The Same is Greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven

Earlier this month, on the spur of the moment, I signed up for the online writing course I mentioned in my last post. I’m all of a week in, and I can tell you this: the best part of it (having someone critique my writing) is also the worst part of it. To put a little bit of yourself on paper, to make yourself vulnerable by sending what you’ve created to a stranger who will highlight problems in it that you didn’t even know existed–it’s the sort of experience that leaves you feeling rather small. Which isn’t to criticise my instructor–he’s doing what I’ve paid him to do, after all.  I’m grateful for it and I need it. But, ouch. Criticism isn’t easy to take.

As I write, I’m waiting for feedback from a friend about something else. I’m wondering if I will feel bruised after that too. And I’m hoping that I won’t be told that what I hoped were swans are ugly ducklings after all.

I could have avoided both of these situations, but I chose to open myself up to the possibility of criticism from people who care. So now I must swallow the medicine I’m given.

This thing about receiving criticism makes me think of children. (I’m sure I’ve read about this and/or talked about it with someone but I can’t remember the details). Pretty much all day every day, there are big people pointing out all the things they’re doing wrong: “You have toothpaste on your cheek.” “Look at the state of your room!” “Five fives are not thirty.” “Sit still.” “Don’t do it that way–do it this way.” And sure, there are times when the little people don’t like it. But if I had to endure as many corrections in a single day as the average (loved) child does, my ego would be in shreds. I would be sitting in bed at the end of the day crying about what a failure I am and how I can’t do anything right and what’s the point of even trying–which, in case you’re wondering, is not what the average five year old does every time he goes to bed.

So this is one of the ways in which, I, as an adult, need to be more like a little child: to gracefully put up with being having my mistakes pointed out to me by people who care.

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Quoting O’Connor

I’m sorry it’s been quiet around here for a while. “Blog” has been on my weekly list each week for the last few weeks, but I haven’t succeeded in actually doing the task until now. I’ll try to get back to being more regular again!

This week I started a six-week writing course led by Dr Jonathan Rogers. It’s not a for-credit course (those days are behind me now anyway); it’s a for-fun one. It’s because the subject of writing intrigues me and because I want to get better at it.

This week, the focus is on concrete language, and one of our tasks has been to read an essay by Flannery O’Connor entitled “The Nature and Aim of Fiction”. I’m afraid I’ve never warmed to O’Connor’s fiction (that’s what comes of being a happy-endings sort of girl), but I very much enjoyed this essay, as well as some others in the collection that I dipped into today. Her prose reminds me of Lewis’ in its clarity, punchiness, and insight, and I wanted to share some extracts with you.

“The beginning of human knowledge is through the senses, and the fiction writer begins where human perception begins. He appeals through the senses, and you cannot appeal to the senses with abstractions. It is a good deal easier for most people to state an abstract idea than to describe and thus re-create some object that they actually see. But the world of the fiction writer is full of matter, and this is what the beginning fiction writers are very loath to create.”

“Fiction is about everything human and we are made out of dust, and if you scorn getting yourself dusty, then you shouldn’t try to write fiction.”

“But there’s a certain grain of stupidity that the writer of fiction can hardly do without, and this is the quality of having to stare, of not getting the point at once. The longer you look at one object, the more of the world you see in it….”

“The fact is that anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days. If you can’t make something out of a little experience, you probably won’t be able to make it out of a lot.”

And lastly, this gem on teaching literature from “Total Effect and the Eighth Grade”:

“And if the student finds that this is not to his taste? Well, that is regrettable. Most regrettable. His taste should not be consulted; it is being formed.”

Gilead

Recently, I finished re-reading Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead. So that I could go on to read Home for the first time. So that I could then have clear decks to read Lila, which releases this month. Some things have to be done in the right order, you know.

The first time I read Gilead, it took me a while to get into it. The plot is a leisurely ramble rather than a mad dash, after all. I didn’t have the same problem second time round, perhaps because I knew what to expect. Or perhaps because I was more ready to read the sort of book Gilead is? Or both. Or neither. Anyway, it was a delight to read the memories and reflections of elderly pastor John Ames–words that come across as so genuine and believable that it’s amazing that Ames’ voice is only a creation of Marilynne Robinson.

“The memories and reflections of an elderly pastor” doesn’t sound very inspiring, does it? Yet it is–and not simply to a Christian audience. After all, Gilead won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2005.  Can that woman write!

Here’s a beautiful example that stuck with me from my first read:

“That mention of Feuerbach and joy reminded me of something I saw early one morning a few years ago, as I was walking up to the church. There was a young couple strolling along half a block ahead of me. The sun had come up brilliantly after a heavy rain, and the trees were glistening and very wet. On some impulse, plain exuberance, I suppose, the fellow jumped up and caught hold of a branch, and a storm of luminous water came pouring down on the two of them, and they laughed and took off running, the girl sweeping water off her hair and her dress as if she were a little bit disgusted, but she wasn’t. It was a beautiful thing to see, like something from a myth. I don’t know why I thought of that now, except perhaps because it is easy to believe in such moments that water was made primarily for blessing, and only secondarily for growing vegetables or doing the wash. I wish I had paid more attention to it. My list of regrets may seem unusual, but who can know that they are, really. This is an interesting planet. It deserves all the attention you can give it.”

There’s more to Gilead than beautiful words and descriptions, though.  I think one of the things that makes it what it is is that it shows what goodness can look like in the small, the everyday, the comparatively uninteresting. Sometimes we need to read things that remind us of the earth-shaking-ness of the struggle between good and evil, like The Lord of the Rings. Other times we need to read things that showcase qualities like goodness in the everyday, where many of us will be more likely to encounter them. And things that remind us that goodness isn’t always glamourous. Ames is a good man, and–as he struggles with his attitude towards Jack, the prodigal son of his dearest friend–he becomes an even better man. But it doesn’t always feel like that to him. At one point, he writes, “… I had spent the morning darkness praying for the wisdom to do well by [Jack], and then when he woke me, I was immediately aware than my sullen old reptilian self would have handed him over to the Philistines for the sake of a few more minutes’ sleep. I really despise the pathos of being found asleep at odd times in odd places.” When I look at people that I think of as good, godly, or so forth, it can seem that they must be as lovely on the inside as they are on the outside–that they are far above the anger and annoyances, the bitterness and the barrenness that is so often a feature of my inner life. And in a sense I am sure they are–that they have a deep goodness beyond mine. But the thing to remember is that it won’t appear that way to them. They still have ugly inner landscapes that they alone survey, as I alone survey mine. Which isn’t to call them hypocrites or to degenerate their real goodness, but rather to remember that even those who are truly good and godly don’t necessarily feel that they are so. Which should be a hopeful thing for the rest of us to ponder.

I love Gilead for its the lovely ways in which Robinson uses words. For Ames’ spiritual insight. For his joyful embracing of life even as he faces death. For the compassion that he develops towards Jack. If I were to choose one word to describe it, I would choose the word exquisite.

“Wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration. You don’t have to bring a thing to it except a little willingness to see. Only, who could have the courage to see it?”