When the world is a tad grey or my mind too weary to see much good in it all, I usually sit down with a sigh on my little couch, pull my curtains closed and reach for a good book. While I do identify on some level with the three kinds of people mentioned in the last post, it is to books, most often a novel, that I usually turn in times of distress, discouragement, or general disillusionment with life. I think this is because usually what I am in need of is freshened sight, rekindled wonder, or just a good stiff dose of hope.
My best beloved stories are the ones in whose vision of the world I can dwell as in a shelter. I love books that allow me to see the beauty of the world afresh through their words, whose narrated worlds reaffirm the possibility in my own. Tolkien made quick, scornful work of the critics who accused readers of fantasy or fiction of ‘escapism’. The critics, huffed Tolkien, confuse ‘the escape of the prisoner with the flight of the deserter’. We read fantastical tales and imagined worlds not to escape reality, but to discover it afresh. When our capacity to see and wonder has been diminished by exhaustion, grief, or boredom, a fairy tale (or any good novel in my opinion) puts us in an imagined world where we realize anew ‘the potency of words, and the wonder of things such as stone, and wood, and iron; tree and grass; house and fire; bread and wine.’ (From the essay ‘On Fairy-Stories’.)
Tolkien’s word for it was Recovery. Recovery of vision, of wonder, of hope. And the books I read for comfort are the ones whose worlds help me to win back my own sense of wonder and with it, my will to create, to love, to work once more in my own circle of days. My favorites?
The Scent of Water by Elizabeth Goudge :: The tale of Mary, a competent and accomplished London woman who inherits a country home and decides to leave the whirl of modern life behind to inhabit the deep quiet of the countryside and keep faith with the wise and suffering woman who gave her the house. One of the most atmospheric stories I’ve ever encountered, this book has a power to still and nourish the soul by the sheer quality of description. Goudge doesn’t describe the echoing hush of a country night, she evokes it. You feel immersed in it, in her own thoughts as they turn toward prayer, her growing capacity for hush, and in that illusive thing called ‘the scent of water’.
Other beloveds by Goudge: Pilgrim’s Inn, The City of Bells, The Bird in the Tree, The Rosemary Tree, The Little White Horse
The Genesis Trilogy by Madeleine L’Engle :: I first read this when I was sixteen years old and heartily doubting God’s love. L’Engle, with her grateful joy in the beauty of the earth, her embrace of doubt as a way of walking toward faith, and her trust in the utter goodness of God’s love, restored my capacity to hope. In this trilogy, she takes biblical tales like those of Jacob, Abraham, and Adam, weaving them with memoir, poetry, and her own stories in a sort of contemplative journey toward faith.
Other beloveds by L’Engle: The Irrational Season, A Wrinkle in Time, Walking on Water
Remembering by Wendell Berry :: A strange, and at first, discomfiting book, this short novel is meant to liven the reader to the strange and estranging ways of the modern world. I didn’t like it at first. But as I read, as I journeyed with the protagonist Andy, as he faces his bitterness and disillusionment, discovering again the essential ‘blessedness’ of his life, I was able to grasp afresh the blessedness of my own, and the possibility of thanks that is always present because of the way we are held by the love of God and others, even when ‘we cannot hold’.
Other beloveds by Berry: Hannah Coulter, The Art of the Commonplace, Fidelity, Life is a Miracle
The Sign of Jonah by Thomas Merton:: I stumbled upon this book in a used bookstore several years ago. I didn’t expect anything dramatic, but as I explored this early journal of the famous monk and writer, Thomas Merton, I was refreshed and delighted by his workaday observations on life in a Trappist monastery. His small delights in a cloudscape or a note of music, his frustration with his brothers, his boredom with details, his hunger for something beyond the horizon matched the ruminations of my own restless soul and helped me to see that whether in the cloister or the world, the possibility of wonder, the presence of joy, and the need to love with grit and grace, are ever the same.
Other beloveds by Merton: Seeds of Contemplation, No Man is an Island, Bread in the Wilderness
Speak What We Feel (Not What We Ought to Say) by Frederich Buechner:: I read this when I’m sorrowing, angry, grieved, or just a bit peeved with the shatteredness of the world. With a title based on King Lear’s famous statement in the moment of his undoing (‘the weight of this sad time we must obey, speak what we feel, not what we ought to say’), Buechner examines four writers – Gerard Manley Hopkins, Mark Twain, Shakespeare, and G.K. Chesterton – whose times of greatest darkness forced them beyond the bounds of popularity or reason to speak, in story and poem, the deepest and hardest truths they knew. A beautiful account of the way that suffering can sometimes reveal hope in a depth and quality we have never touched before.
Other beloveds by Buechner: Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Comedy, Tragedy, and Fairy Tale, The Sacred Journey
The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien :: I think I will always return to this book as the one to ‘stab my spirit broad awake’ (as Robert Louis Stevenson says). Having encountered it in my first sorrow, I will always be shaped by its high beauty and alpine courage, its knowledge of pain and its pilgrim journey toward hope. The characters in Middle Earth taught me to live the hard life (which is all life in this world) well, and I will always return to its pages to remember that anew.
Anne of Avonlea by Lucy Maud Montgomery :: I simply can’t not include an Anne book. A couple of years ago I had a conversation with two other women my age about how a whole generation was raised to see the world along with Anne. That meant a world that sparkled with personality, with beauty that pulsed afresh every day, with quirky people to love, with boundless scope for imagination, and an endless supply of adventure. I wouldn’t trade a childhood immersed in these books for anything. Anne of Avonlea is one of my favorites because it is steeped in the homey world of Green Gables, but with Anne old enough to dream and desire and explore. I am always refreshed by a mental ramble in PEI.
Other beloveds by Montgomery: Anne’s House of Dreams, Rilla of Ingleside, The Golden Road, Emily of New Moon, Kilmeny of the Orchard
Tasha Tudor’s World :: This isn’t a novel, but it feels like a storybook. Tasha Tudor was an eccentric, stubborn, and utterly delightful old woman who lived the whole of her modern life (she died just a few years ago) in the style, rhythms, manners, and work of the early 19th century. A keeper of corgis and goats, a gardner extraordinaire, marvelous cook, and very beloved illustrator of children’s books she lived in her own vivid, chosen world of earth and garden, friendship and artwork and steadfastly kept it until the end. In a day and age whose work and craze seems intent on robbing the world of wonder, Tasha Tudor is an agent of re-enchantment for many, and I have always loved her for it.
I have so many more. I’m just getting to love Marilynne Robinson, I’ve long loved Evelyn Underhill. And Malcolm Guite’s poetry. But I must stop! Thank you so very much for the comments with lists of your own comfort books in the previous post. (Keep them coming!) I now have a booklist and wishlist to keep me in curiosity the rest of the year. I look so forward to discovering new worlds…
In the past two weeks I’ve gone home to beloved Colorado and flown back to merry old England, I’ve bought a wedding dress, written a paper, packed up most of my belongings, and carted three suitcases, the dress, and myself across the Atlantic. I’ve also reveled in long afternoons with my girls, pondered the adventurous (and mysterious) future, planned surprise parties, and danced with my sister and mom in the rain. All of which leaves me, on this golden and blue Oxford afternoon, glad and exhausted and definitely without a sentence to string coherently together.
So instead, I offer a rather humorous quip I found this morning as I was poking about in search of literary comfort. This from my oh-so-beloved Elizabeth Goudge:
“Humanity can be roughly divided into three sorts of people – those who find comfort in literature, those who find comfort in personal adornment, and those who find comfort in food.”
This really tickled me. I think I fit all three categories, though I proved her point by turning to a book for comfort for my ragged brain.
What sort are you?
And what have you recently read for comfort? (I love knowing the novels people return to again and again!)
I’ll publish my own official list of comfort books soon…
This high, bright Colorado day, I’m sitting in a coffee shop pounding away on a paper whose topic is heartbeat close to my rapidly-beating heart. It’s amazing the way a good idea can raise a pulse. My topic (with 5,000 words to follow) is ‘A Felt Change of Consciousness: Language and Imagination in Apologetic Endeavor’, which is a fancy way to say that we greatly need to recognize the power of imagination to communicate faith.
One of the trends of modernity that most distresses me is the assumption that truth can be tied to a list of analytical or even theological statements. Our post-enlightenment reliance on reason to describe and define reality leaves little room for the interior, experiential truth of imagination, the embodied truth of human love, or the knowledge of the holy that comes to us in faith and is a mystery. To define truth by reason alone is actually a profoundly secular way of seeing the world, one we have inherited from materialism (in which what we can physically see and describe is the only reality) rather than Scripture, in which the language of story, psalm, image, and metaphor are all employed to communicate the reality of a God who is beyond every descriptive word.
Of particular frustration to me is the fact that Christian apologetics wanting to meet a culture conditioned by the language of scientific materialism on its own terms, often operate only in the language of argument. While I greatly admire the work and intelligence of popular apologists, and recognize their impact, the truth is that their arguments are only one part of what is required by a holistic Christian apologetic. Because what Christians are inviting others to experience is not a different argument, but an entirely different way to see reality.
One of the most potent ways in which this can be offered is through works of imagination, because image, language, and story allow readers to inhabit a view of the world that is different than their own. In Owen Barfield’s description, a story or poem can allow us a ‘felt change of consciousness’ that presents reality to us in a ‘new and strange light’. C.S. Lewis, Tolkien, Malcolm Guite, Seamus Heaney, and countless other faith-driven writers and poets have argued powerfully for a language of invitation rather than argument, one that offers seekers a way to stand in the ‘marvelous light’ of a worldview rooted in Christ, perceiving afresh the beauty, hope, and reality of Christ redeeming the world and drawing us into a splendor we cannot yet imagine (however magnificent the stories we craft!)
This ‘felt change of consciousness’ was crucial to my own young faith. When I experienced disappointment and grief in my walk with God, it wasn’t an argument that convinced me of his goodness. It was inhabiting the worlds of Tolkien, Lewis, George Eliot, and G.K. Chesterton with their kind and heroic characters, their narratives of suffering and hope, and landscapes of quest, adventure and beauty. It was poetry and essay that brought my angsty soul to stillness, and renewed my capacity to see beauty in the every day, and thus to wonder at its Maker. By standing in the ‘new’ light of those authors, I was invited back into the reality of faith, and they help me to dwell there everyday.
And now I really need to return to my paper, but the point of this is simply to say… go out and read a story today. Read a good tale to your children, read a heartening novel that takes grief and courage and weaves them into hope. Read a poem that revives your vision and allows you to delight. Read a psalm that gives you the right to sorrow, and to let the lament help you to glimpse the eternal. Don’t submit to a culture that sees everything in terms of what can be observed and rationalized. Rather, immerse yourself in the holy imagination of writers who used language and imagination to gesture toward the eternal.
I’ll stop my rant now. I’m off to read some Tolkien.
(PS: I meant to add a list of the books shaping this essay and answering so many if my questions: ‘Imaginative Apologetics’ edited by Andrew Davison, ‘Faith, Hope and Poetry’ by Malcolm Guite, ‘Poetic Diction’ by Owen Barfield, ‘Planet Narnia’ by Michael Ward, C.S. Lewis in entirety, and the essay ‘On Fairy Stories’ by Tolkien.)
Expect the end of the world. Laugh. Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful though you have considered all the facts.
Sometimes dark and bright collide in the most unsettling of ways.
The usual afternoon storm was finally drifting in over the foothills as I sat in my favorite old Colorado coffee shop last week with my sister. I’m home for a couple of weeks before the wedding and I love the sweet normalcy of these ordinary moments. There we were, feet propped side by side on a battered leather footrest, sipping our favorite chais, each in our own writing world, now and then glancing up to see what the other was thinking.
I found myself, however, unable to write. My inner world was one of confused words and tangled ideas. I have three more papers to finish before the wedding (pray for me) and should have been typing industriously. But my mind and heart circled back and back to the headlines of the last days. My soul strove to formulate a way in which to meet the pall of fear flung by so many evil events. My sense of their darkness was heightened by the bright joy of my wedding preparations and the stark contrast of their beauty against the dim canvas of a grieved and broken world.
For my past days had been radiantly happy day well. My sister woke me early the morning before to a day of bridal surprises. She gave me a handmade booklet and allowed me to turn one page every couple of hours, each revealing a new plan for our day of sisterly delight. We had coffee and talked about my new little house. We went for a makeover. We did a bit of trousseau shopping. We planned the music for the reception. We delighted in every detail and in doing so reveled in the marvelous fact of the love I’ve found in Thomas and the story we will begin with our wedding.
My heart was thus brimful with that joy and the sharing of it when we happened upon the headlines. Wanton, destructive evil. Death. Terror. And I sat in my chair as the teakettle boiled and wondered what in the world to do. Joy came in and we sat together, tears in our eyes as we digested the horror in France after several weeks of such headlines. We were bewildered and afraid as we spoke of the way the heart begins to ache, then freeze, unable to process the numbers of death, the landslide of violent events.
What can we do?
It’s the question we asked and the one that halts me in my tracks and makes me restless all at once. There we were, in my room, two sisters rejoicing in a wedding together, and then a black, evil shock of an event right next to wedding day radiance. In the shadow of such events, rejoicing can seem not only futile, but flippant. How can I shop for wedding dress shoes when people are dying?
What should we do?
There’s the obvious: pray for the shattered and bereaved, pray for healing of the world. Give whatever we can to whatever effort toward peace we can. Mourn. We mourn far too little in our hurry-up age. Use voice and action to urge and request and create whole and just and loving communities. Those are the large-scale actions that connect us with the wider world in which we exist.
But what am I to do?
My question and continuing sense of bewilderment had to do with the scale of the ordinary, with me in my chair and a wedding to plan and three papers to write and precious little time with my family. The yawning despair of so much death can incapacitate me if I let it. The shadow of it can tinge each conversation. It can edge my image of the future with fear. It can dim the brightness of joy with a self-protective cynicism that expects evil rather than good.
What we did felt at first, out of place.
We sighed, rose from our chairs, and went forth to take joy in the rest of our sister day together. Every minute was precious. We don’t have enough time with each other these days. So we had tea on the front porch in the warm, sapphire radiance of a Colorado day. We watched the wedding episode of our favorite old series. We read classic poems of love aloud and painted our nails. And as I walked forward in savoring the presence of my sister, in planning for a marriage that I hope will embody divine love in ordinary time, in making our dinner and cleaning the house for the arrival home of my mom, I found myself caught up in a sense of re-ordering.
And this is what I’m supposed to do.
I live in sacred, defiant normalcy. I walk forward in work and wedding plans and great joy in my family’s presence. I work diligently. I rest deeply. I love thoroughly. It’s a tall order to keep the destructive energy of the truck driver in France, or the war in Syria, or the shooters in America from draining my attention and engagement away from the ordinary. But when I ask myself how I can counteract their destruction, the best thing I can think of is simply to do the opposite of what the truck driver, the shooters did.
I live. With vim, courage, and attention. And I help others to do the same. It is an act of gentle defiance. Every kind word spoken, every meal proffered in love, every prayer said can become a feisty act of redemption that communicates a reality opposite to the destruction of a fallen world. Here, in ordinary time, in kitchen and slightly messy bedroom with a thousand things to do, I counteract despair with laughter. In place of destruction, I make order. I form spaces and hours in which people can be loved and conversations had in which those who take part know their lives to be precious. I take what is broken and heal it, giving myself in whatever love I have as the answer to loneliness, sorrow, and isolation. I look at each human on the street as divinely beloved and use word and act to communicate that fact with a power of Love much stronger than the death that reigned in the driver’s heart in France last week.
I ‘practice resurrection’ as Wendell Berry states in his battle cry of a poem. I’m not denigrating the utter gravity of a world pocked by violence. I’m not saying we don’t mourn or face facts or live in awareness of suffering. I’m saying we meet those hard facts with a grace beyond their limited narrative. I mean we live so that our workaday, creative hope is a defiance of the fear by which evil seeks to paralyze love in the world. We root ourselves in the risen Christ whose life in us and in the world is an advancing, creative goodness that comes in the tiniest corners of creation as we order, imagine, and fill them with a love that is rooted in eternity and cannot be touched by death.
Big ideas, those, I know. But ideals like that allow me the extra strength I need to move beyond despair, to snap myself out of scaring myself to death with endless scenarios of tragedy. Ideas like that help me to get hope back squarely in my hands. And that is a profound defiance of evil and the death it brings to love.
So I’ll rejoice in my wedding, in my family, in a love that participates in the pattern of ever-progressing relationship that God himself began in the garden and continued in Christ. I take faith. I walk forward in hope. I root myself in love.
(of a living organism) grow or develop in a healthy or vigorous way, especially as the result of a particularly congenial environment.
Two years ago, the day before I left for my new adventure in Oxford, my dear friend Lancia gave me a parting gift. It was a bracelet made up of letters that formed the word ‘flourish’. The gift of that word was a benediction as I forayed into the wild territories of life overseas, of study, of finding myself after several years of holy floundering. But it was also a word to gird me, like Aslan’s whisper in Lucy’s ear when she was close to despair, ‘courage, dear heart’. I looked at that bracelet and knew I must be bold enough to hope, to walk forward after some very hard years in the expectation, not of more failure, but of unexpected grace.
I could not have known how richly that word would come to fruition in my life. Engagement to a man whose friendship, wisdom, and tenderness is beyond what I could have known to hope. Community, rootedness, in a church and spiritual fellowship I have hungered to find for countless years. Friendships. New growth in my writing. Marriage just ahead, with ministry and three more years in England. And yes, oh yes oh yes, an English cottage with a garden for my first home. It has roses, my friends, roses out my kitchen window!
I have entered a time like that described in the Song of Solomon; ‘a season of singing has come’. This is a time for joy, a season for glad-eyed, childlike exultation in the sheer grace of many good gifts. I ramble round Oxford in these blustery summer days and I am full of wonder. I smile to myself on street corners. I daydream as I tromp to the store for groceries and pound the cobbles back (with maybe a stop at the flower stall in the market as I dream about my kitchen-table-to-come). My mouth and fingers pulse with a gratefulness that must be given word and tongue – for here, in the hand of my beloved, in the ramble round my new home, in the church where I’m planning my wedding, I can ‘taste and see’, literally, that the Lord is good.
But joy is such a fragile thing. This morning I woke to the laments and startlements of many friends here in England. I heard grievous news from one friend. I learned of the secret sorrow of another. I passed a homeless man on the street that I’ve known for two years and saw the exhaustion in his eyes as things get worse again. And I was keenly aware that what many feel today is a withering of hope. I sat with them in thought and looked back at the sorrows of my own past years, looked down the line at the unknown future, and I knew that even my own joy was, in this world, inescapably twinned with sorrow. I found, abruptly, that happiness can make one profoundly afraid. A gift like that, you know, can be frightening to accept. It might break, or age, or get stolen.
But I read Psalm 1 this morning. Even as I sat on the couch with the half formed cloud of fear at the back of my eyes, wondering what hard things might come, fearing to lose my joy, I found these verses describing the one who ‘delights in the Lord’ and they burned in my mind:
he shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water that bringeth forth his fruit in his season his leaf also shall not wither…
My life is in season right now, but it’s been out of season before. I’ve walked the season of weeping as well as of song. I’ve known the absence of what felt like any good thing – relationship, friendship, success (I won’t tell you how many universities, publishers, and employers turned me down before my feet worked themselves onto the Oxford road). I’ve known months when it seemed honestly beyond my capability to believe that God would ever grant ‘the desire of my heart’ (Psalm 37).
But my life has never withered. The truth of Psalm 1 is the secret strength of all my years. Throughout loneliness and struggle, years of feeling lost, sickness, confusion, months of grief and the slow loss of many things, I have yet been a ‘tree planted by rivers of water’, sucking up the deep streams of God’s goodness so that a sap of hope poured through my inmost self even in the hardest days. Scripture, the call of a friend, the dance of the wind in the pines, a strain of music, a word in a book, a prayer in church, a joy that has no reason but its own radiant presence… with David I can say that ‘I have seen the goodness of the Lord in a besieged city’.
The truth of Psalm 1 is that in God’s love, I flourish. At all times. There is a joy whose root reaches deeper than circumstance, and in its grace, I am nourished, not just now in the joyous blossom of love and ease, but even when my branches are stripped with loneliness, when they feel bare and brittle with struggle. The flowering of this exuberant time isn’t the fickle gift of a whimsical God. The grace has always been there. For however wintry the weather of life, the sap at core of my rooted being does not cease and that sap is the love of the God in whom all good things have their origin, in whose given life all good things are coming again.
I write this in part because I know that one person’s joy is another’s secret sorrow. If someone had told me two years ago that all the wild joy of my life right now would be piled in my astonished hands, I might have… well. Let’s be honest. I would have smiled, assuming they wanted to encourage me, to help me be peppy and godly and I would have halfway assented while doubting that such goodness would ever come.
But it does, my friend. Whether you can see the lavish blossoms of grace, or whether they lie in the green, quickened hope of a life rooted in trust of God, joy does come. Goodness grows, sometimes achingly, in the dark places of the soul, a slow-rising sap, sometimes in a summer flourish of exquisite joy. But God’s love is a river that flows beneath the surface of the everyday and in its ceaseless torrent, we flourish. His life ever accessible, his grace at our command. I get to see it tangibly in this season of my life, as you will to, I know, my friends. But its always there, the ‘inward and invisible’ grace of love.
When Lancia gave me that bracelet and spoke the word ‘flourish’ into my future, it was a word given in hope that I would fully taste God’s delightfulness. But what I see now is its equal invitation to stand, blessed, in the present. To flourish because my life is rooted in Love. And I am ever green.
A man should hear a little music, read a little poetry, and see a fine picture every day of his life, in order that worldly cares may not obliterate the sense of the beautiful which God has implanted in the human soul.
-Johann Wolfgang von Goethe