A dim, shadowed day has finally come after the long cacophony of hot ones. The air is like cool, still water, the clouds silken grey, a canopy under which the birds cry in the windless quiet. My candles flame and my oldest Celtic music is playing – that first set of Irish songs that stirred my blood and quickened the breath of my sixteen-year-old soul. This still, dark, eerie day, feels like the shelter of God’s wings to me, a hidden room of a day in which to hide and rest my weary mind.
I want to remember, or somehow even to inhabit again the unfettered wonder of that sixteen-year-old self. I need her calm eyes, her ability to trust in the goodness of coming days. I need her surety. Today, I wonder if past selves can sometimes be a mental presence to which we can return and shelter from the busier, confused selves we have become. I wonder if those past selves can somehow counsel a current self, speak again of the vital things forgotten in the intervening years.
Sometimes, of late, I stop an instant and wonder when I grew up, when my days took on, so completely, the cadence of adulthood with its work and bills and constant deadlines. When did the mass of people – friends, connections, partners, acquaintances, peers, mentorees - grow so great around me and when did I accept the work of their many holy demands? It’s not ungratefulness or impatience that asks, its my inmost self taking stock as my outer self increases in action. It’s the girl in the inmost room of my heart, the girl who does not change however many years slip by, holding the woman I have become to her oldest ideals, her ancient faiths.
For many years I have pondered and defended the keeping of a quiet heart, a childlike wonder, a cultivated innocence. For me, to live in awe, to walk outdoors, to roam imagination was simply to be as God made me. If I spoke or wrote about them as work, it was only because I wanted others to join me in the joy I knew within the realm of wonder. So when, I ask my older selves today, did those natural gifts become my battlegrounds? When did wonder and inmost hush become the illusive, fleeting, pearl of great price treasures I now must fight and seek and wait with holy patience to attain?
I am aware of the world in its work and hurry rising up around me, challenging me each day to greater action and work, discipline, love, and sometimes, suffering. My limited spaces of time and thought begin to be crammed with the many demands of the active life, the working, loving, giving life required of those who love God in this world. Dreamer, writer, free-souled girl though I be, I cannot deny those burdens. To do so would be, not creative, but cowardly, a squandering of all the richness I’ve been given by love and training. And so I work hard, write, travel, clean… give. And my present self has become quite capable.
But today, in the dim light, I know that my work will be empty, my labor vain, if it echoes with exhaustion. If all that I accomplish bears the tang of bitterness because somewhere along the way, I lost that inmost, essential quiet. My temper is quick these days. My words too swift, too sharp. I scorn rest. I forget to wonder. Until I stop, as in this darkling morning moment with the candles like eyes staring down my soul and the music a road I walk back to my inmost self. And I know that I have forgotten to live in love, love that is the only sustainable basis for action. Love, that drove me to work and give in the first place as I saw it at play in all creation. I settle into the hush around me. My old self draws near with her innocent, eternal ideals.
I find myself thinking about Mary and Martha. I ponder them because Mary was the woman who embodied the hush and wonder I wanted for myself from the earliest days of my faith. I wanted to be the woman who chose the one good things, not the busybody who bustled and fretted right in the face of her Savior. Now, though, I often wonder about Mary, because it seems her choice is impossible to any responsible adult. I would love to slip away, even as I write, I would love to set this computer down, ignore the emails, the deadlines, refuse to notice the dirty dishes and hungry hearts in need of my touch. To do so would only be to burden someone else, to heap a weight of strain and need upon the other good people in my life, to refuse the work of loving as God loves me. So I work, and hurry, and get awfully fearful at how swiftly my thoughts move and my mind races.
But there is always that core self, the real self, the old self, alive below the bustle, seeking a place of quiet, fighting toward the inner, silent room of my heart where a great Love dwells in unchanging presence. A ceaseless hunger accompanies me throughout the day, that truest self fighting to dwell in peace, to find rest, to live in wonder. And I begin to ask myself if choosing the one thing, like Mary, the one great task of sitting at the feet of Christ, has very little to do with outer action at all. Perhaps that work is more truly the choice of an inner orientation. A choice to remain in the inmost room of my heart with my Beloved, to sit at Jesus’ feet in my interior self, even as the outer bustles about to accomplish all that truly is necessary.
I begin to think that the wondering life of my youth is something separate from circumstance, but crafted in spite of it. Perhaps the contemplative life – that disciplined way of prayer and quiet, wonder and love that has always fascinated me and of whom Mary is the traditional representative – has little to do with outward quiet. I even wonder if my conception of the contemplative life as a luxury of isolated prayer and unbounded time is a falsehood, a conception essentially centered on self rather than God. The hard, Christ-like, heroic virtue of true contemplatives lies not in the degree of their separation from the work and care of life, but rather in their disciplined inner pursuit of Christ. Their ceaseless choice to dwell in the inner room, whether they work or rest, in crowds or hush, in action or stillness. True contemplation is learning to dwell – that abiding in Christ that Jesus said was the secret, vital life to those who loved Him.
To abide in God is to live Mary’s choice while doing Martha’s work.
And in that understanding, the wondering self of my past, the working self of my present, are united.
But God knows that is a lifelong, excruciating work. Which is why dim, darkling days of angel-wing quiet like this one are always his gift. I do wholly believe in days of rest. I begin to think of them almost as spiritual discipline, a chosen quiet that must be claimed in the very face of incessant worldly action. For rest can be just as vital a work as action. For it is only an inward hush that allows me to travel back to the inner room of my heart when I have strayed, shake off the demon hands trying to keep me away from the door of the room where Christ waits to give me all good things.
So I revel today in every grey, song-haunted minute. I walk in soul, and I will keep on walking until I reach that room in my heart where Christ dwells, until I sit down at his feet, rooted once more in the Love that keeps me quiet amidst every clamor in the world.
Cross-posted at the Rabbit Room.
I’ve come to write today in a downtown coffee shop where books line the walls and the air hums with slow, jazzy music. I haven’t accomplished a single useful thing. Instead, I’ve cupped my coffee close, sipped it slow, and let my sleepy eyes roam over the rim of the mug. Mostly, I’ve spied on my neighbor. A scholarly air hovers about her along with heaps of textbooks, stacked notebooks, and four different kinds of pens. She’s working very hard; eyes down under her fringe of dark hair, pen at a swift scratch, earbuds wedged in tight against the lazy aura of this place.
But every so often she stops. With a distinct sigh, she reaches for her mocha and sets down her pen. And as she sips, she stares. For propped against the nearest pile of books is a vivid photo of Audrey Hepburn. The girl beside me fixes her eyes on that photo, never blinking as she takes a long sip of coffee and chocolate. Then she sets down her mug, wriggles up a little straighter in her seat and sets to work again. I cannot help my surreptitious stare. The strength she obviously takes from that photo fascinates me, as if in fixing her eyes upon it she receives some new shock of courage.
I turn reluctantly back to my own book-piled table and cappuccino. A blank computer screen and a blank notebook are open before me. I ignore them. I open the topmost book on my pile, a series of essays by the poet Denise Levertov. My good friend Ruth is my source for modern poetry and when she tells me to seek out a poet, I go for it as I trust both her taste and also her navigation of the current age of poetry (a sphere of which my knowledge is slight). When she quoted Levertov and I found this book the very next day, I bought it. I am only one paragraph in before I stop, eyes arrested by these words:
“I believe poets are . . . makers, craftsmen: it is given to the seer to see, but it is then his responsibility to communicate what he sees, that they who cannot see may see, since we are ‘members one of another.’”
I have studied many facets of the writer’s vocation, but this idea of Levertov’s startles and even stings me. She seems to class writing with spiritual imperatives like loving your neighbor and telling no lies. I squirm in my seat, abruptly uneasy in conscience. I think I do see as she describes—imperfectly and with wandering attention. The scenes and people that brim my imagination, the joy glimpsed like light on a far-off hilltop, the story worlds that come to my mind more as gift than anything else, these compel me to write. But I rarely share them. For every one essay or story I do show the world, a dozen more lurk behind my eyes and in forgotten computer files, unknown to a single other soul. I’ve never thought of sharing my writing as a duty; perhaps I’ve seen my best pieces, the ones I actually like, as glimpses of beauty I simply must pass on, but I’ve certainly never thought of that sharing as an imperative in the same class as adherence to the golden rule. I like the luxury of considering my inner world a private one to be shared only when, and if, I desire.
I sip more cappuccino and feel stung by Levertov’s words. The truth is that writing often terrifies me. Not the easy kind of freelance work and editing projects and countless small jobs. Those I can accomplish with mind alone, thankful to earn my bread, and grateful, I admit, to avoid those clamorous dreams that beg to be told. Because oh, I don’t know how to begin to set the best things forth. I half begin then draw back in fear. My imagination blazes with pictures begging to be written, but my words seem too frail to bear them. I’ve set down countless sentences, cast dozens of hours to typing away only to scrap the whole thing in sheer frustration. My pride cringes to admit that, but Levertov’s words add the sting of conscience to my discomfort. I tell myself I will get to them soon, that when I have quiet or rest I will finally tell that one story that glimmers and sings, unwritten in my mind. The truth? I’m afraid I cannot do that story justice. I doubt my skill. I doubt my vision; I wonder if the worlds I know within myself might be deemed just silly by a reader. I don’t want to be mocked. So the story stays locked in the little room of my head and fear is the bolt on its door.
I glance again at the girl next to me to escape the discomfort now burning in my throat and I wonder. What does she “see,” what true vision does she touch through her contemplation of Audrey Hepburn? Did Audrey know she was embodying an ideal, and did she offer it willingly? I glance down at my own table, and my eyes wander to the pile of books I have toted with me. Again, my heart burns with conviction. For each of the books before me has been the sort of gift that Levertov describes, stories that allowed me to see, to taste, to grope my way forward when I felt blind. I would not have made several hard, defiant decisions this year without the vision provided to me by a few generous writers.
In my moments of crisis, when the landscape of my own mind and soul were fogged and dim with confusion, several writers kept me in hope. I opened their stories in the evenings, when my heart and mind were exhausted with the over-thinking required by major decisions. The worlds they had made and the people they presented were a refuge to me. Wendell Berry’s Port William. The Eliot family and their home of Damerosehay in Elizabeth Goudge’s Pilgrim’s Inn. The artistic grit of Thea in Willa Cather’s Song of the Lark. Nouwen’s story of God’s mercy traced through his contemplations on Rembrandt’s painting of the prodigal returned.
They sheltered me. When I was blinded by doubt, I journeyed on by the vibrant light of their created worlds. As I struggled toward wisdom, feeling homeless in soul as I teetered between several possible futures, those stories were my refuge. I was nourished by the power of what they presented as possible. I sheltered within their scenes, stood beside their characters, then stood back on my own two feet to reclaim my own vision and walk the long road required to bring it to life.
As I mull this, I pull out my journal and page back through my last months of notes, skimming the quotations I jotted down from those companion books. At one particularly long quotation, I stop, reading again a favorite passage from Song of the Lark. In it, the heroine Thea, like me, feels battered by the wide world in which she is fighting to establish her own vision of life. But Dvorak’s New World Symphony revives and steels her for the challenge. I read the scene again:
Something had got away from her; she could not remember how the violins came in after the horns, just there… A cloud of dust blew in her face and blinded her. There was some power abroad in the world bent upon taking away from her that feeling with which she had come out of the conference hall. Everything seemed to sweep down on her to tear it out from under her cape… Thea glared round her at the crowds, the ugly, sprawling streets, the long lines of lights, and she was not crying now… Very well; they should never have it. As long as she lived that ecstasy was going to be hers. She would live for it, work for it, die for it; but she was going to have it, time after time, height after height. She could hear the crash of the orchestra again, and she rose on the brasses. She would have it, what the trumpets were singing!
And just like the girl at the table next to me, I sit suddenly straighter in my seat. Here I am, reading about another person sheltered in trial by the vision offered by an artist. Dvorak’s music sheltered Thea (and no doubt Cather, Thea’s creator) when she doubted, renewed her strength to fight, to acknowledge the beauty she knew as the real thing over against the clamor of the world. I flip the page of my journal. There, in like manner are Nouwen’s words about Rembrandt’s painting of the prodigal son, telling how the color, line, and form so faithfully painted by one man ushered him into the arm’s of the Father’s mercy. Rembrandt’s vision sheltered Nouwen. And that encounter produced Nouwen’s book, whose vision now shelters me. And suddenly I am breathless.
Every work of art reaches out across the centuries, and each is a vision that casts a flame into the darkness. The wonder is that one great light wakes another. The song of one wakens the story of another. The story she told becomes the poem he made that kindled the painting in yet another’s hands. Each is a work of obedience. No artist can cast their flame of vision without a twinge of fear that it will simply fade or even pass unseen. But each is also a work of generosity, precious, private worlds offered in a self-forgetfulness that pushes aside vanity, insecurity, perfectionistic pride.
Levertov is right. The visions set forth in the books (and paintings and songs) we turn to for hope are offerings of love, given in the recognition that we truly are members of one another. We all bear the same hunger for eternity. We all walk forward in the dark of doubt, reaching for something we can’t quite name. We yearn to discover who we are meant to become, what it is we hunger to find in those midnight hours when our hearts will not be sated. But the artists and storytellers and makers of song offer the inner vision they have known as a sign of hope to the hungering world. They invite us into the sacred, inmost rooms of their minds and let us stand at the windows of their own imaginations where we glimpse, ah, wonders we might never have dreamed alone.
I glance again at the girl next to me. She is unrelentingly diligent. Who knows what she is writing, perhaps in response to the beauty she has seen? I brush my hand over the books whose weathered covers bear the scuff and dent of my many readings. The life within them crackles under my hand. I meet the stare of my own silent notebook, blank before me, and my pen sitting lonely on the page. I sigh and wriggle up a little straighter in my chair. I pick up that pen. At the very least I can write what I have just seen. A tiny gift, but a good place to begin.
In the past year, I have been so proud of my brother Nate as I have watched him create and craft his new movie, Confessions of A Prodigal Son. Nate was always a storyteller with an inborn love of a good tale even when we were growing up. Nate and I were read-aloud friends who savored great books, and when he began to write books himself, I knew he would spin a great yarn. Words poured out of his vibrant mind into stories of courage and bright swords and adventure. It’s no surprise to me that his work now is to make stories come to life. But it sure is a delight to watch.
So here’s the teaser trailer for the movie, complete with music by my other brilliant and oh-so-artist brother Joel. If you enjoy this glimpse of Confessions, it would be the best favor in the world if you would share and post the trailer so we can get the word out as Nate begins to promote this film. And here’s the FB page in case you’re curious.
I’m sitting in a coffee shop, supposed to be busy as a bee at about a dozen different and deadlined tasks, but I’ve just begun a marvelous book and I’m momentarily rebelling against responsibility in order to tell you that I think you should read it too. It’s called Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child, by Anthony Esolen. My lovely friend Lancia set this in my hands two days ago, and though I’m only into the first chapter, the book promises to be a lively and convicting exploration of what imagination is, why it’s so precious in childhood, and what exactly we are all doing to kill it. Yes, kill it dead. I’m assuming it will also suggest how we might spark it alive as well.
I knew I would like this book when the author began by describing a college librarian who discarded thousands of “outdated” books (like medieval Latin grammars and guides to Anglo-Saxon language – you know, the kinds of books that founded Western culture) as a vandal. I don’t think this writer is going to pull any punches. And ah, how good that is for us in our busy, dazed state of modern existence.
I get excited by books that offer a rallying cry to all of us who believe that imagination is a precious thing, our gift and birthright, a fragile, but powerful force that will shape every aspect of interior self and outer action. The blood in my veins quickens when I find an advocate for childhood wonder, for innocence, for a life in which imagination has room to run and play and beckon us toward eternity.
I’m just doing to you what I did to Joel and Joy, my ever-patient siblings, when I demanded a few moments ago that they cease their work and listen to this passage in which the author suggests that, when it comes to children, we might be in danger of becoming vandals ourselves:
Books are bulky and inconvenient – like rocks, and trees, and rivers, and life. It occurs to me that everything that can be said against the inconvenience of books can be said about the inconvenience of children. They too take up space, are of no immediate practical use, are of interest to only a few people, and present all kinds of problems. They too must be warehoused efficiently, and brought with as little resistance as possible into the Digital Age.
If you read it, let me know what you think. Cheers on this blustery June day! Back to work I go.
I’m just back from the sisters adventure. The Western skyscapes and lolling hills still haunt my thought, the long miles of song, of green spilled floodlike over mountain and plain, and the thoughts sparked by all that color are simmering on the back burner of my thought. A post shall soon be ready to serve.
I shall also soon be writing about why, in a week, I’m deactivating my Facebook account. The more I contemplate it, the more reasons I conjure.
But for now, because I haven’t even unpacked yet and the ebullient grace of these peonies and the king’s ransom richness of these tulips are too much to keep to myself, I give you a slice of what I saw in the marvelous Pikes Market. And with it, a poem for spring.
Nothing is so beautiful as Spring –
When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush;
Thrush’s eggs look little low heavens, and thrush
Through the echoing timber does so rinse and wring
The ear, it strikes like lightnings to hear him sing;
The glassy peartree leaves and blooms, they brush
The descending blue; that blue is all in a rush
With richness; the racing lambs too have fair their fling.
What is all this juice and all this joy?
A strain of the earth’s sweet being in the beginning
In Eden garden. – Have, get, before it cloy,
Before it cloud, Christ, lord, and sour with sinning,
Innocent mind and Mayday in girl and boy,
Most, O maid’s child, thy choice and worthy the winning.
I’m on an epic road trip with my precious sis this week. No time to write. Plenty of time to look. From our adventuring, a few glimpses:
It was her birthday! Had to start with that. I always wanted a sister. And I got the best one in the whole, wide world. We celebrated her grand day at the house of one of her college friends, with a feast of a breakfast and a rather unforgettable hat.
Mountains, Gandalf, mountains! The farther north we drive, the more startling the landscape becomes. We are in my version of fairy land – distant white peaks, lolling green valleys, impossibly tall lords of trees, and rivers threaded through darkling banks.
- My favorite of the sister’s adventure pics so far. Life sure is grand with that girl.
Ah, my soul. There is no speech nor are there words. I know that was written about the heavens, but surely it can apply to rivers as well.
Before we left LA, Joy and I took at tour of Disneyland at the generous offer of one of her friends and we saw the most spectacular, truly beautiful display of music and lights and water. But I was distracted the whole time by this curly-headed little boy who raised his hands in glee at every swell of the symphony. Such unfettered joy!
- Golden hills, azure sky, snowy clouds, and these gem-like bursts of rose and red and softest pink. The landscape was like driving through a rainbow in northern California.
- The sunset that began our first day of adventuring, and a long night of misadventuring. We started up the 101 late in the day, expecting to find a hotel a couple hours in. There was, however a festival which meant that every hotel within a hundred miles was full. As in, we called dozens and begged to placed on waiting lists and were denied. So we pressed on. My mom told us that a contact on FB had offered us a place to crash three hours ahead in Monterey. On we pressed. We arrived at almost 1am and emerged from the car to find… one of my dear childhood friends waiting to greet us! Such a surprise. Such a gift.
And because this poem has been running through my head the whole glorious journey:
BY EDNA ST. VINCENT MILLAY
O world, I cannot hold thee close enough!
Thy winds, thy wide grey skies!
Thy mists, that roll and rise!
Thy woods, this autumn day, that ache and sag
And all but cry with colour! That gaunt crag
To crush! To lift the lean of that black bluff!
World, World, I cannot get thee close enough!
Long have I known a glory in it all,
But never knew I this;
Here such a passion is
As stretcheth me apart,—Lord, I do fear
Thou’st made the world too beautiful this year;
My soul is all but out of me,—let fall
No burning leaf; prithee, let no bird call.
Well friends, I’ve made it safe through my twenties.
Perilous decade, that. So many paths, so many vivid, competing choices. So much travel required of the soul.
Standing now, three days this side of thirty, I feel great sympathy with the T.S. Eliot lyric:
We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.
When I look back to my wide-eyed twenty-year-old self, when I read through the journals I scrawled and scratched in those heart-hungering years, I find the seeds of the dreams and hopes, drives and desires that I have now pursued into writing, study, and work. I get what Eliot is saying, because I am qualitatively the same now as I was then. I still love books and I still want to love God far more than I do. I still bear a fiery curiosity about imagination and how it works. I still want to find wild spaces and my whole being yearns for long, lonely walks in the wind. I still want to love lonely people. I still crave friendship and soul mates. I still want a cottage with the spice of a Rivendell air. I still want to go to Oxford. And I still want to write the kind of story that will set a soul in a new air altogether.
I haven’t really changed. But somehow, I feel I have arrived on the doorstep of my own soul and its an arrival and a beginning all at once. The end of this decade’s exploring is not the revelation of a new self, but a a final settling into the self God gave me to begin with. I’ve struggled with that self, at times hating my lot, at times wondering what good my particular impractical presence would ever be to the world, some days just wondering if I would ever be at ease in my own skin. But I walked and struggled hard with God through those times. I wrestled with him, and came to truly know the shape of his hand, the feel of his grip on my resisting heart and I felt him guide me, prod me, cajole me forward into paths of life I couldn’t have found on my own. Sometimes, those ways ran through my own heart and self. I’ve explored my soul extensively in the last ten years and I begin to know its paths, its seasons, the contours of the land inside myself and the nurture required to bring beauty from its soil.
At thirty, with so many battles fought and dreams lost, with so many memories gained and loves discovered, I’ve arrived back at the door of my own castle. And I finally feel equipped to begin to truly rule the kingdom of my heart.
The strongest emotion I feel about this somewhat momentous birthday (and I know, it’s just one more day in a lifetime, but I do think its grand to mark the turning points in a life!), is a high-spirited determination to do and make and love with renewed vigor. To create with undeterred creativity. To love with unstinting goodwill. There are long lists of things I have tried and failed or yearned or dreamed of doing since the first years of adulthood. But I’ve honed my desires down to the few I know I was made to attain. I know what the crops and crafts of my inner kingdom will be.
Further, I know that much in my has ripened in the past decade, and it is time to bring the harvest in. So, I’ve been thinking on what I want to accomplish in the next ten years.
Stories, for sure. I simply refuse to turn 31 without completing the one story that has burned in my heart for ten years. I’ve been beaten back by critics and my own timid heart, but this year I shall forge ahead.
Love, given out with vim and vigor as it has been given to me. I have read the Gospel of John three times in the past year, and the words Jesus spoke in that last, special night in the upper room even more. I am startled, almost breathless as the reality of what Christ came to give invades and claims me. Oneness with the his own soul, oneness with the Father. Love, lived and given in an unending circle beginning with God, flowing through Christ into me, and into the people around me. The life of it astounds me. I want to learn it more keenly, to live it, to consciously choose it every day.
Friendship claimed and cultivated with real intention in what seems to me an age increasingly given to isolation. I’ve been reading Tolkien and the Great War, a biography covering the early days of Tolkien’s creation of Middle Earth and how his experience on the western front shaped his mythology. But the book also delves deeply into the friendship Tolkien had with a group of three other boys, begun in high school and carried through university and war. Formed around long, bookish discussions, shared ideals, and high spirits, the friendship was formalized into a club called the “TCBS” (for Tea Cakes and Barrovian Society, if my memory serves). The group grew larger at one point, but right before the war, the original four basically kicked the other members out because they had become too cynical and shallow. The “Council of London” was called, and the friends gathered to share their ideals, articulate their dreams, their goals, their creative visions. The fellowship established lasted through the war, lasted through countless letters, lasted, I think, in the work that Tolkien began in those difficult years, encouraged by the friends who were the first to discover the world beginning to grow in his imagination. Community like that, I think, must be fought for. Sought, and claimed, and nourished.
Rhythms. Modern life is such a wild, mad ride of activity and technology. Boundaries seem to slip away from us. But if I could make an early morning walk and the reading of Scripture a thing I did every single day of my life, a rhythm as sure as sunrise and sunset, I think I’d have a foundation that could keep me steady through storm and sunlight and every season of my days on earth. I’ve managed it halfway for many years, but I want to make it a sure thing now.
I’ll stop there for now. How’s that for a super idealistic ramble to mark a dreamer’s birthday?
I write it simply because as I look back over what I would have called the very difficult decade of my twenties, I am startled with the beauty of the life God has given. I am so thankful that I have made it this far. That God has held and kept me through sorrow and struggle, through fiery doubt, through temptation, through loneliness, through the countless relationships, circumstances, or struggles that could have deadened my soul. I say it because I truly want you to know that God has kept me in life. That his goodness really is unfailing. I write it because I am prone to self doubt, but I never want that to rule my words. I’d rather use them to say with David:
The Lord is the portion of my inheritance and my cup. You support my lot. The lines have fallen to me in pleasant places. Indeed, my portion is beautiful to me.
Turning thirty, for me, is to recognize just how beautiful it is. And to begin to learn how to share the beauty I’ve found.
I’ve been reading Perelandra again. That is, C.S. Lewis’ fantastical tale of man sent to the planet Venus to prevent that world’s Eve from falling as our own did. Ransom (the man) finds himself in a warm, wet world of exotic floating islands on a sea of copper and emerald. He meets Perelandra’s Eve, a green woman of radiant beauty whose wisdom is merry, whose peace is that of a deathless world, who dwells in an unbroken, inner communion with “Maleldil,” known on our own planet as God.
But Satan is quick to follow. He arrives in the form of another earthly man, a scientist whose long dabbling in darkness has finally turned his body into a vessel of evil. Through him, what Ransom soon calls “the unman,” (because his flesh is human but his spirit is devil) a dialogue begins in which the unman attempts to persuade the green woman that God secretly desires her to become independent, to grow “wise” enough to take destiny into her own hands and disobey His command.
What struck me recently as I read that passage was the way in which Lewis presented the beginning of temptation. The unman’s very first line of attack is on the green woman’s inner being, specifically, the source of her thoughts. And that attack begins with the unman causing the woman to stand apart from her own self in thought, to replace Maleldil’s inner voice with her own. Until that point, she never had cause to think about herself in the kind of analysis that stands apart. She was herself, a ceaseless unity of body, soul, and mind in communion with God and experience of her world. But the unman fractured her unity, gave her a mirror and showed her her own form and caused her to contemplate herself from the outside and to conceive of herself as an agent independent of Maleldil.
In Lewis’ words: “The image of her beautiful body had been offered to her only as a means to awake the far more perilous image of her great soul. The external, and as it were, dramatic conception of the self was the enemy’s true aim. He was making her mind a theatre in which that phantom self should hold the stage. He had already written the play.”
The phantom self. An inner obsession with an image we make of ourselves. The compulsion of self-expression that follows, not the healthy sort that comes from being made in the image of God, but the kind that weighs each word and deed against a certain persona we want to create. When I read the passage above at first, I liked Lewis words, but didn’t feel any particular affinity with the Green Woman’s plight.
Until I closed my book for a few minutes of Facebook. I turned from his words to scan a few recent photos uploaded by friends, to check stats on my blog, to see who had commented on my profile. I stopped short halfway down the page when I realized that I was looking at a phantom image of myself, a persona not unlike the one Lewis described in the Green Woman’s mind. Through Facebook and blogs, through the picture I choose for my profile (or the ones I untag because they are unflattering), the movies I “like,” or the clever quotes I put forth as my favorites, I have created a surface face that presents a certain persona to the world. The problem is that the persona exists in my mind as well, the ideal kind of girl I want to become, and more, want others to assume I am.
We live in an age in which we are daily creating our public personas. Facebook, Twitter, blogs, Instagram; we have unparalleled control of the image we set forth to the world and limitless opportunity to attain a local celebrity. We choose the pictures and quotes, the photos and friends who will cast us in the light we desire, prove us to be the persona we have chosen for ourselves.
Let me just say to begin with that I know how harmless this can be. I know that social media gives us the chance to express our tastes, claim our friends, proclaim the quotes or events that shape our lives, and that can be a right and joyful celebration of all that is lovely and true. I know it can be used honestly. But the recurrent concern I have with every use of media technology apples here again; our use of it is never neutral – eventually it forms us to itself.
The Green Woman’s plight makes me think that my unexamined use of social media – a stage on which I project the image I desire – can be perilous. I find that I need to approach it with a dose of caution because it puts me in the habit of creating a self in my own image rather than the one God speaks to me through Scripture and quiet and prayer. That inevitably means that I quietly cull the parts I don’t want anyone to see. I want to reveal only good; the photos that show me happy and beautiful, strong and brave. I quote poets and Scripture with abandon, presenting the ideal. My communications are short and peppy, encouraging, my words always loving.
But I rarely reveal the bad. Or even if I do, I show only my poignant struggles or artistic darkness. I’ll admit my loneliness or grief at the broken nature of the world. But I won’t admit my own sharp tongue, my struggle to love, the unkind words that escape me, so different from the upbeat messages I leave on public profiles. The online world allows me to post a quote about God’s goodness and have the whole world assume I’m in a holy state of mind, even as I walk with heavy heart and darkened soul.
In the end, if I do not examine my use of media to create a public image, I think I really do create a phantom self. A self who sparkles across the stage of my mind and captures my imagination. When I am busy, when screen time becomes an increasing habit, I contemplate that self more and more. I tweak it. And when I have spent enough time creating the image of that self, I begin to work to make it real. I dress and speak and act in a constant determination to embody my own ideal of myself, to live into the energetic, popular, spiritual person I want to be.
But what if in seeking to embody my own image of myself, I cease to seek the embodiment of Christ?
The Green Woman’s tragedy was her inner division from God by the creation of a self that stood apart from him. Before, she loved and spoke, moved and expressed her own, unique embodiment of the God whose love set her in life. After, she struggled to choose between God (who now seemed separate from herself) and the phantom image set in her mind. Before she moved as one with the “Love that moves the spheres,” afterward, she hesitated, torn between two inner images of what she might become.
I find myself challenged by Lewis’ story to step back from the online world in which I am ever seeking affirmation, tweaking my public face, perfecting my image, hungry for another “like” to prove that I am the lovely person I desire to be. I need to turn my eyes back to Christ. It’s funny; I used to fear that if I became one with God, I would lose my own self, lose the wild and joyous freedom of independent thought and desire. I didn’t want to be a divine automaton, thinking God’s thoughts and having none of my own.
What I’ve found through years of loving God is the ever-deepening truth that my life is hidden in Christ. He truly is the vine, the life and song from which every life on earth draws its vibrance. To be severed from him is to die. There is no real self apart from him, no true thought, no fresh creation, only a phantom self that will slowly, slowly fade. A phantom self that will never fulfill my hunger for love, my will to create, my hope for a beauty beyond the confines of my own frail mind. Only with the life of God as blood and heartbeat within me can I become the true, unique creation I was carefully designed to be.
So, here ends my small tirade. Sometimes, when life is swift and stressful, when screen time becomes a habit I cannot escape, I feel the need to rebel. To yank my head out of the screen and back into the quiet where the Holy Spirit speaks. I usually discover he was calling all along…