The afternoon light is the colour of rain as I write. It drifts in over my hands, fills my eyes, makes them quiet. I can feel the morning’s whir of thought and word easing to a halt. I’ve tried to cram an hour more of work in after lunch but my brain is slow, my eyes crave stillness, my heart yearns to put away the screen and take these dove-coloured moments simply to watch the changing sky over the church tower, to speak with a friend, or savour (not devour) the lyrical writing of the novel I began the day before.
So I do.
I really do. It’s a bit of a triumph for me. Mere weeks before, I would have forced myself forward, driven my brain to distracted attention, egged myself on to more work with intermittent glances at facebook or email or whatever I could find to briefly pep my weary mind. At the time, with exams ahead and papers to finish, the urgency seemed needed. It seemed right to push myself to the edge of my capacity. And I recognise that sometimes a person has to stretch to the limit, a glorious expenditure of self in a worthy and all encompassing cause. I’m glad I did.
The problem is how to get back to normal. To live, again, within the sustainable rhythms of work, rest, relationship, creativity. The problem is that I have trained my mind to frenzy and now that I am back in ‘normal’ time, my brain is still both weary and restless. Unused to calm, unready for work. The easy thing would be to meet that odd combination with the multifold distractions on offer via the screens that sit so easily to hand. The problem with that is the fact that such distraction could easily become the new norm. Sometimes I wonder if it is. With the pace of life the way it is these days, and the iPhone nearby and the schedule full, I often wonder if frenzy is the default setting for modern existence.
But frenzy does not a writer, nor a soul at peace, make. It’s good to be writing again, to be in a season where creativity is demanded of me in the crafting of this next book because it reminds me that I cannot just command inspiration. If I have given my mind nothing but clickbait and hastily screened articles with no real rest or hush, then all I can expect is the static noise of that craziness. To write, to say what I think is truest about myself and words and the stories that form us, I have to create the tilled space in which I can both listen to the Holy Spirit and in which creativity, idea, inspiration can grow, little seedlings of wisdom that will die in too strong a wind of hurry.
I’m learning to write afresh, and I’m learning to live afresh, and one of the first ways I’m learning to do that is to have set times when I do not write. Rather, I rest. Rather, I read, or bake, or sleep, or walk in the world whose summer fields are a feast of beauty. I meet the weariness of brain and body with assent; I recognise my limits. Ah, this is not my strength. I dislike limits. I dislike the weakness of my own body. But to rest, to yield to weariness is the pattern and grace I’m having to relearn in these early days of my writing summer. What’s interesting is what it teaches me about what it means to live in general. I cannot expect to live in that joy that is possible in the small gifts of the present if my attention is absent. I cannot ask for closeness to God and peace of heart if I have paid no attention and made no space for the presence of the Beloved.
I’m in a period of recollection. I like this word. I’ve been reading Evelyn Underhill again these days, nourished by her gentle guidance toward that centre room of quiet in the heart and the prayer that grows from it. To the saints and Christian mystics, the term recollection meant the constant and needed return from the world of action to that inner place of prayer. It means, quite literally, to remember, to take the time to recall the love of God in its present generosity, and so to dwell again in its grace. I like the term because it evidences the fact that life drives us from the inner place. Often, in my idealism, I have considered this my failure. Surely if I were really serious enough about loving God, I’d never feel anxious, never get caught up in distraction, never waste my time on useless things, never feel anxious or afraid.
Recollection though, teaches me that the ebb and flow, the battle, the work, the busyness, the fear, are part of the story I live in loving God. Here, in the broken place, the good work of the everyday is always a fight, and peace must always be claimed, again. And again, and again. I just have to keep returning. Part of that means pushing aside the lesser rest of distraction for the real grace of quiet. That’s the rhythm I’m learning afresh, the will and grace to return, to pull myself out of the frenzy and choose times of hush. To put aside good, tough work in order to look, wonder, love. It’s the discipline without which I’ll never write anything worth reading, and it’s the rhythm by which I keep myself rooted in the love of God, the daily, given grace for each moment.
And as the marvelous Anne Morrow Lindbergh said, who also knew the power of recollection, life always “rushes back into the void, richer, more vivid, fuller than before”.
May such a richness be yours today.
(Next post: summer reading list! Get your own favourites ready, I’ll want to know what’s on yours as well…)
Friends. I made it! Papers submitted, exams survived, my Oxford undergrad (I can’t believe I’m saying this) just about finished.
My goodness. For about a month there I think I just about ate, slept, breathed, and dreamed theology. Trinitarian intricacies, atonement models, high christologies, the meanings of ‘power’ in Romans, the significance of ‘signs’ in John. At the end of it, I donned my ‘subfusc’ (the academic dress required for exams), pinned in my carnation (white for the first exam, pink for middles, red for final), and tromped down with all the other windblown undergrads for three hour examinations in grand old exam rooms on Oxford’s High Street. It’s the kind of thing you can barely imagine before you do it; three hours to write three full essays from memory when you’re not even sure what the questions will be? But then adrenaline kicks in, and you do it. The triumph when you emerge into the sunlight sounds like trumpets and the swish of white-winged wild birds. You stumble out of the exam schools and feel you might as well just march down to the registrar and sign up for a Ph.D. (Hah!). After my last exam, I rode this high for about three days.
Then I crashed. But it was just in time for a bit of adventuring. Some open road for the renewal of soul and mind. Guess where I’ve been a-wandering? St. Andrews first of all, for some rollicking fun with my darling sister (yes, we did need both the french fries and the onion rings – it was an evening farm market and we were famished):
Look at the mellow, sea-tinted glory of this place. I walked and walked, trod those old stones and got a bit of their peace in the soles of my feet.
Then to London, with my girls, to see Joy’s first official play premiered at the London Encounter. It was a fascinating 20-minute monologue centred on the character of police inspector Javert, from Les Miserables, exploring his grapple with both law and grace. Let me just say, I have a radiantly creative and dramatically astute sister. (Pretty proud over here.)
Then, to Devon with my beloved. And oh friends, the dappled, green-hilled beauty, the narrow roads, the high hedges, the changing sky. The light, like diamonds and water and laughter coming through ancient trees growing out of even older stone walls, trees you feel will turn around and talk if you stay an extra moment.
And flowers. Fields and gardens and hedges resplendent with their glory.
And oh friends, fresh eggs and roses from the farm where we stayed. I think my English hostess was probably a little overwhelmed by my repeated gratitude. But those roses. I’ve never smelled any as sweet. And the cottage. I sat in that long, mellow-lighted old kitchen with the rain light stirring through the ivied windows and just watched. My eyes craved stillness after months of intensity. My soul craved gentle, crafted words. My hands craved my pen, and the slow, explorative space of my journal.
And now, I am back in Oxford. And I’m writing afresh, but not an academic essay this time. Friends, I’ve plunged into the journey of my next book, of this new world of words that will be my tribute to the books, the words, the stories that formed me. A book that will, I hope, be a gift to those who read it, an invitation into the splendors of the reading life in all its comfort, its wonder, its hope. I’ll be writing more here again and my heart swells with the joy of free, creative time and the freedom to write afresh in this dear old space. A new season pounds on the heels of the old…let the next adventure begin.
If you’ve stuck around this long, bless you. I’ll write again soon.
The more I study this image, the more I find. The whole of creation is caught up in this presentation of the Cross as the cosmic renewal of life, love, and fellowship. I especially love the detail of chickens and flowers and little animals; these are charming but also a powerful image of incarnational life reaching into the very tiniest corners of the ordinary, intent to redeem. Thus, continued:
The image central to our first piece of art, the apse mosaic in the church of San Clemente in Rome, is that of the Cross as a living tree whose burgeoning life is a living vine encircling the world in total renewal. Though dating to a later period, this piece robustly embodies the vision of quickened life inherent in the spirit of the early church and its emphasis on Christ’s victory over death. Constructed in the twelfth century and dedicated to Pope St. Clement (supposed to be either first or third in the line of St. Peter’s successors), the mosaic sits over the high altar, drawing the eye to the central figure of a peaceful Christ on a living cross, with the apse filled by the tendrils of the vines that grow from the foot of the cross, each circled vine picturing an aspect of human culture, work, or creation, the whole of the picture crammed with human and animal life and activity.
It is fascinating to note that in early Christian portrayals of Christ in art, Jesus was not pictured on the Cross until the 5th century. The early church was intent upon the portrayal of Christ as risen, the victor over death and redeemer of creation. Even in the earliest extant images of the crucifixion (in a series of ivory panels dated c. 420, and a rougher image on a church door from Rome, dating c. 432) the Christ portrayed is alive, alert, and muscular, not defeated by the cross, but defeating it by his very presence on it. The vine cross in St. Clement reflects that life-affirming portrayal. Also worth noting is that though the image of the Cross as the tree of life isn’t frequent, there are other luminous examples, including the 14th c. painting by Pacino di Bonaguida, as well as the much later image created by Sir Edward Burne Jones in 1888 for St Paul’s Within-the-Walls in Rome, suggesting a recurring fascination with this symbolic image. Christopher Irvine describes it as ‘ubiquitous’ in Christian ‘liturgy and iconography’, alluding to a phrase of the Venerable Bede ‘about the cross being planted at the centre of the world’[i].
The cross, in this great work, reflects exactly that, sitting in the centre of the apse and the centre of what can be seen as a garden, the self-giving of Christ in Gethsemane making it a second and renewed garden of Eden. Furthering this reading are the four streams portrayed as flowing from the foot of the Cross, the four rivers of Eden renewed, with harts portrayed quenching their thirst, a clear allusion to Psalm 42, and also perhaps to the water that Jesus offered to the Samaritan woman. These images of life rooted in and springing forth from Christ’s death communicate several theological ideas.
First is the incarnational emphasis on Christ’s given body as restorative of, not just the soul of mankind, or even of peace between God and mankind, but rather the whole of creation. As Torrance made clear in his magisterial work on the Incarnation, the work of Christ was to ‘assume our human nature as we have it in the fallen world that he might heal, sanctify and redeem it’[ii]. Christ was the second Adam, Gethsemane was the Garden of Eden renewed, and because of Christ’s already redemptive life, his death accomplishes the victory in which Paul exults in Romans 15:55.
‘Recapitulation’ is the reality pictured in the apse mosaic, a model of atonement drawn from the writings of Ireneaus ‘whose ‘central element is… the restoring and perfecting of creation’[iii]. Indeed, the whole world appears to be framed in the whorled leaves stretching round the apse. Within their circles are images of every aspect of human culture and endeavour; medicine, law, agriculture, religion, right down to the delightful addition of a housewife feeding her chickens in the left hand corner. The vines rooted in the cross directly suggest Jesus’ words at the Last Supper of ‘abide in me’. They present a profoundly Incarnational picture, portraying the whole of creation renewed by its rootedness, its ‘abiding’ in the given body of Jesus. The kingdom of heaven thus comes in the local, particular spaces of daily human life as they are rooted in the Incarnational life of Christ.
Second is the cross as a place of life renewed and death defeated, with the emphasis on what is created afresh, rather than what is lost. There is no hint here of God’s wrath or of Christ as punished, elements inherent in a penal view of the atonement (to be discussed below), but rather as God and Christ both participating in the total self-gift of Jesus to restore the lost creation and humanity. The underlying idea is one of victory as a symbol of excruciating torture and violent death has been transformed by Jesus’ sacrificial death into the enduring symbol of verdant life. The atonement emphasis in this work is upon Christ’s self-gift as restorative rather than punitive. His hands are opened upward as he gives his body as the seed from which the new life of humanity and creation grows. His eyes are closed, not in resistance or agony, but in what appears to be quiet acceptance. Irvine observes that though this is not the ‘open-eyed victorious Christ of earlier liturgical art’, his death is portrayed as ‘release…to the new and burgeoning life’ of ‘God’s redeeming work’.[iv]
Third is the presence of God the Father in this crucifixion and renewal. A strong theology of Incarnation makes God the Father active and present in the person of Christ, not separated from Jesus, but participatory in his redemptive life. God is both ‘the reconciler and the reconciled’[v], and in the mosaic he is represented by the great hand that reaches out of heaven (and the ceiling of the apse) to hold the top of the Cross. There is here, in the words of 20th century theologian Gustave Aulen, ‘no cleavage between Incarnation and atonement’[vi]. Rather, as Hebrews has it, Christ is the very image of God, and that image, as the contemporary theologian Hans Boersma poignantly argues, is that of a welcoming Father, a hospitable God imaged in the apse by the opened hands of Christ and the protective hand of the Father. The imagery of the apse mosaic is thus of an all-encompassing redemption accomplished in the very person of the incarnate God as his life, and willing death, renews every aspect of humanity and creation.
[i] Irvine, Christopher The Cross and Creation in Christian Liturgy and Art (London: SPCK Publishing, 2013) pg. 163
[ii] T.F. Torrance, The Incarnation, (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008) pg. 62
Well friends, I’m about to go all academic on you – or at least as academic as art, story, song obsessed me can get – by giving you a taste of what I’ve been working on in the past couple of years. I yearn to write here, to have time to work out more creatively the ideas I’m discovering academically. That will come – and this season of study is so rich. But I hate to leave a static silence, so I’ll let you see where my curiosity has been roaming in the past year. (And you can pray for me as I study for my exams – three more weeks!)
This essay was one from last year in which I looked at different models of atonement theology through the lens of art. I will admit, I have combined theology and art or literature in as many of my essays as I could because I so believe in the imagination as a ‘truth-bearing faculty’ (thank you, Malcolm Guite). I deeply believe that theological truth can be encountered and known in a ‘language without words’, and the power of this shapes us in a further and different way from doctrinal statements alone. In art, story, or song, we are given the chance to see theology afresh, to encounter its power and beauty in image.
So. It’s a bit technical. But I’ll work it out someday in poetry and story too. Let us begin:
In the opening to his book on the subject of beauty as ‘a category indispensable to Christian thought’, David Bentley Hart observes that ‘the church has no argument …more convincing than the form of Christ.’[i] Hans Urs von Balthasar echoes this by describing the ‘beauty’ of the Cross, noting that it is ‘unbearable’ to a worldly aesthetics.[ii] Yet one of the primary ways that the Cross has been presented throughout history is in countless works of art, created both for the sacred realm of church, and the wider arena of culture. That these works of image and imagination are also ‘arguments’, able to communicate theological truth, is where this essay begins. For as John Ruskin, the great art critic observed, ‘great nations write their autobiographies in ‘their deeds…their words… and the book of their art…and the last is the most trustworthy’[iii].
Replacing ‘nations’ with the institution of the Church, this essay will open with a brief exploration of the way in which the form of Christ is presented in the autobiography of its art, presenting both theological claims and the history of the Church in a language without words. Our specific focus will then turn to artistic depictions of Christ’s death, and the theologies of atonement that they embody. We will survey major models of atonement theology, using this basis to explore what two specific pieces of art communicate regarding the death of Christ. The pieces of focus will be the ‘vine cross’ mosaic in the apse of the church of San Clemente, in Rome, and a lithograph by Walter Spitzer, created as an illustration for the French writer Malraux’s novel, La Tentation de l’occident(The Temptation of the West).
To open, we must briefly examine the validity of art as a means of theological communication. In a modern context shaped by Enlightenment empiricism, truth, even theology, is commonly regarded as the transmission of objective statements that can be analysed and argued. This concept of knowing is one that grew concurrently with the scientific age, in which materialism and objectivity moulded our understanding of knowledge as something observed and quantified. But as postmodern theory, not to mention theologians like Rowan Williams, Hans Urs von Balthasar, and generations of our ancestors would instantly recognize, some knowledge cannot be reduced to stated information. In evaluating the potential of art to communicate theology, we must first recognize that truth can be present in a language other than words, whether of image, emotion, or experience.
In Richard Viladesau’s explanation, the communication of art is ‘nonverbal, but… not for that reason pre-rational or pre-spiritual’[iv]. Art can actually be ‘a way of thinking’[v] theologically in and of itself, allowing us a qualitatively different understanding via image and symbol from the knowledge gained by ratiocination. Jeremy Begbie says that ‘the arts give expression to a metaphorical way of perceiving the world… which reminds us there is always more to the world than we can name, control, and grasp’[vi]. Rather than standing apart from the doctrine we wish to understand, quantifying and describing it, we can look through a piece of art, gaining a ‘symbolic apprehension’ of ‘theological truth’[vii]. This immersive knowledge is precisely the alternate view that a piece of art can offer us as we look through its portrayal of Christ.
Gerardus van der Leeuw gives this theological shape with his assertion (quoted by Viladesau) that ‘a theological understanding of the arts must begin with soteriology,’ with Christ’s incarnational representation of God giving ‘art and religion their common essence as answers’[viii] or responses to the startling fact of the Incarnation. In this, one hears echoes of Tolkien’s idea that artists are ‘co-creators’, makers made in the image of a Creator, or the poet Madeleine L’Engle’s concept of the artist as participating in the ‘courageous obedience’ of Mary, mother of Jesus, becoming a ‘bearer of the work’[ix] at the request of the Holy Spirit. Both writers recognise that art shares in the incarnational task of Christ as He comes to live in all believers so that the believing artist can participates with the Holy Spirit in revealing Christ to the world.
The resulting multifaceted presentation of Christ powerfully conveys the reality that theology is not static nor wholly contained in one doctrinal system. In a mode profoundly different from stated truth, art allows us to ‘see’ the crucifixion through another’s eyes, enlarging our own perspective while helping us to recognise the limited nature of our view point when it remains in isolation. When centuries of artistic portrayals of the same theological event are set side-by-side, we immediately grasp the various ways in which the artists have seen this event, and the theological ideas shaping their aesthetic communication.
Art is thus inherently a portrayal of church history as well, enfleshing the doctrinal arguments and developments of the Church in the imagery of its devotional, architectural, and popular art. As witnessed in Richard Harries’ book examining ‘the passion in art’[x] through the centuries, artists of every age ‘could not avoid making a doctrinal point’[xi] in their works. The art of the catacombs, of church basilicas, or prayer books and privately commissioned paintings, is a unique record of theological debate and imagination. Art is thus uniquely suited to a discussion of differing theological viewpoints in that a picture offers a literally alternate point of ‘view’, not a differently worded or argued statement. We encounter their particular theological emphasis in the immediacy of image…
…to be continued.
‘Vine Cross’ in apse of San Clemente, Rome
[i] Hart, David Bentley The Beauty of the Infinite (Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s, 2004), p. 3
[ii] von Balthasar, quoted in Viladesau, Richard, Theological Aesthetics (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 149
[iii] Ruskin, John St. Mark’s Rest: The history of Venice, written for the help of the few travellers who still care for her monuments, (Oxford: 1879), pg. vii
[iv] Viladesau, Richard, Theological Aesthetics (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), pg. 16
[v] Viladesau, Richard, Theological Aesthetics (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), pg. 16
I may have three essays to finish (20,000 words all told), two exams to study myself silly for, and you know, laundry to do and floors to clean, but I was up and out the door at 5:30 today with the birds singing me down the streets. May Morning in Oxford is a spectacle not to be missed, a child-hearted festival that makes me want to laugh and dance all at once. And let us be honest, that’s exactly what all the Morris dancers on the street do.
I joined the restless, happy crowd as the sky blushed with dawn and right at the stroke of 6, the Magdalen College choir raised their lovely voices in a hymn sung on the top of the Magdalen College Tower for centuries. And the crowd hushed (mostly, helped by vigorous ‘shusshing’!) to hear the woven harmonies raised to open the merry month of May:
If you’ve never heard of Oxford’s May Morning, go here for the BBC ‘s take on this 500-year-old tradition.
But the gist of this delightful festival day is that at dawn on the 1st of May, the Magdalene College choir welcomes the spring with the Hymnus Eucharisticus, a song of praise lifted to God at start of the joyous May season. It’s sung in Latin, but here’s the first verse:
We worship you, O God the Father, we offer you our praise, for you nourish our bodies, and minds with heavenly grace…
And then, a vividly imaged blessing is said, evoking the luxuriant beauty of spring and asking that it spur us to love and grace… or something close to that. I’ve searched and searched and can’t find the text. But the pith of it made my heart swell with thanks for the beauty of the earth today, for the wholeness always on its way to find us even here in the broken place. And it reminded me of this gorgeous tapestry that I found last week and have been waiting to show you:
This is by Pauline Baynes, the original illustrator of The Chronicles of Narnia. Look at it! It’s the whole of creation in redeemed dance! It reminds me so richly of the ending to C.S. Lewis’s Perelandra, where he describes the great music and harmony of all living creatures in an unfallen world. This circled dance is the original reality, and its the one we’re journeying toward in Christ. It’s a feast for heart and eye.
Friends, may the first morning of merry May set you dancing in heart and body.
And now, I really do have to go act like a responsible student again…
Friends! I bear glad tidings. Let me begin with a (very short) story:
Once upon a time there was a girl named Sarah who loved good books and wanted the rest of the world to know why they should too. Being an idealistic girl and the child of idealistic parents, she wrote a book about it (Caught Up in a Story) and started a website where people could come to delight in and discover stories galore. But, then, being also adventurous and led by all the great books she’d read into the attempting of her dreams, she ended up in Oxford, city of her writerly heroes, and before she knew it she was a student of theology. With a gazillion papers due all the time. And then, on top of all that, she got married. And somewhere along the way the Storyformed project got put drastically on hold, much to her dismay.
Until the charming, insightful, and courageous Holly showed up to save it and revive the website and start the conversation afresh….
I am so very happy to tell you all that my dear friend Holly, a writer and fellow-lover of books will be re-launching the Storyformed website and project with regular reviews, blogs, and a Storyformed podcast to boot. Holly has her own rich vision of coming alongside parents and teachers and all lovers of children’s books as a companion, resource, and encourager in the reading life. I’ll be joining in for podcasts and blogs here and there, but I cannot wait to see how the Storyformed concept grows afresh under Holly’s nourishment.
If you are looking for great children’s literature recommendations, for podcasts and blogs on the power of reading and imagination, and for a community eager to share the delights and joys of the reading life, then please, pop over to Storyformed.com and say hello to Holly. Listen to the new podcasts, enter the giveaways, and join with me in celebrating the renewal of Storyformed.
There’s nothing I like better than for someone to ask me for a booklist. So since various lovely commenters have requested book lists in response to recent posts, I feel delightfully honour-bound to comply. Those requested were a list of the grace-filled novels I mentioned in the Lent in Love post, and the titles of the books I am exploring for my paper on theodicy (i.e., the paradox-studded study of God’s goodness and power in a clearly fallen and often evil world).
I’ll start today with the novels, since we are in Lent, and I think they are a gift to give shape to the quietness of this season, to provide companions of imagination in this reflective time. I’m delighted to share these – they are the quiet books that delve into the inner lives of their characters. They are pilgrimages, not of outer adventure, but of inward exploration. They are stories that have companioned me in some of the most difficult times of my life. We’ll start with those in this post.
I find the theodicy booklist to be more difficult as I am reading widely. While there are several main ‘camps’ that theologians generally join, there are countless, subtle variations in the way that theologians wrestle with the reality of God as good in the midst of a fallen world. Some of the books in my reading list, I mostly embrace, some I find challenging, some problematic or just downright wrong. The wide reading allows me to form the argument and theology I need to make a claim in a paper, but its difficult to know what to recommend here.
I’m thinking on it. And I’ll have a list to you soon. But for now, the novels.
Lila, Home, andGileadby Marilynne Robinson. I was late in loving Gilead, and in fact, it was the last book I read in what could loosely be considered a trilogy. It was Lila’s story that captivated me first, the inward journey of an orphaned girl in her quiet wrestle with a Christianity that would seem to set her at odds with the woman who raised and protected her. I love Lila’s frank questions and stark wisdom, and the slow, startling love that rises between her and a deeply solitary minister. Robinson’s narration is masterful, I found myself thinking along with Lila, forgetting myself as the reader and simply looking through her eyes. Home gripped me differently. I read it during Lent last year, a story of, well, a difficult story, a tale of one family’s many hidden sorrows, a story of human frailty and the way that the hurting of one person so often wounds another, even those beloved to us. I love this as a Lenten book, one that helps a reader to journey admit what is broken, to realise the sorrowing state of the human heart. Only in acknowledging our frailty can we realise the possibility that we will be made whole. It’s a story to make you hope for Easter. And finally, Gilead, the one I was supposed to read first: the letters of an old man to the young son whose adulthood he knows he will not see.
Remembering: A Novel (Port William) and Hannah Coulterby Wendell Berry. I’ve been on an unintended, but no-less intent campaign to get as many people to read Wendell Berry’s novels as I can. It started with a paper I wrote in the doctrine of the Incarnation, when I suddenly realised that the novels of Wendell Berry were saying in story form exactly what I was reading in the best works of Incarnational theology. Remembering is, I think, an ideal Lenten story, one you could read (possibly) in a day, the story of a man who has lost his hold on identity, family, and faith. It is his inward pilgrimage as he comes near to breaking, but finds that he is ‘held, though he cannot hold’, as he discovers afresh ‘the blessedness that he has lived in, in his anger, and did not know’, one that kept the faith when he could not. Hannah Coulter is equally arresting in a different way, the quiet account of a Kentucky housewife who comes slowly to understand that it is in our faithfulness to the place and people given it, ‘our love for it and our keeping of it, that this world is joined to Heaven’.
The Island of the Worldby Michael O’Brien. Imagine that a medieval mystic poet wrote a modern novel with communist Yugoslavia as his setting and a little boy as his hero and you will begin to get the gist of this book. Following Josip from his idyllic childhood in a village called ‘Rajskja Polja’ (the ‘fields of heaven’), the book chronicles the brutal loss of his innocence and his growth into a mathemetician and ‘cultural rebel’ under Tito’s regime. The gift of this story lies in its unblinking portrayal of human brutality as it is juxtaposed with the light, the poetry, the Love that still bubbles up in the heart of a wounded boy and calls him relentlessly home. Longer review HERE.
The Scent of Water by Elizabeth Goudge. I know I’ve mentioned this one before, but of all Goudge’s novels, it is one that is for me almost devotional, a riveting story that traces the making of one woman’s soul in the wild solitude of mental illness, and the way that her story captures and renews the faith of the girl to whom she left both her home and her journals. I have a quote from the book as the background to my laptop screen at the moment: ‘there are three necessary prayers and they have three words each. They are these: ‘Lord have mercy. Thee I adore. Into Thy hands.’ If in times of distress you hold to these, you will do well.’
Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton. It’s been too long since I read this, but it was one of the novels I read in my teens that helped me to understand what profound grief looks like, what doubt and struggle can be in the heart of a faithful believer. Set in South Africa in the era of apartheid, it is a story in which grief, the brokenness of sinful people, and the sorrow of those that love them, is unblinkingly recounted. It is a tragedy in its way. But one whose final word is a grieved, aching hope.
Adam Bede (Oxford World’s Classics)e by George Eliot. George Eliot is just ever and always one of my favourite writers, a woman who wrestled profoundly with her faith, and eventually rejected the Christianity she knew, but lived always in pilgrimage toward the Christ whom, I think, she never completely abandoned and whose self-giving love she portrayed again and again in her profoundly human heroes and heroines. This story of a pure-hearted farmer and his love for both a passionate Methodist woman and a fallen girl explores compassion, sacrifice, and selfless love.
Ah friends, may these stories companion you from sorrow to grace, from grief or frailty, to the knowledge of the Love that holds you all times, even when you feel you cannot hold.
Last month I was in London, very early on a frosty morning. Thomas was in town for a theological conference and I’d tagged along, intent on finally snatching a couple of hours at the British National Gallery (can you believe I’d never visited before?). But I was tired. The day had barely begun and I already felt bone weary, dogged by work half-finished and my own travel bag of current troubles and a few of the headlines I’d read on the bus that morning. The walking day ahead looked very long, and my adventurous spirit seemed to have wandered off without me. It was cold, so I walked aimlessly around the squares of Covent Garden, downhearted, waiting for shops to open, hoping for a cafe.
And then there was music. Abruptly. Music so full and living and quick it was like sunlight slicing through fog. The tint of the air seemed to visibly brighten. I watched people all round the echoing, high space perk up their ears, and start walking toward the music, something golden and swift by Mozart. I followed. We found the musicians, four of them, by leaning over a balcony, looking down into one of the warmer corners of Covent Garden. They were grouped in a half moon, a cellist, a flautist, and two violinists. Bundled in faded sweaters and battered boots, with sly flairs of colour in one violinist’s blue scarf, and the flautist’s red beret.
And they danced as they played, stomped and twirled in perfect, but friendly, laughing sync. They played with frost-reddened noses and fingers, but the swift, laughing music belied the cold. In fact, that music took no notice of anything but its own joy, and it seemed to come from deep within them, part of heart and muscle, emerging into their fingers, received by the strings of the violin or flute or mellow-throated cello. I watched them, with a dozen others, fascinated. People smiled. Toes tapped. Who knew why they had braved the cold and dawn to shatter the fog with their song light. All we knew was that they laughed as they played. They caught our eyes and winked.
And in a sudden, unravelled happiness, standing at that rail, I knew a quality of joy that comes more and more rarely to me since childhood. I knew innocence. Happiness without shadow of fear. I stood there for half an hour as they played on and on, and I left the cold and heaviness of my heart behind. The music made me childlike because for an instant, its potent beauty allowed me a shifted, inner vision of the joy that is coming, coming, coming. The dark, fleeting shadows of my morning trouble, my weariness, my fear, were phantoms that blessedly died in the strong light of the beauty singing around me.
And I knew afresh, as I have known it in my truest moments before, that the great promise of beauty, the thrummed message that sings to us in those moments when we are struck by art or music or story, is that ‘everything sad is coming untrue’. Like Sam in Middle Earth who saw a high star and knew that the Shadow was a ‘passing thing’, I stood in the light of that music and with Julian Norwich, for an instant, I knew that ‘all shall be well, all shall be well, all manner of things shall be well’.
There are ten theological things I could say about this. There is incarnational theology to be applied. Defences of art and imagination to be made. Book-length arguments to be written…all of which I intend in the future. But for this moment, I want simply to bear witness to the truth that beauty speaks. I want you to know even the briefest gleam of the light that came to me and made me a child, holding my Father’s hand once more. I want you to trust that when beauty comes to you, in its illogical, unreasonable joy, it speaks a truth larger than any darkness you have known.
Trust it. Trust joy. Trust hope.
Because, you know, it’s easy to distrust those things. We live in a world of headlines and reason, where shouted doom and daily controversies define our waking moments. We live in adult hurry. We work and give and measure our success. We live in an age of reason, where we tend to think that only what can be argued is true. We mistrust things we cannot explain or see.
But today, in this season in which we prepare our hearts to receive the risen Christ, I hope that you may be given the grace to stand in the light of a beauty that speaks a joy beyond reason. Redemption, happy endings, resurrections, are entirely beyond explanation. We can only receive them, as we receive new life at the hand of a Creator who is always kindling light in darkness. In this dark and difficult world, may you have the grace today to believe the promise of beauty, to believe it in the face of despair. May a song or a phrase of story or a glimpse of new-sprouted blossom or a burning note of music grip you.
And may you believe the story it tells.
And… may you find a sister-friend like Joy. Who teaches me to embrace… Music. Childlikeness. Laughter. Every single day. I couldn’t resist.
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