When I was five years old, I travelled with my mother to the Pyrenees mountains, to see the divine St Bernadette’s grotto.
There, I met my first woman saint, Bernadette Soubirous.
My mother told me many things about the sanctity of this woman saint – a figure so pure, so chaste, so completely in surrender to a higher being.
A little voice whispered, perhaps with the knowledge of lives past lived, that to be a woman is to understand that the word good can outweigh the soul.
In Penny Dreadful, the female protagonist, Ms Vanessa Ives, draws the sign of the scorpion in blood. As she draws, she murmurs prayers, chanting incantations in an ancient language belonging to the witches. Then, she kneels before the blood glyph, clasps her hands tightly, and fervently begins to pray in Latin, beseeching, beseeching.
In the show, until the very end, you never quite understand the path that Ms Ives walks. She is courted by Satan, but God favours her too, because for all her temptation, for all her darkness, she finds a way, some way, to return. To the middle. To life. To the place where there is some good, some evil.
Through Ms Ives’ character, you realize that to survive is to live a life governed by balance.
Lourdes, France, 1996:
I remember staring at a little groundwater spring, which St Bernadette was said to have discovered as she dug with her bare hands, small fingers clawing at mud, and soil, as a vision had instructed her to do. She was thought to be half-crazed by the villagers around her, those who feared her as much as they scorned her.
I remember thinking to myself, that to understand what was good, one had to know what wasn’t. There was no light, without dark. No goodness, without a little bit of mad.
I remember my mother telling me then, that to do great things, to do things that went beyond what was expected of a woman, sometimes, most times, one had to cross the biggest chasm there was in society – the human judgement. But in the end, it doesn’t matter, my mother said. In the end, the only chasm you need to cross is the emptiness inside of you.
I remember thinking that it was hard to do great things as a woman. Hard, but not impossible. I only realized how important a lesson this was only much, much later in life.
Present Day, Singapore, 2016:
In another scene in Penny Dreadful, Ms Ives says to Dorian Gray, “There are things within us all that can never be unleashed.”
I remember watching this, thinking of the women saints who were thought to be half-mad in their devotion, in the miracles and magic that sprung from their hands, who never knew the meaning of restraint.
I remember of the scorn they faced, then the worship.
I think of other great women in the world, women who stepped away from the paths they were meant to walk and fought, fought for freedom, for themselves, for other women, and think of how they fought with everything unleashed, because the world accepted nothing less.
And slowly, the words of Lal Ded drifted past:
They may abuse me or jeer at me,
They may say what pleases them,
They may with flowers worship me.
What profits them whatever they do?
I am indifferent to praise and blame.