Tag Archives: C. S. Lewis

Note to Self

Because, today, I am in desperate need of a reminder. A reminder of where my priorities lie. Where my faith is fixed. Where I hide my heart. God help me stem the tide of bitterness in my soul.

From the pen of C. S. Lewis, in what may be his most breathtaking piece of nonfiction: The Weight of Glory.

It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or the other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all of our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously – no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption. And our charity must be a real and costly love, with deep feeling for the sins in spite of which we love the sinner – no mere tolerance or indulgence which parodies love as flippancy parodies merriment. Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbour is the holiest object presented to your senses.

And my other source of sanity. I point you to Stephen Colbert. Love and peace to y’all.


Mythopoeia

Hubblesite.org

Hubblesite.org

To one who said that myths were lies and therefore worthless, even though “breathed through silver”

Philomythus to Misomythus
(myth-lover to myth-hater)
by J. R. R. Tolkien, to C. S. Lewis

You look at trees and label them just so,

(For trees are ‘trees’, and growing is ‘to grow’);

You walk the earth and tread with solemn pace

One of the many minor globes of Space:

A star’s a star, some matter in a ball

Compelled to courses mathematical

Amid the regimented, cold, inane,

Where destined atoms are each moment slain.

 

At bidding of a Will, to which we bend

(And must), but only dimly apprehend,

Great processes march on, as Time unrolls

From dark beginnings to uncertain goals;

And as on page o’erwritten without clue,

With script and limning packed of various hue,

An endless multitude of forms appear,

Some grim, some frail, some beautiful, some queer,

Each alien, except as kin from one

Remote Origo, gnat, man, stone, and sun.

God made the petreous rocks, the arboreal trees,

Tellurian earth, and stellar stars, and these

homuncular men, who walk upon the ground

With nerves that tingle, touched by light and sound.

The movements of the sea, the wind in boughs,

Green grass, the large slow oddity of cows,

Thunder and lightning, birds that wheel and cry,

Slime crawling up from mud to live and die,

These each are duly registered and print

The brain’s contortions with a separate dint.

 

Yet trees and not ‘trees’, until so named and seen –

And never were so named, till those had been

Who speech’s involuted breath unfurled,

Faint echo and dim picture of the world,

But neither record nor a photograph,

Being divination, judgement, and a laugh,

Response of those that felt astir within

By deep monition movements that were kin

To life and death of trees, of beasts, of stars:

Free captives undermining shadowy bars,

Digging the foreknown from experience

And panning the vein of spirit out of sense.

Great powers they slowly brought out of themselves,

And looking backward they beheld the Elves

That wrought on cunning forges in the mind,

And light and dark on secret looms entwined.

 

He sees no stars who does not see them first

Of living silver made that sudden burst

To flame like flowers beneath the ancient song,

Whose very echo after-music long

Has since pursued. There is no firmament,

Only a void, unless a jeweled tent

Myth-woven and elf-patterned; and no earth,

Unless the mother’s womb whence all have birth.

 

The heart of man is not compound of lies,

But draws some wisdom from the only Wise,

And still recalls him. Though now long estranged,

Man is not wholly lost, nor wholly changed.

Disgraced he may be, yet is not dethroned,

And keeps the rags of lordship one he owned,

His world-dominion by creative act:

Not his to worship the great Artefact,

Man, sub-creator, the refracted light

Through whom is splintered from a single White

To many hues, and endlessly combined

In living shapes that move from mind to mind.

Though all the crannies of the world we filled

With elves and goblins, though we dared to build

Gods and their houses out of dark and light,

And sowed the seed of dragons, ’twas our right

(Used or misused). The right has not decayed.

We make still by the law in which we’re made.

 

Yes! ‘Wish-fulfilment dreams’ we spin to cheat

Our timid hearts and ugly Fact defeat!

Whence came the wish, and whence the power to dream,

Or some things fair and others ugly deem?

All wishes are not idle, not in vain

Fulfilment we devise – for pain is pain,

Not for itself to be desired, but ill;

Or else to strive or to subdue the will

Alike were graceless; and of Evil this

Alone is deadly certain: Evil is.

 

Blessed are the timid hearts that evil hate,

That quail in its shadow, and yet shut the gate;

That seek no parley, and in guarded room,

Though small and bate, upon a clumsy loom

Weave tissues gilded by the far-off day

Hoped and believed in under Shadow’s sway.

 

Blessed are the men of Noah’s race that build

Their little arks, though frail and poorly filled,

And steer through winds contrary towards a wraith,

A rumour of a harbour guessed by faith.

 

Blessed are the legend-makers with their rhyme

Of things not found within record time.

It is not they that have forgot the Night,

Or bid us flee to organized delight,

In lotus-isles of economic bliss

Forswearing souls to gain a Circe-kiss

(And counterfeit at that, machine-produced,

Bogus seduction of the twice-seduced).

 

Such isles they saw afar, and ones more fair,

And those that hear them yet may yet beware.

They have seen Death and ultimate defeat,

And yet they would not in despair retreat,

But oft to victory have turned the lyre

And kindled hearts with legendary fire,

Illuminating Now and dark Hath-been

With light of suns as yet by no man seen.

 

I would that I might with the minstrels sing

And stir the unseen with a throbbing string.

I would be with the mariners of the deep

That cut their slender planks on mountains steep

And voyage upon a vague and wandering quest,

For some have passed beyond the fabled West.

I would with the beleaguered fools be told,

That keep an inner fastness where their gold,

Impure and scanty, yet they loyally bring

To mint in image blurred of distant king,

Or in fantastic banners weave the sheen

Heraldic emblems of a lord unseen.

 

I will not walk with your progressive apes,

Erect and sapient. Before them gapes

The dark abyss to which their progress tends –

If by God’s mercy progress ever ends,

And does not ceaselessly revolve the same

Unfruitful course with changing of a name.

I will not treat your dusty path and flat,

Denoting this and that by this and that,

Your world immutable, wherein no part

The little maker has with maker’s art.

I bow not yet before the Iron Crown,

Nor cast my own small golden sceptre down.

 

In Paradise perchance the eye may stray

From gazing upon everlasting Day

To see the day-illumined, and renew

From mirrored truth the likeness of the True.

Then looking on the Blessed Land ’twill see

That all is as it is, and yet made free:

Salvation changes not, nor yet destroys,

Garden not gardener, children not their toys.

Evil it will not see, for evil lies

Not in God’s picture but in crooked eyes,

Not in the source, but in malicious choice,

Not in sound, but in the tuneless voice.

In Paradise they look no more awry;

And though they make anew, they make no lie.

Be sure they still will make, not been dead,

And poets shall have flames upon their head,

And harps whereon their faultless fingers fall:

There each shall choose for ever from the All.

My reading

morning dew, by Jubilare, taken on a morning in Yellowstone National Park in 2005.

Morning Dew, by Jubilare, taken in Yellowstone National Park in 2005.

 


Hymn for the Season

Life is hard. Beautiful, agonizing, wonderful, terrifying, joyous, grief-woven, sublime and small. All at once.

Times of transition, whether external or internal, are tough. Yet without them, we don’t grow. Like Bilbo with the ring, we go on living without gaining more life, and if that goes on too long, we may look in the mirror and find Gollum staring back.*

We’re (skip down if you want to avoid foul language) fuckups.

Even the best of us, even at our best moments. We try to do things, and we fail, we’re self-deluded and we think ourselves wise, we look through a distorted lens and believe what we see to be truth. To use modern parlance, we are Epic Fail.

We are. If you think I am wrong, that’s ok. Maybe you’re right. But if what I’m saying makes you angry, may I make a suggestion? Sit quietly for a while and ask yourself why my words anger you. Or don’t. I’m not the boss of you. Be glad of that. I’m a bad enough boss over me.

This probably sounds like I’m down on myself, and on humanity as a whole. That’s the funny thing about life, though. It’s full of seeming-contradictions that somehow aren’t contradictory. They just seem like they should be.

I’m more free when I admit this kind of crap than when I try to deny it. I’m free to love myself and humanity when I admit that all is not well. When I try to pretend that I am fine, that I’m not a rampaging mess, I find myself imprisoned, and I find myself doing more damage to myself and to others. The more control I take, the less I have.

Admission is not the same as acceptance. I admit that I struggle with obsessive-compulsive tendencies, a predilection for addiction, depression, and worse than all of those together, I struggle with selfishness, anger and pride. I do not, however, accept these things. I call them out by name and then I turn and fight. I do all I can to overcome them.

I often fail. If I had only myself to rely on, I probably would have given up long ago. Why fight my nature? Against it, I am outmatched. I can only overcome one part of it by indulging another. To quote C. S. Lewis:

“Pride can often be used to beat down the simpler vices… The devil laughs. He is perfectly content to see you becoming chaste and brave and self-controlled provided, all the time, he is setting up in you the Dictatorship of Pride—just as he would be quite content to see your chilbains cured if he was allowed, in return, to give you cancer. For Pride is spiritual cancer: it eats up the very possibility of love, or contentment, or even common sense.” -Mere Christianity, Chapter 8: The Great Sin

It’s the admission of failure, coupled with the desire to continue to fight, that makes me deeply grateful for the action of my Savior in my life. I’m dead tired, both from internal and external battles. And here He comes, to pick me up, to hold me while I sleep. In Him I find freedom even in the midst of the raging war. He frees me from my self-inflicted slavery, and from the slavery of the world around me.

I am a mess. But He isn’t asking me to get myself together, first, then come to Him when I am ready. He wants me now, mess and all, and if I will come, then bit by bit, painful though it may be, He will make me into my true, free self.

There are some words that, if spoken to another person, spoken as a “you” instead of an “I” or a “we,” become horrible. The following hymn is an example. If anyone can read it, or sing it and not feel that s/he is one of the “sinners,” then it loses all of its power for good. To me, though, in this place, it is a song of life. Because I am a sinner, poor and needy, weak and wounded, sick and sore. And if I tarry till I’m better, I will never go to Him at all.

A hymn for the day:

Come, Ye Sinners, Poor and Needy – words by Joseph Hart

Come, ye sinners, poor and needy,
Weak and wounded, sick and sore;
Jesus ready stands to save you,
Full of pity, love and power.

I will arise and go to Jesus,
He will embrace me in His arms;
In the arms of my dear Savior,
O there are ten thousand charms.

Come, ye thirsty, come, and welcome,
God’s free bounty glorify;
True belief and true repentance,
Every grace that brings you nigh.

Come, ye weary, heavy laden,
Lost and ruined by the fall;
If you tarry till you’re better,
You will never come at all.

I will arise and go to Jesus,
He will embrace me in His arms;
In the arms of my dear Savior,
O there are ten thousand charms.

View Him prostrate in the garden;
On the ground your Maker lies.
On the bloody tree behold Him;
Sinner, will this not suffice?

Lo! th’incarnate God ascended,
Pleads the merit of His blood:
Venture on Him, venture wholly,
Let no other trust intrude.

I will arise and go to Jesus,
He will embrace me in His arms;
In the arms of my dear Savior,
O there are ten thousand charms.

Let not conscience make you linger,
Not of fitness fondly dream;
All the fitness He requireth
Is to feel your need of Him.

I will arise and go to Jesus,
He will embrace me in His arms;
In the arms of my dear Savior,
O there are ten thousand charms.

Source: Cyberhymnal

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*In case anyone doesn’t know, this refers to characters in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, by J. R. R. Tolkien


Unlikely Treasure

As a child, I had little stashes of treasure. Translucent plastic beads, water-snail and mussel shells found in the Harpeth River, glass marbles, a ring with a little blue-glass jewel my brother gave me, a goat skull found on my godmother’s farm, a teardrop-shaped prism that filled rooms with tiny shards of rainbow, dried reindeer lichen, cheap pot-metal ornaments painted gold and set with faceted rainbow-glass, a lop-eared rabbit-puppet named Hazel (cookie points to anyone who gets the reference), an army (I’m not kidding, if they were alive and feeling militant, they could overwhelm you) of plastic horses.

Green Glass Marbles by George Hodan http://www.publicdomainpictures.net/view-image.php?image=25338&picture=green-glass-marbles

Green Glass Marbles by George Hodan
www.publicdomainpictures.net

All things that are nearly, or completely, worthless in a monetary sense. But I think most people will easily understand that they are anything but worthless to me, even today.

Along with these objects, I kept, and still keep, deeper and even more precious hoards. Memories, words, emotions, pictures of places, sounds, smells, anything and everything that has struck a certain note in me. It is a very specific note. I can feel it vibrate, and it is always the same, though the things that cause it are so utterly disparate that even I cannot see the connection. I only feel that there is a connection.

I hunt for something, constantly. The very fact that, having these treasure-troves already, I am still hunting, tells me that these things, while they touch what I am looking for, are not the thing itself. Smoke on the wind, pine sap, limestone boulders… almost, almost! But the moment passes as soon as I know it has come. I’ve tracked my quarry and won a glimpse, but it has disappeared, again, amidst the trees and all I have left are tracks.

I worry, sometimes, that these hoards are of the world, and perhaps, in a sense, they are. They, themselves, that is. But the chord they strike, that is of such power and purity that I cannot imagine it having its source anywhere but in God. Perhaps I, and all my fellow creatures, are in danger of mistaking the source of the want, for misunderstanding what we are hunting. I could spend my whole life believing that I am seeking the things that reflect the light, and find once I have them, the light is gone. But at the same time, if it were not for the reflections these things give me, what would I know of the light?

Maybe I am wrong. But it seems that if so, at least I am not alone in my error.

I’ve been listening to an audiobook copy of The Problem of Pain, by C. S. Lewis. Something he says near the end, in Chapter 10, made me think of my strange dragon-hoard.

I’m not sure, yet, how this is going to work, but I feel the need to explore the passage and my reaction to it. I think it will take at least one more post. It may take several. We shall see.  In the mean time, here is the passage itself. I’ve whittled it down a little for brevity’s sake, but I recommend picking up a copy of the book and reading the whole chapter (or, for that matter, the whole book, it is very interesting).

Warning, Lewis speaks about Pantheism, below. From what I know of him from his writing, I think his words are not intended to insult, but simply reflect his view. After all, he introduces this chapter as nothing more than his personal speculation. Still, it is possible to take it as an attack on pantheistic religions. I am not a pantheist, I believe that Lewis’s words are probably correct, but I mean no insult to anyone in posting this. If your beliefs differ from mine, feel free to express them (politely, please) in the comments below.

You may think that there is another reason for our silence about heaven, namely that we do not, really, desire it. But that may be an illusion. What I am now going to say is an opinion of my own…

There have been times when I think we do not desire heaven, but more often I find myself wondering whether, in our heart of hearts, we have ever desired anything else.

You may have noticed that the books you really love are bound together by a secret thread. You know very well what is the common quality that makes you love them, though you cannot put it into words. But most of your friends do not see it at all, and often wonder why, liking this, you should also like that. Again, you’ve stood before some landscape which seems to embody what you have been looking for all your life, and then turned to the friend at your side who appears to be seeing what you saw, but at the first words a gulf yawns between you and you realize that this landscape means something totally different to him…

Are not all life-long friendships born at the moment when, at last, you meet another human being who has some inkling, but faint and uncertain even in the best, of that something which you were born desiring and which… year by year, from childhood to old age, you are looking for…?

You have never had it. All the things that have ever deeply possessed your soul have been but hints of it… echoes that died away just as they caught your ear. But if it should really become manifest, if there ever came an echo that did not die away, but swelled into the sound itself, you would know it. Beyond all possibility of doubt, you would say “here, at last, is the thing I was made for.” We cannot tell each other about it. It is the secret signature of each soul, the incommunicable and unappeasable want… While we are, this is. If we lose this, we lose all.

This signature on each soul may be a product of heredity and environment, but that only means that heredity and environment are among the instruments whereby God creates a soul. I am considering not how, but why He makes each soul unique. If He had no use for all these differences, I do not see why He should have created more souls than one. Be sure that the ins and outs of your individuality are no mystery to Him, and one day they will no longer be a mystery to you.

The mold in which a key is made would be a strange thing if you had never seen a key, and the key, itself, a strange thing if you had never seen a lock. Your soul has a curious shape because it is… a key to unlock one of the doors in the House with many mansions. For it is not “Humanity” in the abstract that is to be saved, but you… God will look to every soul like its first love because He is its first love. Your place in heaven will seem to be made for you, and you alone, because you were made for it…

It is from this point of view that we can understand Hell in its aspect of privation. All your life an unattainable ecstasy has hovered just beyond the grasp of your consciousness. The day is coming when you will wake to find, beyond all hope, that you have attained it, or else that it was within your reach, and you have lost it forever. This may seem a perilously private and subjective notion of the “Pearl of Great Price,” but it is not. The thing I am speaking of is not an experience. You have experienced only the want of it. The thing, itself, has never actually been embodied in any thought, or image, or emotion. Always it has summoned you out of yourself, and if you will not go out of yourself to follow it, if you sit down to brood on the desire and attempt to cherish it, the desire itself will evade you.

The door into life generally opens behind us, and the only wisdom for one haunted with the scent of unseen roses, is work. The Secret Fire goes out when you use the bellows. Bank it down with what seems unlikely fuel of dogma and ethics, turn your back on it and attend to your duties, and then it will blaze…

Such is my opinion, and it may be erroneous. Perhaps this secret desire, also, is part of the old man, and must be crucified before the end, but this opinion has a curious trick of evading denial. The desire, much more the satisfaction, has always refused to be fully present in any experience. Whatever you try to identify with it turns out to be, not it, but something else, so that hardly any degree of crucifixion or transformation could go beyond what the desire, itself, leads us to anticipate. Again, if this opinion is not true, something better is. But “something better,” not “this” or “that” experience, but something beyond it, is almost the definition of the thing I am trying to describe.

The thing you long for summons you away from the self. Even the desire for the thing lives only if you abandon it. This is the ultimate law. The seed dies to live, the bread must be cast upon the waters, he that loses his soul will save it. But the life of the seed, the finding of the bread, the recovery of the soul are as real as the preliminary sacrifice. Hence it is truly said of heaven: “in heaven there is no ownership.” If any, there, took it upon him to call anything his own, he would, straight-way, be thrust out into Hell and become an evil spirit. But it is also said: “to him that overcometh, I will give a white stone, and in the stone, a new name written, which no man knoweth save he that recieveth it.”

What can be more a man’s own than this new name which, even in eternity, remains a secret between God and him? And what shall we take this secrecy to mean? Surely that each of the redeemed shall forever know and praise some one aspect of the Divine beauty better than any other creature can.

Why else were individuals created, but that God, loving all infinitely, should love each differently? And this difference, so far from impairing, floods with meaning the love of all blessed creatures for one another: the communion of the saints.

If all experienced God in the same way, and returned Him an identical worship, the song of the Church Triumphant would have no symphony. It would be like an orchestra in which all the instruments played the same note… Heaven is a “city” and a “body” because the blessed remain eternally different, a “society” because each has something to tell all the others: fresh and ever-fresh news of the “My God” whom each finds in Him whom all praise as “Our God.” For, doubtless, the continually successful, yet never complete, attempt by each soul to communicate its unique vision to all others, and that by means whereof earthly art and philosophy are but clumsy imitations, is also among the ends for which the individual was created.

For union exists only between distincts, and perhaps from this point of view, we catch a momentary glimpse of the meaning of all things. Pantheism is is a creed not so so much false, as hopelessly behind the times. Once, before creation, it would have been true to say that everything was God. But God created, He caused things to be other than Himself that, being distinct, they might learn to love Him and achieve union instead of sameness. Thus He, also, cast his bread upon the waters. Even within the creation, we might say that inanimate matter, which has no will, is one with God in a sense in which men are not. But it is not God’s purpose that we should go back into that old identity… but that we should go on to the maximum distinctness, there to be reunited with Him in a higher fashion.

C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain

Note: this is a transcription from audio. I cannot vouch for the punctuation, spelling, or even the exact wording, but I have done the best I can under the circumstances.


Vanitas

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/12/Gysbrechts_Still_life_with_a_skull.jpg

Vanitas/Still Life with a Skull, one of several by Franciscus Gysbrechts, mid-to-late 1600’s.
Image from Wikimedia Commons: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/12/Gysbrechts_Still_life_with_a_skull.jpg

I haven’t many of my own words, right now, which is why I haven’t been posting. What few words I do have are being channeled into fiction and a few friends and loved ones who are facing trouble and pain.

Three friends of a close friend of mine, all from the same family, were killed in a wreck. Serious illness and death have touched several people I love. There is death, illness, strain, pain, separation, abuse, stress, and frustration close at hand, and horrible violence, famine, illness, war and death not far distant.

In other words, everything is normal for the world.


It is easy to think, in relatively peaceful and prosperous countries, that we are safe, and in many ways, we are. It’s also easy to feel ashamed of that peace and safety, knowing so many do not have it. I keep asking myself what that shame means. Is it helpful or harmful, a tool or an attack? It shouldn’t mean that I want what little peace and prosperity there is, in the world, to vanish (or should it?) but that I do not want such things to be so isolated, so rare. Perhaps, so long as it makes me want to use what I have to help, then it is good, but if it paralyzes me with shame, it is evil.

But there is something to be learned about both peace and prosperity, for those who are in it: It is, in the end, no real protection. Pain and death will find us. If we delude ourselves into thinking otherwise, or in distracting ourselves until we forget, then we are in for a shock.

Different faiths have different perspectives on how this reality should be faced. In my own, Christianity, there are many different angles from which it is approached. There is no single answer, though some folks pretend that there is. There are no pat sayings that cover all angles, though some people like to pretend there are. There is, instead, a mosaic, with space between the tesserae.


Be careful what you say to pain. I have to remind myself of this. It’s too easy to forget, we are so desperate to say something, to help somehow, that we do damage. Better to be silent. After all, in silence the Spirit may have a chance to speak without all of our clutter. My mind is very cluttered… and I am certainly not silent, here. But then, what is this blog if not a place for me to vent? Maybe venting, here, will keep me from saying stupid things to someone anon.


The painting, above, is a vanitas, a reminder of mortality and of the ephemeral nature of earthly wealth, power, pleasure and wisdom. In this particular painting, the skull is wreathed in dried grass, a symbol of the brevity of life, and the hope of resurrection, as the grass dies every year, but returns every Spring. It is the only thing in the painting that is treated so. I think C. S. Lewis, in The Weight of Glory points out one reason why.

There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously – no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption.

Growing up, especially while studying history and biology, I got a very different impression of the world. What is the life of a human, so brief and fragile, to the life of a nation, or the world, or the universe?

This is no answer to the question of pain and death, or at least, it is not a complete answer. But it does shift the perspective. If I believe that human’s are, in essence, immortal, then how I treat them becomes much more serious. The responsibility is immense. When we turn our backs on human suffering, we are turning our backs on the suffering of an eternal someone. In Weight of Glory, Lewis catches at a possible risk. A turnabout.

It may be possible for each to think too much of his own potential glory hereafter; it is hardly possible for him to think too often or too deeply about that of his neighbor. The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbor’s glory should be laid daily on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken.

How this post rambles! I’m not sure there is a point, or at least not a clear or singular one. I keep coming back to the vanitas. Almost all is vanity, born from dust and to dust returning, but if there is something eternal in that dust, which I believe, then the one thing that is not vanity is the immortal. The pain in my fellows, the suffering, may be finite, but I do not think it is trivial.


On Myth: “An Experience in Criticism” by C.S. Lewis, Chapter 5

I’m struggling with that old demon of doubt that tells me I can’t write worth crackers… stale, moldy crackers, at that. It whispers that every effort I make is doomed to failure, and I’d better stop trying. But I am not ready to throw my pen down yet. I may, one day, find that I wasn’t up to the task, but if that day comes, I want to have tried my best.

My friend, David, posted this series on Lewis’s “An Experiment in Criticism” a while back. He did not finish it, but this is the last installment he did complete. Reading it has helped me a bit, reminding me that a) I am not alone in my reactions to certain kinds of stories, and b) that stories, themselves, may be more worth telling than the writer knows.

The Warden's Walk

Unfortunately, this will be my last post in Lewis’ book, at least for the time being. Why? The book is due back to the library tomorrow and I’ve already renewed it twice. But weep not, my friends! For this is one of the more important chapters for understanding what people like Lewis, Tolkien, and MacDonald (hereafter grouped together as the Great Trio) meant when they spoke of myths and fairy stories.

You see, it’s so dreadfully hard to define the word myth, in its deepest sense. Obviously we are not using the word to mean merely “an untrue story,” as you hear the Mythbusters use it. We are using it closer to the cultural sense: the Greek myths, the Egyptian myths, the Scandinavian myths, the Chinese myths, and etcetera. And yet, not completely in this sense. The Great Trio tend to accord the kind of story called myth a reverence…

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Autumn in Tennessee

Autumn opened its eyes, smiled, still half asleep, and rolled over.

At least, that is what it felt like.

We had a spell of cool weather, unseasonably, bizarrely cool, but lovely. Right on its edge, I thought I caught the scent of Autumn. There is no smell like it, no smell that quickens my blood that much. It is like the breath of God entering my lungs and enlivening the spirit He once breathed into me.

August, in my hometown, is hot, oppressive, and usually muggy (though we are in a mild drought this time). 30+ years living here, and indeed, further south where it is worse, have not helped me to like summer weather.

There are things I like about summer. The food is great, the greens of the landscape are rich, some of my favorite wildflowers put on a show and there are awesome insects and migratory birds everywhere. The other day I saw a clearwing moth, and just yesterday, I watched two female ruby-throated hummingbirds compete over coral honeysuckle, native salvia and a feeder.  And cicadas. I revel in summer cicada-song! But the heat and humidity wear me down quickly, and I run inside to escape.

The three other seasons, though, make up for the heaviness. For one thing, our seasons are pretty evenly spaced, around 3 months apiece. Spring, instead of being a brief link between winter and summer, is a long stretch of flower successions, greening, warming, and rain. It smells of sap and clean earth and breaks through the grays of winter with sharp, vibrant splashes of yellow, purple and white. Then, as the green begins to show, red, orange and blue mix in with the first colors, like a Fauve painting.

Winter, here, has little in the way of snow or persistent ice (though we always get some) but it is filled with opalescent grays, fawn-browns, and frost. A hillside covered with mostly deciduous trees looks like the speckled flank of a sleeping beast with a long, soft, gray-brown winter coat. It is subtle, and yet beautiful, like the many grays of the limestone sky. And in the morning, as I go to work in the dark, the street-lights set lawns and leaves sparkling with frost. It is as if every surface of the world is covered in glitter, and the smell of frost quickens the cold air.

But autumn. It leaves the rest behind. For some reason, the season of dying is life-giving to me. Sumac is the first to turn, a brilliant scarlet, brighter than flame or blood. The sugar-maples, perhaps the most spectacular, create a spectrum that runs from green, through yellows and oranges and into red, all at the same time. They look like shards of living rainbow. Sweetgums turn dark crimson, purple and black. Each tree species (and sometimes each tree) has its pattern and its method, and we have well over 100 species here. Some non-evergreens even retain their dead leaves to whisper through the winter, shedding them only when the new growth arrives in the spring.

One of my favorite species, eastern red cedar (which is actually a juniper) is an evergreen, though it takes on a winter sheen of dark bronze.

But if it were just about visual wonder, Spring and Autumn would be equally loved by me. They are not.

Spring breaks into winter just when I am weary of the gray. It is welcome and enlivening. But there is something about Autumn air. It blows across my mind, causing the embers there to redden, dusting away the white ash until flames flicker to life. It sparks my creativity, my well-being, my life. The taste we had recently whetted my appetite for that rare wind. I am never satisfied, it is never enough. Even in this place, that has a long autumn, it is too brief.

But for that short time, every year, I seem to touch something beyond myself. Perhaps it really is a time when the boundaries between worlds grows thin. I do not fear fairies, or the dead. What I feel coming near is different from that. It is the Christian song. I feel like I breathe in eternity, that eternity that is already here, present within me, but that I do not fully understand. Not yet. Not yet, but one day. Until that day, I have the contradictions, the mystery, a keyhole through a door.

Autumn, dying and living, curling up to sleep, comfort in fear, but not a vulgar fear as of being afraid. I am not afraid, but my heart is racing. It is so hard to express.  I think C.S. Lewis and G. K. Chesterton are right about that desire. The desire I feel that is soothed a little in this world, but never satisfied, the hunger for the excitement of adventure coupled with the comfort of coming home, that contradiction in my soul during Fall, fear and comfort, excitement and peace, thrill and balm.

I think of Bilbo Baggins. That journey at my feet, the road tugging at me, that song in the wind. Maybe that is why Bilbo’s song always brings me tears, good tears, and makes me think of Autumn.

Roads go ever ever on,
Over rock and under tree,
By caves where never sun has shone,
By streams that never find the sea;
Over snow by winter sown,
And through the merry flowers of June,
Over grass and over stone,
And under mountains of the moon.

Roads go ever ever on
Under cloud and under star,
Yet feet that wandering have gone
Turn at last to home afar.
Eyes that fire and sword have seen
And horror in the halls of stone
Look at last on meadows green
And trees and hills they long have known.

The Road goes ever on and on,
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.

-J. R. R. Tolkien: From Bilbo, in The Hobbit and (the last stanza) Lord of the Rings.

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*I’ve been told that this post can easily be taken as disrespectful to other beliefs. If you find it so, I apologize. That was not my intent.


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