The Pain of Purity: Thoughts on “Confucius”

Last night Dori and I watched “Confucius,” starring Chow Yun-Fat (2012).

Among many powerful scenes in a generally powerful film, the confrontation between the renowned sage and an equally renowned seductress in the state of Wei resonates in a day when, as then, powerful and sometimes otherwise good men are all too often brought down by beautiful, and not always good, women.

"I have yet to meet a man who loves Virtue as much as he loves female beauty." -- Analects of Confucius 9.19:

Without rehearsing the entire sequence, in which feminine charm and wiles are deployed with every-increasing subtlety and potency, I would only comment on her last remark, which penetrates the heart of Confucius with amazing perception.

She says something like, Worldly men may understand some of the pain and suffering which you endure, but they cannot not understand its breadth and depth. (I am only paraphrasing, but this is close enough for our purposes.)

I think that this remarkably lovely, intelligent, and cunning woman finally saw into the soul of the equally remarkable man with whom she was engaged in a tense face-to-face encounter of wiles and willpower.

Having overcome the (probably half-hearted) moral defenses of kings and princes, she knew all too well their weakness when assailed by her rare combination of beauty and brains. For any normal male to withstand her silken assault would exact a huge price. For she knew how to probe a man’s vulnerable spots, in this case, Confucius’s doctrine of “ren ai” (benevolence to all) and his love of teaching. To deny these would be to deny core values of his. In addition, his long travels had deprived him of a normal married life. As much as he loved his disciples, he would have been inhuman not to want the warm, soft companionship of a woman after years of wandering on cold and dusty, and often dangerous roads.

More than that, however, she could see that he was not immune to her charms and her apparent admiration for him. How could he turn down her request to see him again, especially when the king had set him up in an ideal situation?

Surely, to deny himself a few hours, or even moments, with her would require immense self-control and self-denial, perhaps followed by pangs of regret that he had lost a unique opportunity to enjoy a uniquely attractive female. Yes, she was right. Others might know something of his pain and suffering, but few could comprehend the breadth and depth of them.

The scene ends with both of them coming to a new self-understanding and a strange and totally unexpected admiration for each other. Each had entered the room with a record of unbroken conquest; each left it with an unsettling awareness of weakness.

Suppose, however, that Confucius had met not a “bad” woman, but a noble lady, known not only for her beauty but even more for her virtue? Suppose he had been faced with someone whose intelligence matched his (like the seductress), but whose heart beat to the same rhythm, whose ear was attuned to the same music, whose dreams resonated with the deepest longings of his own heart? Suppose he had discerned in her a kindred spirit, a soul-mate, if you will.

And suppose that she had no thought of tempting him or turning him from the path of duty. She would have affirmed his commitment to what is right and proper, and honored his sense of propriety. Let us further suppose that his admiration for this elegant, chaste woman was openly reciprocated, that she clearly returned his attraction to her and growing affection for her.

Of course, he was married, and we must also suppose that a lady like this would not have remained single for long, and so she must also have a husband, even if we can suppose that few men would appreciate her as she deserved. Perhaps she was bound to a man who, inexplicably, could not see her true value, but – like so many husbands – busied himself with his work.

How easy it would have been for him to accede to her invitation to develop a friendship, an innocent relationship of mutual sharing, and always without a hint of immorality!

What would it cost a man like Confucius to walk away from such a lovely creature? He would know the pain of loss, the pangs of renewed loneliness, the realization that none of his devoted disciples could replace such a sweet companion.

And yet he would know the path of duty, and the necessity of resisting the very normal desire to tarry for a while, or even often, in a place of delightful intimacy.

Now let us consider Jesus. Must we assume that he was never attracted, as a man, to a good woman, someone who, like him, sought nothing more than the glory of God? Do we have to believe that when Mary of Bethany lavished upon him her extravagant womanly love he was totally without inner response? Was he a rock, a stone, a Stoic with no feelings?
Or did he control himself, deny himself, resist the temptation to return her touch with a simple gesture of affection – perhaps a hand on the shoulder?

In any case, we know that Jesus welcomed Mary’s demonstration of boundless affection, seeing that she understood his heart, that she alone, it seems, knew that he was about to walk the horrible path to Golgotha to pay the price for her sins, and that to do so he must retain his absolute purity and utter dedication to the Father’s will for him.

He knew that she would expect no untoward expression of gratitude towards her, that she wanted nothing more than to demonstrate her own thankfulness to him for what he had done for her brother Lazarus and what he was soon to accomplish for sinners of all nations.

We do not know the mind of Christ at this point, but we may, perhaps, see his self-mastery in the presence of Mary (and other women who loved him) as another aspect of his self-denial and his daily bearing of the Cross.

Truly, we may perhaps understand some of his pain and suffering, but I doubt we shall ever plumb the depths of it.