Christmas can be the best of times when we gather with family and friends to celebrate countless blessings, and it can be the worst of times when loneliness and grief seem too great to bear. On this Christmas Day 2020, in this year of starker awareness of uncertainty on our “swiftly tilting planet,” one where the loss of in-person gatherings is more keenly felt, what does the celebration of our Saviour’s birth look like? Perhaps some of us are spending Christmas alone, are ill, are mourning the death of a loved one, or have some other sorrow deeper than we even know?
May this holy day then be one where we draw still nearer to the God who came to tabernacle with us. May we experience His gentle peace, His deep and widening joy in increasing measure. May we be evermore conscious of the sacredness of every moment, every day, because of the riches that the Father has bestowed on us through Christ Jesus our Lord.
Here’s a prayer from the treasure chest that my English 103 students and I experienced this semester:
May you have the courage of Little Daylight in George MacDonald’s fairy tale and dance to your own music in the midst of trial; May you have the compassion of Daylight’s prince and love with a true heart; May you have the humility of Felix Moore in L. M. Montgomery’s “Each in His Own Tongue” and be God’s instrument so that others can discover God’s love; May you, like Elwin Ransom in C. S. Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet, experience the awe of the Lord and grow more courageous; May you, like some of the people in Ursula K. Le Guin’s Omelas, walk away from what you need to walk away from; May you, like Bilbo in The Hobbit, resist consumer dragon-sickness and enjoy your life like a “child of the kindly West”; And may you fight all your battles in the strength of the Lord as you journey through Middle-earth on your way to your eternal home.
As we hold Christmas in our hearts today, and look forward to his Second Coming, let us affirm the prophetic words of Zechariah: “Because of God’s tender mercy, the morning light from heaven is about to break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, and to guide us to the path of peace” (Luke 1: 78-79).
If it hasn’t happened to you yet, it will most likely happen: this weird thing people call “bifocal vision.” When your vision starts going wonky so that your arm isn’t long enough to decipher what’s right in front of you, you need help: you need bifocal glasses.
When it happened to me, it seemed to have happened all at once. From one day to the next I’d apparently gone from fine vision to being unable to read without holding the book farther and farther away (that extensible arm movement which is humorous to behold in others but doesn’t help the blinking, squinting, squirming would-be reader–you.) Yet, with the right glasses, yes indeed, you get to see the short and long view of things again: two realms, near and far.
Bifocal vision marks the end of a youthful era. What has this possibly to do with hope? I suppose leaving one’s youth behind can be a kind of good? (Let’s try to count the ways in which loss also leads to gain.)
Stephen Prickett, the renowned literary scholar, died last week. Full stop.
If you haven’t yet encountered Stephen’s work, this tribute by Jeffrey W. Barbeau is a good place to start.
When a dear friend gave me the news, something in me came to a full stop. Then a kaleidoscope of memories arose. (Isn’t it remarkable how in time all the details of life resound with fuller meaning?) Stephen’s kind email to me this past July. The last thing I probably heard him say to a few of us two years ago. On a frosty November evening walk in Romania, Stephen announced in his perky, cheery way: “The weather is changing. It’s thawing.” Ah, such a simple thing to point out. And in the big picture, so pregnant with meaning.
Frost and thawing. In me, in us, we experience both frost and thawing as we are deeply saddened over Stephen’s passing, and at once also deeply grateful, joyful, for his life and how he impacted us. Frost and thawing, sadness and joyous gratitude overlay one another. I suppose that’s a kind of bifocal experience: feeling two things at once.
Stephen was the first person who invited me to give a keynote address. It was for Oxford, at C. S. Lewis’s Magdalen College, no less. What?! Me?! Oh, what a marvelous time it was, that Oxford conference by the George MacDonald Society in 2014. (You can read a lot of what we thought and said in the book, Informing the Inklings: George MacDonald and the Victorian Roots of Modern Fantasy.)
I remember how glad Stephen was when I quoted A.D. Nuttall in my paper (“Nuttall hailed Lewis as ‘Jack the Giant-Killer’ for having fought and slain one giant of the intelligentsia: the giant of subjectivism.”) Stephen said he’d known Nuttall and he was glad—so very glad, as his warm voice attested, that Nuttall’s work is remembered. And me? Of course, Nuttall’s voice is remembered! How could it not be? But also, it was like my voice had joined the choir. Singing in a choir—there’s nothing like it, really, is there? Your voice gets to join something great and growing greater. Shockingly amazing. How does this happen? My small voice, the multitudinous voices: bifocal vision.
In 2018 I got to sit beside Stephen as we gave keynote addresses for the C.S. Lewis and Kindred Spirits Conference at Alexandru Ioan Cuza University of Iași, Romania. In the brief moments after my address, Stephen swiftly pointed out to me that he disagreed on my point about Christians and the culture wars. We didn’t pick up on this important subject on that busy day, but his candid, friendly remark has sat with me ever since. What had he thought I’d said? What did he disagree with and why? I’d cited folks who’ve spoken to increasing persecution of Christians in the culture wars. Clearly, one can see current culture wars being fought with the perception of Christianity as public enemy number . . . pick a number. My first reaction to Stephen’s brief comment was to disagree, naturally, but the more I thought about it, I began to see what I think he might have meant: culture wars do not result in Christianity? Christianity cannot be fought through culture wars? Political savvy, however important (or not), is not the way to Christ? It helps no one to view Christians as being against the general culture, because in the truest sense it isn’t? On a smaller scale, Christians serve in and vote for any number of political parties for various reasons, obviously.
Stephen properly checked me that day. If only because one thing I’d said could have triggered what I hadn’t intended, or had intended but would need to unpack further in future. I’m so grateful for Stephen’s commitment to courteous dialogue. I keep wrestling with his comment because it helps me to keep foremost what Jesus was so firm about: His kingdom is not of this world. Bifocal vision again: the culture wars where Christians are sometimes targeted; and the kingdom reality that cannot be reduced to culture wars.
I have another reason for associating Stephen with bifocal vision. Every time I teach George MacDonald, which is a fair bit, I refer my students to Stephen’s comment on this Victorian author. MacDonald, Stephen said, had “bifocal” vision, meaning that he saw two worlds at once, the temporal and the eternal (“The Two Worlds of George MacDonald”).
Brilliant: the metaphor of bifocal vision, the short and long view of things, the now and the beyond—and both at once, neither displacing the other. Yes, MacDonald sees this world so very clearly, in all its beauty, ugliness, and suffering. And the whole time that he’s showing us ourselves and our world he’s also showing us all these things in the light of eternity—how everything might look from God’s perspective: our beauty, ugliness, and suffering taken up by God’s majestic grace and so transformed by forgiveness into redemption. MacDonald never sacrifices one kind of vision for the other.
This kind of bifocal vision is surely the vision of hope. MacDonald even emphasizes that such vision doesn’t come with age in and of itself. Quite the opposite. Proper bifocal vision is tied to childlike wonder. You have to have that open-hearted wonder which we associate with young children in order to properly see. MacDonald qualifies this further by saying that not all children have childlike wonder—it’s truly an attitude of the heart. It grows in the soil of humility, slowly, as we wage war with pride, I think.
Temporal alongside eternal vision gives me hope. Like MacDonald, I can wish to see both worlds at once, which leads to cherishing this world all the more but saves me from despair in the light of the coming one—the coming world which is already, always, mysteriously operating in our present. We are here, now, in earthly fellowship such as it is; and we also belong to the communion of saints that is everlasting. Deep breath!
In her chapter in the forthcoming book, The Inklings and Culture: A Harvest of Scholarship from the Inklings Institute of Canada, scholar Kirstin Jeffrey Johnson writes of authors like MacDonald, Lewis, Tolkien, and countless others who “intentionally place themselves in . . . a tradition of storied conversation.” They don’t write out of an individualistic vacuum. They join a conversation. Looking ahead to life everlasting, Jeffrey Johnson adds, MacDonald “even dares his reader to read (and to ‘sub-create’) in the eschatological awareness that this ‘cloud of witnesses’ may yet someday be engaged face-to-face.” Oh! Heart-stopping and heart-quickening reality. One day face-to-face with all the company which has gone before us. Reading them now; speaking with them then. The communion of saints in life everlasting, each of us taken up into this fellowship, starting in this here-ness where we live and move and have our being. Bifocal vision: here and there, now and then, both: ultimate hope.
So when I walk darkening wintry streets, I want to remember that the weather will change. Stephen’s comment to us that one night also helps me to remember. Frost for a time but not forever. The Great Thaw is coming. The White Witch’s reign is temporary; Aslan will return. And as I walk along I need to see what’s right in front of me as clearly as possible; but I also need to have the long view of life everlasting. The short and the long view—bifocal vision—enables hope.
Maybe it’s only when we can’t decipher what’s right in front of us that we’re more open to bifocal vision correction? And so the short view, clearer, may also enhance the long view?
We salute you, Stephen. We will miss you very much.
“This is a Thanksgiving house,” a niece said one year as we gathered around the hearth and table for our extended family celebration. That warm remark has resonated with me over the years: Thanksgiving, really like Christmas, but without the gift preparations that can truly take a bit away from the sheer joy of it all. And our home a sweet place for such a time—how good is that! But that was then and this is now. As Thanksgiving approaches in Canada this weekend, we’ll be recalling yesteryear celebrations, perhaps trying not to focus on the differences this year brings.
Early morning fog blankets the world. Is it a shroud, like the heaviness that we might feel as we approach a season unlike the festive ones we’ve enjoyed in the past? Or is it a canopy, a soft blanket protecting our memories and our hope?
A few evenings ago my immediate family circle celebrated the beginning of Sukkot, the biblical Feast of Tabernacles or Shelters. As we made our preparations, I contemplated again the first time we did so some years ago. I recalled so vividly the wondrous moment when I put my head back and gazed up through the mini-forest of cut bamboo branches decorating our backyard deck: up through the swaying green fronds into the deep blue autumn sky before sunset, and came awake with this startling thought. “So, this is Sukkot,” I pondered. “So this is why the Israelites were to build booths to dwell in for a week. They were to begin to understand this amazing fact: that the God of the universe had come to tabernacle with them, to dwell with them.” And somehow in that split second the cosmos opened in my heart, even more profoundly in that instant than each lovely Christmas year after year. This God, yes, this God has come to tabernacle with us, with me, now, always. Christmas in October—Christmas always.
This year, a cooler Sukkot evening, we brought bamboo branches indoors, and their greenery rose up to the ceiling from which we had hung white lacy curtain fabric. The gauzy netting floated above the dining table, enveloping us as we sat at our meal: we were under a gossamer canopy. Our traditional homemade white paper Christmas stars floated overhead, each cluster ruled by an angel. We named the pink one the archangel Michael (“Michael can handle pink,” someone said), the white one Gabriel. The lights of the crystal chandelier transformed the curtains into a wedding-like bower, a delicate reminder of heavenly presence, even of the Marriage Feast to come.
Maybe the Lord Jesus really was born during the Feast of Tabernacles. Makes sense. That the God who came to dwell with us would be as precise with His calendar as in all other things. But whether we think of His birth especially on December 25th or in the autumn, let’s focus on the miracle itself: He has come to tabernacle with us, to be with us. No matter what, He is with us in all things, blessing us in the midst of trials, working through all things so that we can enjoy Him forever.
For some of us, this Thanksgiving will be different. For others of us, we have never known a Thanksgiving or Christmas family and friends celebration. Either way, the Lord has come to dwell with us and so make all things well. At this time, in the absence of what we have had before, or have never had, perhaps His presence may be even more keenly felt. That He himself is our Shelter, our Home.
My friends, it’s Christmas in October—and any time—because He came, and that makes all the difference.
Every autumn some of us might wonder, “Just how did August become September?” Do you ever whisper to yourself, or want to shout, “I’m a summer child in a winter world!”? Probably all of us take stock of what happened over the summer when September arrives—favourite things we could do, good things not done, and the various challenges and sorrows that have come our way. What are we taking with us into this fall season? The sweet along with the sad, always. (“Autumn” does sound so much better than “Fall,” but words can only do so much).
How are we all doing on this “swiftly tilting planet” (as Madeleine L’Engle entitled one of her novels)? How much more perplexity, confusion, unrest, and outright chaos can we take? Will need to take? Do you hear more sirens in your neighbourhood too? (Another siren just went off as I’m writing and is getting louder. And from different sources I’m hearing that the stats on domestic violence and drug use, are up, up, up.) How palpable is the worry, fear, even rage that you encounter? That you struggle with yourself? How are you coping? Maybe let’s just switch the topic. Enough bad news.
The other day I again raked leaves from our big maple tree in the front yard. Large orangey leaves, dry, crackly: beautiful still in their descent onto the driveway, the lawn. What a joy—after something like a week of thick smoke from the wildfires in California, Oregon, and Washington State layering our region, so acrid that you couldn’t open windows—a new afternoon of blue skies and sunshine. A wonder. Thank God for autumn rains! Children playing on scooters in the neighbourhood. Folks going for walks. An older sister pushing the stroller, her mother following. High schoolers traipsing home, talking loudly. Raking leaves is for me a delightful respite from other tasks, tasks also delightful in their different ways.
A line from Laura Ingalls Wilder rings true: “I am beginning to learn that it is the sweet, simple things in life which are the real ones after all.” And I wonder, in this season of approaching harvest, which sweet, simple, splendid harvest fruits might we notice? Enjoy? Sure, we count what we have lost, and must, but what might we have also gained?
I recall the young mother outside our local grocery store a few weeks ago, quietly coaxing her three young children into a shopping cart. Her voice was gentle, protective, and firm: “No, you’re causing a problem for other people. They don’t want you to come around them.” This mother’s shopping cart solution to the “problem” that the existence of her children pose to some sits with me. An older woman had walked out of her way to avoid this family, looking, it seemed to me, displeased and possibly fearful of catching the infamous virus. Case in point. So much has changed—or is it just that our circumstances only more clearly show our condition? What then is our gain?
How therefore do we do life in this new season? How do we deal with the little annoyances and the bigger bad news? How do we become and remain resilient, human, in such a time as this? Is it really true that the tough times, lived well, can make you stronger? I’m reminded of this idea by a sign in my herb garden: “Where there is struggle, there also is strength.” Perhaps what we need to do is salute all who have gone before us, many of whom have endured great trials, some beyond our imagining, and pray for similar courage and faith for whatever lies ahead. Perhaps pray for a double portion of their strength since many of us need to exercise muscles we didn’t know we had.
Meanwhile, as we’ve been wisely told, take one day at a time, one moment at a time. And count the joys, keep counting the joys, as we go.
In my basket of gratitude I see things like
Gales of laughter over a silly joke (the joke fades from memory but the laughter shared rings on in our hearts);
Kindness smiling in a passerby’s eyes, all the brighter when so many avoid eye contact altogether;
The greeting on a closed theater’s sign: “Be calm. Be kind. Be safe.” (so much more compassion in this world than I’d noticed in “normal” times);
People beginning a professional email with the hope that I am well, followed by another email beginning with gladness to hear that I am well (and exclamation marks in professional emails are, yes, noticeable!);
Humongous red and white impatiens flowers that spell welcome at a friend’s door;
Sunday evening home-cooked dinner, with candlelight too yet, experienced even more deeply, with a greater sense of awe that we are alive and together this day;
Being able to go to church on-line, greeting everybody with a typed phrase or two;
Chatting and praying over the telephone with a dear friend who lives over 3,000 kilometers away (and just knowing that she made butternut squash soup from scratch the other day warms my heart);
The cheerful IT fellow patiently helping me use the tools I need when I’m stuck, as often as I ask, ever patient and kind;
Creating new classroom communities this semester via Zoom technology, all of us giggling when one of us in a region far away says it’s so cold at 26ᵒ Celsius the same day that another of us elsewhere on the continent is cheering that summer has returned at 22ᵒ Celsius!;
Talking about George MacDonald’s fairy tale “Little Daylight” with my students, experiencing how their somewhat hidden “oh no, another princess-meets-prince fairy tale—so not true!” response changes to “This is different! Cool! Love isn’t about appearance, but. . . .”
With this basket full of autumn joys, I’m thinking more about how MacDonald’s Princess Daylight, who in spite of the evil spell that was put on her, is “dancing to her own music.” In the end, evil is overcome, as it always is. But here’s the thing: how important it was for Daylight in the long meanwhile of suffering to dance to her own music as much as she could. No, she wasn’t always dancing, but as much as she could dance she did—perseveringly, repeatedly, joyfully. Some days she was just plain too worn and decrepit to dance, and the only thing to do was sleep and, more than that, especially when sleep didn’t come, wait.
MacDonald really got this right. The curse can’t necessarily reach your heart; and we should guard our hearts against its force. But we need to choose to rejoice. No matter what happens to us, we’ve got to celebrate the precious moments of the precious days that we’ve been given. (For how long or short our days, we leave to Heaven.) Keep dancing to our own music through the brief and also the enduring trials. Remember that good always has that miraculous way of bringing even greater good out of evil—and we want to be ready to revel in this greater good when it comes. Meanwhile, we practice: we dance and keep dancing through it all, as best we can. Like Daylight under all the many silvery moonlit nights, we dance when we can.
This autumn I could pray for a double portion of courage and faith. That’d suit me fine to get it. But right now maybe I’ll just ask for an outbreak of sanity in my own heart, in this hour, on this day. Start where I am. Maybe that’s how to get ready to receive more courage, more faith. And when I can, which is most likely oftener than I suppose, I’ll dance to my own music, celebrating all things bright and beautiful.
P.S. My music? Well, actually, if it’s anything like half right, it’ll be my way of dancing to that Great-Music-Like-No-Other which heals the world—not really mine to tell the truth, but also mine when I make it so.
P.P.S. My friends, let’s revel in the blessings.
(One more tinier P.P.S. Did you spot my paraphrase of a line from Milton’s Paradise Lost?
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.
“… affliction is a treasure, and scarce any man hath enough of it.”
Affliction, a treasure? A treasure we don’t have enough of?
Strange words. Strange words for a world that medicates pain. Strange especially for our age that prizes material wealth and physical and emotional wellness seemingly above all other values. Very strange words, perhaps even offensive words, to associate with hope! Pain-free living is the goal; affliction the bane. Who would deny it? And during this time of the COVID-19 crisis, for each of us and all of us together, as we grapple with intensified suffering and growing instability on a personal, local, national, and global scale, how might affliction present a treasure? A treasure for whom?
Who writes like that?! Affliction, a treasure? An ignorant person who knows next to nothing about intense pain? Who doesn’t hear or believe the news? A sadist, maybe? Some sick soul who wants others to suffer? Or maybe some warped mind jealous of others’ pleasures, one who wishes others would suffer even half as much as he does? The kind of person who thinks, “Why should things be better for you than the rest of us?” A mind miserable with bitter resentments and seething hatreds, bent on being a kill-joy?
Affliction, a treasure?
Who writes like that? None of the above. No ignoramus, no sadist, no kill-joy. The man who wrote these words is none other than the famous English poet John Donne, a man of deep sorrows writing in London in the 1600s during the time of the plagues. In his capacity as the Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral, Donne had the task of speaking consolation to the dying and to the bereaved during three waves of the Black Plague that killed tens of thousands each time. In his “Meditation 17,” when he penned the more famous lines, “No man is an Island, intire of it selfe…. Any mans death diminishes me,” he insists that affliction is a treasure that can, indeed ought to, draw us “nearer and nearer our home, heaven.” He explains, “No man hath affliction enough, that is not matured and ripened by it, and made fit for God by that affliction.”
So there it is. Not only does Donne say that affliction is a treasure, he insists that we don’t have enough of it if it doesn’t draw us closer to God and so to our eternal destiny. Affliction should correct our vision. What kind of a world did we think we were living in, anyway? One where prosperity, health, and happiness was the goal? An achievable goal? Affliction reminds us of the kind of world we are living in, one where our best efforts can fail. One where terrible things happen and we realize we can neither prevent nor fix them. One where the prosperity, health, and happiness we long for is at best temporary, perhaps serving as markers (or “signposts,” as C. S. Lewis has said), towards their fulfillment in eternity. So as long as we aim only at temporary well-being, or substitute versions of well-being, we are deluded. In this meditation, Donne concludes that our focus therefore ought to be on “God, our onely securitie.” Any lesser hope is a false one. Affliction serves to awaken us. No, it’s not an awakening we ask for, surely not. But would it really be better to remain asleep? To believe a falsehood?
In the last class I taught my Major Authors’ students just over two weeks ago before my university switched from classroom instruction to on-line teaching, we ended with Donne’s Holy Sonnet, “What if this present world were the world’s last night?” I’d set this for our syllabus long before I knew it would be our last face-to-face class. The students moaned a little when I announced it: an ominous title as the Western world was catapulting into higher gear to face the COVID-19 pandemic. The sonnet opens thus:
What if this present were the world’s last night?
Mark in my heart, O soul, where thou dost dwell….
We pondered how in the next twelve lines Donne has us focus on the crucifixion of Christ, a most appropriate reflection for this season of Lent. How counter-intuitive the concept that the horrific sufferings of Christ on a Roman cross should be “beauteous.” But there it is: what was utter nonsense to the ancient world’s veneration of beauty and power, and to our own, is beauty. The utter weakness and ugliness of Christ’s suffering is the true beauty of Divine Love that saves you and me. God’s Love, Christ crucified—this ought to be our ongoing meditation.
I pointed to C. S. Lewis’s essay “The World’s Last Night,” an allusion to Donne’s sonnet, in which Lewis takes seriously the unpopular biblical teaching that this world will have a sudden violent end with the Second Coming of Christ, the event that will bring us all before God’s “infallible judgement.” And since we will then receive the true verdict on all of our attitudes and actions in light of eternity, Lewis counsels, we ought to “train ourselves to ask more and more often how the thing which we are saying or doing (or failing to do) at each moment will look when the irresistible light streams in upon it; that light which is so different from the light of this world.”
For Donne, for Lewis, for myriad others, affliction, one’s own death, and the end of the world itself, mainly means this: how should I be living today? How do my daily choices and values look from the perspective of eternity? Am I trying to leave the world a better place? Am I helping others on their pilgrimage? Am I taking care of myself in the right ways? Do I really believe that “no man is an island” and therefore every life matters, is of eternal consequence? Or, have I kept too close company with temporary goals, making them my main focus? Have I paid too little attention to what is lasting? Do I welcome the vision correction that affliction offers me?
In the days and weeks ahead of this season’s pandemic, we are being tested. Of course this isn’t sensationally new; it’s just more obvious now. Some of us have been severely tested already. I’m not one of them—yet. Likely all of us will be more severely tested than we imagined just weeks ago. The health care systems we might have trusted are proving vulnerable, as is the economy. We hear of suicides. We wonder, who will lose a job? A home? A loved one? “God forbid,” is our proper prayer for mercy. But in whatever ways we are tested, great and small, may we receive the Heavenly grace to pass the test. And take heart from those who have gone before us, like John Donne, and say with them, “Affliction is a treasure—a treasure that can draw us close to God, make us fit for God.”
Affliction brings many snapshots of hope. As one of my dear colleagues and friends likes to sign his emails, “Keep looking for the grace.” Here are some recent snapshots of hope.
Snapshots of Hope
My cousin near Hamburg tells me about lighting a candle in one’s window every night for twenty minutes—for prayer time alone, and for visibility to show solidarity with the community. She keeps me posted on all the news from our other cousins in Germany.
Our nephew in Spain brings groceries to his in-laws and sends his parents pictures of having dinner with his young family on their balcony.
My niece and her husband in Munich read favourite stories with their young children, play together in the garden, and work as best as they can at their computers.
My cousin in Los Angeles helps her parents and enjoys cooking meals for her family members who are working from home. She tells me how Martin Luther’s advice when the bubonic plague came to his area is precisely what we need at this time—as if it had been written for the Corona virus today.
A colleague and friend in Texas sends the liveliest, most loving emails.
With my friend in Toronto we ponder the significance of the COVID-19 pandemic happening during Lent. This year, 2020, the world is experiencing Lent in a most poignant way. It is a time for silence. Parties are illegal. It is a time for tears. It is a time for deeper prayer. It is a time to reflect on our choices and values. And God’s peace is there for us.
My nephew in Seattle preaches to his congregation through video technology.
My church family in Langley does the same.
My students and I chat likewise. One student commented the other day that they felt even closer to each other and in a more intimate space than in the classroom and how encouraging this was as she missed being with her classmates and professors.
The mother of one of my students works in a seniors’ home and goes to work almost every day. She wears the “space suit,” goes through boxes of gloves per day, and I imagine gives these seniors the warm loving smile they need so much and that I know so well from her daughter.
My faculty administrative coordinator cheerfully helps me via email even late at night and first thing in the morning.
A colleague sends us amazing poetry that one of her students wrote for her course in these difficult days.
My neighbour waves at me, smiling, as I take out the garbage.
At some moments young siblings in the neighbourhood laugh out loud as they play in their backyard.
My husband brings oranges to my sister.
I look more often at the wooden plaque my brother gave me that belonged to our Oma: “Sage es Jesu” (Tell Jesus).
One of my daughters makes a fabulous chicken dinner with herbs from our garden. In between her writing work.
Another daughter bakes irresistibly tasty chocolate chip banana muffins. In between studies.
My son records himself doing a Bible reading at the tile bistro table on our deck on a sunny afternoon, to be shared during this upcoming week’s Palm Sunday service.
My colleague and friend Brenton Dickieson posts the most amazing blogs, rich and deep, at seemingly lightning speed. You can follow him at apilgriminnarnia.com.
My husband and I enjoy his personal signature gourmet coffee together. We dream and joke and speak sober words with each other.
My young adult children don’t let me forget the story I promised to finish writing for them.
One evening my family sits down in the living room to begin reading aloud Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice together—and we burst into healing laughter at practically every line.
So, yes, Affliction is a Treasure that affords many Snapshots of hope. Everywhere, across the globe, we listen to each other’s sorrows, fears, hopes–and we pray. We pray. And amidst much else, we feel the love—love we share that comes from above.
Is this not good? Are these not things to treasure? Aren’t we thankful? Is this not part of what John Donne meant? That affliction gives us the opportunity to draw near to true treasure? The daily ones, freely given from our Father who is in Heaven? And so that we might seek Him out with greater persistence, in our perplexity and in our gratitude? As we experience these treasures, these moments, we participate in what is everlasting—and by these means are strengthened for this present that we find ourselves in.
My friends, keep looking for the snapshots of hope. And take good care of yourselves and each other. We’ve been told that our living hope far exceeds this present world’s trials (2 Corinthians 4: 17-18).
In this season of Lent when Christians focus in a particular way on the sufferings of Christ for the salvation of humanity, I was getting ready to write my next blog on our reason for hope. Meanwhile the COVID-19 virus was declared a pandemic and in the escalating response to this crisis, my planned meditation on hope grew—but more slowly as I navigated the new demands placed on me. Like professors everywhere, I was learning to teach online video classes and answering many more emails. I was taking care of my own health as the weight of our situation increased. I was processing the emptying shelves in supermarkets, the palpable fear in many faces. I wasn’t surprised one evening when I couldn’t buy that package of hamburger meat I’d wanted to. But I was annoyed, yes, when I noticed that the couple in the queue in front of me had at least twelve.
So where’s the hope in this perhaps unprecedented crisis? Is there any? Oh my friends, much, so much! I’ve experienced so many snapshots of hope this week. Here’s one.
My first online classes worked beautifully. Maybe not quite technologically perfectly but beautifully. I was pretty much dancing with delight! Why did they work so well? The reason: I had a lot of help from my university community and from my son. So much patience and kindness were shown to me. Who knew that so many people could pull together so quickly, so expertly, so cheerfully? And my classes were fun and inspiring. Now my students could see me at home in my study surrounded by my favourite books, even my wooden giraffe from Kenya (a gift from my daughter) reading a book from where he is perched on the bookcase behind my shoulder. I could feel the wonderful presence of my students as they “zoomed in” from various locations in British Columbia and the United States—and our love, yes—as we talked about wonderful literature that has inspired millions, stories that give us so much of what we need to know.
With my first-year students, I talked about J. R. R. Tolkien, his context as a combat soldier in World War I, and how he came to write The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings as literature of hope in a world at strife. (Thank goodness C. S. Lewis was after his perfectionist friend Tolkien to finish writing his masterpiece!) We listened to a clip from the song “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”—one I like to remind us of to get the feeling of Bilbo and other hobbits rising to huge challenges with courage. For we are all hobbits, little people facing huge challenges in this world. After the end of World War II, Tolkien wrote of the battle between good and evil: “The War always goes on; and it is no good growing faint!” (June 3, 1945).
I always frame my Hobbit classes with St. Paul’s words from Romans 5:3-4: “we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.” We talk about how this soul pattern fits Bilbo who goes from being an easily frightened hobbit to becoming the kind of hero who has an important role to play in overcoming evil with good. Bilbo is an unlikely hero and that’s what Tolkien shows we can be and must be. Yes, through much suffering through which Tolkien’s heroes persevere, their characters grow and they experience hope. Hope that is a game-changer. Tolkien’s heroes eventually experience what Jesus our Saviour promised will be one day: “the meek shall inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5).
My friends, take good care of yourselves and of others. Keep looking for the hope and even joy in the midst of these tough trials. Keep looking for the grace that encourages us to live in hope. We have reason to hope.
P. S. I have more “snapshots of hope” that I plan to send your way.
“And they all lived happily ever after.” What were they thinking, these recorders and writers of fairy tales, like Brothers Grimm and Charles Perrault, to imprint such a message on our hearts and minds? And what are we thinking, to still thrill to hear it? Do we dream of being healthy, wealthy, beautiful/ handsome, and partnered in flawless, unending romantic bliss? Or does it all feel like too much sugar after Valentine’s Day? An unfortunate and dangerous dream that sets up young girls to be passive, insipid things (some say) waiting for their perfect prince to come? And perhaps turns young boys to action-based, even violent, “macho” games? (What nine-year-old boy who knows nothing about George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin would volunteer to hear it?) So is the fairy tale dream at fault for adult woes?
And yet, when I talk with my twenty-something-year-old students, it isn’t enlightened movie versions of fairy tale stories, the likes of Shrek and Frozen, that bring smiles to their faces. No, you guessed it: it’s the 1987 movie The Princess Bride. I only need whisper Westley’s signature line to Princess Buttercup, “As you wish….” and their faces glow, positively radiate, with joy. As in the grandson’s kindled wonder when the grandfather is reading this story to him, hearts beat higher when a true love story is heard. Yes, the “Storybook Love” song plays on in our heads—that is until someone (in this case, me, with my students) poses the question, “Does love have to break your heart?” The question falls like a hammer, like a death knell—too rude, really, to have been asked, and once asked, impossible to ignore.
“Does love have to break your heart?”
Yes. Yes, it does. If it’s love, it does and it will. Pain interrupts the “happily ever after” dream. Death ends it. Or so we think. But did we get that right? The “all lived happily ever after” part?
In the fairy tales my mother read to me, the line was “Und wenn sie nicht gestorben sind, dann leben sie noch heute.” Which in English is, “And if they haven’t died, they’re still alive today.” Not exactly the health-wealth gospel fueled by the beauty myth, is it. Do they still have to take out the garbage? Obviously, right? (I once read a critic who actually thought it meant they didn’t.) Do they never fight? Really? Whoever heard of couples who never got annoyed with each other, never disagreed, never fought? I like how Aravis and Cor in C. S. Lewis’s Narnia story The Horse and his Boy are “so used to quarreling and making it up again that they got married so as to go on doing it more conveniently.”
So with my mother’s and father’s prayers, with my Sunday School lessons, there was room in my young heart for the dream of some measure of bliss in this life. And when I found out about Tolkien writing in “On Fairy-Stories” that some fairy tales are about “the Consolation of the Happy Ending,” saying that the truest form is about “eucatastrophe…. the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous ‘turn’…. a sudden and miraculous grace,” I knew he’d said exactly what many of us feel. Precisely! The best fairy tales hint at the Gospel. The “happily ever after” in any language is a small picture of the glorious hope of the Gospel. Fairy tales have plenty of suffering, but they don’t end there. In fact, they don’t really “end” because they point to what will not end: the coming Great Joy, Joy, as Tolkien said, “beyond the walls of the world.”
Deep breath. Where do we go from here? What do we do with heartbreak? Failed romance? The romance that never happened? Deep tragedy? And always, the death of a loved one?
We can go to the place of heartbreak and stay awhile. A long while. The truth is, for now, the hurt never leaves us, nor should it, if we truly have loved and lost. The question is this: What job is the hurt doing in our hearts? Is it leading to bitterness, resentment, cynicism? Or is it helping us to release petty and large grievances, and instead give ourselves to care, to love, even more deeply?
I’m always sobered by Lewis’s words in The Four Loves that love in this life means heartbreak, but that the alternative, a heart that will not be broken, eventually ceases to be a heart and so “will become unbreakable.” As he warned, “The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.” Likewise, as Frederick Buechner says in Telling the Truth, in his chapter “The Gospel as Fairy Tale,” the ones who get the happily-ever-after are “all who labor and are heavy-laden, the poor naked wretches wheresover they be.” And so we must become poor, broken, in order to live rich and forever be rich. That’s what the best fairy tales are all about.
Looking up from my red velvety chaise lounge sofa in my basement study (a truly luxurious addition after decades of reading and writing as well as grading many student papers at a proper desk), I watch the snow falling steadily in the backyard this January Friday morning, January 10, 2020. Christmassy snow is late on this otherwise rainy southwest coastal corner of Canada, softening grey skies, elevating (I hope) caution and even courtesy on the ever-busier Greater Vancouver roadways. The gentle whiteness is sticking to the evergreen cedars outside, bending the bamboo to half its height, and settling more generously on the delicate web of the barren Dogwood branches, the older growth Douglas Fir straddling the property line that is respected by our neighbours and developers alike, and on the twin maple giants farther away. “It’s like Narnia outside,” a daughter says, pausing to visit in passing. “And cozy in here.” “Yes,” I answer, and add, “And it’s a room that Mr. Tumnus himself might have approved of. A room with a view—” And the thought propels itself, “A cave with a view….”
Yes, this is my cave with a view. From this cave I see the first ten to twenty feet or so of these backyard sentinels, depending on perspective. It is enough. The new deck railing and the old rooftop carrier suspended upside down from the upper deck rafters obscuring a small part of the scene, a legacy from past family camping trips, don’t impede my quiet enjoyment in the least. The vista I cannot see only enhances what I can see. Hold that thought, I say to myself. Why ask for more? There is more, unending more, but does demanding greater vision increase it?
Good things can happen in caves, I tell myself. Refugee David hid from his murderous enemies and wrote poem-prayers that still help heal the hearts of millions. The same refugee David didn’t kill his would-be murderer, insanely jealous King Saul, when he could have. And he continued to write poem-prayers that help save the souls of millions. His descendent, our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, was born in a cave, perhaps, or might as well have been, amidst the livestock, away from pomp and prestige, and safe, safe from evil King Herod, safe for a time.
And here in my cave I take refuge. Refuge: the place of shelter from danger and trouble. The place where we can escape to, find comfort, aid, sanctuary. Like a traffic island, for example, as the Oxford English Dictionary tells us. And people that seek refuge are refugees. I remember that my family members were once refugees fleeing their native Poland at the end of the Second World War. They escaped, finding refuge here, next to the Pacific, where I find myself. Here, in my cave with a view, selecting words to type on my laptop, or scribble in a notebook, I too am a refugee in a haven.
Here in the semi-privacy of my cave-study with my open door policy to family members, I labour, dream, create, pray. Here I negotiate the fulsome list of tasks for the day, an undertaking that could inspire other people’s book titles (with their worthwhile wisdom), like Joyce Meyer’s Overload (a book I can recommend). Here I navigate the tasks of the day, this day. Here I ponder the terrible news of the week. Sometimes I rest. Here I experience laughter and tears.
Here, treasuring the Narnia moment, I recall the photo the same daughter took of me this past Christmas Eve in the magically transformed foyer of our church, Walnut Grove Lutheran. “Sit,” she commands, and I obey, smiling up at her from the bench nestled in amidst the red poinsettias, the brightly lit fir trees planted on the snowy fabric—an annual scene crowned with the shining old-fashioned lamppost. Satisfied with her picture, she declares, “Mom, you’re Lucy Pevensie!” My laughter, me as Lucy, entering and reentering Narnia—how delightful. Me, this aging Lucy, but then again, older and younger all at once, rejoicing in the One Lion King Who ever was and shall be. Therefore who I am and will be is timeless, He says.
Here in my cave with a view I can believe again in Epiphany, and do.
I have a special love for red poppies, the ones growing in my sister’s early summer garden and the humble velvety-covered plastic variety that we pin to our lapels (or however else we choose to wear them) throughout Canada, the UK, Australia, and New Zealand this month of November. November: the month of remembrance.
By All Saints’ Day, when we’re reminded to honour this great communion, possibly to light a candle for a departed loved one while a fellow church member chimes a bell, out come the poppies. In the midst of the hustle-bustle and ever-maddening rush-rush of daily life, their warm red brightness gives us pause, attunes our thoughts to the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of this eleventh month when armistice came into effect in 1918: the end of the First World War. And ever since Armistice Day, Remembrance Day as we call it in Canada, hearts hold vigil both with the tragedy of war and the blessedness of life. We remember the fallen and the veterans from the Great War, and we honour all fallen soldiers and civilians, along with the suffering survivors, since 1918 to the present day. We are grateful for lives lived sacrificially; likewise, we strive to live well.
The red poppy has transcended the political lines of division that it began with; it belongs to all—a symbol of our common humanity, frail and wondrous. The poppy aids us in recalling that the year is waning and so our own lives. What are we doing, and why? What is worth remembering about the millions and millions of people in the past? How have they gifted us? Then, again, what about our own lives might be worth remembering by the young and those yet to be born?
Perhaps I especially love the red poppy because my mother’s nickname for me was Mohnblümelein (little poppy). I was born at five minutes to midnight on November 11th, Remembrance Day, so shy of November 12th that the nurses in Vancouver, B.C. who helped birth me safely into the world fretted aloud, “Poor girl, she’ll never have a birthday party.” My parents quietly disagreed, but even into the early 1960s they worried a bit about what the neighbours might think. All of these facts have encouraged me to be one who wishes to remember.
The word “remember,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, comes from the Anglo-Norman remembrier, and it means what we all know it means: “to keep in mind, to recollect.” But here’s another thing: the call to “re-member,” to become members connected with one another once again. Imaginably, this season of poppies is also an invitation to re-member, to reunite, to become increasingly whole. We are all members of some group or other, probably several. Yet so often we are divided, perhaps sometimes acceptably, even politely, but often unnecessarily, angrily. And in this twenty-first century, our age of increasing anxiety, not only are we living in societies progressively experiencing deep division, but we are also divided within ourselves: anxious, uncertain, worried, fearful.
In this season of remembrance, shall we take a lesson or two from the red poppies we wear? The real ones, so fragile, yet so resilient that they sprang up from the bludgeoned earth of the First World War, inspired the Canadian brigade surgeon, John McCrae, to pen his famous poem, “In Flanders Fields.”
In Flanders fields the poppies blow Between the crosses, row on row, That mark our place; and in the sky The larks, still bravely singing, fly Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow, Loved and were loved, and now we lie, In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe: To you from failing hands we throw The torch; be yours to hold it high. If ye break faith with us who die We shall not sleep, though poppies grow In Flanders fields.
The poppies symbolize honouring the many fallen but also hope for the future, for peace. And the real ones, their green closed heads drooping downward until they are ready to bloom, unfurling their silken petals and rising on tall graceful stems, are like the human soul: fragile, sometimes forlorn, capable of atrocities, but also at times blossoming with gentle grace. Such beauty co-mingled with such horror—the red poppies remind us of both.
As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn declared in Gulag Archipelago, “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.” It would be so simple to separate good and evil by states, classes, and political parties, he said, but instead we need to face the truth: become willing to examine ourselves and uproot the evil within. This is a daily ongoing task. An arduous task. C.S. Lewis also spoke to this in “The Weight of Glory.” There are but two possible eternal destinations for each human soul—eternal glory or damnation—and at every moment of every day our choices move us closer to one or the other. Moreover, “All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations.” So we need to be vigilant about how we “conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics.” The stakes can’t be higher, and like soldiers we need to be on ready alert.
In these days of quiet solemnity then as we remember the dead, we could consider the challenge to re-member, to re-collect as members of the human community. We could also welcome re-membering, re-collecting the disparate, sometimes warring aspects of our own psyches.
This past week a third generation Canadian veteran held his box of poppies for shoppers outside of Costco. It was a brilliantly sunny afternoon in this country that we both so love. When he and I exchanged a little of each other’s stories, he said, “It’s bringing tears to my eyes.”
“Yes,” this season whispers. “Yes, it’s time. It’s time for re-membering, for choosing to wish to become increasingly whole. Begin the task; let Mercy guide you. May the poppies remind you.”