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.