Living Like Snape: Lessons From Hogwarts

In a spurt of procrastination, I eagerly reread the entire Harry Potter series during Easter break in my senior year of high school as a way of postponing studying for my last set of finals. When I was younger, after finishing J. K. Rowling’s latest book, I would often run around my house shouting spells from the world of witchcraft and wizardry—Stupefy! Wingardium Leviosa!—entertaining myself for hours with fantasy-filled magic. I vaguely understood that there were some Christian themes in the books but glossed over them for the most part. Studiously rereading these books as a senior, however, proved to be markedly fruitful for my faith life in more ways than I imagined.

Driving home from church on a Sunday morning, I stopped at a red light only a block away from home. Waiting for green, I allowed my mind to wander, albeit briefly. Having just recently finished the seventh book in the Harry Potter series—and in an Ignatian contemplative mood—I wondered which character I could most closely relate to.

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At first, I was hoping I could see myself in Harry, a character always ready to sacrifice himself for the good of others. But despite my earnest hopes, I concluded that most people want to be Harry Potter, and the fact that I aspired to such heroic heights would probably disqualify me. Seeing that I would make no progress just choosing one character from hundreds, I decided to work backwards and first eliminate who I would not be. I emphatically said to myself: “No! I am definitely not Severus Snape!”

For those who have not read the novels, a brief and not wholly sufficient explanation of Severus Snape is necessary. Pardon the spoilers. When readers first meet Professor Snape, it is common to have serious misgivings about him. Yet for some reason, Albus Dumbledore, the well-respected headmaster of Harry’s school and leader of the fight against Voldemort (the power-thirsty, loveless and altogether evil villain), trusts Severus Snape.

Snape had a checkered past. Always interested in the dark arts, Snape joined Voldemort and his evil band of Death Eaters. Ultimately, Snape realized the evil of his ways; and when Voldemort killed Lily Potter, Snape’s true love and Harry’s mom, Snape rejoined the good side forever. But this last development isn’t immediately clear to the other characters in the series, who frequently speculate about the motivation behind Snape’s bad temper, strictness and secrecy.

While I was originally repulsed at the thought of being Snape, after time I begin to realize that there are indeed some areas in which Snape and I overlap. And I began to realize that perhaps, in some way, we all resemble Severus Snape—and that is not such a bad thing.

First, love brought Snape to conversion. Snape’s love for Lily Potter and his grief over her untimely death helped him see the real evil of the forces with which he had been associated. Snape’s love for Lily was stronger than his own desire for power. Without love, none of us can ever truly be converted.

Second, all of us are on a path. Some paths are more direct; others are a bit crooked. Some people ignore the path; others embrace it. Yet for all of us, the path is meant to lead to a conversion of heart.

In this respect, not only do Snape and I have more in common than I originally imagined, I think in some respects he outshines me. While I am on a path of conversion, I stumble. I retreat. I leave the path for a while. I stop following God’s road signs and do what I want. Once Snape set out on his path of conversion, he let nothing stop him. Having seen the horrible effects of evil first hand, Snape changed his life forever. He truly converted in order to join what is good. He never went back.

While Snape fully converted, he definitely was neither the warmest nor the most charming character in Harry Potter. Many of the other characters question his conversion because of his constant dour demeanor and dubious past. The beauty of Snape’s character, however, is that he does not allow other characters’ doubts to dictate who he is. He teaches us that one big part of conversion is letting go of what other people think of us—who we are now or who we once were.

While I was considering Snape’s conversion—and perhaps even overanalyzing it—I thought of the sacrament of reconciliation, a sacrament that both comforts and eludes me. While reconciliation goes by many names—penance, confession or (for many people) “that one”—all of which are acceptable, I go to great lengths to refer to it as reconciliation. While this may seem trite or extreme, the simple name reconciliation reminds me most of God’s presence. Many names work for this monumental sacrament, but for me this term, which stresses the restoration of unity, serves best. I love this reconciliation, this pull back to God, this communion with the only entity that could possibly give us strength to grow out of ourselves.

My view of reconciliation has evolved throughout my life as I have grown from a clueless penitent in second grade to a curious onlooker in middle school to a deeply moved teen in high school. While I always begin to breathe a little more deeply on my way into the confessional, I always breathe a whole heck of a lot easier on the way out. Part of what makes reconciliation so great for me is my friends who are willing to accompany me and who give me strength to ask for forgiveness and remind me it is worth it, as well as the compassionate priests I have encountered and the simple realization that it is not how much we sin but how sincerely we seek forgiveness that matters most.

In many ways this is why I admire Snape—not because of the path he walked but because of his ability to switch paths. I sometimes rave about how much I love change and how good I am at getting rid of all that keeps me back. Yes, I love the concept of change, but in its concrete form, I often balk. (Guess how many articles of clothing sneak their way back into my drawer after I deem them ready to be given away.) Snape didn’t balk. So I admire this man who, technically, does not exist but who still exemplifies this beautiful concept of conversion for the world in which I exist.

I will wake up tomorrow, and before too long I will likely sin. But Snape’s example reminds me to pick myself up. Not out of a sense of obligation but out of love—because love of God and neighbor is the most powerful force in the world. Love proved able to change Snape, and whether we see ourselves in Harry—or his friend Hermione or even his nemesis Draco Malfoy—it changes us too.

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