The 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.