The Peat Burns Brimming

Oh dear. It’s been too long.

September has been and gone, first in heavy rain and latterly in a succession of warm, sunshine-y days, a parting gift from the departed summer. Amongst other things, I’ve been to Northern Ireland and to Kent, and I’ve been adjusting to my new classes for this term. I’ve also been reading–of course! I’ve been dipping in and out of a collection of Lewis’ poems “and having a marvellous time”, as Fraulein Maria would say. (There are some gems, let me tell you, but since they’re all within copyright I can’t post them here.) I’ve read a book on punctuation (yes, you read that right), Surprised by Joy, and an L. M. Montgomery novel.

I’ve also been procrastinating on writing, as is all too obvious, although I did write two blog posts or want-to-be blog posts which, for one reason or another, I decided not to post. However, I’m here today to assure all 2.5 of my readers that I am alive and am planning to get back to a more regular blogging schedule….

In the meantime, I leave you with this beautiful Chesterton poem whose acquaintance I have just made:

GLENCOE

The star-crowned cliffs seem hinged upon the sky,
The clouds are floating rags across them curled,
They open to us like the gates of God
Cloven in the last great wall of all the world.

I looked, and saw the valley of my soul
Where naked crests fight to achieve the skies,
Where no grain grows nor wine, no fruitful thing,
Only big words and starry blasphemies.

But you have clothed with mercy like a moss
The barren violence of its primal wars,
Sterile although they be and void of rule,
You know my shapeless crags have Wed the stars.

How shall I thank you, O courageous heart.
That of this wasteful world you had no fear;
But bade it blossom in clear faith and sent
Your fair flower-feeding rivers: even as here

The peat burns brimming from their cups of stone
Glow brown and blood-red down the vast decline
As if Christ stood on yonder clouded peak
And turned its thousand waters into wine.

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Of Uncharted Waters

Just over two months ago, I pressed the “submit” button for the final assignment of the final course for my English degree. After you-wouldn’t-believe-how-many tests, after reading plays and poems and stories, after writing and editing and writing again, after deadlines and background music and tears and work, I was done. I’d done what I’d been wanting to do for years.

The exhilaration lasted less than a day.

I’d reached my destination only to be cast out on the sea again, and on a sea that was much choppier, amidst winds that howled louder, than the one I’d been sailing across for the last two-and-a-bit years.

What was my identity now that I wasn’t a college student? I wore—and still wear—other hats, of course, but none that gave me the same security or identity, or the same ready answer to the dreaded question of “What do you do?”

How was I to use my time now that I had less to do?

How was to I adjust to the fact that I’d always hoped to glide from a degree to marriage without that messy in-between stage, but here I was—my degree consigned to a previous act with me still awaiting a significant other to walk on stage?

And what was I to do next?

The last one seemed easy, initially. I had a plan to which I’d given hours of research.

But then it didn’t work out.

(And no, I’m not going to insert the “mice and men” quote here….)

And so there have been tears. And worry. And frustration. And wasted time. And searching for open doors.

I’m holding my breath now, as another door seems to be opening. Perhaps my little boat will have landed on a new shore in a few weeks’ time. That’s what I’m praying for.

But perhaps it won’t.

I shared this quote from Jared Wilson back in March. (It doesn’t appear to be on his website anymore, so I’m just linking back to my original post.)

“You know, it’s possible that God’s plan for us is littleness. His plan for us may be personal failure. It’s possible that when another door closes, it’s not because he plans to open a window but because he plans to have the building fall down on you. The question we must ask ourselves is this: Will Christ be enough?”

And, as a sweet friend told me recently, not just “enough” in a passive I’ll-close-my-eyes-tight-and-get-through-with-this sort of way, but “enough” in a way that draws us out of ourselves to create beauty and to love others, no matter how far our circumstances are from being what we want them to be.

This is my challenge. One that, frankly, I’ve failed miserably at.

How does Lewis close his essay “A Slip of the Tongue”?

“ Our morning prayer should be that in the Imitation: Da hodie perfecte incipere—grant me to make an unflawed beginning today, for I have done nothing yet.”

 

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.”

Of Lewis, Oxford, and Other Delights

Imagine with me the following combination: a Christian conference with a C S Lewis theme in Oxford in June…. Imagine being with eighty-something people one has never met before and being able, if one wished, to ask each of them, “So what’s your favourite Lewis book?”

That is to say, you may simply have to imagine it, but I can remember it, because it’s where SJ and I were last week.

And there are so many good things to remember….

Listening to two wise and godly men lecturing. Being stretched intellectually and spiritually.

A group meal out on the second evening we were there. The dim lighting of Jamie’s Italian restaurant. SJ and I were sitting at a table with a girl we’d only met within the last hour, and a guy and an older man to whom we had never spoken until they joined us at our table. And we had over two hours of delightful conversation, talking about differences between America and Britain, about Lewis books, and more besides. It felt as if we sat down as strangers and got up as friends.

Touring The Kilns, where Lewis lived for most of his life. It’s a red brick house with a profusion of pink roses in the garden. Inside, it is a simple home, light years away from the splendours of Blenheim Palace, which we’d visited the day before, but much more special to me because of its former occupant. Our guide had a ready supply of Lewis anecdotes to hand, which included telling us that Lewis and Warnie gave their carpets a second purpose in life by making them serve as impromptu ash trays….

Laughing with our two new friends from the north of England, as one of them ribbed the other: “Tell them about…”.

A banquet in a room which has apparently been described as the most beautiful in Europe. I can see why. The ceiling is covered with intricate carvings on light stone—that  combination of strength and delicacy which is gothic architecture at its most enchanting.

Afternoon tea at the Randolph with our kind friend C and one of the conference speakers. Eating scones with jam and clotted cream and laughing a lot.

Good memories indeed.

God is good. I think I came away recognising that a tiny bit more than I did before.

Last week also reinforced to me again that there are very good and godly people outside of the particular segment of Christian tradition with which I am most familiar. And I can learn from them and respect them even if I disagree with them on some issues–even on important issues. Furthermore, some of them have thought through their positions much more clearly than I have thought through mine. Orthodox Christianity has bounds, of course, but those bounds are wide, not narrow. Just look at church history!  And we need each other. Yes, there may be things that you can teach other Christians with whom you have areas of disagreement–but there are probably also things that they will be able to teach you. And before any of us can teach or learn from each other, we need to try to love each other (note to self here!). After all, Jesus said that people would know we were his disciples because we love each other, not because we agree with each other about everything….

It’s always sad to come to the end of an event like this—to say goodbyes, to be plunged again into the normality of day-to-day routine. The events of last week happened once and nothing will ever happen again just like them. It’s over. But instead of uttering the “encore” against which Lewis warns in Letters to Malcolm–when “God shows us a new facet of the glory, and we refuse to look at it because we’re still looking for the old one”–I want instead to give thanks for what I have had, and to look forward to new blessings. I read a quote quite some time ago which said, “No one can steal the dance you danced”. I’m thankful for the “dance” of last week, which has given me memories I can treasure.

And I look forward to new dances.

Literature: A Student’s Guide

Hello! Yes, it’s been a while….

April has been one of those months that has gone by like a tube through an underground station that’s not on its stop list. Yet the beginning of April also feels far away—as if the tube has travelled far since then and passed through many more stations.

It’s been quite a month, from my final Shakespeare exam to the final weeks of my Non-Western Literature course to housekeeping while my parents were away to a short but delightful weekend in Cambridge with SJ, to a bunch of other things, big and small, joyful and hard. Blogging, therefore, has been limping along in the distance behind me—the limp both of busyness and of Lack of Inspiration.

But here I am again, however, with April almost under my belt, trying to get back into my once-a-week posting rhythm. I have a couple of good books that I’m either reading right now or that are in my to-read queue, so I’m hoping that some of them will pop up here over the next few months. But for now, let me tell you about a little book I’ve just finished, Literature: A Student’s Guide, by Louis Markos. I borrowed it from a friend for a paper I was writing, and although I didn’t end up using it for my assignment, I decided it looked good enough to read anyway.

Literature (no, I’m not going to type the whole title every time) is part of Crossway’s series “Reclaiming the Christian Intellectual Tradition”. While the series, according to the blurb on the back of the book,  is aimed at Christian students and others involved in academic life, Literature is certainly suitable for teenagers and adults in general, college students or not. It’s short (in the region of 100 pages) and is a down-to-earth and readable introduction to literature—poetry in particular.

Markos begins with an introduction entitled “Why Literature Matters”. He makes a point in there that I, as an English student, particularly like: “I have always found it terribly ironic that people in the natural and social sciences will frequently claim that what they teach is more true than what literature teaches.  I have often wondered how such people define the word true. Certainly one of the most essential qualities of truth is that it lasts, that it does not change radically from age to age and generation to generation, that it persists, endures, abides—which is precisely what does not happen in the sciences. Every fifty years—today it is more like every twenty—scientists reject the old paradigm in favor of a new one. The social sciences change even more rapidly….” He goes on, but I think you get the general idea. When today’s scientific theories have been consigned to history, people will still be reading and learning from and enjoying Shakespeare and Milton and George Herbert, not to mention more recent (and much more ancient!) authors.

The first two chapters actually cover the nuts and bolts of poetry, first in terms of form (“Rhythm and Rhyme”) and then in terms of figurative language (“Words and Images”). If you’ve ever wanted to know about the various meters that are used to provide poetry with its distinctive feel, or are unsure of what a metaphor us, these are the chapters for you. Even if you are more familiar with such terms, it can still be helpful refresher.

I was glad to see Markos touch on free verse, as I distinctly dislike the way so much modern poetry has abandoned metrical form. (I don’t dislike every free verse poem I have ever read, but it has to be a very good poem to atone for being free verse!) Amongst other things, he has this to say: “Poetry, when it is most worthy of itself, is incarnational, fusing form and content, sound and sense into a two-into-one union …. The modern Western world has, in many ways, lost its perception of and belief in a world of order, beauty, and purpose, and that loss is partly reflected, I believe, in the abandonment of traditional meter.” Furthermore, he says in another chapter, restricting oneself to a form actual opens the way for more creativity, rather than less: “the great poets who have ‘enslaved’ themselves to rigid meters have found in it a discipline, an order, and a hierarchy that have made them more, not less, creative.” Thank you, Dr Markos.

Next comes a quick overview of “Authors, Ages, and Genres”, a chapter that provides a helpful, big-picture look at the key periods in literature—Classical, Medieval, and so forth. Markos finishes up with another big-picture sweep through history (“Theory and Criticism”), this time by providing a quick background as to how different periods in history have thought about the nature and purpose of literature (again, poetry is emphasised).

Ok, so he doesn’t quite finish up there—there is also some supplemental material (which I haven’t read): reflection questions, a timeline, a glossary, and resources for further reading. All in all, I think that makes Literature a valuable introduction to, well, literature (remember that that particularly means poetry in the context of Markos’ book). I didn’t agree with every single comment Markos made, but then I don’t even agree with every single comment I make, so I won’t hold that against him! If you don’t already have a literature textbook or handbook, and you’d like a short and simple introduction, I’d recommend it.

Markos quotes a lovely Wordsworth poem when he talks about creativity within the limits of metrical form. I thought I’d quote it here too–enjoy!

Nuns fret not at their convent’s narrow room;
And hermits are contented with their cells;
And students with their pensive citadels;
Maids at the wheel, the weaver at his loom,
Sit blithe and happy; bees that soar for bloom,
High as the highest Peak of Furness-fells,
Will murmur by the hour in foxglove bells:
In truth the prison, into which we doom
Ourselves, no prison is: and hence for me,
In sundry moods, ’twas pastime to be bound
Within the Sonnet’s scanty plot of ground;
Pleased if some Souls (for such there needs must be)
Who have felt the weight of too much liberty,
Should find brief solace there, as I have found.

 

 

Internet and Doves

Well, hello! It’s  been a while.

Part the first.

Last week I lacked inspiration. Last week I had no internet access at home (although, frankly, that’s not a valid excuse as it didn’t stop me from posting the week before). Last week I didn’t make myself write. And if I don’t make myself do it, inspiration or no inspiration, well–a post will not magically appear all by itself. So this week I have made myself write anyway. And the good thing about writing anyway is that flexing those fingers on the keyboard has a happy way of cranking the gears of one’s brain. Forget about the proverbial hamster. It’s the fingers that power the mind.

When we didn’t have internet at home and I was dependent on going to friends’ houses for accessing that mysterious entity known as the world wide web, I used my internet time efficiently. Very. (For the most part.) I had to. My time was limited. A lot of fluff got removed–I did very little blog-hopping and none or next to none of the idle searches I’d make at home when something crosses my mind and I decide to quickly find the answer to it, however irrelevant it may be to my life. Since the return of the internet (if I capitalised that, it would sound like a film: The Return of the Internet–the long-forgotten fourth in the LOTR trilogy, perhaps?) I have succumbed to the same pattern again. Another email check. “Just one more” blog to visit. Another piece of information to search for.

I’m happy to have the internet back. It’s not fun having an internet-dependent job and no internet, never mind college and friends and all the rest of it. The internet is an oh-so-useful tool which I wouldn’t be without. But I don’t want to be controlled by it. I don’t want to waste lots of time with distractions and trivial pursuits. I want to use it more wisely than I do. Except when I’m in front of a computer, that is.

Part the second.

Last week, I attended a choral concert with a few friends. Meltingly beautiful singing. One of the pieces was Mendelssohn’s Hear My Prayer: I don’t believe I’ve heard it before and I can see I was missing out. Listening to it at home again made me read Psalm 55, which it is taken from. And I read the words and they resonated. I think some things in the Bible sit there quietly, waiting–like a pearl in its shell–to be discovered. Waiting to jump out at you because suddenly your life experience marries up with what’s written. This psalm marries up more than I intend to say here, but I will just say this:

I can understand what the psalmist wanted–somewhere quiet and peaceful away from problems. A snug corner in the wilderness. (If wildernesses can be snug?)

But that’s not the solution the psalm offers.

God is the solution.

God will hear and God will save. God will deliver and God will sustain.

Trust in God is the solution, not dove’s wings.

The escape to the wilderness can wait.

Part the third: when I love it that I’ve thought of a connection I didn’t set out to make.

I’m so self-controlled with my internet usage.

Except when I’m in front of a computer.

I’m so good at trusting God.

Except when I’m faced with a problem.

There’s no reasonable way I can avoid the internet (even when it seems our service provider kindly does their best to facilitate such avoidance….).

There’s no way, reasonable or unreasonable, that I can avoid problems, hard times, troubles–call them what you will. Changing their name doesn’t change their essence.

There are no magic solutions to self-control or trust.

Often the solutions are the ones we know already but don’t want to put into practice.

This would be a negative conclusion if I ended it here, if I ended it with Us. Us and our problems. Us and our failures.

But we’re not really the end, are we?

God is.

And that’s a much better ending!

Know Your Tools

Last week was my first week to miss posting since the end of June or the beginning of July. (Yes, I could check exactly when it was. No, I’m not going to.) I have been aiming to write one or two posts a week, and while I’ve never yet achieved two posts in a week (I’ll get there one day), last week I missed it entirely. I think I have a good excuse though–better than “the dog ate my homework” type anyway–I have been away from home since last Tuesday, and have spent quite a bit of that time travelling. In fact, since I have studiously avoided buying a smartphone and thus having the internet follow me everywhere, I have spent very little time on the internet since I’ve left home, until today. Which is good. Life really can go on without the internet–well, work and study can’t, but leisure time can– for a little while, although I have to admit that after going three days without checking my emails, I was pretty keen to log in again! And as for the blogs I normally check almost daily (and sometimes, ahem, a number of times per day), why, until today I didn’t even notice that I hadn’t been reading them. Perhaps I don’t need to check them as often as I do when the the internet is at my fingertips. Note to self, perhaps? Oh, but the pull is hard to resist. Hmmm.

On that theme, while on one of my plane trips last week, I finished reading From the Garden to the City: The Redeeming and Corrupting Power of Technology by John Dyer. Now that I’ve read it, I would like to fish out Tim Challies’ The Next Story, which I read about two years ago, I think, to see how they compare, but as that is on my shelf at home and I am thousands of miles from said shelf, I have a hunch that such a fishing attempt would be doomed from the outset. From what I remember, however, I think Challies provided a more robust treatment of the topic, but Dyer’s book is still a helpful introduction to an issue which I think we really ought not overlook.

For me, one of the most helpful things about From the Garden to the City, and the only point that I want to mention here, is an apt illustration that he used. (To a certain friend–you know who you are–he nailed it.) I’m not going to run upstairs and grab the book and start to carefully summarise. Memory will do, and I think I can get across the general idea, with something of my own flavour added to the mix but due credit to Dyer! Technology, Dyer points out in his book, is not neutral. A computer can be used to spread God’s truth or to spread lies, but that doesn’t mean that the only important thing about a computer is how we use it. Like any tool, a computer (or any sort of technology) shapes its user. Now to the illustration. A shovel is used to dig a hole. (I’m sure it can also serve other purposes, but I confess it’s not a topic I’ve fully explored….) The shovel changes the ground. A hole appears where no hole was before. But the shovel has also changed the shovel-er, or at least it will do if he uses it repeatedly. His hands, Dyer pointed out, will get blisters. His back may hurt and his arm muscles get stronger. The shovel has changed the earth but it has also changed the man. Now, that’s not necessarily a big problem, but it’s a consequence that one ought to be aware of, and not just with shovels but with any tool, and in particular with the barrage of technological “tools” that have so changed our lives in recent years. The consequences may be minor or they may be more important. Yes, you can use a search engine, for example, in good ways or bad. But the mere act of regularly searching the internet will also shape you. It’s not just what you do with the tool, Dyer says, it’s what the tool does to you. Maybe those changes aren’t a problem. Or maybe they should be avoided, or to some degree counteracted in a different way. But let’s not fool ourselves that there are no changes, that there is no shaping. Unconvinced? Read From the Garden to the City, The Next Story, or both. I know that I could definitely improve in this area. And now to finish up this post, to put my shovel away. For now….

Of Things Lost or Omitted (And Other Things Too)

Ooh…. I didn’t realise it had been quite so long since I posted. I will be posting more regularly now, due to a student challenge I’m involved in. When one wants to do something but isn’t sure if one has the intrinsic motivation to actually make regular time for it, some extrinsic motivation really helps!  I plan to be posting at least once a week now, and I’m sure there will be times when I post more than that. We’ll see!

I finished reading Ben-Hur last week. I read it in June, taking it with me to read while travelling to Germany. I didn’t manage to bring all of it back, however. Pages 99 and 100 are… somewhere. Perhaps at this moment they are thousands of feet above me, speeding above the clouds. I don’t know. They were somewhere in the area of my seat when I got off the plane. And while I would not wish to think of myself as careless about whether or not my books are intact, on this occasion I felt it more important to try to catch my connecting flight, feeling as I did the constraints of time. Missing my plane because I was hunting for a page from a book just didn’t sound like a great idea. And at least I’d already read those particular pages! With the way the book has continued to fall apart, it’s hardly something I’d really want to save for posterity anyway.

As for the story itself, well, coming as it did on the heels of my reading two Austen books in a row, it was definitely a change. It may be an exaggeration, but I did think that Lew Wallace must have used more words describing the physical appearance of Balthasar as he waits for his two companions than Jane Austen used describing the physical characteristics of every character at every point in Pride and Prejudice put together. And as for his descriptions of scenery and buildings, well, my patience was tried. However, when he is not drowning in descriptions, Wallace can tell an attention-grabbing story.

Ben-Hur is, of course, set during the time of Christ and for me it was interesting to see a picture of the richness and complexity of life in that time and place–a way to imaginatively (and yes, it is only imaginatively) “colour in” some of the biblical stories. There was so much going on–the Romans in charge, the political unrest and intrigue, the hatred the Jews felt for those Romans.  I think it’s also good to imagine what it would have been like for the people who lived in that world, and particularly for the people who encountered Jesus. They were real people who experienced real awe or fear or joy or confusion or whatever it was in those situations. I’m so familiar with so many of the stories myself that I forget that these people weren’t familiar with them–because they weren’t reading the stories years later, they were living them. It was new and intense and unpredictable. It’s like that conversation between Sam and Frodo–I may not remember it quite right, but Sam is talking about the old stories and how, although they’re enjoyable to read about, they were not enjoyable for those who had to live through them. And for the people who actually experienced those turbulent, world-shaking days during the times of Christ, their experiences, both good and bad, were as real as mine (and rather more dramatic).

That being said, I did not like the way Ben-Hur  portrayed Christ. Too soft and weak. It’s not that Jesus wasn’t “meek and lowly of heart” (He was), it’s not that He wasn’t tender and loving and compassionate (He was), but He was more than that. He turned over tables and chased people out of the temple, after all. He pronounced woes on hypocritical scribes and pharisees. He warned of judgement to come. Even worse than this effeminate Jesus was the fact that while the story recounted Jesus’ death in detail, it never mentioned the resurrection. It didn’t even imply it. If you didn’t know from elsewhere that Jesus rose from the dead, you’d have been none the wiser after reading Ben-Hur. That’s a glaring omission and Paul would have had none of it.

It’s not a book to take your theology from, that’s for sure. The problems I mentioned aren’t the only ones I noticed. But it’s still a very enjoyable story and even a thought-provoking one.