(of a living organism) grow or develop in a healthy or vigorous way, especially as the result of a particularly congenial environment.
Two years ago, the day before I left for my new adventure in Oxford, my dear friend Lancia gave me a parting gift. It was a bracelet made up of letters that formed the word ‘flourish’. The gift of that word was a benediction as I forayed into the wild territories of life overseas, of study, of finding myself after several years of holy floundering. But it was also a word to gird me, like Aslan’s whisper in Lucy’s ear when she was close to despair, ‘courage, dear heart’. I looked at that bracelet and knew I must be bold enough to hope, to walk forward after some very hard years in the expectation, not of more failure, but of unexpected grace.
I could not have known how richly that word would come to fruition in my life. Engagement to a man whose friendship, wisdom, and tenderness is beyond what I could have known to hope. Community, rootedness, in a church and spiritual fellowship I have hungered to find for countless years. Friendships. New growth in my writing. Marriage just ahead, with ministry and three more years in England. And yes, oh yes oh yes, an English cottage with a garden for my first home. It has roses, my friends, roses out my kitchen window!
I have entered a time like that described in the Song of Solomon; ‘a season of singing has come’. This is a time for joy, a season for glad-eyed, childlike exultation in the sheer grace of many good gifts. I ramble round Oxford in these blustery summer days and I am full of wonder. I smile to myself on street corners. I daydream as I tromp to the store for groceries and pound the cobbles back (with maybe a stop at the flower stall in the market as I dream about my kitchen-table-to-come). My mouth and fingers pulse with a gratefulness that must be given word and tongue – for here, in the hand of my beloved, in the ramble round my new home, in the church where I’m planning my wedding, I can ‘taste and see’, literally, that the Lord is good.
But joy is such a fragile thing. This morning I woke to the laments and startlements of many friends here in England. I heard grievous news from one friend. I learned of the secret sorrow of another. I passed a homeless man on the street that I’ve known for two years and saw the exhaustion in his eyes as things get worse again. And I was keenly aware that what many feel today is a withering of hope. I sat with them in thought and looked back at the sorrows of my own past years, looked down the line at the unknown future, and I knew that even my own joy was, in this world, inescapably twinned with sorrow. I found, abruptly, that happiness can make one profoundly afraid. A gift like that, you know, can be frightening to accept. It might break, or age, or get stolen.
But I read Psalm 1 this morning. Even as I sat on the couch with the half formed cloud of fear at the back of my eyes, wondering what hard things might come, fearing to lose my joy, I found these verses describing the one who ‘delights in the Lord’ and they burned in my mind:
he shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water that bringeth forth his fruit in his season his leaf also shall not wither…
My life is in season right now, but it’s been out of season before. I’ve walked the season of weeping as well as of song. I’ve known the absence of what felt like any good thing – relationship, friendship, success (I won’t tell you how many universities, publishers, and employers turned me down before my feet worked themselves onto the Oxford road). I’ve known months when it seemed honestly beyond my capability to believe that God would ever grant ‘the desire of my heart’ (Psalm 37).
But my life has never withered. The truth of Psalm 1 is the secret strength of all my years. Throughout loneliness and struggle, years of feeling lost, sickness, confusion, months of grief and the slow loss of many things, I have yet been a ‘tree planted by rivers of water’, sucking up the deep streams of God’s goodness so that a sap of hope poured through my inmost self even in the hardest days. Scripture, the call of a friend, the dance of the wind in the pines, a strain of music, a word in a book, a prayer in church, a joy that has no reason but its own radiant presence… with David I can say that ‘I have seen the goodness of the Lord in a besieged city’.
The truth of Psalm 1 is that in God’s love, I flourish. At all times. There is a joy whose root reaches deeper than circumstance, and in its grace, I am nourished, not just now in the joyous blossom of love and ease, but even when my branches are stripped with loneliness, when they feel bare and brittle with struggle. The flowering of this exuberant time isn’t the fickle gift of a whimsical God. The grace has always been there. For however wintry the weather of life, the sap at core of my rooted being does not cease and that sap is the love of the God in whom all good things have their origin, in whose given life all good things are coming again.
I write this in part because I know that one person’s joy is another’s secret sorrow. If someone had told me two years ago that all the wild joy of my life right now would be piled in my astonished hands, I might have… well. Let’s be honest. I would have smiled, assuming they wanted to encourage me, to help me be peppy and godly and I would have halfway assented while doubting that such goodness would ever come.
But it does, my friend. Whether you can see the lavish blossoms of grace, or whether they lie in the green, quickened hope of a life rooted in trust of God, joy does come. Goodness grows, sometimes achingly, in the dark places of the soul, a slow-rising sap, sometimes in a summer flourish of exquisite joy. But God’s love is a river that flows beneath the surface of the everyday and in its ceaseless torrent, we flourish. His life ever accessible, his grace at our command. I get to see it tangibly in this season of my life, as you will to, I know, my friends. But its always there, the ‘inward and invisible’ grace of love.
When Lancia gave me that bracelet and spoke the word ‘flourish’ into my future, it was a word given in hope that I would fully taste God’s delightfulness. But what I see now is its equal invitation to stand, blessed, in the present. To flourish because my life is rooted in Love. And I am ever green.
In half an hour I’m going to inspect a little English row house (complete with a garden) in the hopes that it will be mine for several years to come. As I sit in a coffee shop just down the road, late day light upon my hands and golden on my face, I’m contemplating the many ways and loves and unexpected twists that have led me to this moment. And as I do, I also find that it’s time to write again. To write afresh as a new chapter of my story begins.
Friends, I’m back. I well-know that I may be writing into the ether since I’ve been just about the most absent and irregular writer here possible. But for all that, this little space is the one in which I have long delighted to weave a good story of life as I untangled what I found in the world. This place has been vital to me in crafting the good and hard and joyous and difficult things of life into something beautiful. I’m sorry I’ve been gone. I’ve missed your company. And I’m glad, with a quiet, bright-eyed satisfaction, to be back.
One of the reasons I’ve been absent is that its just taken time to figure out afresh what I wanted to say. In creative writing workshops, people are always talking about finding your ‘voice’. To a large extent, I think I dismissed this advice as over-complicating what was a fairly straightforward process in which one simply sat down and wrote. Whatever words and images haunted my inner thought – that’s what I wrote. There’s your voice.
But in the past year, I have discovered that there is a shifting of self that comes with some decisions, some new chapters of life, and as I’ve navigated the altered horizons of my world, I’ve actually found it difficult to get my hands on my ‘voice’ and further, my idea of the world. That’s definitely been reflected here.
But the quiet hasn’t been negative. Rather, it’s the kind of speechlessness you find when you’re quite surprised, when the world expands or shifts with the unexpected, like when a gorgeous bird settles on the porch rail in front of you, or someone calls your name from across a crowd and you see a long-lost friend, or a shout startles you from your sleep. For a bit, you can’t quite muster the words to say what you think about it all, you just live it. I’ve had a year of such startlings.
I’m beginning quite an adventure, you see. Many of you will already know that… I’m getting married! (Glory be). To a tall, green-eyed Dutchman named Thomas, who’s beginning studies in theology and training for ministry this year. He is, in case any one is wondering, just about the best man in the world. And yes. I’m going to be a character in an Elizabeth Goudge novel and live in a vicarage with a garden. God is fun. (Don’t you ever doubt it.) It’s definitely taken some time to get that fact settled into the soil of my reality. Husband to be, life in England, a house of my own…oh my!
And then, I should have known this in starting, but two years of intense theological study (and also intense work accompanied by frequent exhaustion) has left me with a fuller vocabulary than before, but also a bit of bewilderment. My essential view of the world hasn’t changed, but I find myself with new vantage points, new categories of description, and I am learning to integrate the creative with the theological in a way that more fully, more capably, hopefully, more beautifully articulates the truest things I know.
I’ll be hammering it all out here!
I’ve spent almost every Saturday morning in these past two tumultuous years at a favorite corner coffee shop with an open notebook and a flat white (such a glorious coffee). I haven’t gotten much past journaling as I figures out myself and my life and all the new adventures, but I’ve kept up the rhythm of walking ahead by words, and its time to emerge from my little cocoon of discovery to write afresh.
Well, here I am after forever. It’s been too long, I know, since I’ve posted. Study, work, life, friends, my past year in Oxford has been a bright, good, demanding whirlwind that pushed me to my edges and deepened my capacity to do… just about everything. Except write blogs, it seems! But I’m finding my voice afresh. It’s shifting a bit, I think, gaining new tones as I study theology, brightening, deepening, with what I am learning through life and work overseas. But I’m ready to write, so I think I’ll just dive back in with the following post. I know its been forever, and I haven’t caught you up with everything else but, well, as Malcolm Guite says, ‘begin the song exactly where you are’…
We have almost reached the end of Lent. Three more days and the sunlight of Easter will break over the dim and quiet of the Lenten season. A month ago I thought I would be glad for Lent to end. But this year I have unearthed a truth that makes me sad to see this quiet season go.
Lent, I have realized, is the season in which I rediscover love.
For most of my life, I have equated Lent with law. With repentance, yes, and under grace, I know. After all, Lent ends with Easter and a feast to mark salvation. But since discovering this practice of the church, I’ve mostly seen ‘the penitential season’ as a time in which I made laws of discipline to express my true contrition, to prove to God that my sorrow over all the ways I sin and fail is real.
Lent dawned bright this year in England, bright as my good intentions. On the day when much of the church begins a season of repentance, the sun blinked and gleamed in a stark blue sky and birds whistled as if it were May and the daffodils in the vase on my desk finally bloomed.
But that evening, after a long day, after a service in which the ashes of repentance were crossed into my forehead, I looked down the long trail of the coming days, and all I saw was grey. I was weary and afraid, doubtful that I could keep strict laws or great fasts. I felt too busy and tired to keep up the strictures of dawn devotion or the renunciation of chocolate. (You know?)
So my Lent began in doubt – of myself, and let us be honest, of God’s capacity to love an undisciplined me. I might have spent the whole of this quiet season in just such a mindset was it not for an encounter with a passage from Luke (during one of those attempted dawn devotions) and a woman of whom a self-righteous pharisee named Simon spoke exactly the words I felt were true of myself: ‘she is a sinner’.
The story in Luke is set in the pharisee’s home, at a dinner he held for Jesus, ostensibly in Christ’s honor, but presumably to prod and test him, find out if Jesus was, by pharisee standards, ‘the real thing’. Simon comes to his own conclusions when a woman who had ‘lived a sinful life’ creeps in to express her love for Jesus. Bringing an alabaster jar of perfume and a heart so brimful of repentance that it spills into tears, she kneels at Jesus’ feet to weep and wash him with her tears.
Simon’s conclusion is instant. If Jesus really had God in or with him, he would know what kind of sinful woman was touching him. And, Simon must have assumed, send her packing. For Simon was one of the pharisees who counted out tithes even of their mint leaves, kept the minutest tenets of the Law, tithed and cleansed and followed the Law so well that even God, they thought, couldn’t condemn them. But Simon was also of those, according to the passage just before, ‘who rejected God’s purpose for himself’. And what was that purpose? Love.
For the marvel of the story is that Jesus knew exactly what kind of woman was bathing his feet with her tears. He knew exactly the sin and grief that tortured her heart. He also knew the elaborate facade of good deeds andcorrect opinions by which Simon, the supposedly spiritual leader, kept guilt at bay. So Jesus told a story of two debtors, one who owed much and one who owed little. Both are forgiven by a generous moneylender and at the conclusion, Jesus simply asks of Simon which of them will love him more?
‘The one who was forgiven most’, says Simon, of course.
‘Like this woman at my feet”, says Jesus, ‘who has loved and wept and washed me with her tears, while you have not even given me the kiss of hospitality or a towel to wipe my weary feet. She has been forgiven much, and so she loves much. But he who has forgiven little, loves little.’
In a brief stab of insight I saw myself both in Simon and the woman. In Simon, because with him, I thought that God’s acceptance of me dwelt in my being correct and keeping my countless little laws of performance. I thought Lent was about proving myself so good that judgment couldn’t touch me. In the woman, because deep down I knew myself frail and weak, unable to assure my own salvation or even abstention from chocolate for forty days. Both were equally sinful, but one hid it even from himself, and so did not recognise Love at his table, while the other in her repentance saw him clearly and wept with gratitude.
In that moment, my understanding of what it means to keep Lent changed. Lent often has the reputation of being something that the super godly do, a sort of iron man competition, open only to the spiritually elite. I think we often look at the spiritual life in general this way. I look at the people near me in study and church and think that everyone must be doing it better than me as I scurry through papers and strive to make time for those I love and try to catch sleep and make it to my kitchen at night too tired to cook, let alone pray. The irony is that Lent (not to mention the Gospel) is precisely for the lost and discouraged, the brokenhearted and disappointed who know they have nothing left to give. Lent is for the hurried and distracted, the lonely.
The disciplines of Lent – prayer, devotion, fasting, stillness – aren’t meant as a heightened performance, an extra extravagance of discipline to prove we’re really Christians. Rather, they are meant to create a quiet space in which we listen afresh for love, ‘accept God’s will’ as we come and remember that we are forgiven. Discipline is a good thing – quiet is a gift. But only if rooted in Love and used as a means to push back the cacophony of life long enough for us to look heartward, knowing ourselves afresh as the ‘sinful women’ and ‘wretched men’ in whom God’s plan to save the world by grace is worked.
But we find that grace only when we face what needs forgiving. As long as we, with Simon and the pharisees, believe we need not repent, need not admit our insufficiency, we will simply stand rotting and wounded in the armor of our good deeds and defiant self-confidence, dying, if we only knew it, of the festered guilt we will not face. In facing that messy guilt, in coming to the broken place in which there is no longer any scaffolding of piety to uphold us, any pretense of righteousness to disguise us, we discover, first, our eternal inadequacy. And second, grace. Real grace. Not the cheap kind that slaps a mask over a distorted face, but the deep kind, the backward working magic of Christ in which we are met in our most broken places by Love.
I changed my Lenten rhythms after reading that marvelous story. I haven’t quite managed the giving up of chocolate or the eager rising at dawn each day that I had planned. But I have stepped away from certain distractions (don’t get me started on the number of screens that jostle for my attention), and taken the extra quiet to listen, to pray. I’ve risen early once a week to write, just to get my soul in the habit of articulation, and in the posture, once again, of listening. I’ve read a couple of novels whose words drip with grace. And in the hushed moments of these sweet times, I remember that I am forgiven.
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.
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