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Lenten Gom Jabbar: A Catholic Analysis of Dune


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By Dmitri Garlic, Texas A&M University

Frank Herbert’s SciFi masterpiece Dune begins with the protagonist, Paul Atreides, going through a ritual called the Gom Jabbar. Paul is tricked into placing his hand into a box by a Bene Gesserrit priestess who then proceeds to hold a poisoned knife to his throat and tells him she will plunge it into his throat should he withdraw his hand. Paul, a young boy at this point in the story, then begins to feel as if his hand were being incinerated by the box. He desperately focuses his mind to prevent himself from instinctually withdrawing his hand. Also, spoilers incoming. 

What is the point of this cruel test? In the words of the Bene Gesserit priestess, “to determine if you are human.” Humans possess the faculty of Reason and the Will to, when directed by their Reason, restrain their instincts, in contrast to animals who follow wherever their instincts direct them. If Paul is a human, he will be able to recognize the greater danger posed by the poison dagger at his throat and, through the power of his will, restrain his instinct to withdraw his hand from the box. 

Now obviously, this is a monstrous test. Do not try it at home. Yet, while this sort of test is contrary to the Faith, I think the Gom Jabbar serves as a good analogy for our Lenten fast. The question we are being asked in Lent is whether we have the strength of Will to recognize the superiority of God over our various lower desires and to willingly sacrifice these lower goods to God. So, dear reader, are you a human being or an animal?

Which is where I’d like to end this essay, except I haven’t really done justice to the nature of Lent. Because, as the Scriptures teach, we already know the answer to the question above. “But I am a worm, and no man; a reproach of men, and despised of the people.” Mind you, this is David speaking about himself. The “man after God’s own heart”. If he is a worm, what do you think the rest of us are? Furthermore, if we are all worms which, as my STEM friends assure me, are indeed animals and thus subject to their instincts, what is the point of fasting? If we will inevitably give in to our base cravings, why even bother with the stress of fasting?

The answer, which I’m hoping my Catholic readers have already arrived at and are waiting for me to get to the point, is Christ. We are all fallen for “as it is written, there is none righteous, no, not one”. Without the grace provided by Christ, we cannot live up to the promises we have made. So, to prove ourselves human beings and not animals, we must “put on the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness.” Only by the grace that Christ dispenses through his body, the Church, can we be truly human. So basically, go to confession already. Also, read Dune before the movie comes out. It has lots of knife fights in space. What more do you need?

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