Posts by Sarah

What the Bird (and C.S Lewis) Said

What the Bird (and C.S Lewis) Said

Posted By on Feb 23, 2017

unnamed-1When 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
C.S. Lewis

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.



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Spring springeth and… gentleness

Spring springeth and… gentleness

Posted By on Feb 21, 2017

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

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Book Girl!

Book Girl!

Posted By on Feb 8, 2017

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.)


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Drumroll, please…

Posted By on Feb 7, 2017

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.

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… unnamed


And… I’ll see you tomorrow!

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January Windows

January Windows

Posted By on Jan 19, 2017

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.

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