We wake, these days, in the lingering dark of winter dawns. I often find it hard to pull myself from sleep. With hoarfrost scratching inward on the window and the kind of cold that steals your breath and makes great swirls of fog waiting for me when I step out my front door, I am often reluctant to face the morning. It’s hard to imagine the possibilities of the day in the grey and cold and darkness.
But every day for the last week, when I’ve run, later than I meant to be (as usual) for a quick glass of water in the kitchen before donning my coat to race out the door, I’ve found a streaked splendour of a sunrise waiting for me out my southeast window.
I’m amazed, every time. I feel drawn, by my sight, into a startled joy. I am stopped, bewildered; I couldn’t see this in the north-ward facing shadow of the bedroom. I didn’t realise that the day had arrived with trumpets of gold and slashed glories of pink in a newborn sky the shade of a robin’s delicate egg. And in that pause in my slow-footed going, there blooms an instant of wonder, a window within me as big and bright as the one looking into the southern sky, and through it I can glimpse what might be worked, or made, or loved within the coming hours. And the day rises, the light comes in my own heart as hope gathers to a brightness in my soul.
Januaries are like cold, winter dawns, I think. They come after the soul-easing joy Christmas; they are blank, grey days in the page of the year. Cold, mundane, they come overcast both with rain (or snow if you’re lucky) and duty, diets to be attempted, debts paid, work resumed. I face them with the same, sleepy, dreading obedience with which I get up on the coldest of mornings.
But there are sunrises to startle the soul even in January, springtimes laughing a promised hope in through the windows of prayer, of friendship, and of course, of books. This year, I’ve found a few that have daily acted as windows for me, whose crafted words and wisdom-lighted pages allow me a wider view than the northward-facing window of my tired self. Their stories shift my own horizons of possibility, show me a starred or sunlit idea and better, quicken my blood and spirit to action.
The first has been Anne Morrow Linbergh’s Gift of the Sea, a calming, contemplative book that is part memoir, part spiritual quest, as she recounts the understanding of self, silence, and centredness that she began to discover during a two-week holiday she took in solitude somewhere on a little Florida island. At the time, she was the mother of 5 (I think), wife to a world-famous pilot, a woman who managed to survive and live through the murder of her firstborn son, and who was a well-known author and pilot herself. What she wrote about though, in this little book, was not her busy life, but how to find the centre. How ‘women need solitude in order to find again the true essence of themselves’. She wrote, not in a frivolous, or self-seeking way, but in a real quest for a centred self in which the essential things – faith, family, vocation – were ordered, claimed, and lived with integrity. Her insight into the disintegration of peace that is inherent to the frenzied schedule of the modern era is quite startling. Her own yearning toward ‘a state of inner spiritual grace from which I could function and give as I was meant to in the eye of God’, has helped me to question how I can find that inner centre afresh as well. I love the motherly voice in her writing as well, her desire to find a centre, not to escape the precious burdens of family or home, but to bear them with an inner strength, with true grace.
The second is Richard Foster’s Simplicity. This has been an era-altering book in my life before, one of those that arrested my spiritual understanding and helped it to a new growth. Simplicity is one of the ancient spiritual disciplines, one involving both the material existence and the inner world of a believer. Foster makes clear that a legalistic system listing what one may possess or do, is never at the heart of simplicity. Rather, it is to love God first, to be rooted in him, gladly dependent upon him for sustenance. Simplicity is not to grasp but rather to receive – possessions, relationships, prosperity – from his hand. I find this book so helpful in calming my heart, helping to identify the root of my desires, to direct them first, afresh, to God.
Finally, a book that deserves the word ‘charming’ more than almost any other I’ve read, The Awakening of Miss Prim. Oh my goodness. This had been recommended to me by friends as a book rich with literary references and a delightful imagined community. But I was startled, tickled, captivated by the little world of San Ireneo de Arnois, a town full of spiritual refugees from the modern world. At the heart of the story, and also the new home of Miss Prim (a well-mannered, well-educated librarian with very set opinions) is an old house with a big library where children perch in various cozy or apple-tree corners reading Jane Austen or Virgil, quoting Homer, discussing Augustine, all under the kind, watchful eyes of Miss Prim’s ’employer’. Miss Prim must get used to the slower pace of the town, one that includes pots of tea and freshly baked cakes at every official meeting. She must adjust herself to philosophic debates with her employer, his love for the monastery at the edge of town, and a ‘feminist society’ whose main object in the book seems to be to find Miss Prim a husband – a goal she slowly comes to appreciate. Peppered with references to classics from Dostoyevsky to Louisa May Alcott, this is a story of charming subversion, one that quietly rejects the claims of secular modernity, and through the curious eyes of Miss Prim, allows us a glimpse into an ordered, sacred, rich world. I love the strong, charming, intelligent femininity in this book, one that values and describes the qualities of womanhood in much different way than those of the modern feminist movement. It reminds me of a Wendell Berry line in which he describes the ‘dance of woman laughing’.
I hope you find a few windows of your own in the cold mornings of this January month. May sunrises lighten your hope and brighten your eyes.
On New Year’s eve, my friends, under a freshened, star-swept sky with a sliver of a golden moon, midst the echoes of my siblings crooning ‘the parting glass’, and a whole new turn of time’s wheel at our doorstep, this is my new year’s wish for you:
I wish you joy. Simple, river-deep and just as swift.
I wish you an attentive eye. I wish you wonder. I wish you the clear, wakened sight that sits down to the rainbow dance of the ordinary as to a feast. I wish you a child’s swift engagement, the revel of discovery that comes when the whole world arrives afresh as gift; raindrop and bread and star and stone all treasures discovered anew each morning.
I wish you strength. I wish you the grit to attempt the hard things you dream, the difficult things you know are right but demand the whole of your body and self and hope. I wish you defiance when despair and doubt would steal your joy. I wish you endurance, even the flint-faced will to take the next step when joy is gone and only what is right remains.
I wish you ferocity in love. I wish you faithfulness in every vow you have taken and love you have chosen. I wish you the grace beyond human comprehension to hold those whose brokenness makes them unable to hold. I wish you the gift of those to hold you in return when your hands grow too frail to grip love or faith alone.
I wish you the aching joy that is a sadness better than any merriment in the world. I wish you moments of clear, clean hunger for things beyond your touch or sight. I wish you homesickness for a face you’ve never yet seen, and a native land you’ve never yet known. I wish you pellucid moments of beauty, or happiness, or forgiveness, in which eternity wells up and grips you for an instant with a joy whose taste is wild like love. And I wish you the restless heart that follows, and the waiting you will learn through a lifetime of sweet, hungering hope.
I wish you roots. I wish you the capacity to recognise that while the great good ending broods and builds on the horizon, it also springs up now in your very being. Eternity is a taut, threaded energy that can join hands with your creativity, enfleshing itself in time by what you make and touch and grow. I wish you the patient, humble grace to not grow weary of waiting but to plant – life, heart, love, work – in the soil of the broken world so that your own life begins to turn the brokenness backwards.
I wish you hush. I wish you the grace to attend to the moments of quiet that bubble up in your busyness, when silence comes as the companion of prayer, and with it, the deepened breath of peace. I wish you a quiet of mind in which you may notice the starlight, the sunlight veining a leaf, the contours of a face so familiar you’ve forgotten to marvel at its beauty. I wish you an inner world. A room of heart in which you can withdraw from the noise and furor of this war-torn earth. I wish you an inner self that is held by the Lover who dwells in the core room of your being. I wish you the strength to seek that refuge even when fear sets your heart afire.
I wish you clarity. Not the easy certainty by which doubt can be dismissed, but the calm, sweet surety that comes from clinging to Christ, moment by moment, day by day. I wish you a road lighted by wisdom. I wish you a journey led by truth.
I wish you laughter. Saints, I am convinced, are the jolliest folk in the world. They may be the gravest at prayer or compassion, but they glimpse the life beyond our sorrow and when it comes to wonder, they are children. For they take the beauty of the world as a gift and sign and they meet it with a child’s shouted delight. May you find joy in the world as the saints do, may its humour strike you as well as its grief, for as Chesterton said, he is a sane man who can hold both in his heart.
And last, I wish you courage. I wish you the strong-heartedness of ‘Lucy the brave of Narnia’, who danced with Aslan, and listened to his whisper of ‘courage, dear heart’. We need it in this wild and grieved old world. But with all my heart, I believe the great Lion walks with us, into the winterlands of the fallen earth, with springtime in his breath.
The new year begins. And the story of the coming kingdom runs ever on. May your new year be radiant with its beauty.
Happy new year, my friends!
Note: My dear friend Lanier asked me to write a post with glimpses of Christmas in Oxford, so this is cross-posted at her beautiful Christmas blog Golden Hours.
The mornings are sleepy these days in Oxford. Dawn peeks shyly in through the windows and taps me on the shoulder. Today, I’m up with the blue light. It’s my Saturday out-and-about in Oxford, and I have Christmas wonders to see.
First stop, the rooftop cafe of the Ashmolean museum, for an hour of writing and my weekly flat-white. I love this perch above Oxford’s centre, with the grey, high light washing over my hands. Today’s writing includes Christmas gift lists though, so I cannot linger too long.
Of course, I do take a brief ramble through the museum. Christmas mischief is apparently abroad.
And I always love the Ashmolean for a dose of beauty before I foray back into the busy streets…
But now, down to business. Gifts must be found for my beloveds. Glory be then, for the splendours awaiting me at the Oxford Christmas market, sprawling in merry abandon down Broad Street. I eye the annual bratwurst with envy, but think perhaps 10am is a bit too early for lunch (and besides, Thomas and I have already strolled this way the night before for dinner in the chill, fresh air.)
A teacup and candle booth. Yes, please.
And all carried out under the eyes of watchful angels…
Having snagged a basketful of small delights, thus satisfying my inner Christmas elf, I take a moment to sit on the steps of the Bodleian. I look down the archways to the inmost courtyard where the scholars enter the mazed wonders of this great palace of a library. Even they have a Christmas tree. I wonder if they feel a little restless at their desks today. I already gave up any thought of study…
I feel I’ve barely begun my day, but this is the season when the light dies before it really draws a deep breath. By 3 o’clock, there’s a shadow tinging the high blue of the clear skies. But it means the fairly lights glimmer out like stars and the gabled windows glow gold like the firesides they harbour. I turn my feet homeward.
And find the sky streaked and silky with a fireside glimmer of its own.
I stow my treasures just inside my bright red front door and scurry back across the street to church. Tonight is the annual carol service and there is music to be learned and songs to be sung. Gather round the piano all…
It’s going to be a gorgeous night. It’s the last week of Advent and the church has begun to gather Christmas lights and trees and greenery of all sorts in elegant swathes over lectern and pew. The waiting of Advent is almost at its end, and as the children troop in to don their cassocks and billowy white surplices, as they giggle and whisper, and as we troop in to sing the carols at the top of our merry lungs, you can feel the coming, coming, coming of a great light…and wonders that set small feet to dancing and older hearts to aching with a joy ‘poignant as grief’ in Tolkien’s perfect words.
When the service is over, we cannot linger. Tomorrow Thomas and I board our flight to Colorado and neither of us have packed a thing. So we trundle home after a mince pie and a sip of mulled wine. Our own Advent wreath is waiting and I sit at the table to savour the last quiet, to read a bit of what I wrote in my journal this morning, and to give a deep thanks for a day of postcard wonders whose images glow in my imagination, framed pictures of beauty and delight.
One in particular just happens to be my favourite:
Winston wishes you a merry Christmas.
And I do too.
Hello all. I write from the Christmas-tree radiance of the Clarkson Colorado home. It’s so good to be home. How lovely to be here with my Thomas for our first married Christmas. I’ll be writing a ‘Christmas postcards from Oxford’ post in the next few days with glimpses of the high season amidst the cobblestoned nooks and crannies of my grand old city.
For now though, I just want to share this lovely song with you all. My siblings recorded it in our living room in response to the devastation taking place in Aleppo. I’ll leave you with their words, and their lovely voices:
The Coventry Carol dates back to the 14th century when it was used in the medieval mystery plays depicting the life of Christ. This carol is a lullaby for the lost children of Herod’s massacre from which Jesus, Joseph and Mary fled. It remembers and mourns the loss of innocence and life at the hands of powerful and cruel men.
As we celebrate this advent season, we also remember those— especially children— who are fleeing for their lives, we mourn for them, and we remember that it was into such a world of violence that God came in gentleness and humility to bring radical peace.
We hope this carol touches you and we commend to you thePreemptive Love Coalition which is one organisation working hard to “wage peace” through providing aid to displaced families in Syria and Iraq. If you’re looking for a way to help, consider donating here:
I visited the chapel and house where I worked last year and had a good laugh last week. In the corner of the dining room was a tall and resplendent Christmas tree in green and gold glory. Hung prominently from its top branch however, was a hand-painted sign of large black letters instructing all viewers that this was not a Christmas tree, but an ‘ADVENT TREE’.
The presence of a tree was the concession of the house Principal, who heartily advocates a full observance of the Advent season that includes delaying the decking of halls and bellowing of carols until the actual days of Christmas. While I am annually amused by the good-humoured tug-of-war between him and the chapel interns, I am equally halted and somewhat challenged by this concept of keeping a season of waiting specifically in preparation for what, from childhood, I’ve felt to be the highest day of the year.
Why Advent? Why wait? Why delay fun and colour and good food? Why this season of sobriety and even penitence (if you’re doing it like early Christians) when the whole point is that Christ came to start the party up again and heal the world? It’s my easy and initial response.
But I’ve been studying Lady Mara this week. She’s a character in George MacDonald’s last novel, Lilith. Daughter of Eve, mother of all the living, she embodies the sorrow of the world and the way that grief helps us to honesty – about ourselves and our need. In MacDonald’s story, all people must eventually dwell in her house, tasting the bitterness of their fallen humanity.
But Lady Mara’s is a healing, gracious sorrow and those who dwell with her come to know themselves truly, to understand their need for healing. Her gentle hands, her simple bread, and cold water work as agents to drive away the self-deceptions and lies of pride and envy and sin that blind the human heart, driving it to hatred and destruction. Mara is sorrow, but Mara is healing because the sorrow she nourishes in her guests is that of repentance and that gives way to hope. Her sweet, wise grief teaches her guests the deepest kind of hope because it points them to the Father who can (and will) make them whole.
I begin to think that Advent is a sojourn in Mara’s house, a season in which I let hush and longing teach me once more to yearn for the coming of Christ.
One of the most beautiful things said at my wedding was by a friend who spoke of the waiting for love to come. She described how she had watched me wait for God to bring Thomas for many years, and she spoke of her own longing for love. ‘But I’ve been thinking about waiting,’ she said, ‘and I’ve realised that though Thomas is an incredible gift, you’re still waiting. Because we’re all waiting. We’ll always be waiting for Jesus to return. Now, you have someone to wait with.’
I think that waiting and longing is central to Christian identity. We’re supposed to be the ones who recognise that the party hasn’t quite begun. We’re the ones who know that wealth and ease aren’t the answer to the sorrowing world. We’re the ones who can tell the difference between glitz and grace. We’re the ones who know that no amount of stuff given, or things collected can satisfy the hunger of our hearts to be forgiven, to be redeemed and made one with Love.
But sometimes even we need Advent to remind us of our central identity as those who hunger for Christ, to realise that he alone is the end of every yearning of our hearts. I know I need the sojourn in Mara’s Advent house because I forget this. I long for many other things; friendship and justice for the oppressed and a little more money and that one piece of furniture for the house and healing for my friends whose hearts or bodies are broken. I long for circumstance to change, suffering to end, for all my wants to be granted.
And of course, I live in a world that doesn’t really like to sit much with sorrow. I’ve been so struck by what one of my teachers here calls our modern and total lack of ‘liturgies for death’, rituals by which to navigate bereavement and suffering, because we want to put it off as long as possible and pretend it won’t happen.
But Advent isn’t a season in which we force ourselves to be sad, it’s the season in which we recognise how sad we truly are. In Advent we remember that we are still waiting. Christmas is when we remember that Christ has come to defeat death and ‘overcome the world’. But Advent is when we remember that we are still in that world. We are children of God, inheritors of glory, and we still get cancer, we still fight wars, we still suffer loneliness, and death. Advent is when have the chance to stop running and be still, the season that allows us to recognise our need for Christ’s final coming to right the suffering of children, the loneliness of the poor and forgotten, the grief of the sick, the darkness crouched in our own hearts.
As I sit in Mara’s gentle presence during the Advent season, facing my own yearning for friends to be healed or love to be restored or even just for a little more ease to life, my soul is widened by quiet, stilled by honesty, made spacious with recognition of my need. I become a great dwelling space waiting to be lit by Love. Only in that waiting, that ready hunger, that yearning, can I then receive the gift of Christmas to the full. Christmas, when it does come is then both my joy in the present, my wonder at the Holy Spirit presence of Christ in me, glory glimpsed in the keeping of this feast where all good things begin again. But it is also a foretaste of the triumph, the innocent splendour, the crashing joy of Christ’s final coming when all is renewed. Advent so shapes my heart that at Christmas, I am living eternity in time, glimpsing the new heavens and earth in its beauty.
But the way to that glory is through Mara’s house. I keep it in a quiet way. I still have my candles and some greenery and sweet music for company, and of course, we’ll keep some Christmas festivity amidst the quiet too. But I use this season to reflect. To read the searching of other writer’s hearts. To list my need, and articulate my hope. I let Mara sit with me and I find that her touch is kind. However you keep this Advent season, may Mara’s company, in whatever form, be not bitter, but sweet. Her touch the one that teaches you afresh to hope and readies your heart for the radiant joy of Christmas.
I know this festive day is barely in its middle Stateside, and I can just about smell the cinnamon rolls my mama’s probably making in Colorado. But its already dark here, and I have a good three hours of cooking just behind and an evening of feasting and friends ahead. Let it never be said that Oxford American expats skimped on their Thanksgiving celebrations!
I’ve also just come this afternoon from an hour of Advent poetry reading with several other lovely women at my college. We discussed two poems which describe the way:
‘A certain minor light may still
Out of the kitchen table or chair
As if a celestial burning took
Possession of the most obtuse objects now and then
Thus hallowing an interval
(Sylvia Plath in Black Rook in Rainy Weather)
I think life is full of hallowed, mundane moments. I think God’s goodness gleams into the ordinary in countless, faithful, redeeming ways. I think a ‘celestial burning’ rests on the heads of siblings, parents, spouses, friends, I think our hands burn with it as we craft meals and comfort hearts. I think the stuff of the every day is incandescent with love… if we just have the eyes to see it.
Gratitude is, I’m learning, in large part the shift of conscious attention that helps me to see the miracles in their tiny glory all about me, and then, to praise. So today, oh, with eyes opened and heart quickened, I am so grateful. Today, in poem and cooking, in friendship, in rainy weather, in a text-fest with my precious, scattered family, in the arms of my husband, my ‘sight has been set on fire’ (Plath again!) with the brilliant grace with which God crams the corners of my days.
Happy Thanksgiving, lovely friends. May your own eyes be set on fire with a vision of how loved you are, how surely God’s mercy holds and heals you, how full the world is of his wonder. I am deeply thankful for you all here. For your kind and thoughtful comments, your presence, your conversation. I hope this day is rich and crammed end to end with loveliness for you and those you love.
To savour as you go, one of my favourite passages from one of my favourite novels: Wendell Berry’s Remembering. This is the moment when his own eyes (in that of his protagonist, Andy) are brightened:
“And now above and beyond the birds’ song, Andy hears a more distant singing, whether of voices or instruments, sounds or words, he cannot tell. It is at first faint, and then stronger, filling the sky and touching the ground, and the birds answer it. He understands presently that he is hearing the light; he is hearing the sun, which now has risen, though from the valley it is not yet visible. The light’s music resounds and shines in the air and over the countryside, drawing everything into the infinite, sensed but mysterious pattern of its harmony. From every tree and leaf, grass blade, stone, bird, and beast, it is answered and again answers. The creatures sing back their names. But more than their names. They sing their being. The world sings. The sky sings back. It is one song, the song of the many members of one love, the whole song sung and to be sung, resounding, in each of its moments. And it is light.”
May your day be wondrous.
The days here die down at about 4:30 now. The last gold leaves scatter and star the sidewalks in the early dusk and curtains get drawn tight over the windows on my street. Light, warmth, those elemental needs drive us inward and I have come to a freshened appreciation for the heat of a good radiator to fend off the cold, the flicker of a lit candle to fend off the early darkness, and the succour of Handel’s Messiah and Malcolm Guite’s poems to make fire and gold of the shadows that knock at my soul. Ah friends, the season has come when we must cling to light even as we walk in the darkness. Advent, oh joy, is almost upon us.
I love Advent. In these four weeks my soul goes on a journey that is a small picture of my soul’s great story. Christmas blazes on the horizon, but then, so does heaven, both just beyond my reach, both great gifts that give me hope amidst the shadows. In these four weeks I remember the pilgrim nature of my life here on earth. Advent teaches me to yearn afresh for Christ. To so recognise my need for him that a great waiting space is made for him in my heart. In that readiness I then turn my face to the starblaze of Christ and at Christmas, taste a childlike, wondering bit of what it will be to arrive in the new heavens and the new earth when night will be no more because the daylight of his presence is unending.
Here in England, Advent is a serious thing. Some of my friends (my husband may just be included) would rather not sing a carol or deck the halls till Christmas day (I, however, will definitely be doing some Advent decking of this little house). They wait for these delights, not in a legalistic denial but in a hope that has been ripened by weeks of watching and walking that leads them to truly savour the fulness of Christmas in its wonder, its feasting, its mystery. You need companions for such a journey though, if you ask me. So I offer you my booklist, a wise and merry gathering of bookish and musical companions whose presence has made my Advent way bright for many years:
Watch for the Light
I first found this years back when one of its most arresting passages was quoted in a daily Advent devotional I received by email. Having found these words – But round about the horizon the eternal realities stand silent in their age-old longing. There shines on them already the first mild light of the radiant fulfillment to come. From afar sound the first notes as of pipes and voices – I hungered for more of the same. And my hunt led me back to this collection of stirring Advent contemplations, one a day through Epiphany. For a book that sets you in the strong, clear light of Advent as a season of preparation, even of penitence, this is the best. The readings here aren’t meant to evoke nostalgia or even comfort (yet), but to help a reader come wide awake, to take account, to consider what it is she hopes and what the coming of that hope means to the here and now. For ‘preparing a way for the Lord’ in my heart in this season, this book has long been a brave and resourceful companion.
God with Us, edited by Greg Pennoyer and Gregory Wolfe
This book is a luminous companion, prepared by the faithful and creative minds behind the literary Image Journal. This book offers carefully selected pieces of art, daily Scripture readings and prayers, and daily Advent devotionals, each week written by a different Christian writer or pastor. This is an ideal Advent devotional book as it offers a compact but rich contemplation, short enough for a snatched quiet time, but rich enough in image and idea to shape one’s thoughts for the whole day. It’s a world of a book, a twilit, contemplative, Advent world.
Waiting on the Word, by Malcolm Guite
Poetry, as Owen Barfield insightfully claimed, can bring about ‘a felt change of consciousness’, a process that I think is at the heart of Advent celebrations and one that is masterfully crafted for a reader in this collection of Advent poems by Malcolm Guite. Guite’s Lent collection has been my companion for the past two years, and the Advent one is a new favourite. Guite doesn’t just give you a poem to read, he guides you into the heart of the woven words, words that can truly shift your sight from boredom to wonder, from discontent to thanks, from discouragement to a newly-kindled hope. Combined with his own radiant sonnets, this book is a gift of lyrical beauty and devotional quiet.
Haphazard by Starlight by Janet Morley
This is a similar collection to Guite’s, one I have just discovered. I must admit I have not yet delved deeply into it, but its highly recommended by my tutor here at Oxford, and we are using some of the poems listed within for an Advent poetry discussion group. (More about that later this week.) And, I mean, the title. Splendid thing.
Advent with Evelyn Underhill, compiled and edited by Christopher Webber
I make no secret of my love for Evelyn Underhill. Her confident, motherly voice in writing, not to mention her excellent scholarship on contemplative prayer and Christian mysticism, has shaped my devotional life in countless ways. This collection of daily Advent readings has been culled from her many devotional works. These are short, accessible, powerful readings you could peruse in a spare 5-minutes. I’ve taken this book along to the airport to read in the waiting area and the pithy, wondrous tone always startles my soul awake even in the midst airport craze.
The Nativity, text to Geraldine Eischner, art by Giotto
I grew up with a book very similar to this. From childhood, I was fascinated by Giotto’s cycle of paintings around the Advent and Christmas story, and I have encountered few pieces of art that so capture the ache and wonder, the pain and passion of Christ’s coming into this world. I think that art arrests the mind in a different way than words, allowing our eyes a fixed contemplation in which our imaginations ‘see’ the story of Christ afresh.
I Saw Three Ships by Elizabeth Goudge
I only grow in my love of good short stories. This one, in a simple, tightly woven little tale manages to tug hard at every hopestring in your heart, combine childhood Christmas delight with grown-up yearning, and bring it all to an end that, I must admit, brought tears to my eyes the first time I read it. It’s a gem of a story, an emerald gem, bright with all the life of Christmas if you ask me.
Celtic Christmas Spirit by Caroline Peyton
While this isn’t strictly ‘Advent’ music, I find the haunting quality and some of the more ancient carols in this collection help me stand aside from commercial, contemporary Christmas and engage with Advent. I haven’t found anything quite like this collection of Celtic Christmas music. Granted, my taste for the lilting and haunting runs strong, but there is a wonder and glory in this that I savour.
Behold the Lamb of God, by Andrew Peterson
Ah, this is an excellent journey of music, one that draws you into the high drama of angels and the sweet, low folksy drama of the stable in songs you will find yourself singing under your breath throughout the season. Andrew Peterson’s storytelling in song, his grasp of the storied nature of faith, has made his music among my favourite for many years, but this album, inviting you to ‘behold the Lamb of God’ is one that has enriched my Advent journey in countless ways.
Handel’s Messiah, by, well Handel.
I have listened to this masterpiece on repeat for the past few weeks (I need it!), but this marvelous creation is always an accompaniment to my Advent season. This is a world of a work, an epic of storied music recounting the whole history of Christ’s coming, leading us prophecy by prophecy by promise, in some of the most glorious choral music the world has known, into the hallelujah heart of what Christmas truly means. Listen to this repeatedly, let the story of Scripture soak into your memory and heart and tell me if your mind isn’t formed a little more to wonder each day.
In addition to the faithful companion books and albums listed above, I discovered a few wonderful resources online, as well as a few marevlous single songs that enchant and captivate my mind in this season. Among them are:
Biola’s Advent Project Blog: Daily contemplations with music and art. Highly recommended by my sister.
Hills of the North Rejoice – an Advent hymn I’d never heard until I arrived in England. Listen all the way through. Listen to each verse. It’s marvelous.
This enchanting image of the Annunciation.
And this sweet, folksy, joyous image of Mary and Elizabeth, with the saving secret of God himself leaping up in their wombs.
My hands are still reddish and damp after a morning’s dish washing. I’ve chased every crumb out of my little ship’s kitchen, set lunch in the oven, and plumped myself down at my kitchen table for some contemplation. Coffee steams at my elbow (thank goodness). A book of haunting Advent poems awaits (next post, Advent booklist). My journal sits open in a depth of comforting, white-paged silence, ready to receive the scratch and scramble of my thoughts. But I’m not yet sure what those will be.
The cloth on my table catches my eye. It’s new to me, a wedding gift from a mentor here in England. A large, capacious cloth of aged ivory, it covers my small table with cheerful elegance, the hand-worked flowers of summer gold and September blue sky worked neatly in amidst bright green leaves. This is a sturdy cloth, made not for just for delicacy but for service, for jostled teacups and emptied plates, a thing of workaday beauty that comes with quite a story.
During the second world war, countless British women joined the war effort by nursing. Their work was the kind that breaks both back and heart as they mended wounded bodies at speed and saw the way that violence can shatter a human being, was likely shattering many they loved. Even so, when they sat up in the long, night watches, the threat of another Nazi bomb at the edge of thought and shadow, they were not allowed to be idle.
At least, my mentor’s mother wasn’t.
She and the nurses with her were required to keep their hands at work even when they sat at rest. So during the long, exhausting midnights, amidst chatter and talk and tears, they kept their hands busy and minds taut by working tea cloths and table cloths in vivid, bright rings of small flowers whose beauty was an innocence in the darkness. And now, one of them belongs to me.
I’m aware, this morning, of the way this gift has laid a claim on me, one that stares up at me from the loveliness it brings to my table. I sit in the presence of this beautiful, crafted cloth whose existence bears witness to another woman’s fortitude and I am touched to the heart. How can I receive this heritage of hands that worked through weariness, of a heart that kept a disciplined calm, of beauty brought forth in the darkest of hours and saddest of years… how can I accept this without a sense of the faithfulness it enfleshes passing in challenge to me?
But it is a challenge. I’ll make no secret of the restless angst I could easily set in that waiting journal. The world is a wild place at present and the voices I hear of late all seem at odds. I’m startled by much that has happened in the past week. I wonder what it means for me, living abroad with a European husband, what it means for my family, my home country. I wonder what it means for the church, the face she shows to the world, her bringing of Christ’s kingdom to the hungry and poor and lost. I wonder what part I can play, I wonder, urgently, achingly, what I’m supposed to do.
All I have managed so far is the comforting, but unconstructive work of fretting.
I look at my journal. I look at the cloth. I glance at my Bible. It too sits open on the table, where I’ve been trying to ignore it. I want Advent poetry and angst, I want big answers to impossible questions, but the words that stare up at my again, (oh again, you have no idea how many times this Psalm has reached out with an almost physical insistence to stop me in my brooding steps) are the old ones from Psalm 37:
Do not fret. It leads only to evildoing. Trust in the Lord. Do good.
I am always a little startled at the way that Psalm rebukes my worry. It’s not even a casual, ‘trust God, don’t worry, be happy and smile,’ it’s a smack in the face to the angst that seems so innocent and reasonable and yet will lead, so the Psalmist claims, to ‘evildoing’. I’d pay less attention to this dramatic claim if I wasn’t so convinced of its truth. Angst and fear, they’re poisonous things that seep into sight and conversation, they tinge moments of joy, and steal trust. Fretting leads to suspicion, to insecurity, to shut doors and a shrunken world that keeps at bay any person or thing that may threaten my sense of well-being. Fretting leads to disintegration, of self, of hope, of healing.
I look again at the cloth on my table and think of all that those women had to fret about. Husbands, lovers, sons in the same war that sent soldiers bloodied and broken into their care. Bombs stalking the night air, rubble piled outside, hunger gnawing at stomach and soul. And yet, they, like the Psalmist, did good. Not only professionally, but in the secret moments of the weary night they crafted a beauty that sits, radiant, in my hands today. They filled the shadows with colour, stitched hope into the silence with their worked and woven faith.
And ah, they were very wise women. For if you are working you don’t have time to panic. When you craft and create you cannot so quickly unravel, and so, you become one more thing in the world that will not disintegrate. If you’re working, you’re already a force against the undoing that causes you to fret. I wonder if hope comes a stitch at a time as we put ourselves to the mending of the world. For that’s in the Psalm too. Instead of fretting, we trust and ‘do good’.
I think of all the people I have witnessed this week whose continued, faithful goodness has helped me to participate in a trust I do not feel, a hope that is sometimes hard to grasp. I think of the communion service I went to the day after election, when three different seminaries came together for a termly affirmation of fellowship. I think of the worship we gave, so many different nations and traditions, joined in hearty praise. I think of the sermon I heard the next day, our weekly college ‘exposition’ of a chapter of Proverbs in which our principal taught one of the best sermons I’ve ever heard on marriage, fidelity, and wisdom.
I think of the priest at my church, whom I will find at prayer morning and evening every single day. I think of his lovely wife, whose efforts weave the voices of a rowdy dozen children into a happy harmony of a haphazard choir. I think of Thomas, up to his ears in Greek with one long essay due every week still washing dishes, holding his wife, hosting a youth club with me and sitting for three hours with a couple of teenagers, chatting, laughing, helping them to know they’re seen in a world that feels immensely big and dark so much of the time.
In the good that each of these people does, the world is moved toward wholeness and you see this in the Psalm. This trusting action, offered right in the face of the circumstances that could lead them to fret leads to what the Psalmist describes as a ‘righteousness that shines like the dawn’. That glimmers like embroidered flowers stitching hope and beauty back into a bombed-out world. And those who ‘hoped in the Lord’ (instead of fretting) will ‘inherit the land’. And while I am aware as a student of theology that ‘the land’ here has all sorts of historical meaning in this context, I am also aware as a long-time disciple of Christ that this inheritance is not something we merely receive, but something we participate in making.
When we trust God, we assent to his narrative of the world; that evil will end, that the darkness has not, and will never ‘comprehend the light’, that love will prevail over death, and beauty will conquer destruction. When we trust God, our enacted faithfulness makes us characters in his story, and our actions become the plot of his kingdom unfolding on earth. Stitch by stitch, minute by minute, we tell the tale of redemption in the embodied words of our trusting lives. We do good, because we believe that Goodness is the last word and we live toward that happy ending.
I smile now, though my heart aches with all that needs to be set right. I lightly stroke the flowers stitched in the night shadows of a war-time hospital. I pick up my pen because I’ve left my journal open. But not to fill the pages with fretting. There’s good to be done, and I need to scratch into that welcoming whiteness just how I plan to begin. I need to continue the story told forward by the woman whose faithful stitches reach down through the years with a hope that only gathers in brightness…