by Joel Clarkson
Step by step descend into the dark,
Enter the void until all you can see
Conceived within you is the cursed mark
Of Lazarus, and barren Calvary.
Descend into the dark but do not fear,
For even though the stone now bars the way,
There is another who has languished here,
His passion incarnated into clay…
To read the rest, go HERE.
I didn’t even wear a coat for the walk to my coffee shop today. The air is honey-toned and soft. The sky is so vividly blue it flashes in, arresting as flame through the windows of the lecture hall in the morning, drawing eye and heart into its promising warmth. Springtime is a dream blooming up at the edge of winter today. Daffodils huddle under the woven black of the bare, tangled tree limbs. The earth broods, damp, close to waking. The first snowdrops star the dark carpets under the trees. And birdsong wakes me early in the morning.
The life of this freshened day, the light, the searing blue, draws my sight up and outward constantly. From work, from screen, from dreams, my consciousness is drawn away from the clamor of my student life to a great, silent glory. I am challenged to attention by this beauty. The color of it is a kind of demand upon my eyes, a request I fully answer with my wholly given attention. Who could refuse an invitation to such magnificence?
Funny then, that Shrove Tuesday, the day in the church year when believers around the world prepare to abstain in some way from earthy luxury, should fall amidst such splendor. No rain, or dampened skies, no dim, dark hours are present this afternoon to match the self-denial so associated with the opening of Lent. Tomorrow, I’ll walk up to the altar in my church, confess my mortality, and receive the mark of ashes on my forehead. I’ll remember my sin. I’ll try to fast in some way for forty whole days. Incongruous, it might seem at first, to begin this Lenten season of self-denial just as springtime wakens in all its opulence.
But as I contemplate the coming season this afternoon, perched in my coffee shop window seat, I find in the gem-like world out the panes a perfect frame as I prepare my heart to repent. I think the sunlight, the searing blue, the quickened life, the fragile flowers are a fit and lovely setting to this opening of Lent. Because, though the practice of Lent is repentance and self-denial, repentance is simply the way by which I rid myself of the lesser things that distract me from their source. A great glory, greater even than the golden day out this window, dwells in the inmost room of my heart. The morning star of the universe has taken up residence in my soul, and Lent is the season in which I remember the single, blazing fact of him there, and journey back from all that draws my sight from his glory.
Lent is, I think, the answer of the human soul to the challenge and invitation of God’s love. Lent is the call to turn my face from the clamor of a thousand distractions, to the Beauty in which I have my being.
Yes, it is a season of denial. But the denial is of the non-essential things that make it a genuine difficulty for me to live in the presence of God’s essential Love. To confess is to name what hinders God’s life in me. Habits of sin or distraction, of hatred nurtured, of insecurity kept. To fast is to free myself from the niggling loves that lessen my response to the great one. To wait, to watch, to keep a season of reflection, is to grow quiet enough to meet the Easter event with clarified, adequate, renewed sight that greets the gift of the risen Christ in fully ripened joy.
Lent is a return, to the heart of all that matters most, the single Matter of Christ apart from whom nothing matters at all.
My Lenten practices this year? To give up some food or drink (yet to be decided). To try, as much as possible, to keep company with the wider Church by keeping a partial fast on Fridays and setting aside an extra space for prayer. Simple, small things really, little tests to jolt me awake to God.
The harder thing? A space of determined, daily, kept quiet in which technology is banned and prayer or silence is practiced from early evening until morning prayers the following day. It’s easy, in the busy days I lead, to collapse into my chair at the end of the day and open the computer. To scan, to click, to fritter an hour or two away on a miniseries or a few random articles. None of it evil, of course. But it means that I go to sleep with a busy brain and waken with an unquiet mind. I reach for my iPhone as I rise, wondering what deadline I’ve missed, or news I need to know. Before I’ve even been awake ten minutes, my mind is in a whirl from which it is difficult to emerge for even a brief time of Scripture and prayer. Lectures await. Essays scream to be written. And I, already amidst a whirlwind, feel that God looms somewhere beyond the whiz of it all, but I can’t really catch his eye.
Well, I plan to let him catch my eye in this season of quiet and catch it good.
I begin with an awareness of God’s full givenness to me, a grace that allows me to repent in loving response rather than guilt. Guilt is easy for me. I’m a perfectionist. It’s funny; the more I am drawn into the rhythms of worship here in Oxford, forms and prayers that answer some of the deepest hungers of my heart for shape, rhythm, physical expression of worship, the deeper my sense of inadequacy grows. I often find myself kneeling in an aching, angsty desire to somehow give or be more than I am in response to the God I encounter in worship. I strain, I grieve with the desire to offer more of myself in response to the Love given so freely to me. Much of my prayer boils down to a simple repetition, “I wish I could offer more.” A holy desire, perhaps, but one that, in a perfectionist heart like mine, can turn my eyes to my own faults rather than the Love that heals them.
But a few nights ago, I went to compline at Magdalen College. In deep shadow, amidst plain-chanted hymns to end the day, I looked to the altar where candles burned round a simple cross. Behind the altar loomed a larger than life picture of a sorrowing Christ, cross on his shoulder, garbed in brown, down on one knee as he bore the weight of the world’s sin and grief. Kneeling there in the lyrical, candlelit darkness, with the hymns almost whispered in a tender, gentle awe, I was aware of Christ’s givenness. Of the love poured without stint or measure. Of the grace that is with me now, regardless of what I offer.
I did not need to give, because all Love was already given to me. All that was needed was my joy in the fact.
Lent is, I think, the nourishment of joy.
It’s the honing of sight, the hushing of mind, so that Love can make his presence potently known.
If you’ve never practiced Lent before, well, join the club. Neither have I, at least to this extent. But I’m excited. Eager, like a child standing at the cusp of a journey. I’ve eaten my required stack of Shrove Tuesday pancakes (which, in England, are really crepes dressed with lemon and sugar). I’ve feasted at formal hall to end the evening. I’ve watched the day close with the knowledge that tomorrow a great quieting and centering of soul and self begins. Tomorrow I will speak these words:
Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ.
Christ, in whom dust is formed back into living love.
To my shock (and slight panic), it’s already the third week of term, and my, but it’s off to a swift start!
I find it difficult to compose long contemplations amidst the here-and-there schedule of lectures (the required ones and the half dozen I attend just because, good grief, it’s Oxford and I can – I mean, could you resist attending a talk by Rowan Williams, or a lecture on Caravaggio combined with a study of the Bible as literature, or a meeting of the C.S. Lewis society with John Garth speaking on the Great War? – because I sure can’t). Between lectures, I tromp the cobblestones down to the Radcliffe Camera to cram in a few desperate hours of essay composition, I stop in every bookshop I can, haunt the Evensong services, and on Saturdays, I go for long walks in the fields and coffee-sipping, letter-writing sessions at a slower pace.
My goal is to return to a more regular rhythm of creative, contemplative writing in the next weeks, which should find its gradual way here. Though there is the constant, never-ending possibility of another social or academic activity here, there is also, to my mind at least, a daily invitation to step aside. I find the invitation, as you know, in morning and evening prayer, in the half hours set aside to kneel or watch in silence, to speak the old words of Scripture. A life this demanding isn’t sustainable without silence. I’m learning that, and learning how to fight for my quiet as an element necessary to the flourishing of soul and mind. I need hush in which to meet the one voice echoing at back of all the others, the one great Love whose pulse make every word and thought discovered here a grace. And to write about it all is, for me, a sort of prayer.
For now, in lieu of contemplations, I offer a brief summary of my current study focus, and the books stretching heart and thought and mind as I go.
My current work is on an extended essay in doctrine. When I glanced down the essay title possibilities page and spotted “Christology Explored Through Literature” guess what I chose? I’ve spent the past several weeks exploring various doctrines of Christology, focusing particularly on the Incarnation. I want to understand exactly what happened when Christ took on flesh, what redemptive quickening took place by the mere fact of his present, human life. Jesus proclaimed the kingdom come far before he died, and I want to understand, in rather technical terms, the salvific nature of the Incarnation as something distinct from the Atonement, and what this means for human relationships, and for our interaction with physical creation. God took on flesh. He hallowed the world with his presence. How should we then live?
I’ve been reading T.F. Torrance’s Incarnation, a magisterial work of systematic theology that deeply explores the nature of the Incarnation. I’m fascinated by the concept of the Old Testament as pre-Incarnation history, by the realization that God began a process of incarnation in his dealings with Israel that culminated in Christ. And I’m challenged by the realization of what was accomplished by Christ’s human life as it was lived, and lived to the full in an active, loving obedience that offered every duty and goodness that humanity owed to God, but had, until Christ’s coming, failed to give. Torrance’s knowledge is a little staggering to a beginning student, but there is a wonder, a current of excitement thrumming through his writing. He uses superlatives to explain the beauty of what God has offered and accomplished. Sometimes, when I realize the intricacy of the plan that led to God taking human flesh, I get all bright-eyed and quiet right in the middle of the library.
Jon Sobrino’s Christology at the Crossroads has also been an immensely interesting, challenging work. He wants a Christology centered on the historic Jesus, with a focus on the time and space actions of the Son of Man and his bringing of the kingdom of God. Sobrino writes from the viewpoint of liberation theology, with a worldview deeply shaped by the suffering and violence he witnessed in El Salvador. Whatever you think about liberation theology, this book is worth investment, because Sobrino offers a profound understanding of Jesus as the bringer of the kingdom, the one whose incarnated, divine, historic life inaugurates the reign of God. Sobrino writes about Christ’s actions as modeling “filiation,” illustrating for us what it means to live fully into our identity as children of God, and as brothers and sisters to all humankind, with the responsibility attending that connection. He also focuses on the use of power, and its only right use in the service of Love. He leaves the reader with a clear sense of choice. To read Sobrino is to know with crystal clarity that to love Christ is not merely to trust him in a passive way, but to bring his kingdom about in the time and space contexts of our own lives. Anything less betrays the Incarnation.
The literary portion of my essay shall focus on… Wendell Berry! Can you believe that I’m supposedly studying theology and I get to pour over Hannah Coulter, and Remembering, and talk about the incarnational vision of the good Mr. Berry? Such good fortune. I’m focusing on the way that Berry’s fiction illustrates the kind of relationship we need to cherish toward the created world and to each other, and the way that human flourishing hinges on faithfulness (to place and the people of one’s “membership”) and chosen, cultivated love. For those who don’t know my adopted grandfather (he isn’t aware of this connection!), he’s a farmer by heritage and a scholar by training, and he writes from a Kentuckian, agrarian viewpoint, but the quiet challenge of every one of his books is for a return from the self interest and fragmentation of modern culture to a life of “fidelity” in which people and place are restored to what they were meant to be.
I reread one of his novels over Christmas while also reading Sobrino and Torrance and was struck numerous times with how the characters in his stories embodied the themes of incarnation and the kingdom come that I was reading in books of doctrine. His stories center on quiet, local, faithful lives in which the choices to love (or hate), become the catalyst for the healing of earth and community, or for destruction. His Christ figures aren’t necessary sacrificial, rather, they’re figures whose choices to love create new spaces of possibility and growth for those they encounter. His heroes are those whose lives have roots in a love that transcends time and he speaks specifically to that, especially in his novels Remembering and Hannah Coulter.
So. You can imagine me hunched over my MacBook this week as I finish this project. I’ll have the echoes and light of the Rad Cam to help, along with many cups of tea, and a few brisk walks. I love this study. I love doctrine. I love delving into the core ideas of human existence. It makes me love God with a depth and energy I haven’t fully touched before. I see him more wholly than I have before. And to see God is simply to love. All for now. More soon.
Oh, but I must tell you this before I go: it snowed in Oxford… !
Snowball fight to begin a midnight walk…
Untouched snow at the Sheldonian…
The Bridge of Sighs (and site of many snowball fights).
Ah. One of my favorite Oxford views. By snowlight.
The new year has opened, for me, in a crisp, white whirl of snow and the shouted delight of my siblings. The great, blank days of January stretch clean and white and malleable before us. Time seems once more to reset itself, to offer not just a new day but a great heap of days in which we have the chance, all over again, to love, to hope, to give, create, and learn.
Don’t you love that God made the rhythms of our world in such a way that we are daily aware of renewal? The sun sinks down, but it rises again. The darkness grows, but so do the stars. Summer dies in the bonfire of autumn only to grow again in the verdant luxuriance of spring. The light fades through all the winter months only to burgeon with the waning of winter, stronger and stronger, like a child coming into the full golden stature of ripe and vibrant age in which all dreams may be dared, all loves kept alive.
This time of year my mind is taut with freshened possibility. My fingers itch to scratch out plans and dreams, to fill those square, white calendar pages with books to be read, people to love, essays to write. Those white spaces cry out to be filled with beauty, with music, with the given splendor of love in its thousand creative forms.
As I sit in a rose and golden dusk tonight, candles lit, my old Celtic music trilling through the blue-walled space of a room in which I have dreamed countless dreams (and seen them fulfilled – I’m at Oxford!), I’m praying for the grace to narrate a lively story into the coming days, to sketch life and color into the blank space of my hours, to make each day another tile in the mosaic of a life that incarnates the splendor of Christ.
I pray the same for you.
I pray that you will find hope in the clean, crisp days ahead, a muscled, vibrant hope like fire and light in your blood, to steel you for new creation, for freshened love. I pray that hope will be the light in your eyes that makes you profoundly conscious of the grace ever ready to make something new. (And I’ll be writing more about this soon.)
I pray that you’ll have great books in the new year, stories to widen the realms of your inner world. I pray that the room of your imagination will stretch and grew with newborn ideas and vivid imagery, that the words you encounter will make new worlds within your heart, and that you will take from their beauty to craft a great tale in your own true epic of a life.
I pray that you’ll have music. I pray you’ll be livened to the cadence of the everyday, the ordinary symphony of sunrises and sunsets, and I hope that great songs and family sing-alouds in the kitchen and violins keening at dusk will mark your hours. (If you need a few freshened ideas in that realm, follow my lead in listening to my sister’s new favorite, Noah Gunderson, and see if you can find the soundtracks to Belle, and The King’s Speech, as these are my soundtracks to life at the moment.)
I pray that you’ll have hush. I pray that there are spaces of total quiet even amidst the busiest of days, when silence comes to you as the companion of prayer, and with it, the deepened breath of peace. I pray that in the quiet you notice the starlight, the sunlight veining a leaf, the contours of a face so familiar you’ve forgotten to marvel at its beauty. I pray that silence helps you and me both to see all that we miss of joy in the river-busy rush of our days.
I pray that you’ll have laughter. Saints, I am convinced, must be the jolliest folk in the world. They may be the gravest at prayer or compassion, but they glimpse the life beyond our sorrow and when it comes to wonder, they are children. For they take the beauty of the world as a gift and sign and they meet it with a child’s shouted delight. May you find joy in the world as the saints do, may its humor strike you as well as its grief, for as Chesterton said, he is a sane man who can hold both in his heart.
And I pray, amidst the countless other blessings I would give, that you will have fellowship in this new year, the comradeship of common dreams, the kindred beat of a heart that loves and hopes in the same direction. May feasts on holy days and teatimes for normal days and raucous dinnertime conversations fill the air of your home, may dreams be spoken, plans made, convictions be crafted in the shelter of the fellowship you find.
Ah friends, if there is one thing that strikes me hard and deep and to the core after just a few months of theology, it is the shocking possibility that came with the Incarnation. When God became man, when his life caught ours up in its glorious, powerful, ever-creative own, hope became an eternal force resident in our hearts. There is no end, no limit to the possibility of grace. His mercy is new every morning. Every day. Every year.
So walk ahead in mercy.
And happy new year!
Blessed are you, sovereign God,
creator of heaven and earth,
to you be praise and glory for ever.
As your living Word, eternal in heaven,
assumed the frailty of our mortal flesh,
may the light of your love be born in us
to fill our hearts with joy as we sing:
Blessed be God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
May your Christmas day be merry, blessed, and bright!
Lit candles cheer a jeg-lagged heart. They frame and cradle the unshaped, lingering dark of the hours before dawn. A traveler might find herself sore-eyed, unravelled in the long night. But the self-assertion of a small, merry flame, defiant of the great dark round it, coaxes the mind into an assertion of its own. And the power of the mind is in the words it kindles, bright and fierce, to shape the night.
O Lord, open thou our lips…
Words, like light, can frame the time and space in which we move. Like flame in a darkened room, words have the power to define and form our hours, to shape the spaces of time in which we relate, create, believe. The words we use to describe and meet each day, the ones we allow to shape our contours of experience, teach us what to see and how to meet both joy in the day and sorrow in the darkness. Words make worlds, you know, and each one we speak forms the way we see our own.
And our mouths shall shew forth thy praise…
I just watched the hour of six AM slip by the window. I also saw the hours of three, four, and five. I’ve lit a lot of candles in the watches of this night, but I’ve also kindled a great many words. Instead of the shadows telling me what to think, I’ve lit the minutes with flames of prayer and poetry, lined the formless dark with thoughts that make a sacred space of this unformed hour, a filled, holy room of this hush. But as with many who watch in long darkness, the words were not my own. They were a gift, and in some way, an inheritance.
O God make speed to save us…
One of the best beauties of Oxford to me, one I never fully considered before I arrived, has been the chance to take part in the practice of daily, corporate, liturgical prayer. Morning and evening, I gather with others to speak and hear the songs, canticles, Scriptures, Psalms, and collects said by those who have worshipped in the Anglican church for centuries.
O Lord make haste to help us…
In the morning, the air is sharp and cold in the chapel, and we shuffle, subdued into the hush of early day. The words of the prayers fall like drops of water onto the cool surface of our sleepy minds, rippling out to wake and gird us for the day. At night, shadows cluster like dark birds under the pews, and the air is thick with cold and our own breath as the prayers for protection rise from our lips as the light falls. The words are a kind of starlight blossoming in the mind.
The Lord Almighty grant us a peaceful night and a perfect end…
For centuries, the Anglican church has used the Book of Common Prayer for its worship. When I first arrived in Oxford and had many questions about the liturgy and practices of worship I was beginning to experience, a kind tutor gave me an old Book of Common Prayer. He apologized that it was the only one to hand, with its battered maroon cover and tattered seams. I liked its age. It meant other hands than mine had loved it before. “Read this,” he said, “study it, use it now and then in your devotions and you will understand a lot simply by way of worship.”
Into your hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit…
So I did. I kept it on the windowsill next to my bed and began to say the confessions at night, the Psalms and collects early in the morning. I found the words a rich, strengthening frame to my usual rhythms of Scripture and prayer. Combined with the daily chapel services, I began to be aware of the liturgies forming my thought. In the past weeks, those words have anchored the opening and closing of my days. I find myself continuing the prayers as I lie down to sleep. I find stray words of them girding me throughout the tense moments of the day. I find them most often when I am alone, an echo in the mind that fills the moments that might be lonely with the voice of worship.
For you have redeemed me, O Lord, O God of truth…
And I am aware of a wonder as I do: I speak these words each day, remember and breathe them out in the night in the company of an invisible host. For these are the prayers of generation tested through decades of war, through cultural shift, and societal change. They are fitted to high and holy days, and the lowlier rhythms of ordinary time. Daily, they are spoken by a great host of the faithful around the world, a way of centering the heart, not just on a general faith, but on Christ. Each prayer in my tiny, bedraggled book is a way of journeying toward him, but a journey taken in company with all who share those sacred words.
Keep us, O Lord, as the apple of your eye…
I know from the study I’ve done in language and imagination that the words we speak form the worlds we see. The words we speak together, in culture or church, to a mighty extent, narrate our lives. The words we use do not merely describe our stories, they shape them. They tell them.
Hide us under the shadow of your wings…
On the airplane home, from London to Chicago, Joy and I had a very gregarious flight attendant. He tried three times to steal our dark chocolate bar, and remarked on the piles of books stacked on our trays. My stack was topped with my battered Book of Common Prayer. Raising an eyebrow at it, he made no remark but proceeded to chat us up, and try, once more to steal our chocolate. He turned to the topic of movies. “The Princess Bride,” he crowed, “now that is a quotable movie. My daughter’s favorite. We can quote it back and forth for hours. Crazy, isn’t it, how people all over the world can get along just by quoting their favorite movies together?”
Guide us waking, O Lord, and guard us sleeping…
With a wink, he left. But I was struck. I fingered my little prayer book and thought of the words crammed into its wrinkled old pages, words whose splendor and ache formed the faith of ages. And then I thought of the many conversations I’ve had in which, just as the flight attendant said, the shared narrative was the movie just watched. I thought of how pop culture is just that, a whole, shared culture, a shared narrative, a common view of life conditioned by the lyrics of pop songs and TV shows. I thought of how the quips and movie lines and best-loved lyrics could be called a cultural liturgy, the words we use to form our common view of the world.
That awake we may watch with Christ, and asleep we may rest in peace…
What are the shared narratives of our time? What are the verbal liturgies of our culture? What words do we speak together and how does our communal speech form our vision of each other and of the world we inhabit? What do we repeat? What do we sing? Because the words we share as a culture play a large part in creating the culture we inhabit. And if the words of our own culture are largely void of the narrative of God’s presence, if we work, shop, love, and communicate in spaces shaped by a language other than faith, how do we tell Christ back into the liturgies of our days?
Give peace, O Lord, in all the world…
Perhaps by a rhythm of prayer? I am almost startled by the way that the old, worn prayers of past generations have renewed my faith in the past weeks. I’ve thought often about the place of liturgy in faith since I’ve been in England. In our independent age, I’ve often heard liturgy questioned. Is it just rote? The bent of our culture is to opine that authenticity exists only in spontaneous free speech, in self expression rather than corporate. But we are conversational, communal beings. We do not exist, or worship in isolation. We need the language of generations before us to speak what we are too weary to speak, to affirm God’s faithfulness then, and now. We need to remember that we are part of a mighty, ongoing story, that we join a host in prayer, present round the world and through the ages.
For only in thee can we live in safety…
Words make worlds, and in the long darkness, I am thankful for the world that the tried and hallowed prayers of my little book have woven about me. I am thankful for the fellowship that comes to me in those words, from a prayer book turned by many hands through the years. 7 AM is about to breathe over my window panes. The light is now navy rather than black. Dawn is almost here. I open my little book. I turn from the night prayers to those that greet the morning. I speak them into the grey and formless hour of first light and think of Genesis 1, of God speaking light into the void, forever defining light and darkness. “The worlds were framed by the word of God.”
O Lord, save thy people and bless thine heritage…
And in his image, in company with an invisible host speaking the same morning prayer around the world and through the ages, I look into the darkness and speak.
Glory be to Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost…
“I do hope your Christmas has had a little touch of Eternity in among the rush and pitter patter and all. It always seems such a mixing of this world and the next–but after all, that is the idea!” – Evelyn Underhill
This painting: Adoration of the Child by Gerrit Van Honthorst
This Advent Hymn: Hills of the North, Rejoice!
Hills of the north, rejoice;
river and mountain spring,
hark to the advent voice;
valley and lowland, sing;
though absent long, your Lord is nigh;
he judgment brings and victory.
Isles of the southern seas,
deep in your coral caves
pent be each warring breeze,
lulled be your restless waves:
he comes to reign with boundless sway,
and makes your wastes his great highway.
Lands of the East, awake,
soon shall your sons be free;
the sleep of ages break,
and rise to liberty.
On your far hills, long cold and gray,
has dawned the everlasting day.
Shores of the utmost West,
ye that have waited long,
break forth to swelling song;
high raise the note, that Jesus died,
yet lives and reigns, the Crucified.
Shout, while ye journey home;
songs be in every mouth;
lo, from the North we come,
from East, and West, and South.
city of God, the bond are free,
we come to live and reign in thee!
This Sonnet from Malcolm Guite’s Sounding the Seasons:
I cannot think unless I have been thought,
Nor can I speak unless I have been spoken.
I cannot teach except as I am taught,
Or break the bread except as I am broken…
(go HERE to read the rest)
My mama is my favorite. She just finished writing a new book that is, I think, a bit of a magnum opus, because the central idea is to own your life and drink the cup God has given you. They say familiarity breeds contempt. And prophets are entirely without honor in their own hometown (and particularly in their families). And perhaps its taken me many years to gather the full honor owing, but I can say with full heart and no hesitation that my mom is my heroine. That her story has been one of radiant beauty. That yes, our family tale has been dark at moments, and our road has been hard countless times, but my mom was a combination of Gandalf and Galadriel and Lucy (from Narnia) because she fought the good fight and taught me to as well, and feasted and danced and laughed in between. My life is rich in countless ways because of the way my mother owned and shaped her story.
I love that she is telling that story now.
So, this is a shameless plug for my mom’s new book, except, it’s not really a plug. Her story is my story too. And it’s a gift.