Hello friends. Goodness, its been a crazy while since I’ve written. But today, I have a delightful announcement…
I’m deeply glad to announce the release of my mom’s and my new book, The Lifegiving Home! This book has been so many years in the imagining, because its been a work that had to be lived before it was written. I would love for you to celebrate with me. My mom is hosting quite a series of festivities over at her blog, so please join the party if you want. It will be grand. Go HERE to sign up.
And do take a look at the new book HERE. If you decide to order a copy, I’d love to hear your thoughts here. The more I bop around the world and settle in random new cities, the more I love the concept and work, the kingdom creation that is a home made right in the dark corners of the world. I would love to know your own thoughts if you read the book, and would love to know how you are creating home, crafting corners of the kingdom come wherever you happen to be.
Celebrate with me today… I have to admit, its a pretty joyous thing to see a book take flesh and make its first foray into the world…
Every Saturday evening, as the summer light fades, I amble down to the overgrown churchyard of St. Thomas the Martyr, one of the oldest churches in Oxford. There, in the closing day, I attend a weekly vigil service, time worn words spoken into the dusky quiet of a church lit entirely by candles. I began attending last autumn. The church would be night-dark when I arrived, the candle in my hand and the ones in every nook a shout against the black. Now, the small flames glimmer and blend with a light sifted by stained glass, and the birds sing heartily in the garden and the bees in the hives at the back of the graveyard lend a distant buzz.
But winter or summer, dusk or light, the quiet is the same. It’s the hush of a prayer-soaked space kept sacred by the long, offered effort of countless people. There are rarely more than six or seven of us there (though that might change soon as several here work to renew the life of the place), mostly the elderly and a handful of students, but always the same woman straightening the chairs, lighting the countless candles, readying the space for another day in which it will hold the praise of God. I am always amazed at the way that space takes hold of me when I walk in, a hush that cradles my thought. I am startled, too, at what I discover.
There was a moment, for instance, the other night, that stays in my mind like a portrait – a kept moment to which I think I will often return. Just after the homily (short reading/sermon), there was a long moment of silence. The vigil service is unique in that it begins in the back of the church, just the few of us hunched in a circle of old chairs, hearing Scripture, praying in the woven closeness of that tiny space. We then process, singing, to the altar, to receive the Eucharist. But that was still to come.
We sat in the usual circle on our creaky seats, holding our candles gingerly, the hot wax dripping on our skin now and then so that we flinched. The words of the sermon sunk into the hush, and as the quiet lengthened, we settled, stilled. Silence bloomed in that church, a ripened, full quiet in which we sat unmoving, the flames of our candles very straight and still.
But a great wind tossed the trees outdoors. A storm was on the move. You coul hear it, a fast, raucous whisper and rush round the whole of the church. You could see it, tossing the branches and stirring the leaves just out the stained glass window so that the light spilled like gem-toned rain through the windows, flickering, dappled, spattering in over our hands and feet so that we were awash in color.
To hear the run of the wind, to feel its toss of the trees and the rippled light gave a startling intensity to our indoor, stillness. The word ‘vigil’ in that moment more aptly described the service than it ever had, to me, before. The total silence, the unwavering flames, seemed to signal that we waited. We listened. Halted by the signal voice of that wind as it roared outside. Part of me wanted to join the race. My soul scented action. My whole self stirred as I watched the dapple light, yearned toward the wind running holy circles round the church. The moment was my life writ into an instant, the yearning toward God that quickens and aches in me every day. As I always do, during the space I call a ‘quiet time’ in the morning but find hard to fill with real stillness, I tensed for action, hungry to be part of God’s quickening life. I felt I should be up and running too.
But my spirit was held, still as the unmoved flames. This was a time for silence.
This summer has been one of almost overwhelming action. Accomplishment too; I’m proud of what I’ve done. Six essays. A new job. A book completed. A new house settled. Community formed. But the rhythm of work can sweep you away, it has a flood tide power that makes it hard to escape its current once you’re in it. I find that as my productivity grows, my anxiety often does too. It’s a tenuous balance. The more I trust myself, the easier it is to step aside from trust in God. Trust, which is, as that challenging, beloved old Psalm puts it, the choice to ‘be still’. Still. Step aside from what I can accomplish into the great hush in which I am meant to ‘know that He is God’ and ‘apart from Him I can do nothing’.
But as I sat in the vigil that evening, held almost strictly by the silence, I realized that we there in our hush were not separate fro the rush of that sweet, roving wind. I thought of Pentecost – when a wind rushed down upon a group of people gathered to remember the body and blood of their Lord, just as we were, when flames settled upon the head of each, when the coming of the Spirit was both a storm around them, but also a single, steady, unquenchable flame in each of their hearts, hands, minds, taking up residence in the inmost room of their being.
I, when I pray, we gathered there in that vigil calm, all of us, when we seek the silent and inmost spaces are not absent from the rush of life. In a vigil quiet, we return to the center of the holy storm of God’s presence, we dwell at its heart, sit with the first reality of the flame kindled by that Spirit, unquenchable by any wind in this world because it was kindled by the wind wild Spirt of God. Wind and flame. Rush and silence. And the flame of love alight in my deepest heart. In the vigil moment, I am home.
I remember the close warmth of the Texas night, the small bedroom with its peach-toned walls, and the humid air punctuated by my mother’s swift, hard breath. I remember the smell; the pungent scent of the herbs I’d been told to boil, the greenish scent of olive oil, and a scent I’d never fully encountered before, that of skin and blood and sweat in a heady mingling of sour and sweet. “Stand closer, hon” said Tami, my mother’s impromptu midwife, “I need you to hand me that towel as soon as the baby comes. We’re close. Pour a little oil over my hands… that’s right.”
She looked at my mother, my exhausted, tense-muscled mother, and nodded. “One more hard push and the baby will be here.” I watched my mother close her eyes in a sheet-white face blank of every emotion except hard concentration and pain. I watched her sweat-soaked chest rise, saw her teeth set at the last, and I witnessed the cost of that push upon every nerve and muscle in her body.
And then all I saw was the baby.
She was born. In a rush of water and blood, my sister emerged, as if on a tide from another world, this small, pink, compact body, astonishingly complete. “Hello, little precious” Tami whispered, taking the tiny body in calm, firm hands, leaning over, rubbing her wet, new skin, reaching for the towel that I had at the ready. I couldn’t see for a moment and I felt suddenly panicked at the quiet. I leaned in close and was just in time to witness my sister’s first, shuddering breath, the crinkling of her tiny eyes, and the wail, the blessed, startled cry that all babies give at finding themselves outside the warm contours of their first home.
People speak of newborns as perfect, and that is the word that comes to my fingers, but I don’t think any of us really mean aesthetic perfection when we describe the wrinkled, raw, pink strangeness of a newborn child. I think we mean perfect in the biblical sense of complete. Whole. Lacking nothing. A tiny human being, each detail intricately formed, emerging into our hands with soul and mind and heart already beating. Perfect. Like the whole of the world at the dawn of creation. Here anew, with us.
I stared at my baby sister as she was cleaned and swaddled. It was only fair that my mother hold her first, but I hovered near, watching my radiant, exhausted mother with light in her eyes and on her face so clear and new it almost frightened me. She looked as I imagined people to look before they die, when they glimpse a world to come more beautiful than anything they have yet seen. Except, the world she glimpsed that night was the face of her newborn child. Together, we leaned over the flushed little face and round, wet head, and watched the big, new eyes open.
In that moment, I glimpsed a world beyond what I had imagined. In those dusky eyes, a sweet, murky swirl of brown and blue, I encountered the kindled flame of a new, precious life, a self formed and watchful, as its eyes first opened upon love.
I think of that first glimpse into the eyes of my beloved sister, Joy, every time I see another headline screaming further uncovered atrocities in the Planned Parenthood videos. I see her newborn face every time I read another article outlining the brutal, unthinkable practices of ‘crushing’ and ‘tearing’ that render a living child a pile of dead parts ready for sale. And I think of that night every time I see the face of Dr. Nucatola and others like her, the Planned Parenthood official filmed impassively discussing the ‘sale’ of baby ‘parts’. As I watch her face, I realize afresh the incomparable gift of my experience, at eleven years old, of watching my sister’s birth, the way it made me a witness to newborn life, in all the beauty and terror of childbirth, as a miracle. And I wonder what experiences and memories taught Dr. Nucatola to look at a child with an eye to dissect rather than to wonder.
What killed her imagination? Because amidst the rightly outraged rhetoric, the grieved calls for action, and rush to a fresh apologetic for the value of unborn children, I am struck by the fact that we who hold human life to be precious at all points and certainly before birth are faced not merely with the loss of an argument. We are faced with the loss of meaning. Dr. Nucatola and others like her can look at the same sum of parts that I saw in my sister, she can look at eyes just as dusky, at hands equally perfect, and with an educated mind and civilized mentality see merchandise where I see miracle.
We face a failure, not so much of rhetoric, as of imagination, that faculty that C. S. Lewis called ‘the organ of meaning’. We face a world struck by a blindness of biblical proportions in which people have physical sight, but no “in” sight, that inner viewpoint informed by the eternal by which we perceive value and depth far beyond the mere surface of things. ‘Insight’, which literally means ‘to gain an accurate, intuitive, and deep understanding of a person or thing.’
This is what Dr. Nucatola seems to be missing when it comes to babies. But insight isn’t restored by the operation of reason, as if argument were a scalpel with which we could cut away the growth of deception. I’ve spent a huge amount of time studying how children form a sense of self, and how imagination shapes the interior world from which we form our values and beliefs. The conclusion I have come to again and again on both a spiritual and educational level is that our inner sight is shaped by our narratives, by the stories both lived and imagined that immerse us in a certain way of seeing people, a certain quality of consciousness to the world around us.
Insight is powerfully formed by the lived sight of experience, something gained, not by a bullet-point list of memorized beliefs, but by a ‘taste and see’ knowledge in which we encounter first hand the love, truth, and goodness of God’s creation in the lives of redemptive people, in the felt love of our families, and also in the creation of novelists, artists, and musicians who use their craft to embody God’s reality. When it comes to a right value for the preciousness of childhood, the irreplaceable treasure of a newborn baby, perhaps what is needed is not only a trenchant apologetic attack but a rehabilitation of wonder in the gift of child life, a renewal of consciousness, a redeemed narrative regarding the gift of childhood.
Our current cultural narratives are increasingly focused on independence, pragmatism, and autonomy. We have submitted to a machinistic, technologically-driven mode of life in which we tacitly accept the materialist viewpoint of physical reality positing that only what can be observed, measured, and controlled is of worth. If something is not useful, fast, or easily accessible, we call it useless. We are busy, distracted, obsessed with activity and entertainment, eyes fixed on screens instead of faces. We are increasingly isolated from the people around us, and what little imagination we do have is dependent on whatever flickers across our screens.
The cultural narratives on which we are thus dependent have as their ideal the independent self, an ideal that unravels our connection to family, community, children, and even our place in the earth. The stories we increasingly tell are of those of personal autonomy and increasing utility, ones in which we throw off ‘the ties that bind’. We have embraced the narrative of the autonomous self and its rights, imagining in vivid films and satisfying novels the scenarios in which we throw off the shackles of family, tradition, and duty in favor of self-fulfillment. Self-discovery. Self-expression enabled by the boundless, impersonal world of technology. Self in total freedom from other totally free selves, none of us protesting any action of another unless it threatens something we desire.
But on a wide cultural scale, we live with the consequences of those narratives in the lives of lonely children, of families broken, of homes echoing with loss. For many, particularly of my generation, the only narrative known about children is that children encroach upon personal autonomy. Many people of my age were the confused children of freedom-seeking parents. Children have become a calculated cost, a measurable investment weighed against the more alluring investments of entertainment, pleasure, money, and career. Increasingly, they are viewed as the lesser end of the bargain. Apparently, their very flesh can be weighed and sold when their value for personal enrichment is exhausted.
Hard words are necessary for evil deeds. Something in my nature always holds back from judgment, it is both my gift and curse to want to stand apart, to see all sides. But the dismemberment and murder of children is wrong. Plain and simple. For once, I can think of no condemnation too strong for the actions and attitudes perpetuating what I believe is a form of murder. But I frankly don’t think any amount of accusation and argument will change Dr. Nucatola’s mind. She needs a renewed imagination, and the only way that will happen is if, somehow, someday, she is immersed in a narrative profoundly opposite to that of a utilitarian autonomy.
That is a narrative that we who are rooted in the life of Christ, children of a beloved Father, can richly offer. Dr. Nucatola needs to taste, see, and live the story of beloved childhood. She needs to be drawn into homes and lives in which the fact that we are all children of a loving God makes all children precious. She needs to sit at a dinner table with a three-year-old and have a wild-eyed conversation. She needs to take a walk with a six-year-old and see what can be seen (for oh, the little ones have such keen and different eyes). She needs to hold newborn babies whose families deeply desire them, because that shining-eyed desire, the same I saw in my mother on the night of Joy’s birth, will teach her something of a baby’s worth that no apologist’s argument ever can. She needs to look long enough into the eyes of an infant for new rooms to open in her imagination. She needs to touch a newborn, hold a baby until the tender skin and fragile, whole little limbs burn her very hands with their beauty.
She needs to be friends with women, with peers of mind and age who find the bearing and raising of children a joy. An endless work, a mighty challenge, yes. But also a fulfillment of the self in a way vastly different from autonomous pleasure, an expansion of the self in loving connection with other human beings. She needs to be in homes rich in peace, echoing with laughter, marked by prayer and a deep value for the memory of those before, a love for those to come. She needs to be surrounded by stories that challenge and change her narrative of childhood, by novels, films, essays, and art that teach her to see children as precious, that effect what Owen Barfield called ‘a felt change of consciousness’ in her view of infant life.
Perhaps Dr. Nucatola needs to perceive herself as a child, a wanted, delightful child. Perhaps she needs a radically different narrative of her own childhood. I cannot discern or judge her past, but her inmost understanding of babies wasn’t something that began when she got a degree. It was formed, day-by-day, throughout her life, by the narratives of parents and friends, by the atmospheres of love or loneliness in which she hoped and learned and grew.
Madeleine L’Engle once said that Hitler could only have risen to power because the writers and artists and musicians of Germany failed a generation. Sometimes I wonder how we have failed the children of our generation. I wonder if our cultural, even personal narratives, on a daily basis, have often diminished and devalued children. Have we presented them as precious? Have we, in our faith-shaped lives fully embraced children ourselves, as gifts and graces, as precious, as worthy of our work and care? Have we been willing to live, and create, at their slow, wondering pace, submitting ourselves to the service of another? Have we loved the homes in which they dwell? Have we willingly given the hours of ordinary work that they demand? Have we agreed with God that children are a gift, and a great, good work, and have we given ourselves to their love and care as God gives himself to us?
I am convicted, as I encounter the Planned Parenthood debacle, that one of the best ways I can affirm and defend the value of the unborn child is to create a narrative in my action and words that affirms my belief that children are a gift from God. I hope that these undercover videos will provoke, not just outrage and anger, but a renewed commitment to lives, homes, and creative works that celebrate children, make room for them, affirm their value not just as infants but at every stage of growth. I hope that we embrace anew the hard and beautiful work of raising, training, educating, watching, and caring for the children in our lives with love, grace, and verve. And I hope that we learn to invite those who have never tasted the beauty of childhood into the stories we create.
Dr. Nucatola needs new eyes, and until hers are healed, she may need to borrow those of a few gracious people around her. We need to condemn what is outrageously wrong, but condemnation alone won’t create the good we desire. Saying no only creates a void. It is the yes of love, of new creation that brings life where there was death. I once heard a speaker say that ‘only the loved can love, only the found can find’. We who love, who consider ourselves found and rooted in a Love that orders our value for unborn life must present to those we consider offensive, not just a face of outrage, but a countenance reflecting the love that makes beloved children of us all in the first place.
I took a few more books with me to England this time. Last time, I was strict. I knew I would acquire more books in the charity shops than I could pack and I figured I didn’t need to add to my already over-burdened return luggage. But this time round, as I move toward a longer stay, I decided I needed a few of my best friend books, the ones that companion my thoughts on a regular basis, that I want near in the off-chance that I need their courage, their particular shape of vision, their clarifying truth.
I was, though, slightly surprised at the ones I decided to bring. Out of the countless possibilities (and let us be frank, I already have several C.S. Lewis and Goudges here, a couple of Berry novels, and a collection of G.M. Hopkins poems, so don’t let their absence in this list fool you), the volumes in the picture below were, most of them, books I hadn’t picked up in several years. But each presented itself as an old friend who had deeply formed my thoughts, a friend who had seen me through the deep, dark, or luminous experiences that make me most profoundly who I am. Each of them informs the way I see – love, theology, study, vocation – and so I want them with me as I live all those out here in Oxford. So, meet my old friends. I’d be very curious to know yours.
The Lord of the Rings. Still one of my favorite stories in the world, a sort of touchpoint narrative, an inner landscape whose atmosphere renews my wonder, my sense, really, of the marvelous nature of the world in which I move amidst battles and beauties of my own.
Mysticism. I think people sometimes get nervous at this word. But Evelyn Underhill’s deep exploration of the topic is an exploration of what it means for the human heart, mind, and soul to move toward union with God. This book has shown me what prayer could be, what contemplation, and solitude, and even suffering form within the soul that responds to them as a way of deepening prayer, of moving ever closer toward Christ in will, thought, and affection.
Faith, Hope, and Poetry. Malcolm Guite’s exploration of imagination as a ‘truth-bearing faculty’ is still a touchpoint book for me, particularly because he explores the topic through the great poetry of the ages. I return again and again to the opening chapter in it’s joyous, clarifying explanation of how imagination communicates reality. Read my review of the book HERE.
The Art of the Commonplace. This book of Wendell Berry essays gave me a framework for understanding modern culture that has enriched and clarified many of my vague frustrations. His clear defense of community, his love of earth, his belief in the power of fidelity in home and family, is clearly outlined and defended in this collection of some of his signpost essays throughout the years. Health as Membership is one of my favorites.
The Genesis Trilogy. By Madeleine L’Engle. I brought this because it was one of the first books I read in which I encountered the beneolvence of God, the pulsing, radiant quality of his love in an almost tangible way. Madeleine’s joy in the beauty of what God has made both in earth and people is a quality that deeply formed my sense of what it means to be holy, and what a true, and joyous spirituality can be.
The others I already have with me, and the several I wanted to bring and couldn’t fit…? Simplicity by Richard Foster. Pilgrim’s Inn by Elizabeth Goudge. Bread in the Wilderness by Thomas Merton. Surprised by Joy by C.S. Lewis. On Fairy Stories by Tolkien. Lilith by George MacDonald. Middlemarch by George Eliot. Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery. Speak What We Feel by Frederick Buechner. King Lear (truly!). And oh, always a few more.
For now though, I’d love to know what you would grab if you could only take a few old favorites with you to a new home. Entertain me. I’m stuck writing essays for two more weeks. Off to study the resurrection in 1 Corinthians…
“Somewhere we know that without silence words lose their meaning, that without listening speaking no longer heals, that without distance closeness cannot cure.”
As a writer, I tend to think that words can always save the day. Words, to me, can be woven into the rope by which I pull myself out of confusion or tether myself again to hope. Words are companions that take me by the hand and show me, letter by letter, the way ahead when I am lost or disoriented in my journey. Words are friends and mentors, bright companions whose hands I take in writing, guides that help me to discover the road I need to journey toward my dreams or goals or the truth I yearn to find.
Strange then, to find myself wordless in the past few months. Not strictly wordless, I suppose, considering I’m at work on my 9th essay out of twelve, the last six of which are due in less than a month. But wordless in my inmost self. In those interior rooms of soul and thought, words have, in many ways, quietly taken their leave. When I reach out for them, I find only silence. If you look at my journal, you will find great blank pages after the scrawled, swift entries of the winter. My writing stopped just as spring began. Just as life got intense and changeful and new.
Now, I’m almost to the end of my summer break. One luminous year at Oxford, down. Two more to come (I found I didn’t want to stop). Good work of all sorts on my plate. A book on the life and meaning of home just co-authored with my mom (out in January). Countless essays to begin and finish (if you are inclined to pray for me…oh, please do). A year of vibrant meetings to plan (since, well, I did happen to be appointed President of the Oxford C.S. Lewis Society). Ministry to seek. Church to attend. People to love. All of taking place within the formation of a new life overseas which is a startling thing in and of itself. And let us be honest, I’ve barely kept my head above water with all the essay and writing work this summer.
Somewhere in the swift midst of all that, I found that my words were too frail to bear the wild clamor of emotion and excitement and work and anxiety and determination and delight and confusion that rose within me. I found that what I needed instead was a deep silence, a quiet sturdy enough to hold and shelter me as the world and my own self shifted around and within me. Sometimes silence is a great a luminous thing, sometimes it is a journey all its own, sometimes it is a power that hones and trains words so that they are swift and muscled and ready to climb mountains.
This time, silence was more like a small, cozy room in which I rode out a great thunderstorm. Life, my friends, can be a wild thing. But the air out the windows of my soul is a little quieter, the sky is dappled as futures and desires and goals settle like new fallen rain into the earth of my inmost being, and words have come knocking, curious to discover the self I’ve grown to be and all that I’ve discovered in the meantime. Here I am.
I think a new phase is beginning. Both here, and in my larger life. Something I’ll be pounding out in the next weeks is what, amidst a full academic and local (and long-distance family) life, my writing ought to look like. I find that despite the immense amount of academic writing I have to do, the call and desire toward a writing that is creative, contemplative, devotional, and imaginative only grows. But I have an extremely limited amount of time.
If I only have one morning a week in which to pursue this kind of writing… what should I choose? My children’s story? That novel catching at my imagination for years now? A collection of devotional, creative, Scripture-based essays ? The books I’ve planned to write forever, one on beauty as a form of truth, the other on suffering as the broken gift that makes a wholeness we never imagined before the breaking…?
And how will it all form the space here on this blog, this little corner cottage of a world on the Internet. Will I share snippets from those larger projects (as I increasingly focus on them), or brief updates on books and study and adventures, or should I let images speak more here…? All is in process right now as I look at what it means to consider writing long term as my delight, and increasingly, my vocation (amidst other things).
For now, I took all the above rambling to say, hello again. I hope your summer has been lovely. I haven’t meant to forsake this space, but there just weren’t words to fill it. I think good old Fr. Nouwen is right about silence and words – I find that in the hush, the words that simply could not bear what I needed to express are now almost strong enough to take my meaning forth again. More soon as those words foray back out into the world.
Morning dawned gorgeous on May Day in Oxford. I was up at 5, out in the blue tinted air with the burnings embers of a new kindled sunrise on the horizon. Girded with good friends and the energy of dawn and motion, I joined the gathering river of people streaming through the early morning streets of Oxford, to gather in a slightly sleep-eyed crowd at the foot of Magdalen Tower. At 6 a.m. on the dot, a bell struck from the tower and the crowd shushed itself, the insistent sound like a sudden wind in the street. And the choir, watching the sun rise from the top of the tower, faced the dawn and began to sing:
The song is a traditional hymn of praise called “Hymnus Eucharisticus” and this is the translation from the original Latin:
O Thee, O GOD the FATHER–Thee,
All worship, praise, and glory be!
Thy hand bestows our daily bread,
And that wherewith our souls are fed.
To Thee, O JESU–Thee, the SON–
To Thee, alone-begotten One,
Who for our sakes didst not abhor
The Virgin’s womb–our hearts we pour.
When Thou upon Thy Cross wast laid,
To GOD a willing offering made,
The hope of life first dawned below–
Our joy, our only Saviour, Thou!
To Thee, O HOLY GHOST–by whom
The Babe was born of Mary’s womb,
Both GOD and Man–to Thee we raise
The hymn of everlasting praise.
O THREE IN ONE, Who didst devise
Such pathway back to Paradise;
This mystery of Love be sung
In every age by every tongue!
The quiet was deep, the music in rich threads that seemed to twine with the rising light. And when the hymn, and a beautiful prayer, and another two songs were finished, thousands of people cheered:
And another marvelous May Morning joined a grand parade of other celebrations in Oxford. I could have danced right along with the Morris dancers with their bells and flowers twirling up and down the streets as we walked back to breakfast. And now, the sun is risen, the sky is blue, and my mind echoes with the music. Rejoice. Rejoice! Spring is here and life leaps up anew.
(PS. I’ve been absent from here for awhile. I’ve needed some space in which to reconnoitre the intensity of this season. I shall return soon.)
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
Rembrandt van Rijn, Portrait of Christ's Head, c. 1650