Nostalgia for the Future

A cup of tea, a dream, a seashore, and eternity

This afternoon I made a cup of tea. I didn’t use my usual fancy Republic of Tea British Breakfast black tea, but instead a simple generic orange pekoe of the Red Rose or Lipton style which I had not had for years. The smell of the tea bag brought a wave of nostalgia over me, a longing for the past. Certain sounds, smells, sights do that to me, and I suppose to most people.

C.S. Lewis wrote often about longing. He believed it was one of the indicators of the existence of God. In his spiritual autobiography, Surprised by Joy, he used the German word Sehnsucht to describe a strong emotion that often came over him and eventually convinced him of the reality of God. Wikipedia describes Sehnsucht like this: Sehnsucht (German pronunciation: [ˈzeːnˌzʊxt]) is a German noun translated as “longing”, “pining”, “yearning”, or “craving”, or in a wider sense a type of “intensely missing”.

At the end of the first book Lewis wrote after his conversion to Christianity, A Pilgrim’s Regress, he named some things which evoked Sehnsucht in him, ““that unnamable something, desire for which pierces us like a rapier at the smell of a bonfire, the sound of wild ducks flying overhead, the title of The Well at the World’s End, the opening lines of Kubla Khan, the morning cobwebs in late summer, or the noise of falling waves.”

And in his famous essay, “The Weight of Glory,” he describes our experience of longing as “the secret we cannot hide and cannot tell, though we desire to do both. We cannot tell it because it is a desire for something that has never actually appeared in our experience. We cannot hide it because our experience is constantly suggesting it.” Finally, in his most famous non-fiction book, Mere Christianity, he declares what he thinks this longing is all about and uses it as an argument for Christianity. “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”

Desire, longing, nostalgia, Sehnsucht was an important concept in Lewis’ thinking. And it shows up in his fiction as well. In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, there are two places where this longing can be seen. When the four Pevensie children are in the Beavers’ house, they hear about Alsan for the first time. Lewis describes their feelings at the mention of Aslan as like having a dream that has a meaning too lovely to put into words “which makes the dream so beautiful that you remember it all your life and are always wishing you could get back into that dream again.”

And in the last chapter when the White Witch has been defeated and Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy travel with Aslan and all the others to the seaside castle at Cair Paravel to be crowned kings and queens, the author breaks out of the story and talks directly to the reader. He describes the beach, the sand, pools of salt water, “and seaweed, and the smell of the sea and long miles of bluish-green waves breaking forever and ever on the beach. And oh, the cry of the seagulls! Have you heard it? Can you remember?” He leaves the world of Narnia for an eternal realm, the desire for it evoked by a memory of the sights and smells and sounds of the seashore.

Sehnsucht has been a driving force for much of my life.  I grew up in a poor family, and my parents did not take us to church. As the oldest of five I had a lot of responsibility placed on me to help my mother, and there was not much beauty in my life. I had two consolations – reading and playing outside. As a young reader my longing for escape and beauty was filled by reading science fiction and fairy tales. In fifth grade we lived in a small town where the library was in walking distance from our house, and I went through all the science fiction in the youth section that year. One of the few books I actually owned that I remember most was a collection of fairy tales which I reread many times.

The other consolation was nature. I loved to play outside and create make believe worlds out of objects I found. Some of my dearest memories are of when I was taken to my aunt’s house in Vermont for two weeks several summers in a row. This was a special treat since I was the only one of my siblings there with my aunt. She had plenty of land where I was allowed to wander and play. I remember an insect hospital I made one year. And I remember one summer making boats out of leaves and watching them float slowly down a little stream until out of sight.  My young soul, who knew nothing about Jesus or Heaven, was longing for beauty and some better place beyond where I was.

Hard to imagine, but my family’s life grew even bleaker from the time I was in sixth grade on. We moved to a city and nature was taken away from me so I entered into the world of books even more avidly.  In high school I read books that are not typical for teenagers such as Tolstoy, George Elliot, Dostoevsky, Thomas Hardy, Theodore Dreiser, and other writers who would make me feel sad and leave me longing, but I did not know there was an actual something I was longing for – Sehnsucht at work.

I worked my way through college starting out as a pharmacy major, but after two years of sciences and math I left that behind to go where my heart was – literature. I studied Shakespeare, the Greek playwrights, and any literature I could as electives, and my final degree was in French literature. Literature was where the beauty was, the window to other times and places for me, the world through other eyes than what my own sad eyes saw around me day-to-day. I did not connect the longings that the beauty in the literature evoked in me to a longing for the transcendent God. In fact, I never made the connection until two years ago when I read C.S. Lewis’ Surprised by Joy and felt as if so much of my life had been explained to me. I understood that longing for beauty had participated in drawing me back to God.

 

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The Fumi-e

Anatomy of Betrayal

 

How often we step on people and things and ideas we care about! How often we betray and set loose devastating impacts! What are the things we love that we have stepped on?

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe story revolves around a betrayal. Edmund, one of the four Pevensie children who come into Narnia through a wardrobe, betrays his brother and two sisters for power promised to him by the White Witch. He doesn’t hate them; he just loses his way in temptation for his own self-advancement.

There are many other well-known fictional betrayers. Golom in The Lord of the Rings betrayed Frodo in Shelob’s lair to get back the Ring of Power. Peter Pettigrew in the Harry Potter stories betrayed his friends, Lily and James (Harry’s parents), to become part of Voldemort’s power circle. Fredo, one of the Corleone brothers in the Godfather movies, betrays his brother Michael for a shot at power and respect. The theme of betrayal makes a gripping story.

Edmund, Golom, Peter, and Fredo stepped on brother and sisters, friends, or those they had promised to protect when they deliberately betrayed. Stepping on something is an apt visual of betrayal.

For over two hundred years in Japan from 1629 to 1856, government authorities forced people to step on something called a fumi-e to prove they were not Christians. The fumi-e was a stone tile carved with an image of the crucified Christ. For Japanese Christians to step on it would be, in their estimation, to betray Christ. But if they did not step on it, they were brutally tortured and then killed if they refused to betray their faith. This historical scenario was the set up for the climactic conflict in the book and movie Silence. Would the Christian foreign missionary step on the fumi-e to save hundreds of Japanese Christians from death?

But from a different perspective could stepping on the fumi-e be symbolic of the actual suffering of Christ to rescue all of us natural-born betrayers?

In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe Aslan suffers so that Edmund can be rescued from death at the hands of the White Witch as punishment for his betrayal. Aslan himself is “stepped on,” bound to a stone table and slain with a knife. And Edmund is released from the White Witch.

The ending was not so happy for the other betrayers we have thought about. Golom was consumed in the molten lava of Mount Doom where the Ring of Power was forged. Peter Pettigrew was strangled to death by the silver hand that Voldemort had given him. Fredo was executed by the brother he betrayed while they were out fishing on a lake. In some way the thing that motivated them to betray or the person they delivered someone to in betrayal or the person they betrayed circled back around and destroyed the betrayers.

All except Edmund.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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From The Magician’s Nephew

What people?

totalitarianism

A chilling conversation between Digory, Polly, and the Witch Queen Jadis happens when she describes to them a civil war between her and her sister over control of the world of Charn. Jadis and her army could not overcome her sister’s army so Jadis spoke the Deplorable Word and every living thing on Charn was killed except for her. Digory in distress asks about all the people that were killed.

“What people, boy?” asked the Queen. [Some of the most horrifying words I have ever read.]

“All the ordinary people,” said Polly, “who’d never done you any harm. And the women, and the children, and the animals.”

“Don’t you understand? said the Queen. I was the Queen. They were all my people. What else were they there for but to do my will?”

When Digory continues to protest she stops him with these words. “I had forgotten that you are only a common boy. How should you understand reasons of State? You must learn, boy, that what would be wrong for you for or for any of the common people is not wrong in a great Queen such as I…. We much be freed from all rules.”

Digory remembers that he had heard his Uncle Andrew say just about the same thing. “But of course, you must understand that rules of that sort, however excellent they may be for little boys – and servants – and women – and even people in general, can’t possibly be expected to apply to profound students and great thinkers and sages. No, Digory. Men like me, who possess hidden wisdom, are freed from common rules.”

C.S. Lewis was born 1898 in and lived until 1963 so he was in the generation that was an adult during both World Wars. During the first World war over nine million soldiers, sailors, and other combatants and seven million civilians died. The number of deaths was so high partly because of scientific developments that used technology for weapons. Lewis fought in World War 1. He was seriously wounded with shrapnel and sent off the battle field to a hospital which probably saved his life. World War 2 was even deadlier. An estimated 50 million to 85 million people died! This included battles over six years, the mass killing of Jews by the Nazis, and atomic bombs dropped on two large cities in Japan. These made World War II the deadliest conflict in human history.

So, Lewis witnessed governments at war with each other causing the deaths of multiple millions of ordinary men, women, and children and the devastation of nature. He witnessed totalitarian governments brainwashing and dominating people with terror. He also witnessed scientists developing destructive technology, experimenting on humans they thought less worthy, and creating programs of eugenics to breed a superior race of humans and breed out anyone they considered weak.

And his horror at the events and behaviors of the first half of the twentieth century shows up in his fiction. Queen Jadis and Uncle Andrew are the people in government and science who believe they are above the rules and who think ordinary people expendable in their power tactics. Lewis wrote another novel called That Hideous Strength in which there is a battle of good and evil when a group of scientists tries to seize control of life itself.

The people and the scenarios have changed since Lewis’ day, but the abuse of power goes on and on. He would be grieved.

 

 

 

 

 

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Waiting

 

Waiting

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Beside Rye Pond under Cheshire County’s gray-white sky,

I’m listening for any sound of downy tapper or dragonfly.

Up in New Hampshire near the smooth gray-brown pond,

I’m looking for mayfly nymphal shuck or rustling frond.

I’m feeling for brush of feather breeze or warming beam,

But recognize only an ungrateful crow’s frustrated scream.

 

 

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Ash and Heart

ash heart

 Ash and Heart

 

Someday I will be

ash, or maybe dust,

Silently waiting,

until the Stream revivifies.

 

Someday I will see

what my heart for God,

Wholly loving,

spilled into neighbors’ lives.

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Tension

bridge_rough water

Tension

Foster mother unjustly bereft.

Three children at risk.

Pain, fear, danger.

 

Divinity bursting at the seams of flesh.

The rescue, the truth, the justice.

All loving.

 

The gap.

 

Cold drowning waves below.

Doubt, wait, and hurt blowing.

Winds push troubled heart to the edge.

 

Strong right hand takes our frail.

Power, beauty, goodness in sight.

We lean into trust and hope, caught.

 

The bridge.

 

 

 

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Beauty and Dying, Passion and Calling

yellow-autumn-leaves-homes-gardens-housetohomeThe Spirit of God lies all about the spirit of a man or a woman like a mighty sea, ready to rush in at the smallest chink in the walls that shut the Spirit out from his or her own. And even the sight of a yellow sunlit autumn leaf quivering in the breeze of that spirit is enough to break open our walls from top to bottom.*

A pastor who has a passion for all things coffee told me this Tuesday that he had wanted to open a coffee shop, but was reminded that passion and calling are not the same thing. This pastor did not open the coffee shop, but is following his calling as the pastor of a small congregation near my home. He roasts green coffee beans for himself to satisfy his passion in a small way, at least for now.

I have been wrestling with this thought all week. I feel a calling to minister to the aging and dying, and I have a passion for beauty wherever it is found, but especially in nature and literature.

Making connections between seemingly unrelated things is part of my design. My heart is now challenged to find the connection between my calling and my passion. I know it is there somewhere because I have experienced God using the beauty of literature and nature as one of the means to lead my out of spiritual impoverishment, spiritual suffering and spiritual death after 21 years with my back turned to the God I had once loved.

Six years ago God, who had preserved my life through those years, began to pull on the cord that still connected me to him. It is only in retrospect that I can recognize it. I felt an urge to go back to the great books of the Western canon. I had a goal to start with Homer and work my way through the centuries. The “stab of joy” that C.S. Lewis describes came to me through these books.  So on I went with Homer, the Greek tragedies, Ovid, Virgil, Augustine’s Confessions, Boethius, Dante, and more and more and my heart enlarged and filled up with beauty.

The beauty and consolation of nature came back to me from my childhood. I have lived all my life in southern New England so the ocean is no strange thing to me, but I began to be drawn to it in a new and deeper way. I made many weekend and weeklong trips to Gloucester, Marblehead, Newport, Hampton, Southwest Harbor to be near the sea and its sight and smell and sound. And I wrote about it – the streaks of pink sunset in Gloucester, the clinking of rope on mast on the boats rolling at dock in Marblehead, the salt scent and moist feel on my face of the fog in Southwest Harbor, the waves pounding on the cliffs in Newport. The beauty of the sea was evoking a longing in me.

With God still pulling the cord, my reading project took me to Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. This book is so full of descriptions of fragrances that can break your heart. “When, before turning to leave the church, I genuflected before the altar, I was suddenly aware of a bitter-sweet fragrance of almonds emanating from the hawthorn-blossom, and then I noticed on the flowers themselves little patches of a creamier color, beneath which I imagined this fragrance must lie concealed… Despite the motionless silence of the hawthorns, these gusts of fragrance came to me like the murmuring of an intense organic life, with which the whole altar was quivering.” I cannot forget my own feeling when reading this of wanting to merge with the beauty of it.

Around this same time I listened to the audio readings of The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia. More intense feelings were aroused, making my heart pound for the beauty of it, when I heard such things as this from The Return of the King, when Sam is in the depths of Mordor gazing up at a white twinkling star and the thought pierces his heart that there is an eternal beauty forever beyond the reach of evil. And from The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, when at the very end of the world, a breeze blows over the children carrying on it the smell and sound of Aslan’s country, a memory they will keep all their lives.

All this beauty and longing was breaking my heart and I did not know what to do with it. I did not make any connection that what I was really longing for was “to find the place where all the beauty came from” as one Lewis character describes it in his novel Till We Have Faces.  My earlier experience of Christianity had not been one of much beauty so why would I connect it to these feelings? But God was mediating his grace towards me through the beauty of this literature. In December of 2013 I decided to find out if God was where all the beauty came from, although I would never have had those words to describe it back then. And at the end of my search, like Aslan said to Jill in Lewis’ The Silver Chair, Jesus said to me, “If you are thirsty, come and drink….There is no other stream.” God truly is where the beauty comes from, and I have a renewed freedom and joy.

The cord had been pulled to its end and I was with Jesus, but he keeps using this feeling of longing for beauty to pull me even closer. I live in the country now surrounded by nature, and its beauty fills my heart with thanksgiving to my Creator. In The Fellowship of the Ring Bilbo sings a song in the house of Elrond in Rivendell. In the song he is at home by a fire and thinking of all the beauty he has seen, of things in the past he can never see again, and things in the future he longs to see. It is an amazing combining of time past, present, and future, of beauty, and of longing. I happened to be reading this in October last year while sitting where I could see out my window early morning sunlight flickering through glistening yellow wind-tossed autumn leaves.  I cried with the sadness and beauty and longing that the poem and the sight aroused in me, but I now I knew that what I was crying for and longing for was the home that is waiting for me with my Father and Savior.

God is beautiful and the source of all beauty. I know that the greatest connection I will ever make will be when I find how my passion for beauty and my calling to minister to the aging and dying come together.

 

*Thank you to George MacDonald from his Robert Falconer novel for the idea behind this imagery.

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Every Last Little Thing

Soul Rest

I know a quiet and beautiful spot in Rindge, New Hampshire, called the Cathedral of the Pines, a memorial dedicated to the memory and honor of all American military veterans. The grounds are open to any who seek a peaceful place for mediation or retreat. On a hot and sunny July day I retreated there for seven hours of soul rest. In four different physical scenes I experienced emotional, spiritual, intellectual, and physical  Sabbath rest.

Scene 1 – Within the Green Temple

On a bench facing close into a richly green overgrowth of trees, bushes, and grasses, green templeI had morning worship and then simply examined my surroundings and felt the joy of the Lord by means of the beauty of creation – the macro view out to Mt. Monadnock and the micro view of tiny clusters of buds in various stages of opening up into tiny and magnificent white flowers. I paid attention to the hum of insects and the song of birds. Here in the Green Temple my breath prayer was, “Healer, say the word and I am healed.”

Scene 2 – Behind the 10 Commandments

On a stone bench in the shade behind a monument dedicated to veterans strawberrywith the 10 Commandments inscribed on the front, I read Psalm 62 and the Lord reminded me to wait and trust so that I would not be shaken. A strong, cool breeze blow across me making the skin on my arms tingle. “Wait and trust and I will keep you refreshed.”  In that shade and sense of sacred space, I ate strawberries so ripe the black seeds were about to burst out of their tiny pockets in the red flesh. And then I laid down on the cool gray stone and rested my eyes.

Scene 3 – Beside the Tree of Life Fountain

Sitting on a bench near the Tree of Life Fountain dedicated to women who had lost their lives in service to our country, I had my afternoon worship and was encouraged when I read in Psalm 92:14, “They shall still bear fruit in old age, they will stay young and green.” While I sat there I tried to focus on every last little thing.  I picked up a green pine cone and took time to smell the pine resin and feel its pineconestickiness. I observed a solitary carpenter ant with a red thorax scurry over a nearby rock and in and out of crevices. I listened to the water trickling in the fountain. I watched a volunteer spread rich, dark mulch on a garden bed. I gazed out at Mt. Monadnock in the distance shimmering in the heat.

Scene 4 – At Bullet Pond

I followed a dirt path as a solitary walker until I rounded a corner and a pretty little pond rimmed with pickerel rushaquatic purple Pickerel Rush came into sight and caught up my breath. So far I had spent my retreat hours in shady spots, but now I was letting the hot afternoon sun shine on me. I felt connected to a scene pulsating with life in that sun. The surface of the pond was completely covered with a quivering sprinkle of insects from a recent hatch. An occasional plop signaled a fish coming up for one of their numbers. Frogs jumped across my path into the water. I sat down on a whitened dead log to be close to the ground and surrounded by flitting yellow, black, blue and iridescent teal dragonflies. Completely silent, I was a part of this buzzing and sparkling hot, sunny habitat. It was life giving.

In a Garden

A sign on the grounds with words from a Dorothy Frances Gurney poem remind me of something I know to be true for me and one reason this retreat was so restful and renewing for me:

Kiss of the sun for pardon.
Song of the birds for mirth.
You’re closer to God’s heart in a garden
Than any place on earth.

In this beautiful place, on this beautiful day, my beautiful Savior refreshed my body, mind, and spirit with the beauty of his creation, his Word, his gifts to my senses, his life giving light and heat.

dew

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Embodied Semantics (Your Brain on Novels)

Connecting the novel The Red and the Black with brain research and empathy.

What happens when we read a novel?  In one of my favorite novels, The Red and the Black, written by Stendhal and set in the 1800’s, the subject of reading and especially of reading novels is present throughout the book.

Julien Sorel, the protagonist, is in the service of a bourgeois family as a tutor for the children.  The father emphatically declares to his wife, “He [Julien] never reads novels. I’ve made sure of that.”  The popular belief was that reading novels would lead people astray into improper behavior.  The author describes one of the female characters as “genuinely virtuous…never looking to novels for examples on which to model her conduct.”

What were they onto back in the nineteenth century, attributing such power to reading novels? girl-reading1

As it turns out, they instinctively knew what brain researchers now are finding out.  Reading a novel changes the brain in a number of ways, and as the brain changes so changes the behavior.

Reports from several studies of the brain changes resulting from reading novels have been published in the past 10 years, with the latest one I know of coming out in January of this year from Emory University.  In general terms these studies are showing the following kinds of brain and behavior changes:

  • Reading fiction tends to make you more comfortable with ambiguity, an attitude that allows for more creativity thinking.
  • The brain changes associated with physical sensation and movement systems suggest that reading a novel can transport you into the body of the protagonist.  We already knew that good stories can put you in someone else’s shoes in a figurative sense. Now they are seeing that something may also be happening biologically.  This is called embodied semantics.
  • Engagement with fictional narratives provides one with information about the social world, exposing us to worlds outside their own and increasing our empathy.
  • Avid readers of fiction were far more socially adept than avid readers of non-fiction.

In summary it sure sounds like good novels about life and human experience that we read and reflect upon can broaden our imagination and make us more sensitive and empathic.  It sure sounds like reading novels has the potential to make us better human beings than a whole lot of the self-help books out there and better in our workplaces than a whole lot of the business books out there.man reading

This idea really hits home to me when I think about the past twelve posts I’ve written.  All but two of them have in some way been about connecting fiction (novels and some films) to a deeper understanding of the human experience.

Reading The Red and the Black or The Lord of the Rings or A Tale of Two Cities or any quality classic or modern novel is going to help me to be empathic more than reading a self-help business book called How to Become More Empathic at Work could ever do.  And it will sure be a lot more fun.

Subway_reading

 

 

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Simply Love

Connecting War and Peace to the human life.

A fat, awkward, bespeckled young man, the illegitimate son of a wealthy count, Pierre Bézukov was thrust into high society limelight when he inherited his father’s entire massive estate.  pierre drawing

Throughout all the story of War and Peace he searched – in gambling, drinking, and carousing, in marriage to a beautiful woman, in Freemasonry, in the military, in a personal mission to assassinate Napoleon, Pierre looked for his purpose in life.

As the invading Napoleon approached Moscow and the inhabitants who had the means left the city, Pierre stayed behind with a mad plot to assassinate the great French general.  This would be his great act, his reason for being born that he had searched so long to find.

But his destiny was otherwise.  While trying to rescue the young daughter of a poor family from one of the fires raging across the city after Napoleon entered with his army, French soldiers arrested him for arson. Astonishingly the officer who was to sentence him to death along with all the arrested arsonists, did not.  Pierre and he had made a small human connection which stayed the officer.

Pierre watched the French firing squad shoot down all the other supposed arsonists, aware of the closeness of his own death, and was then kept as a captive, suffering and deprived until he was rescued by Russian soldiers driving the French out of Moscow.

Vereshchagin-In_Defeated_Moscow_smaller

After his rescue and restoration he was reunited with an old friend, Natasha who had also suffered and grown from being a frivolous girl interested only in ribbons, and gowns, and dances.  They fell in love.  Pierre spent much of his money helping to restore Moscow, and “in that period of time all people appeared to him in such a bright light of the feeling shining within him, that without the least effort, meeting any person whatsoever, he at once saw in him all that was good and worthy of love.” (Vol. IV, Part Four, Chap. XIX)

Free now, surviving a failed marriage, surviving a death sentence for arson under Napoleon’s French army at their invasion of Moscow, surviving harsh captivity until his rescue by the Russian army, free now, Pierre Bézukov found the end of his search for the intellectual or ideological belief that could define the meaning of his life.  Simply love.

Not just the love of strawberries and ice cream.  Not just the love coming from the friendship he had with his friends and comrades in arms. And not just the romantic love from and for a woman.  But a love beyond these natural loves, a love nearly impossible without the inspiration and enablement of one’s source of spiritual life.

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If people in Moscow saw him forgiving others who had hurt him or giving much of his wealth to help others and called him insane, the truth was that “Pierre’s insanity consisted in the fact that he did not wait, as before, for personal reasons, which he called people’s merits, in order to love them, but love overflowed his heart, and, loving people without reason, he discovered the unquestionable reasons for which it was worth loving them.” (Vol. IV, Part Four, Chap. XIX)

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