Of Wells

“’What makes the desert beautiful,’ said the little prince, ‘is that somewhere it hides a well’”.

That quote, from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s  The Little Princewas the second of three times that wells came to my attention last week. It arrived in my inbox from a dear friend, and was sent to encourage me.

But, as I said, it was the second time that week. The first time was in this article by Lore Ferguson Wilbert. These are the two paragraphs which stood out to me:

Christ knows

Though it is the living water we remember most Christ giving to the woman at the well in John 4, it is the words before he gives the water that comfort me in moments of sexual temptation. “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you are with now is not your husband. What you have said is true.” That Christ knows my struggle, my sins, my past mistakes, and my future ones, is a great comfort to me. My sin and temptation to sin are not hidden from him in any way. My thirst for water is not a sin, it is a physical need, and my thirst for sex is not a sin either. But it is a thirst that is intended to point me toward a better drink.

Christ provides

Christ offered the woman at the well living water, water that would satisfy her thirst for approval, for comfort, for security, even for a warm body beside her at night. Christ wasn’t offering to come into her home and offer his husbandry. He was meeting her at the well at high noon, in her shame, and giving her the hope of something better for the future. The woman would still go home—and this is conjecture—the assumption is she would go home to an empty house, that those longings might not be fulfilled in this lifetime. Christ’s promise is that she would find provision in him in the midst of the lack.

Lore’s words made me realise more than I had before the comfort in that passage, and think again of its promise of living water, of something that will truly satisfy. But it also gave me pause. So often, Christ doesn’t feel satisfying, doesn’t feel like thirst-quenching living water, and I don’t feel like I have inside me “a spring of water welling up to eternal life”.  So how does that work?

That’s where the third well appearance comes in. I was searching for the passage in The Great Divorce where Lewis speaks of heaven and hell working backwards, when I found another well quote which I’d forgotten. Or maybe it simply hadn’t struck me before. But last week, as I’ve said, wells were on my mind. This is McDonald speaking to the narrator (emphasis mine):

‘Ah, the Saved … what happens to them is best described as the opposite of a mirage. What seemed, when they entered it, to be the vale of misery turns out, when they look back, to have been a well; and where present experience saw only salt deserts, memory truthfully records that the pools were full of water.’

And so I can’t help thinking that this is the answer (or at least part of the answer) to my question about Jesus’ living water and why it doesn’t feel thirst-quenching even when we have it: we don’t always feel its clear liquidity now–we feel dry, dusty, parched–but looking back, we will see that the water was there, bubbling up inside us, all along….

On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and cried out, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink.  Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’” (John 7:37-38)

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The Little Prince

A pilot who finds himself stranded in the Sahara encounters a little prince from a distant star who asks him to draw him a picture of a sheep. This is the premise of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s exquisite story The Little Prince, translated by Katherine Woods.

I remember that we had a copy of The Little Prince years and years ago. I remember looking at it, and perhaps I read it. If so, however, I’d long forgotten the story. But I don’t regret not having my first meaningful encounter with it until adulthood: while ostensibly a story for children, its depths can perhaps be better appreciated when one is older.

To say that it’s a book that highlights what’s truly important in life, and that what is truly important is to love others and to be a giver rather than a taker in relationships, is a simplification, and also runs the risk of making this delightfully wise piece of fantasy sound moralistic. And as the narrator himself says, “I do not much like to take the tone of a moralist”. But yet, this little story (or “parable”, as the blurb on the back of my book calls it), is a gem for its insights into life as much as it is for its humorous and touching narrative.

Here are some favourite quotes.

“I myself own a flower,” [the little prince tells a businessman who is absorbed in counting stars] “which I water every day. I own three volcanoes, which I clean out every week … It is of some use to my volcanoes, and it is of some use to my flower, that I own them. But you are of no use to the stars…”.

The fox: “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

“’What makes the desert beautiful,’ said the little prince, ‘is that somewhere it hides a well…’”.

And last of all, and so beautiful:

“’All men have stars,’ [the little prince] answered, ‘but they are not the same things for different people. For some, who are travellers, the stars are guides. For others they are no more than little lights in the sky. For others, who are scholars, they are problems. For my businessman they are wealth. But all these stars are silent. You—you alone—will have the stars as no one else has them—‘

‘What are you trying to say?’

‘In one of the stars I shall be living. In one of them I shall be laughing. And so it will be as if all the stars were laughing, when you look at the sky at night… You—only you—will have stars that can laugh!’”

A talking fox. Stars that can laugh. A hidden well. And a puzzling, but charming little prince. What are you waiting for?

Friendship: A Literary Medley

In honour of my friend Sarah, with whom I have been privileged to spend so many happy hours this past week.

The typical expression of opening Friendship would be something like, “What? You too? I thought I was the only one.”

C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves

There is no surer foundation for a beautiful friendship than a mutual taste in literature.

P. G. Wodehouse

“You can trust us to stick to you through thick and thin – to the bitter end. And you can trust us to keep any secret of yours – closer than you yourself keep it. But you cannot trust us to let you face trouble alone, and go off without a word. We are your friends, Frodo.” 

J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings

Oh, the comfort — the inexpressible comfort of feeling safe with a person — having neither to weigh thoughts nor measure words, but pouring them all right out, just as they are, chaff and grain together; certain that a faithful hand will take and sift them, keep what is worth keeping, and then with the breath of kindness blow the rest away.

Dinah Craik

We two have had such happy hours together/That my heart melts in me to think of it.

William Wordsworth, “Travelling”

 A secret Master of the Ceremonies has been at work. Christ, who said to the disciples, “Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you”, can truly say to every group of Christian friends “You have not chosen one another but I have chosen you for one another”. The Friendship is not a reward for our discrimination and good taste in finding one another out. It is the instrument by which God reveals to each the beauties of all the others. They are no greater than the beauties of a thousand other men; by Friendship God opens our eyes to them. They are, like all beauties, derived from Him, and then, in a good Friendship, increased by Him through the Friendship itself, so that it is His instrument for creating as well as for revealing.

C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves

 

Village Church

My friend Sarah gave me the prompt “church” for my writing last week, and I decided to go down to the local village church, which has stood there for about eight hundred years (though naturally little of what is there today has survived all that time), and write about what I saw there. I’m not very good at describing what I see, so it was a good discipline for me to sit, observe and write. Needless to say, I hope, description of what one sees does not necessarily equate with endorsement of everything described! That being said, it was a lovely place to write in, with the weight of years of worship hanging over it.

***

I turn the heavy metal handle both ways before the outer door opens. Stepping in, I survey the small foyer and close the door behind me. A spring bouquet is in one corner. There are two boards full of church notices: weekly events, contact details for the vicar, the heartbeat of a village church summed up in pieces of paper. Another, heavier door is in front of me, and grasping its handle in turn, I step in and then push my way through the thick, green velvety curtains. I am inside.

I glance around. It’s empty. Good.  I walk under the ceiling striped by dark wooden beams towards the central aisle, which is flanked by grey stone columns so thick I don’t think I could wrap my arms around them. I make my way down the thin red carpet, my eye catching the bright blue sky visible through the tiny panes of glass in the windows to the left. Spring flowers are on the sill: daffodils in yellow, white, and orange. The sun shines brighter through the windows on the right, but the sky is partially obscured by the tall trees in the graveyard.

The red aisle leads to two stone steps, which in turn lead to the chancel, with its seating for the choir to the left and the right. To one side, a stand-alone cross with a crown of thorns is a clue that Easter hasn’t long passed.  The floor here is tiled in black, red, and creamy-yellow squares. I only notice that later, however, because the focus of the chancel is a chestnut-covered altar with a small cross in the middle, flanked by two candles. What really draws my eye is above and behind that, though: a stained glass window in vivid yellow, blue, red, and purple. The middle picture appears to be of Jesus ascending to heaven, watched by his disciples. There are two larger pictures to the left and right, each of a single man, but I don’t know whom they represent.

I turn and take a seat on one of the low, hard pews—pews covered by innumerable scrapes and gashes, scarred by years of worshippers. My footsteps, and the rustle of my bright orange bag, sound unusually loud. Apart from the ticking of a clock somewhere, there are no other sounds.

I write in silence. To my disappointment, however, the silence doesn’t last long. I hear voices somewhere behind me: two ladies and a small child. The older lady comes to the front. I think she checks the daffodils in the chancel. No, they don’t need watering. We say hello. She leaves.

Silence. The clock ticks. I write. On the wall to my right is a marble plaque in memory of Mr Henry Dench, who died in 1803. Similar plaques line the rest of that wall, and the wall on the other side.

My heart sinks when I hear the door open again. Another elderly lady. She doesn’t see me till she gets to the front of the church, and she gasps when she does. I smile again. Hello. She goes out to the back somewhere and returns carrying a red Henry vacuum cleaner. I’m afraid your silence is going to be disturbed, she says. That’s okay, I reply, but inwardly I sigh. I suppose even little village churches have to be cleaned, but why just now? I wanted the silence.

In the porch, the woman vacuums. Then the hum stops, but she is still there. Her work isn’t done yet. As for me, I know when I’m beaten. I close my notebook and leave the sanctuary for the world, walking into the sunshine and leaving the church standing as it has stood for eight hundred years.

Crossing to Safety

I like books with happy endings. A marriage. A rescue. A homecoming. A battle won. Ends neatly tied up, and the illusion of “happily ever after” created.

This isn’t, however, Wallace Steger’s approach in his novel Crossing to Safety. The story begins at the end: with four ageing people, one of whom is dying of cancer. Through several extended flashbacks, Stegner traces the friendship between the two couples, Larry and Sally Morgan and Sid and Charity Lang, over the course of about three decades, before bringing the reader back to death’s shadow as the book closes.

The Morgans and Langs meet as young couples, when Sid and Larry are on the cusp of their academic careers. Sid and Larry appear not to have caught each other’s attention at the university, but when Sid’s wife Charity is introduced to the Morgans at a social function, it is impossible for the couples not to become friends, just like it’s always impossible not to do exactly what Charity wants. With her dazzling smile and her italicised speech, and with the best intentions in the world, she takes possession of the Morgans, and nothing is ever the same for them again.

It’s not surprising, then, that Charity is the focal point of the story, and both its sunshine and its shadow. At her best, she’s heart-warming, irresistible even, and at her worst she is absolutely infuriating. In both cases it’s for the same reason: she truly wants what is best for everyone and she will willingly make any sacrifice in order to ensure that what is best happens. The difficulty, however, is that she is always absolutely certain that she knows what “best” is, even in the face of evidence that is overwhelmingly to the contrary.

For Larry and Sally, Charity’s kindly-meant interventions are often blessings—poor and friendless, they may never have achieved the success and stability that they eventually achieved without her. But the Langs’ awareness of how much they owe to Charity does not blind them to the fact that her penchant for control causes misery to her husband, Sid. “She has to be boss”, Larry reflects to Sally. “Maybe she tells him when to wash his hands and brush his teeth. I don’t suppose she can help it, but she’s as blunt as a spitting maul.”

Crossing to Safety is a reflective novel, tinged with sadness. “Leave a mark on the world”, Larry muses. “Instead, the world has left marks on us. We got older. Life chastened us so that now we lie waiting to die, or walk on canes, or sit on porches where once the young juices flowed strongly, and feel old and inept and confused.” Life is hard, and Crossing to Safety doesn’t pretend that it’s not. When I finished it, I couldn’t help but think how pointless and hopeless life is without God. What is success, without Him? How does one face death, without Him? But looking back, I can see that the novel shows, too, how a difficult life can still be a good life, how something hard can even be “a rueful blessing”.

If you like novels that keep you on the edge of your seat, Crossing to Safety might not be for you. If you’re a die-hard happy endings person, it might not be for you. But if you like beautifully-written, thought-provoking stories, you just might like this one.

Red

(Sorry for the hiatus. I’ll try not to let it go so long next time! In the meantime, here’s another piece I wrote for a writing prompt from my friend Sarah.)

When I was about five years old, I started ballet lessons. When my first lesson took place, I didn’t yet have the pale pink leotard and tights that the other girls had. I decided to dress as closely as I could to pink by wearing red, but when I stood in line with my bright red cardigan and skirt, in the midst of all the other little girls in their delicate pink, I felt the shame of being the odd one out, a shame which burned as bright a red as my clothes.

It wasn’t my first time to feel shame or embarrassment, and it certainly wasn’t my last. I’ve made silly mistakes. Been laughed at. Displayed my ignorance. I’ve sinned, or been caught out in sin. One way or the other, I’ve felt shame again and again.

Memory is kind: to my relief, many of the times in my life that have embarrassed me have been long forgotten. Others will stay with me always. Souls blush much longer than cheeks do.

But ashamed as I often am of myself, what a surprise it is to think that Jesus is not ashamed of me–not ashamed to call us brethren, as the Bible says. He won’t blush when He introduces me to the Father. He won’t need to. The red of His blood has cancelled out the red of all my shame. Because red on red actually makes white.

The Wounds of Love

In his beautiful collection of fables, The Happy Prince and Other Stories, Oscar Wilde strikingly contrasts self-sacrificing love with selfishness. “The Devoted Friend” and “The Remarkable Rocket” highlight not only the ugliness of a self-centered life but the way in which our selfishness blinds us to the reality of our condition. “I hate people who talk about themselves, as you do,” says the remarkable rocket, “when one wants to talk about oneself, as I do. It is what I call selfishness, and selfishness is a most detestable thing, especially to anyone of my temperament,  for I am well known for my sympathetic nature.”

Selfishness is not only blinding, but self-defeating. In “The Selfish Giant”, Wilde portrays the effects of a giant’s refusal to let local schoolchildren play in his magnificent garden. His selfishness makes it a permanent winter in the garden, “and the north wind and the hail, and the frost and the snow danced about through the trees.” In seeking to hoard treasures, we loose them.

In “The Happy Prince” and “The Nightingale and the Rose”, on the other hand, we see what it means to love and to give, even to the point of giving your own life.

“Death is a great price to pay for a red rose,” thinks the nightingale, when she learns that this is what she must do in order to provide the student with the rose he wishes to give his intended, “and life is very dear to all. It is pleasant to sit in the green wood, and to watch the sun in his chariot of gold, and the moon in her chariot of pearl. Sweet is the scent of the hawthorn, and sweet are the bluebells that hide in the valley, and the heather that blows on the hill. Yet love is better than life, and what is the heart of a bird compared to the heart of a man?'”

In both stories, the love offered goes unrecognised. The student’s lady love disdains the rose the nightingale has given her heart blood for, and the student in turn dismisses love as “not half as useful as logic” and “quite unpractical”. The recipients of the Happy Prince’s jewellery do not know to whom they owe their gratitude, and the town councillors simply notice that the statue has lost its lustre, and have it melted, while the leaden heart that will not melt is consigned to the rubbish heap where the prince’s companion the swallow lies dead.

But while their sacrifices go unnoticed on earth, heaven takes note, and in “The Happy Prince”, God accounts the broken lead heart of the Happy Prince, and the dead body of the swallow, as “the two most precious things in the city”, and His angel brings them home to Him.

It is in “The Selfish Giant”, however, that we get a glimpse of the love behind all self-sacrificing love in the wounded hands and the wounded feet of of the little boy who melted the giant’s heart.

“‘Who hath dared to wound thee?’ cried the giant; ‘tell me, that I may take my big sword and slay him.’

‘Nay!’ answered the child, ‘but these are the wounds of love.'”

For it is only the love wounds of the Son of God Himself that can make us–selfish giants and self-centered rockets that we are–into nightingales who give our life blood for another, or golden statues who give their jeweled eyes for those in need.

The End of Our Exploring

I finished this thoughtful book by Matthew Lee Anderson (subtitled “A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith”) earlier this week. While I had expected it to focus primarily on how to deal with the doubts and questions that Christians may wrestle with, instead it turned out to be more about how to “question well”—an important topic and one that Anderson handles wisely and gracefully.

Anderson discusses a range of topics, including what questions are and what they reflect about those who ask them, the frameworks from which we ask our questions, the difference between doubts and questions, what the goal of our questioning should be, and the place of questioning in our churches and our relationships. In terms of style, I sometimes felt that the transition between chapter subsections wasn’t the smoothest, and the abundance of footnotes irritated me a little until I gave in and decided to just enjoy all his parenthetical remarks, but Anderson’s overall writing style—at times almost breathtakingly beautiful—amply atoned.

For me, an important takeaway point was that we need to learn (and teach our children) how to question and think deeply rather than superficially. Anderson is surely correct that we tend to prefer quick easy answers to careful thinking (“just enough instruction so we know what to do but not so much that we have to think”—ouch). It’s never been easier to get our hands on facts, he points out, but our goal should be understanding: “Those who inquire well must move from answers to understanding, from the instant gratification of our need for comfort and security toward the deepened desire for the enduring good of wisdom.”

Slowing down on the rush for easy answers also means that we will be able to interact in a more empathetic way with those we disagree with, recognising that we may not be right and trying to see things from their point of view. As Anderson says, “To understand a position does not entail that we agree with it: but in a world marked by unsympathetic, hasty dismissals and cataclysmic, thunderous prognostications of doom, a strong dose of listening and considering might go a long way toward improving our discourse, both inside and outside the church.”

I appreciated, too, how Anderson shows that in the midst of our questioning, in the uncertainty and in the waiting for answers, we can have, as the subtitle says, confidence: “Reality makes us; we do not make it. And at the heart of reality, out of the silence of unknowing emerges the cross. The cross engenders within us the courage to explore without finding, to wait without an answer, to search without seeing—precisely because we know one has already gone before us into death, come back victorious from it, and will come again to consummate His triumph over sin.”

Ultimately, The End of Our Exploring is a Jesus-focused book. Because, as the final chapter in particular makes so beautifully clear, the end of our exploring is Jesus. “For the answer we are given is the life of a person, the Lord of all, life abundantly.”

Paper Memories

The dining room table has been loaded with boxes of letters this week: letters from years ago, decades ago that have been unearthed from our loft. Most of them are Mum’s, but as she sorts through them, she picks out any addressed to me. I already have most of my own letters, of course, in the pine chest in my bedroom, but she discovers a few of mine mixed in with hers.

I sift through these pieces of my past. There’s a handful of birth cards, in which pink features predominantly. “A Baby GIRL!””, one proclaims, while another begins “To Welcome Your Daughter.” There’s even a telegram my aunt sent—to think that I was born in the days when people sent telegrams! My younger brothers had never seen one until I showed it to them.

I don’t know most of these people, though, so I am less interested in the birth cards than I am in a few more personal items. There’s a letter my grandmother wrote when I was three years old. She included some photos of me from a recent visit I’d paid. In one of them I give a small, shy smile as I stand on a chair drying a plate with a tea towel. My hair is quite short and looks, perhaps, a little unusual. It must have been taken after I had cut my hair, Mum points out. I remember the hair-cutting incident, although I don’t remember my visit to my grandparents. “Won’t Dad be surprised to see you drying the dishes for Granny?”, my grandmother wrote.

There’s also a letter my dad wrote me when I was almost six. He was away, and apparently I had sent him a letter and a picture. “I really liked your little letter and picture—once I could find it in the envelope”, he wrote. I must have sent a tiny missive or a huge envelope, or both. “I love and miss you very much,” he finished. I don’t remember getting this letter either, but now? It’s something special to have and to keep.

As we rediscovered these mementos from the past, it made me think again about how meaningful it is to have real, physical letters that last. Will we be able to look back on old tweets, Facebook messages, or even emails in twenty or thirty years’ time? And even if we can, we’ll be missing something of the writer’s character that we can find in a handwritten message—the handwriting, the choice of card or paper, adds a layer of meaning and personal interest that pixels just can’t mimic.

“If I get a guy,” I announce to Mum, “I’m going to make him write letters to me.”

As I Am

He’s not here to assess me, like my boss was the other week—reading my lesson plan, observing how I interacted with my students, noting my manner and appearance. He won’t sit down with me later to discuss the positives and negatives of my performance.

He doesn’t care about my past. The foolish decisions. The wasted years. My sins and my shames. My frighteningly long list of misdeeds could be much, much longer and it would make no difference to him.

He doesn’t mind that I’m not pretty. In fact, he doesn’t even seem to notice my glasses or my spots. Other women and girls in this light-filled hall have smoother skin, glossier hair, brighter eyes than I have, but in this moment he has eyes only for me.

Yet he has no idea who I am. I don’t suppose he remembers the last time we saw each other, but even if he did, he would be none the wiser as to my actual identity. Distant relation? Long-lost family friend? Neighbour? No such questions disturb his tranquillity.

Oh, I could be anyone, I could have done anything, and he wouldn’t care. All that matters to him is that this woman who’s holding him is smiling at him. I lean in, and he peers back, and we’re forehead-to-forehead, so close that I can no longer focus on the big brown eyes that I can’t see without adoring. We pull back, and he grins at me—the sort of beam a five-year-old might give after tearing off the wrapping paper and discovering a long-wished-for toy inside. All I’ve done is smile (with a funny face now and again for good measure) and lean into those eyes, and he’s delighted.

And me? I’m basking, joyful, in a nine-month-old’s smile.