I took a few more books with me to England this time. Last time, I was strict. I knew I would acquire more books in the charity shops than I could pack and I figured I didn’t need to add to my already over-burdened return luggage. But this time round, as I move toward a longer stay, I decided I needed a few of my best friend books, the ones that companion my thoughts on a regular basis, that I want near in the off-chance that I need their courage, their particular shape of vision, their clarifying truth.
I was, though, slightly surprised at the ones I decided to bring. Out of the countless possibilities (and let us be frank, I already have several C.S. Lewis and Goudges here, so don’t let their absence in this list fool you), the volumes in the picture below presented themselves as the old friends who had deeply formed my thoughts. As I scanned my shelves, each of these confronted me with an offering I knew would enrich my life and study here in Oxford. So, meet my old friends. I’d be very curious to know yours.
The Lord of the Rings. Still one of my favorite stories in the world, a sort of touchpoint narrative, an inner landscape whose atmosphere renews my wonder, my sense, really, of the marvelous nature of the world in which I move amidst battles and beauties of my own.
Mysticism. I think people sometimes get nervous at this word. But Evelyn Underhill’s deep exploration of the topic is an exploration of what it means for the human heart, mind, and soul to move toward union with God. This book has shown me what prayer could be, what contemplation, and solitude, and even suffering form within the soul that responds to them as a way of deepening prayer, of moving ever closer toward Christ in will, thought, and affection.
Faith, Hope, and Poetry. Malcolm Guite’s exploration of imagination as a ‘truth-bearing faculty’ is still a touchpoint book for me, particularly because he explores the topic through the great poetry of the ages. I return again and again to the opening chapter in it’s joyous, clarifying explanation of how imagination communicates reality. Read my review of the book HERE.
The Art of the Commonplace. This book of Wendell Berry essays gave me a framework for understanding modern culture that has enriched and clarified many of my vague frustrations. His clear defense of community, his love of earth, his belief in the power of fidelity in home and family, is clearly outlined and defended in this collection of some of his signpost essays throughout the years. Health as Membership is one of my favorites.
The Genesis Trilogy. By Madeleine L’Engle. I brought this because it was one of the first books I read in which I encountered the beneolvence of God, the pulsing, radiant quality of his love in an almost tangible way. Madeleine’s joy in the beauty of what God has made both in earth and people is a quality that deeply formed my sense of what it means to be holy, and what a true, and joyous spirituality can be.
The others I already have with me, and the several I wanted to bring and couldn’t fit…? Simplicity by Richard Foster. Pilgrim’s Inn by Elizabeth Goudge. Bread in the Wilderness by Thomas Merton. Surprised by Joy by C.S. Lewis. On Fairy Stories by Tolkien. Lilith by George MacDonald. Middlemarch by George Eliot. And oh, always a few more.
For now though, I’d love to know what you would grab if you could only take a few old favorites with you to a new home. Entertain me. I’m stuck writing essays for two more weeks. Off to study the resurrection in 1 Corinthians…
“Somewhere we know that without silence words lose their meaning, that without listening speaking no longer heals, that without distance closeness cannot cure.”
As a writer, I tend to think that words can always save the day. Words, to me, can be woven into the rope by which I pull myself out of confusion or tether myself again to hope. Words are companions that take me by the hand and show me, letter by letter, the way ahead when I am lost or disoriented in my journey. Words are friends and mentors, bright companions whose hands I take in writing, guides that help me to discover the road I need to journey toward my dreams or goals or the truth I yearn to find.
Strange then, to find myself wordless in the past few months. Not strictly wordless, I suppose, considering I’m at work on my 9th essay out of twelve, the last six of which are due in less than a month. But wordless in my inmost self. In those interior rooms of soul and thought, words have, in many ways, quietly taken their leave. When I reach out for them, I find only silence. If you look at my journal, you will find great blank pages after the scrawled, swift entries of the winter. My writing stopped just as spring began. Just as life got intense and changeful and new.
Now, I’m almost to the end of my summer break. One luminous year at Oxford, down. Two more to come (I found I didn’t want to stop). Good work of all sorts on my plate. A book on the life and meaning of home just co-authored with my mom (out in January). Countless essays to begin and finish (if you are inclined to pray for me…oh, please do). A year of vibrant meetings to plan (since, well, I did happen to be appointed President of the Oxford C.S. Lewis Society). Ministry to seek. Church to attend. People to love. All of taking place within the formation of a new life overseas which is a startling thing in and of itself. And let us be honest, I’ve barely kept my head above water with all the essay and writing work this summer.
Somewhere in the swift midst of all that, I found that my words were too frail to bear the wild clamor of emotion and excitement and work and anxiety and determination and delight and confusion that rose within me. I found that what I needed instead was a deep silence, a quiet sturdy enough to hold and shelter me as the world and my own self shifted around and within me. Sometimes silence is a great a luminous thing, sometimes it is a journey all its own, sometimes it is a power that hones and trains words so that they are swift and muscled and ready to climb mountains.
This time, silence was more like a small, cozy room in which I rode out a great thunderstorm. Life, my friends, can be a wild thing. But the air out the windows of my soul is a little quieter, the sky is dappled as futures and desires and goals settle like new fallen rain into the earth of my inmost being, and words have come knocking, curious to discover the self I’ve grown to be and all that I’ve discovered in the meantime. Here I am.
I think a new phase is beginning. Both here, and in my larger life. Something I’ll be pounding out in the next weeks is what, amidst a full academic and local (and long-distance family) life, my writing ought to look like. I find that despite the immense amount of academic writing I have to do, the call and desire toward a writing that is creative, contemplative, devotional, and imaginative only grows. But I have an extremely limited amount of time.
If I only have one morning a week in which to pursue this kind of writing… what should I choose? My children’s story? That novel catching at my imagination for years now? A collection of devotional, creative, Scripture-based essays ? The books I’ve planned to write forever, one on beauty as a form of truth, the other on suffering as the broken gift that makes a wholeness we never imagined before the breaking…?
And how will it all form the space here on this blog, this little corner cottage of a world on the Internet. Will I share snippets from those larger projects (as I increasingly focus on them), or brief updates on books and study and adventures, or should I let images speak more here…? All is in process right now as I look at what it means to consider writing long term as my delight, and increasingly, my vocation (amidst other things).
For now, I took all the above rambling to say, hello again. I hope your summer has been lovely. I haven’t meant to forsake this space, but there just weren’t words to fill it. I think good old Fr. Nouwen is right about silence and words – I find that in the hush, the words that simply could not bear what I needed to express are now almost strong enough to take my meaning forth again. More soon as those words foray back out into the world.
Morning dawned gorgeous on May Day in Oxford. I was up at 5, out in the blue tinted air with the burnings embers of a new kindled sunrise on the horizon. Girded with good friends and the energy of dawn and motion, I joined the gathering river of people streaming through the early morning streets of Oxford, to gather in a slightly sleep-eyed crowd at the foot of Magdalen Tower. At 6 a.m. on the dot, a bell struck from the tower and the crowd shushed itself, the insistent sound like a sudden wind in the street. And the choir, watching the sun rise from the top of the tower, faced the dawn and began to sing:
The song is a traditional hymn of praise called “Hymnus Eucharisticus” and this is the translation from the original Latin:
O Thee, O GOD the FATHER–Thee,
All worship, praise, and glory be!
Thy hand bestows our daily bread,
And that wherewith our souls are fed.
To Thee, O JESU–Thee, the SON–
To Thee, alone-begotten One,
Who for our sakes didst not abhor
The Virgin’s womb–our hearts we pour.
When Thou upon Thy Cross wast laid,
To GOD a willing offering made,
The hope of life first dawned below–
Our joy, our only Saviour, Thou!
To Thee, O HOLY GHOST–by whom
The Babe was born of Mary’s womb,
Both GOD and Man–to Thee we raise
The hymn of everlasting praise.
O THREE IN ONE, Who didst devise
Such pathway back to Paradise;
This mystery of Love be sung
In every age by every tongue!
The quiet was deep, the music in rich threads that seemed to twine with the rising light. And when the hymn, and a beautiful prayer, and another two songs were finished, thousands of people cheered:
And another marvelous May Morning joined a grand parade of other celebrations in Oxford. I could have danced right along with the Morris dancers with their bells and flowers twirling up and down the streets as we walked back to breakfast. And now, the sun is risen, the sky is blue, and my mind echoes with the music. Rejoice. Rejoice! Spring is here and life leaps up anew.
(PS. I’ve been absent from here for awhile. I’ve needed some space in which to reconnoitre the intensity of this season. I shall return soon.)
Three days of hard writing. One day in Paris. Worth every ounce of work. Tonight my mind is rich with Impressionist splendors and unicorn tapestries and the opulence of the hall of mirrors at Versailles. But at days end, after twelve intensive hours of adventure, our little expeditionary force was tired out. So as the sun set, we walked a last few blocks up from the Eiffel Tower (which, I have decided, is lovelier than I expected, as if it was woven of steel lace that seems to glow gold) and went to Cafe Constance, a local place with little baskets of tender, crusty bread, with tables and patrons all jostled gladly together, and simple food that is the essence of comfort. I filled a stomach emptied by a day of hard walking with butter roasted chicken and potatoes simmered in herbs and bacon.
And then I glanced over my shoulder and saw one of the best sights out of a day crammed with unforgettable images. In a corner table under the stairs sat a very old woman with a round, pink face, seated on a red velvet bench. Swathed in a lovely wrap, her white hair was piled in a soft bun high on her head, and she sat very straight. But her air was gentle, slightly plaintive. Her fur coat was draped over the chair across the table, her hands rested quietly on her napkin, and the whole of her essence bespoke an old world gentility.
Until a tiny, spry little Yorkie suddenly dashed from under the table, sprang onto the red velvet and merrily stole her napkin.
“No, no!” she scolded. Then smiled. Laughed. And scratched his ears. The waiters were not in the least phased by the extra customer, and seemed quite familiar with the duo. They bent close to laugh and talk, take her order and acknowledge her canine companion. She smiled at the world and ate her excellent dinner with relish. In the hour we were there, she finished two entrees and four glasses of wine and was just leaning forward to order again. She was rosy, happy, attentive, alive.
Today I visited Saint-Chapelle. And was glad to remember these words from an author who is quickly becoming a favorite:
“We no longer dare to believe in beauty and we make of it a mere appearance in order the more easily to dispose of it. Our situation today shows that beauty demands for itself at least as much courage and decision as do truth and goodness, and she will not allow herself to be separated and banned from her two sisters without taking them along with herself in an act of mysterious vengeance. We can be sure that whoever sneers at her name as if she were the ornament of a bourgeois past — whether he admits it or not — can no longer pray and soon will no longer be able to love.”
I’m in a writing vortex. Have you ever experienced this? It’s when you eat and sleep and breathe and wake up in the night thinking about a project until you feel just a tad, the smallest tad, mind you, insane. Writing is hard. Sweat and tears hard. People always seem to have this image of writers as lounging in a high-backed chair sipping tea and being inspired. For me, it’s an almost painful exercise in wrangling the inchoate, intuitive things I know on the level of deepest soul into the cramped containers of words. It takes hours. It takes intense, ridiculous focus. It takes a vortex.
This is the only way I know to get a book written.
But at dusk tonight, as a round, flared crimson sun shimmered down the horizon and the world got misty and cool, I sat with my lovelies and we took a deep breath. You have to do that, you have to make the space in which to breathe and claim it as a discipline, a grace. We talked and wondered, discussing how life is richly blessed. But we also spoke of how it is never easy. How good relationships, like good books, take an immense amount of work. How life demands much more, sometimes than we think we can give. Easy? I don’t know that it ever will be.
For a long time, I felt that my life was somehow all wrong, that the pace and stress and work and swiftness of the days were an imbalance. I kept looking for a life of calm in which to finally settle. But it never stopped, and finally I understood. I think this swift, river rush of a life is where creativity and love, good work and hard choices are forged. Anything worth doing is difficult. And a breathless heart can follow you even into the calmest life.
The secret I think is in a Psalm I recently quoted to a friend – Psalm 131 – “I have composed and quieted my soul…” I thought of that this evening, breathless and strained as I was. In the middle of this muddle, this work, this swiftness, the secret of it all is learning to quiet and compose my soul so that calm rises up within me, an inner room in which I may dwell if I so choose…
I stood at the sink tonight, in a tiny house in a country I’ve never visited before, up to my elbows in sudsy water. I’m on a brief, and wholly working holiday with half of my family. Tomorrow, we work on a project, and work darn hard. Tonight, however, after a trek to a village shop for a week’s supply of crusty bread and cheese, we rested. And ate with relish. A little of the weariness of the travel day sloughed away with the salad and bread, the dark wine and soft cheese. We lit candles. Listened to music. And as I washed up, my brother sat facing me over the counter playing samples from Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack for Interstellar. Funny how weariness can both heighten and blend the senses. In the slowed consciousness of my growing exhaustion, the warm water was a grip on my skin, the music not just a melody in the room, but somehow suffused throughout it, one with my gentling pulse. I felt that I stood soaked in music as in water.
“Listen, listen,” said my brother, explaining the intricacies of harmony and counterpoint that made the rich soundscape, that made of notes and instruments a narrative unfolding in my imagination. “He’s not just making music as a background, he’s using the whole soundscape to help tell the story.”
Show, don’t tell, says every writing instructor I’ve ever met. Taste and see, says the Psalmist. Abruptly, immersed in music and sleepiness and grace, I wonder if God evokes as well as dictates his love. For weeks now, I’ve studied the Incarnation. I finished my doctrine project on the train this morning, thank you very much. My mind is crammed with theological points about the embodied Word that speaks in the tiniest particular of human physicality and experience, that narrates itself to us in touch and taste and sound and sense. But my mind and body have been in ceaseless, unseeing movement; I have been too busy with outlining the Incarnation to experience it.
Yesterday, I had an hour of panic over many things. I fretted. I squirmed. And wondered why I couldn’t gain center again.
Stop and taste. Halt and see.
I stood at the sink tonight, beloved souls near me, the water hot and gentle on my hands. food in my stomach, a tender, pink sky fading out the window, music, that music like air in my lungs, and in my weariness, I stopped. I tasted and saw. I savored every sense as it tingled with given life, even felt the heavy, rich exhaustion of the moment. And I saw.
This Word of ours, he’s not just making beauty as a background, he’s using all the world to tell his story…
A man should hear a little music, read a little poetry, and see a fine picture every day of his life, in order that worldly cares may not obliterate the sense of the beautiful which God has implanted in the human soul.
-Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Rembrandt van Rijn, Portrait of Christ's Head, c. 1650