Comment fully on the following passage from A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce:
"Then he wondered at the vagueness of his wonder, at the remoteness of his own soul from what he had hitherto imagined her sanctuary, at the frail hold which so many years of order and obedience had of him when once a definite and irrevocable act of his threatened to end for ever, in time and in eternity, his freedom. The voice of the director urging upon him the proud claims of the church and the mystery and power of the priestly office repeated itself idly in his memory. His soul was not there to hear and greet it and he knew now that the exhortation he had listened to had already fallen into an idle formal tale. He would never swing the thurible before the tabernacle as priest. His destiny was to be elusive of social or religious orders. The wisdom of the priest's appeal did not touch him to the quick. He was destined to learn his own wisdom apart from others or to learn the wisdom of others himself wandering among the snares of the world."
This passage is extremely important to the book as a whole. It occurs in chapter 4, when Stephen has been mulling over what path to take in life. Among other things, he has been contemplating taking holy orders and becoming a priest. This might seem like a natural course for a young man to take in early twentieth-century Ireland, a country long under the sway of Roman Catholicism. However, at this juncture, Stephen realizes starkly that the strict religious life is most emphatically not for him.
Passing a Jesuit house in the street, just prior to the start of the passage quoted, Stephen first of all wonders which room in the building he would occupy after joining the Order. But he wonders this only ‘vaguely’, which is what prompts him to wonder ‘at the vagueness of his wonder’. Thus begins his critical self-examination as to what he really wants from life. He realises sharply that religion no longer has a hold on him, he is no longer in thrall to any of it. He realises that it’s only a habit of ‘obedience’ to what he’s been taught since childhood that has kept him tied to the forms of religion until now. The ‘definite and irrevocable act’ referred to would be the step of joining the priesthood, and now it seems to him that such an act would put an end to his freedom for ever, instead of liberating his soul as he had felt previously. He now feels a ‘remoteness’ from it all. The voices of those urging him to a priestly calling just becomes an ‘idle formal tale’ for him, an empty ritual without meaning – at least personal meaning for him.
Stephen’s rebellion against formal, organized religion takes definitive shape towards the end of this passage, with an emphatic negative: ‘He would never swing the thurible before the tabernacle as a priest.' The passage continues: 'His destiny was to be elusive of social or religious orders’. This underlines his growing sense of individualism; he does not want to be part of any kind of formal social organization at all. He wants to find his own way entirely. He rejects the ‘wisdom’ of others who wish to tell him what to do. He will find his own path, his own enlightenment, ‘or to learn the wisdom of others wandering among the snares of the world.’ The reference to ‘snares’ again recalls a religious idiom, as religion teaches that the world is full of temptations and pitfalls for the unwary individual. However, this is the world that Stephen now wishes wholeheartedly to embrace - the secular world, with all its attendant dangers and difficulties. In fact, he feels now that he is ‘destined’ to do so; this is his personal fate.