even if it is up a via dolorosa.
Editor’s note: The image above is a detail of “Don Quixote De La Mancha” painted by Augusto Ferrer-Dalmau.