When lovely Joy was a-visiting a couple of weeks ago, we took a Sunday afternoon tromp round Addison’s Walk. This is the lovely loop of forested path in Magdalene College where Lewis and Tolkien had a talk about myth that turned Lewis toward believing that the epic of Christ just might be true. At the first turn of the path, on the other side of a small bridge, there is an unassuming plaque paying tribute to Lewis’s presence at Magdalene through the words of a poem he wrote in the springtime one year.
I have rarely encountered a poem so taut and trembling all at once with the hope that thrums in the coming of spring. I read this aloud to my poetry group a couple of weeks ago, and we looked out the window and felt like we heard the trill of a bird in the light, sweet repetition – listen, you can hear it in the lines ‘this year, this year’. And with that haunting call, the quickened heartbeat, ‘quick quick!’ of hope.
I simply had to share:
What the Bird Said Early in the Year
I heard in Addison’s Walk a bird sing clear:
This year the summer will come true. This year. This year.
Winds will not strip the blossom from the apple trees
This year nor want of rain destroy the peas.
This year time’s nature will no more defeat you.
Nor all the promised moments in their passing cheat you.
This time they will not lead you round and back
To Autumn, one year older, by the well worn track.
Often deceived, yet open once again your heart,
Quick, quick, quick, quick! – the gates are drawn apart.
Open once again your heart.
My lovely friends, thank you so much for the enthusiasm and encouragement that greeted my Book Girl announcement next week. Your words, and book recommendations (please, keep them coming!) and excitement for the project gird me with such energy and joy. I have long said that the reading life is a gift, and in many ways, this book is a gift I can’t wait to craft and offer in honour of the many friendships, conversations, and kindred-spirit spaces created by sharing beloved words. Your words here have been such a gift to me.
I’m currently in a determined (sometimes rather dogged) push toward the completion of my three written submissions for my final year so my writing here may be a bit random, but it’s still a delight to share a few of the treasures I cull throughout these crammed weeks.
First. Oh, bless the Lord and thank all that’s gloriously good, spring is coming. The last few days have been gentle, dove-coloured ones with a warming air that makes me feel that I’ve emerged out of a dark cave into the sunlight. I’m blinking. Breathing a bit more deeply. Stretching my legs in the evenings. The first buds are climbing out of the wintered branches, small stars of palest pink in the dark weave of the trees. I don’t know that I have ever experienced the relief that coming springtime brings to this extent. That the whole world aches and breathes and bursts with hope every year afresh, what a gift, what a promise.
Second, I’ve taken a short break on the ‘evil’ paper (I’m fascinated, but I have too many questions and thoughts!), and have been working instead on a paper on Celtic theology and why so many in the modern world find it attractive. This morning I’ve been reading The Book of Iona, a gift from my beloved sister, and one that explores the tension between ‘remoteness and connectedness’ in the modern world. I’ve used the Northumbria Community’s Celtic Daily Prayer: Prayers and Readings From the Northumbria Community for years and found such sustenance in its words. I find that the lyrical rhythm and imagery of the Celtic prayers startle me back awake to wonder, and it is this phenomenon I’m examining in the paper. There’s a reason beautiful words evoke a stilled, wondering mind, a profoundly theological one that I am excited by discovering afresh in my study. More soon.
Finally, I’ve been mulling a word that I came across in my recent reading of Philippians: gentleness (in 4:5). To me, it seems a quality mostly absent from the public sphere of debate and increasingly polarized opinion. And in many ways, it is not the quality to which my anxious, urgent mind is drawn as I daily watch the news, read the responses to it on social media, and feel my own mind drawn ever deeper into the grey, misty shadowlands of despair about the state of the world.
Further, it’s not, I realised, what I usually consider a responsible quality. I have not yet fully traced this in myself, but whether its part of my American orientation toward assertion of rights, or my experience of apologetics training in which I was taught to identify, debate, and stand apart from whatever I considered to be wrong or unorthdox, I have realised that my inbred impulse when I deeply disagree with – a person, a church, an institution – is to separate myself from them. And to separate with a marked degree of sternness, even condemnation.
And yet, let your gentleness be known to all, says Paul, for the Lord is near. Your gentleness. Not merely your conviction, or your condemnation, or your anger, or your fear. Your gentleness. Of course, Paul was never one for mincing words when it came to his disapproval over a theological issue, so I think it evident that gentleness can accompany conviction. What then, is this quality of gentleness, of ‘fair, mild, equitableness’ (as described by Strong’s concordance) that is to mark those who realise that the Lord is near? Does it mean not saying what I really think?
After several days of mulling this, I think that the gentleness to which Paul summons us is a facet of Christ-like care for the other, one that always recognises the goal of conviction as the loved, healed, and redeemed heart of the human person, rather than the winning of an argument. There is a clear, qualitative difference between the passive inaction of compromise, and the chosen care of gentleness. Gentleness is active love. Gentleness refuses to dehumanise the ‘other’ even in unavoidable divergence of conviction. Gentleness fights to reveal that ‘God is near’ to the human heart that beats and aches on the other side of our many modern controversies.
Further, I think that gentleness can only operate where we do realise that Christ is near, fighting, healing, helping us in the midst of the very worst valleys of shadow and doubt. Gentleness rarely flourishes when conversations are driven by fear, shaped by panic. I don’t think its a coincidence that directly after he tells us to be gentle, Paul also tells us to ‘be anxious for nothing’. Only in the giving of my fear, my angst, to the near and loving Christ, can I find a ‘peace that passes understanding’, one that enfleshes itself in a supernatural (because it really is!) gentleness.
Christ was gentle. He was gentle with us, he sought our hearts even when we were his enemies. In this age of controversy, when I daily feel myself called to strengthen and deepen my own moral and theological convictions, I find that I am equally called to gentleness, to Jesus-like care for the human hearts with which I disagree. It’s probably because I’m in constant need of gentleness myself…
‘Jesus Washing Peter’s Feet’ by Ford Madox Brown
So, do you remember back in the fall when I asked what you all would think about a book-on-books for women? A book to celebrate the kinds of stories that shape a woman’s soul, companion her life in all its dark and bright richness, a book to explore what it means for a woman to have a mind – and an imagination – of her own?
Well, the dream has grown itself into a radiant reality. I’ve just signed on with with the lovely folks at Tyndale House to write a book (tentatively) titled Book Girl.
This project comes to me like a gift, the exactly right progression from, well, a decade spent thinking about the wonders of reading and imagination, and then three crammed Oxford years studying theology and spiritual formation and what it means to become a creature ‘fully-alive’.
Because that’s what I want to write about, how books, how language, how story itself is meant as a gift to ‘stab our spirits broad awake’ and make us ‘thoroughly alive’ indeed (to quote two splendid authors – Stevenson & Eliot).
What I hope this book will be is not merely a guide to reading the right stories or having a literary education. Rather, what I want Book Girl to be is an exploration and celebration of the way in which we have the chance to become more fully alive to the world, to each-other, and to God by engaging with story in all its challenging beauty, and with words in all of their formative power. I want women who read this book to discover an ever-widening joy in the capacity of their imagination to show them truth, to feel their view of the world expanding with the words they encounter, to feel themselves companioned in struggle by the comrades of story, and to know themselves growing stronger in wisdom, word by word, as they face a difficult and confusing culture.
But Book Girl will also just be sheer celebration. It’s my chance to take you by the hand and introduce you to the wonders of the book world, to characters and worlds that help me daily to find the charm in the ordinary, the grit to endure, the hope to strike the music of friendship up again. I get to talk about Miss Prim, Aragorn, Dorothea, and Mr. Tryan. I get to introduce you to Hannah Coulter, my quiet heroine friend, and Lila, the wise and earthy and mysterious wife of an old country minister. I get to revel with you in poetry, in passages that gleam with the promise of eternal things, in chapters that sparkle with wit.
A book on books is a little like the ‘the wood between the worlds’ in the Narnia tales, with each pool opening onto a new world, a different adventure, a new self. And oh friends. I am so very excited to share this adventure. I cannot wait to write this thing.
I’ll be working on it as soon as I finish my degree (this June), and hope to see it published sometime in 2018.
In the meantime, as I move toward a new phase of creativity again after a glorious period of study, I’ll be updating things around here, changing some design, theming things toward this new project. I’m thinking about several possibilities: a series of podcasts or webinars on reading (which would mostly be me delightedly telling you about my favourite stories and why they’re my favourite – I may even read aloud), imagination, theology, etc. I’ll be culling quotes and I’m always on the hunt for new favourite tales (so send me any beloved books I should know).
For now, I just had to share the good news and excitement, with you, my Book Girl world. Have a lovely day. (And go read something good. And tell me about it if you do.)
Because tomorrow, I have an announcement to make. Oh, I’m excited about this. There are so many thoughts and studies and prayers and themes converging in this creative moment. I cannot wait to tell you about it! Check back tomorrow for the oh-so-official announcement.
Trafalgar Square, from the steps of the National Gallery.
I’m just checking in for today briefly after two very whirlwind January weeks. I’ve been up to my ears in books on evil, suffering, and redemption. (Let me know if you want the list.) Good, but heavy. I’ve battled a major Oxford winter cold. (Not good for when one is studying the problem of sin, suffering, and decay. It suddenly feels very personal.) I’ve had a visit from my brilliant and beloved sister and we’ve sat in numerous cafes discussing art, theology, and the finer points of a flat white. I’ve hopped, skipped, and jumped around London, the Chilterns, and the Cotswolds with Thomas. I’ve visited the British National Gallery for the first time (can you believe it?) and was floored by the sheer wealth of beauty. And I’m wrestling through an essay on how stories aid us in our grapple with evil.
I’ve also embarked again on Rowan William’s Silence and Honey Cakes: The Wisdom of the Desert, a superb devotional themed round the writing of the desert mothers and fathers. This little book gets under my skin and in my thought like few others. It’s a good evaluation of self, of my motives, of my fullness of heart in seeking Christ in the midst of this busy new year.
I’ve discovered a new and delightful blog bursting with literary enthusiasm and this inspiring post on creating a yearly personal book list: How to Make a Yearly Reading List (as a Grown Up). The fact that this writer regularly lists my favourite authors makes the blog a double delight. (She too was charmed by The Awakening of Miss Prim).
I’ve re-engaged with ‘On Being’, a podcast I have loved for years for its wide variety of shows on such things as faith, art, human development, religion, etc. If you want an episode for a starter, the one with John O’Donohue is of particular radiance: The Inner Landscape of Beauty.
And I saw the painting below, which fascinated me because it depicts, I believe, the legend of St. Eustace, one that is central to one of my favourite novels by Elizabeth Goudge: Pilgrim’s Inn. I’ve been curious for quite awhile to find an artistic depiction of the legend…
And… I’ll see you tomorrow!
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: