These words by George MacDonald in the novel Phantastes always challenge me: “Joy cannot unfold the deepest truths, although deepest truth must be deepest joy. Cometh white-robed Sorrow, stooping and wan, and flingeth wide the doors she may not enter. Almost we linger with Sorrow for very love” (ch. 10).
Sorrows’ Doors—the portal to deepest truth, deepest joy? What thresholds must I overcome to agree with MacDonald? Suffering, sorrow—this we try to avoid, at all cost, do we not? But that Sorrow is the very doorway I must pass through in order to enter Joy? And therefore should I succeed in avoiding it, or rather ignoring it, I would miss what I most long for? Is the Victorian author right to insist, “As in all sweetest music, a tinge of sadness was in every note. Nor do we know how much of the pleasures even of life we owe to the intermingled sorrows”?
This past week I visited my university campus for the first time since its closure mid-March to retrieve some needed books from my office. My day’s experiences brought me closer to this sweet sadness, to this “linger[ing] with Sorrow for very love” that MacDonald speaks of. I lingered over the moments for the love of times past, present blessings, and future hopes. These are some of the snapshots.
Under grey skies I spot a lone colleague walking under the Japanese cherry tree lane, no longer in bloom. This spring is the first that I didn’t see the blossomy extravaganza in person; in other springs my students would act out scenes from A Midsummer Night’s Dream under their pink canopy, sometimes climbing into the lower branches, laughing with Shakespeare. I wait as my colleague approaches and we speak of the heaviness that we and the whole world shares, even the sheer emotional toll of uncertainty as countries begin to navigate emerging from lockdown after this first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. Our smiles don’t lessen the enormity of things but perhaps make them just that much easier to bear. A little lightening of the load can go a long way. Then he unlocks the doors to our building with his key (I haven’t missed not having one until today) and we part to our separate offices. I call Campus Security to let them know that they don’t need to come to help me out.
As I walk the empty halls tears rise, close to spilling. The weight of grief over the near vacant campus is tangible—our collective memories of life “Before” are here, everywhere, where we are not. The only footsteps I hear are my own. I peer through the window into the classroom where I taught my last face-to-face class on March 12th. There is a half-full bottle of Pepsi in our department fridge. Outside my office door is our beautiful poster for the event that didn’t happen on March 30th: “Celebrating Creative Writing in Community: An Inklings Institute Coffee House event.”
I stop before another dear colleague’s closed door. Her carefully chosen words on her Sabbatical poster remind me of her dedication to the Lord, to her calling, and to us:
rest · research · write · pray · travel · grow
∼ a seventh year of rest ∼
Her colour postcard of an aisle in the Bodleian Library draws me into the realm of soft daylight streaming over old world bookshelves and quiet study spaces. Ah, the Bodleian—Oxford, itself. I was there; I am here; I may be there again; and the longings that all these memories and desires stir will be ever with me. In sweet sadness, I am filled with gratitude.
In the outer foyer to my office area I pause before the poster of our Theatre Department, as I always do, and mourn a little more about their last play that we couldn’t see: The Tempest, March 17 – 28. The image is of a girl on a headland looking out over a sinking ship. I reread the caption: “Lost on a mystical island, revenge lurks in the shadows. Nothing is quite what it seems.” Those words strike me with prophetic force. Words composed Before; words so poignant Now. We, this tempest, these shadows … revenge? Mystical things? Indeed, “Nothing is quite what it seems.” We’re in a cloud of much unknowing. (The Tempest is one of my favourite plays. I recall seeing 85-year-old Canadian actor William Hutt’s farewell performance as Prospero in Stratford, Ontario in 2005. Marvelous! Later, at home, in my copy of the play I find a golden bookmark with these words: “God is the King of all the earth; sing to Him a psalm of praise. Ps. 47:7.”)
I meet with many local colleagues over a Zoom chat where we learn more about what further technology we might use in the coming semesters. We are greatly helped; we are not lone rangers.
After some time in my office, footsteps down the hall. A live person! Which colleague?! Three doors over from me, kitty-corner, we greet each other. “Brother!” I call out, as I’d hardly do on so-called ordinary days. But these are not so-called ordinary days, as we are all very much more aware. Without missing a beat we extend arms for a potential hug, at least six feet apart, of course. Later, when I’m stumped on a computer question, I hesitate, then knock on his door. Smiling broadly, with characteristic cheer, he comes, and moments later, the technical question is clear. And soon I’m on my Zoom call with about 75 colleagues all over North America.
Here, all at once, in all the time zones, we gather. I see friends. I see and hear folks I’ve only met through email. We’re together, we’re a community—we’re part of the Body of Christ that is forever and ever. Nothing, nothing, can change that. We begin with a Scripture reading, and as I gaze at the many faces from many places in their offices and homes—Indiana, Texas, Arizona, Ontario, Prince Edward Island, and more—tears of glad joy rise, close to spilling. Our key organizer comments, “The best work happens in collaboration.” Oh yes, yes, and yes. And what drew us and draws us together? It’s no surprise, is it, that it’s C. S. Lewis, his writings, his faith vision, and ultimately, the Lord Christ? (If you want to learn about this group, contact the CS Lewis Center)
Lingering at Sorrow’s doors has its place. There we might discover how well-connected and supported we are by our many fellow pilgrims. There we might discover old things that we took for granted and have not lost. There we might remember the new things that we want to participate in. There we might renew the gratitude that is perhaps the one threshold we need to cross, the one which leads us into the deepest truth that is always deepest joy.
May it be so for us in the days ahead: Sorrows’ Doors opening to deepest Joy.
Take good care, friends.