Lit candles cheer a jeg-lagged heart. They frame and cradle the unshaped, lingering dark of the hours before dawn. A traveler might find herself sore-eyed, unravelled in the long night. But the self-assertion of a small, merry flame, defiant of the great dark round it, coaxes the mind into an assertion of its own. And the power of the mind is in the words it kindles, bright and fierce, to shape the night.
O Lord, open thou our lips…
Words, like light, can frame the time and space in which we move. Like flame in a darkened room, words have the power to define and form our hours, to shape the spaces of time in which we relate, create, believe. The words we use to describe and meet each day, the ones we allow to shape our contours of experience, teach us what to see and how to meet both joy in the day and sorrow in the darkness. Words make worlds, you know, and each one we speak forms the way we see our own.
And our mouths shall shew forth thy praise…
I just watched the hour of six AM slip by the window. I also saw the hours of three, four, and five. I’ve lit a lot of candles in the watches of this night, but I’ve also kindled a great many words. Instead of the shadows telling me what to think, I’ve lit the minutes with flames of prayer and poetry, lined the formless dark with thoughts that make a sacred space of this unformed hour, a filled, holy room of this hush. But as with many who watch in long darkness, the words were not my own. They were a gift, and in some way, an inheritance.
O God make speed to save us…
One of the best beauties of Oxford to me, one I never fully considered before I arrived, has been the chance to take part in the practice of daily, corporate, liturgical prayer. Morning and evening, I gather with others to speak and hear the songs, canticles, Scriptures, Psalms, and collects said by those who have worshipped in the Anglican church for centuries.
O Lord make haste to help us…
In the morning, the air is sharp and cold in the chapel, and we shuffle, subdued into the hush of early day. The words of the prayers fall like drops of water onto the cool surface of our sleepy minds, rippling out to wake and gird us for the day. At night, shadows cluster like dark birds under the pews, and the air is thick with cold and our own breath as the prayers for protection rise from our lips as the light falls. The words are a kind of starlight blossoming in the mind.
The Lord Almighty grant us a peaceful night and a perfect end…
For centuries, the Anglican church has used the Book of Common Prayer for its worship. When I first arrived in Oxford and had many questions about the liturgy and practices of worship I was beginning to experience, a kind tutor gave me an old Book of Common Prayer. He apologized that it was the only one to hand, with its battered maroon cover and tattered seams. I liked its age. It meant other hands than mine had loved it before. “Read this,” he said, “study it, use it now and then in your devotions and you will understand a lot simply by way of worship.”
Into your hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit…
So I did. I kept it on the windowsill next to my bed and began to say the confessions at night, the Psalms and collects early in the morning. I found the words a rich, strengthening frame to my usual rhythms of Scripture and prayer. Combined with the daily chapel services, I began to be aware of the liturgies forming my thought. In the past weeks, those words have anchored the opening and closing of my days. I find myself continuing the prayers as I lie down to sleep. I find stray words of them girding me throughout the tense moments of the day. I find them most often when I am alone, an echo in the mind that fills the moments that might be lonely with the voice of worship.
For you have redeemed me, O Lord, O God of truth…
And I am aware of a wonder as I do: I speak these words each day, remember and breathe them out in the night in the company of an invisible host. For these are the prayers of generation tested through decades of war, through cultural shift, and societal change. They are fitted to high and holy days, and the lowlier rhythms of ordinary time. Daily, they are spoken by a great host of the faithful around the world, a way of centering the heart, not just on a general faith, but on Christ. Each prayer in my tiny, bedraggled book is a way of journeying toward him, but a journey taken in company with all who share those sacred words.
Keep us, O Lord, as the apple of your eye…
I know from the study I’ve done in language and imagination that the words we speak form the worlds we see. The words we speak together, in culture or church, to a mighty extent, narrate our lives. The words we use do not merely describe our stories, they shape them. They tell them.
Hide us under the shadow of your wings…
On the airplane home, from London to Chicago, Joy and I had a very gregarious flight attendant. He tried three times to steal our dark chocolate bar, and remarked on the piles of books stacked on our trays. My stack was topped with my battered Book of Common Prayer. Raising an eyebrow at it, he made no remark but proceeded to chat us up, and try, once more to steal our chocolate. He turned to the topic of movies. “The Princess Bride,” he crowed, “now that is a quotable movie. My daughter’s favorite. We can quote it back and forth for hours. Crazy, isn’t it, how people all over the world can get along just by quoting their favorite movies together?”
Guide us waking, O Lord, and guard us sleeping…
With a wink, he left. But I was struck. I fingered my little prayer book and thought of the words crammed into its wrinkled old pages, words whose splendor and ache formed the faith of ages. And then I thought of the many conversations I’ve had in which, just as the flight attendant said, the shared narrative was the movie just watched. I thought of how pop culture is just that, a whole, shared culture, a shared narrative, a common view of life conditioned by the lyrics of pop songs and TV shows. I thought of how the quips and movie lines and best-loved lyrics could be called a cultural liturgy, the words we use to form our common view of the world.
That awake we may watch with Christ, and asleep we may rest in peace…
What are the shared narratives of our time? What are the verbal liturgies of our culture? What words do we speak together and how does our communal speech form our vision of each other and of the world we inhabit? What do we repeat? What do we sing? Because the words we share as a culture play a large part in creating the culture we inhabit. And if the words of our own culture are largely void of the narrative of God’s presence, if we work, shop, love, and communicate in spaces shaped by a language other than faith, how do we tell Christ back into the liturgies of our days?
Give peace, O Lord, in all the world…
Perhaps by a rhythm of prayer? I am almost startled by the way that the old, worn prayers of past generations have renewed my faith in the past weeks. I’ve thought often about the place of liturgy in faith since I’ve been in England. In our independent age, I’ve often heard liturgy questioned. Is it just rote? The bent of our culture is to opine that authenticity exists only in spontaneous free speech, in self expression rather than corporate. But we are conversational, communal beings. We do not exist, or worship in isolation. We need the language of generations before us to speak what we are too weary to speak, to affirm God’s faithfulness then, and now. We need to remember that we are part of a mighty, ongoing story, that we join a host in prayer, present round the world and through the ages.
For only in thee can we live in safety…
Words make worlds, and in the long darkness, I am thankful for the world that the tried and hallowed prayers of my little book have woven about me. I am thankful for the fellowship that comes to me in those words, from a prayer book turned by many hands through the years. 7 AM is about to breathe over my window panes. The light is now navy rather than black. Dawn is almost here. I open my little book. I turn from the night prayers to those that greet the morning. I speak them into the grey and formless hour of first light and think of Genesis 1, of God speaking light into the void, forever defining light and darkness. “The worlds were framed by the word of God.”
O Lord, save thy people and bless thine heritage…
And in his image, in company with an invisible host speaking the same morning prayer around the world and through the ages, I look into the darkness and speak.
Glory be to Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost…
“I do hope your Christmas has had a little touch of Eternity in among the rush and pitter patter and all. It always seems such a mixing of this world and the next–but after all, that is the idea!” – Evelyn Underhill
This painting: Adoration of the Child by Gerrit Van Honthorst
This Advent Hymn: Hills of the North, Rejoice!
Hills of the north, rejoice;
river and mountain spring,
hark to the advent voice;
valley and lowland, sing;
though absent long, your Lord is nigh;
he judgment brings and victory.
Isles of the southern seas,
deep in your coral caves
pent be each warring breeze,
lulled be your restless waves:
he comes to reign with boundless sway,
and makes your wastes his great highway.
Lands of the East, awake,
soon shall your sons be free;
the sleep of ages break,
and rise to liberty.
On your far hills, long cold and gray,
has dawned the everlasting day.
Shores of the utmost West,
ye that have waited long,
break forth to swelling song;
high raise the note, that Jesus died,
yet lives and reigns, the Crucified.
Shout, while ye journey home;
songs be in every mouth;
lo, from the North we come,
from East, and West, and South.
city of God, the bond are free,
we come to live and reign in thee!
This Sonnet from Malcolm Guite’s Sounding the Seasons:
I cannot think unless I have been thought,
Nor can I speak unless I have been spoken.
I cannot teach except as I am taught,
Or break the bread except as I am broken…
(go HERE to read the rest)
My mama is my favorite. She just finished writing a new book that is, I think, a bit of a magnum opus, because the central idea is to own your life and drink the cup God has given you. They say familiarity breeds contempt. And prophets are entirely without honor in their own hometown (and particularly in their families). And perhaps its taken me many years to gather the full honor owing, but I can say with full heart and no hesitation that my mom is my heroine. That her story has been one of radiant beauty. That yes, our family tale has been dark at moments, and our road has been hard countless times, but my mom was a combination of Gandalf and Galadriel and Lucy (from Narnia) because she fought the good fight and taught me to as well, and feasted and danced and laughed in between. My life is rich in countless ways because of the way my mother owned and shaped her story.
I love that she is telling that story now.
So, this is a shameless plug for my mom’s new book, except, it’s not really a plug. Her story is my story too. And it’s a gift.
I think I’ve eaten more Thanksgiving dinners in England than I usually do at home. I’m certainly not complaining. Having reached Saturday morning after a week crammed with cooking and as much study as I could muster in between, I find myself slowing, just for a few moments, to speak out and savor the many gifts that kindle my heart to a true, and hearty thanks.
I have great cause for praise this year. And wonder.
Two days ago, Thanksgiving morning, when I sat at my desk for a brief devotional before the making of creamed spinach, I glanced at my journal from this time last year. I found an entry written in a jet-lagged hour in the wee sma’s on the day before Thanksgiving, just after my return from the Lewis dedication in Poet’s Corner in England.
I instantly recognized angst in my handwriting; the swift, scrawled tilt of my words as I struggled over hope for my future. I remember that morning clearly, the way I rose in the darkness and planned to be thoroughly depressed. I remember how, with a clarity I have rarely experienced, I felt a challenge from the Holy Spirit to trust, and to enact my trust in action and attitude. I remember the Psalm I read, Psalm 37, one that has walked with me so many years I almost tire of its tireless refrain: dwell in the land, cultivate faithfulness, do good, do not fret…
In one swift immersion in memory, I recalled the rest of that morning, the way that each line had come to me with a specific directive: trust in the Lord (or to be precise, do not have a nervous breakdown today nor bewail your fate), dwell in the land (stay put and don’t panic about your future), do good (good work, which at that time, meant writing and local ministry), delight yourself in the Lord (use this transient time to learn prayer), and he will give you the desires of your heart.
I stopped at that one. Because my desires in that early morning were so specific. Having just been in England, surrounded by the kinds of thinkers and writers I longed to become, having had the words of Lewis and the high beauty of Westminster as feast for my heart, I knew exactly what I wanted. I wanted to return to England. I wanted to form a life there in which thought, writing, story, and word became my rhythms of work, creativity, and generosity. England is a place I have always flourished, and I wanted the chance to live amidst the beauty I knew there. I wanted to claim as my own the cadence of church, the fellowship of like minds reaching toward God through reason and imagination in countless fields of study, the wonder of international friendship, and even the city life of walking and local community.
Dared I write that in my Bible? Because at that moment, I saw no prospect for real return. As a visitor, certainly. Even a visiting scholar on a tourist’s visa. But not in any long-term capacity. Life circumstances, finances, obligations, limitations, all were against me. And to write that desire in my Bible, to put it as the hope I trusted to God, seemed almost to ask for disappointment, to set God up to fail, and myself to doubt. And yet. How could I live all the things God asked of me if I didn’t trust “that he is the rewarder of those who seek him.”
I wrote it down. You can see it in a faint, pen-scratched note. “November 2013, England.” And then I put it from me. Even, I think, consciously forgot it, living forward so that I would not fear. I mustered courage. I wrote, worked, trusted. I planned for the future, and for much of the year, never thought I would get to be in England. A great deal of struggle was with me this year. Crisis over identity and self. Fear over my future. Many months in which I couldn’t see the way ahead. For much of this year, I had no idea where I’d be come the end of 2014.
And then, in a series of events nearly miraculous, I found this course at Wycliffe. I threw in an application three months late. They interviewed me despite the fact that there was no place. I was told multiple times that it was highly unlikely I would be accepted. And then? The acceptance came through. A place opened up. A room was found. Old connections found me, new opportunities opened, provision was made. And one year on from that Thanksgiving morn of angsty prayer, I, my friends, am living in England.
If you ever wonder if God answers prayer, even the prayers you feel you ought not to ask, the lavish ones you can’t imagine he’d consider, let me assure you from my desk in Oxford, with Saturday sunlight streaming over my hands, that he does. He sees the inmost desires, the dreams, the hopes. Sometimes we wait many years for answers to those desires, and let me tell you, my past decade has certainly been a long course in the fine art of learning to wait. But it has culminated in my life here in England; in a course of study that richly renews my faith, a life in this city I love, rhythms of worship and learning that will shape the rest of my life.
Trust in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart.
Truly, he does.
Yesterday, I sat with a gathering of Wycliffe friends from various programs and nations. We had all pitched in to cook a Thanksgiving feast, and ah, it was a wonder. From eight in the morning, till three in the afternoon, we ran between the three kitchens in their various buildings and the lecture room in the main hall, basting turkeys, mashing potatoes, trying to figure out which oven would actually cook the apple pies, and stringing lights from the old, oak rafters and over the stone fireplace.
Finally, exhausted, I dropped into my seat at the long table, with its make-do decorations of juice glasses crammed with chrysanthemums ranged between a merry jumble of candles fat and thin (stolen from every available corner in the house), and I marveled at the splendor of the low lit room. I savored the beauty of it, the table groaning behind us with three (yes, three!) turkeys, the music wafting to the high old ceilings, and all of us decked in our finest, a last minute flush on our faces. I marveled at the friends, savored the laughter. I marveled at the happiness tangible in that place.
And I marveled at God. Our host stood and announced that he had asked representatives from each nation present to say a prayer in their native language. A hush came over us then, a kind of charged quiet electrified with our joy in each other and in the God who bound us together in celebration as we heard God thanked in Latin, Russian, Spanish, Afrikaans, an Indian dialect, and to close, Swedish. Amidst the last words of a prayer spoken in a tangible joy (however little I could understand), I managed to recognize the words before the amen:
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be.
“You ended with the Gloria Patri,” I enthused as my Swedish friend sat down.
“Why, yes I did. You caught that?”
I did. Ah, with every fibre of my being and atom of my soul, I did, for its what I want to sing. Glory and thanks forever.
Fire and light at heart of the universe. That, said Hans Urs von Balthasar, is the point of studying theology; to behold the glory that burns – sweet beauty, given Love – at core of existence. To know, as fully as we in our frailty and hunger can, the God who imagined and made this world. To study the one whose image we bear, whose mind is the source of our language and imagination. And from that knowing, to form the practices and doctrines of our faith.
I had no idea how much I would love the study of theology. With my literary background, my love of story, the bent toward the imaginative rather than the (necessarily) the academic, I looked at this stint in theology as something to inform my writing. A year in which to ask the hard questions I’ve been hoarding about church, get a bit more doctrinally centered, get my church fathers straight. But certainly not as a long-term or vocational investment.
I find that to study theology is a homecoming for my mind. I think I’ve been circling these concepts in my writing and thought for years, but somehow thought that the academic pursuit of them would leave me parched in heart. I’ve encountered systematic theology before in a way that left no open doors for questions, for paradox, for the tension that has to attend the human knowledge of the divine. It was presented as something apart, the scientific observation of a faith I only knew how to affirm and live from the interior and sometimes inarticulate depths of my heart.
Perhaps, in coming here to study, I was a little afraid that official theology might dim a little of my love, dull my wonder, heighten my doubt.
I was wrong. In the past two months, I’ve immersed myself in the servant songs of Isaiah 40-55 and come up against a love both mighty, and willing to suffer that astounds me in its splendor. I’ve wrestled with different concepts of atonement in a class on doctrine (a class that began with a lecture on the metaphoric nature of language), and in them seen the different aspects of my own desire, my own need for justice or love fleshed out, and I’ve fought to perceive the right way in which to understand the God who gave his life even unto death. I’ve begun to study what it means to view the world in a sacramental way, and how that might influence the embodiment of my faith as I give it form and order, something that more fully engages my self and life than simple intellectual or moral assent.
Every line of what I have read in the study of theology, every idea encountered has directly influenced the faith I live in the now. I talk with new friends, scan the faces (each with a story and culture, a language their own) at my table and I ponder what it means to love someone outside of myself. Ponder what it means to love as the Trinity does in its eternal, given and received affection. I hear the cries of prophets when I glance at headlines. I confront my own frustrations with what seems harsh or oblique in Scripture and realize the half heresies I’ve half believed.
And I walk in the fields, oh, my lovely old meadows at back of the Parks, and the words of Isaiah thrum through my mind. I see this ever-changing earth and put out my hand to receive the sacramental beauty it offers, the glimpse of something that gestures to the great imagination behind its being. I receive, in a way I never have before, each goodness as tethered to the heart of God.
As the months pass here, I hope to write more about the different things I’m learning in some depth. I want to delve here into the language of redemption in Isaiah, or discuss the finer points of Christology, or sketch the way that string theory interacts with a religious view of the origin of life. For now though, I have to share a moment from this morning.
I was out for my usual walk and found a sunrise that seemed made to picture the “fire and light at heart of the universe.” Perhaps it came to me like that because my mind has been so shaped by what I’ve studied. Perhaps I perceived the beauty more keenly because I have thought so deeply about its source in the past days. Regardless, those fifteen minutes of golden light were pure gift, a space of eternity expanding within the air of time so that I found an exultation that seemed not to fit within mere minutes. I felt I witnessed a glimpse of what I study to find and I think it will keep me studying for years to come.
As I walked, I remembered the words I had read just the day before in Isaiah . With them, and a glimpse of the splendor, I leave you.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
So are My ways higher than your ways
And My thoughts than your thoughts.
For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
And do not return there without watering the earth
And making it bear and sprout,
And furnishing seed to the sower and bread to the eater;
So will My word be which goes forth from My mouth;
It will not return to Me empty,
Without accomplishing what I desire,
And without succeeding in the matter for which I sent it.
For you will go out with joy,
And be led forth with peace;
The mountains and the hills will break forth into shouts of joy before you,
And all the trees of the field will clap their hands.
Instead of the thorn bush the cypress will come up,
And instead of the nettle the myrtle will come up,
And it will be a memorial to the Lord,
For an everlasting sign which will not be cut off.