Night: A Roundel

I’d been wanting to try my hand at a roundel ever since encountering one in Malcolm Guite‘s latest poetry collection. When I was pondering the writing prompt “night” from my friend Sarah earlier this month, I thought about the beautiful evening prayer in the Anglican prayer book and based a roundel on that.

This is the prayer:

Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee, O Lord; and by thy great mercy defend us from all perils and dangers of this night; for the love of thy only Son, our Saviour, Jesus Christ. Amen.

And this is my roundel:

 

Lord, give us light and shatter by your word

The thick black darkness of this dreadful night.

The gloom is hovering like a deadly sword:

Lord, give us light.

 

For in the night, our fears take form. The sight

Of walking horrors chills our souls. The world

Has lost her smile. We look around in fright.

 

Yet in the night, we cling to what we’ve heard:

That you are good, that all you do is right.

Lighten our darkness, we beseech you, Lord.

Lord, give us light.

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In Ways We Never Dreamed Of

On 8 August 1953, Lewis wrote one of his many letters to correspondents. This one was to a Mrs Emily McLay in Durham. He had written to her five days previously, responding to an enquiry related to predestination and free will. She appears to have replied, and in his second letter Lewis writes about “dealing with the dark places in the Bible”.

I’ve struggled with these “dark places” myself, along with dark questions on issues such as suffering and predestination, all of which boils down to the haunting question “Is God really good?” An article I saw earlier this week included a quotation from Lewis’ second letter to Mrs McLay, which prompted me to look up the entire letter in volume three of The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis. I’d like to share a beautifully comforting paragraph in his reply about these “dark places”:

“The two things one must NOT do are (a) To believe, on the strength of Scripture or on any other evidence, that God is in any way evil. (In Him is no darkness at all.) (b) To wipe off the slate any passage which seems to show that He is. Behind that apparently shocking passage, be sure, there lurks some great truth which you don’t understand. If one ever does come to understand it, one will see that [He] is good and just and gracious in ways we never dreamed of. Till then, it must be just left on one side.”

Parable and Paradox

Parable and Paradox: Sonnets on the Saying of Jesus and Other Poems, is Malcolm Guite’s latest collection of poetry. As he did in Sounding the Seasons, Guite uses the Bible as a springboard for many of his poems, and as the title suggests, in this case it is Christ’s words, such as his “I AM’s” and his “hard sayings”, that form the basis of his poetic reflections here.

“When it comes to hearing the words of Jesus, our great problem is over familiarity”, Guite writes in his preface, and in his poems on Christ’s sayings, he intends, as he writes in one sonnet, to “peel aside the thin familiar film” and help us feel the force of Christ’s words again.

Guite does this both in beautifully comforting poems such as “Let Not Your Hearts Be Troubled” (which you can read here) and in challenging ones like “A Sword”, which begins “Oh, you have come indeed to send a sword/We feel it in the keening grief that cuts/Through kinship, blood, and culture.”

The collection also includes some wider-ranging pieces (akin to those found in his The Singing Bowl) where Guite celebrates themes such as nature, wordplay, and—yes—decay (in which latter he praises the “old and mouldering” in the face of “the shiny new,/Persistent plastic choking out our life”).

As in his previous collections, I appreciate Guite’s spiritual insight, the beauty of his language, and his commitment—for the most part—to using poetic forms rather than free verse. Two of my favourite couplets show off his skill:

 

“Slowly, slowly, turning a cold key,

Spring will unlock our hearts and set us free.”

 

And

 

“For longing is the veil of satisfaction,

And grief the veil of future happiness.”

 

 

Let me finish with one of my favourite poems, which is a sequence of seven roundels mirroring the seven days of creation, while also tying in the theme of each day with the story of our lives now. The first, deeply satisfying, roundel begins

 

“Let there be light as I begin this day,

To draw me from the darkness and the night,

To bless my flesh, to clear and show the way,

Let there be light.”

 

Amen.

For the Glory

Tim Challies recently reviewed For the Glory, Duncan Hamilton’s new biography of Eric Liddell, who is best known for his 1924 Olympic gold medal in the 400 metres, after refusing to run in the race he’d planned to run in when to do so would have involved running on a Sunday. His Olympic story has been famously told, of course (with a generous helping of artistic license, it turns out) in the film Chariots of Fire. I bought a copy of For the Glory on the strength of Challies’ review and finished it last week. I wasn’t disappointed.

I took real pleasure in Hamilton’s skill as a writer. Biographies run the risk of being rather dry, but For the Glory makes for compelling reading, with the past coming for life through Hamilton’s careful and lively attention to detail, whether it’s the description of an old photograph, the thrill of a race, or the squalor of the civilian internee camp in China where Liddell lived out the final years of his relatively short life. As Challies mentioned in his review, Hamilton’s recounting of Liddell’s famous race is splendid. I knew what the outcome would be before I started reading, of course, and I’ve had the thrill of watching it numerous times in Chariots of Fire. Yet Hamilton tells it in such a way that I still felt excited simply by reading his prose.

I can’t resist mentioning my favourite line in the book, which is Hamilton’s description of the clothes the English athletes had to wear to the 1924 Olympics: “The team went to the chicest city on the globe in outfits that looked to have been cut by a myopic tailor with a grievous grudge against both them and the Games.”

But of course, what stands out so much more than Hamilton’s brilliant prose is the man about whom he was writing. As Challies says, “Hamilton’s telling of Liddell’s life is uniformly positive, perhaps because he simply couldn’t find any major blemishes.” To me, this is fascinating, since Hamilton certainly doesn’t seem to be a Christian himself. Furthermore, he’s written other sports biographies and so, one assumes, he did not set out to write a hagiography of Eric Liddell. And yet, not only does he fail to highlight any moral failings in Liddell, but his deep admiration for the man is evident throughout. It’s not that Hamilton is incapable of criticising people—the acerbic comments he directs towards the British Olympic Association and the London Missionary Society prove that he can criticise with the best of them—but simply that he does not feel that Liddell deserves any such censure.

Reading Hamilton’s account, I can only agree and stand in awe at such a man. No mere mortal is perfect, of course, but one can’t help feeling that Liddell was about as good as any sinful man could be. It’s not just the principled stand at the Olympics for which he is best known, or even that he left the possibility of further fame—not to mention all the money he could have made—for the mission field. It’s not even how he poured himself out for others from morning till night while imprisoned in the internee camp, thousands of miles from his wife and children. It’s that love, gentleness, humility, courage, and determination pervaded his life, in the small things as well as in the momentous ones. His final words, “It’s complete surrender”, were not spoken glibly. They were the story of his life.

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?

Someone at the Door

I know, I know. I’ve expressed my antipathy for free verse more than once on this blog. And it’s true: I tend to have a strong distaste for it. I recognise there are exceptions, however. Some free verse poetry is wonderful. And when I set about to write a poem for the prompt Sarah sent me, “Someone at the Door”, a fixed form didn’t seem to work, while free verse did. So, here goes….

 

Rubbing the sleep from my eyes,

I stumbled towards the door.

I’d been scrubbing all day, my body now one vast ache.

But I couldn’t go to bed yet,

Not yet.

Not with Peter’s life in the balance.

 

We’d prayed and pleaded together,

But weary with work and woe

I’d fallen asleep to the sounds of prayer.

Until the bell rang, bringing me to my senses, rousing me from my dreams,

And I had to tiptoe out

To answer the door.

 

I peered into the darkness, and suddenly my body jarred awake,

Life tingling in every fingertip.

Peter!

I was so happy that I ran to tell them–

Ran like a child.

I couldn’t wait to see the joy that would

Fill the faces of my master and his friends.

Couldn’t even wait

To open the door

And let Peter

In.

 

You can laugh.

I laugh now,

To think that for joy

I left him standing in the cold and dark. Fine welcome, that!

But I did.

 

Bursting into the room,

I shouted over James’ “Lord, we beseech you….”

“He’s here! Stop your beseeching! Peter’s outside!”

They looked at me blankly.

“Can’t you see? You don’t need to pray any more. You’ve been answered!”

Silence.

 

And then,

“Rhoda, you’re mad,” said Andrew.

“Mad”, they echoed.

“But he’s alive! He’s outside!”

My eagerness made me stumble over my words.

“Perhaps it’s his angel, child”, came Mary’s gentle voice.

“No”, I said, polite but firm.

 

Why I didn’t

Dash back to that door and drag Peter inside and shout “See!”,

I don’t know.

Maybe I was mad.

 

Meanwhile, the banging continued.

Someone (I don’t know who)

Slowly got up and stepped to the door.

I heard a gasp, laughter and exclamations, and Peter was ushered in.

 

And in my joy at their joy, I forgot to feel smug that I’d been proved right.

And really, the joke’s on me, as much as on them.

Surely Luke must have smiled as he wrote his second book,

Smile as you and many others have smiled too,

At my thoughtless eagerness,

My careless joy.

 

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

 

All the Light We Cannot See

It’s August 1944. The small French town of Saint-Malo is besieged, bombs raining down from the advancing American forces. In the attic of a tall, narrow house, sixteen-year-old Marie-Laure is hiding, clutching the jewel that the Nazi prowling below is so desperate to find, and which she herself, being blind, has never seen. Elsewhere in the town, eighteen-year-old Werner, a German soldier, is trapped underneath the remains of the Hotel of Bees.

Those six days in early August are at the heart of this Pulitzer-prize-winning novel, All the Light We Cannot See. Extended flash-backs throughout the story tell the tale of Marie’s and Werner’s respective growing-up years and the way in which, before they ever met, their lives had become connected.

At fourteen, Werner is unexpectedly given the opportunity to attend Schulpforta, a Nazi boarding school. As a talented orphan who is destined to work in the mines that killed his father, he sees this as a way to escape, an opportunity for a brighter future. While at Schulpforta, he becomes friends with Frederick, a quiet bird-lover entirely out of place in such harsh surroundings.

“Do you ever wish that you didn’t have to go back?”, Werner asks Frederick once, while they are enjoying a brief holiday, Frederick still bruised from being beaten up by the boys at the instruction of the commandant.

For Frederick, though, that’s not the question:

“Father needs me to be at Schulpforta. Mother too. It doesn’t matter what I want.”

“Of course it matters. I want to be an engineer. And you want to study birds. Be like that American painter in the swamps. Why else do any of this if not to become who we want to be?”

And Frederick replies “Your problem, Werner, is that you still believe you own your life.”

But it is Frederick, not Warner, who—when the boys are taken outside one winter day and given buckets of water to dump over a prisoner tied to a stake in the courtyard—refuses to do it.

As a result, the commandant and the other boys make Frederick’s life one of torment, ending with him being beaten up so badly that, some thirty years later, he still needs to be spoon fed, and spends his time drawing spirals on paper.

But the memory of Frederick’s decision comes back to Werner when he, too, must make a decision in Saint-Malo in 1944:

Frederick said we don’t have choices, don’t own our lives, but in the end it was Werner who pretended there were no choices, Werner who watched Frederick dump the pail of water at his feet—I will not—Werner who stood by as the consequences came raining down. Werner who watched Volkheimer wade into house after house, the same ravening nightmare occurring over and over and over.

Bolstered by that realisation, he makes his choice too, but if you want to know what that choice is, you’ll have to read the book.

All the Light We Cannot See is a beautifully-written, heart-breaking story. It’s not a book of neat, smiling resolutions. After finishing it last night, I sat in bed and cried.

It’s a poignant reminder of the meaningless loss of human life that war entails. Of the sickening brutality of the Nazis. Of childhood innocence destroyed. These are nightmares that hardly bear thinking about. But there is also the blessed relief of beauty, goodness, and love.  The beauty of the sea, the shells at Marie-Laure’s fingertips.  The tender care of a father for his blind daughter. Courageous decisions and self-sacrifice. It’s a masterfully-crafted book. But be warned: it’s a painful one too.

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.

I am David

Twelve-year-old David has never known anything but life in a Communist concentration camp. He doesn’t know why he’s there or who his family is, and he doesn’t expect life to ever be any different than it is. But when a guard gives him the opportunity to escape, he must come to terms with a world he is unprepared to live in.

Anne Holm’s I am David is not so much an escape story (although it is that), but a story of personal transformation. At the beginning of the story, David mistrusts everyone. When the guard offers him a chance to escape, he tells himself that “[it was] certainly a trap”. Not realising that Italy, the country where he travels to first, is not a Communist country, he is suspicious of everyone. Everyone may be one of them, or if not one of them, liable to hand him over to them at any moment. As he experiences acts of kindness from strangers, however, he slowly begins to recognise and trust goodness.

Despite being on the run, David finds joy in the new-found, hard-won beauty and freedom that he experiences. But as the story progresses, he learns that beauty and freedom are not enough in order to be happy….

“He should never have entered the house. Maria … Whenever he had looked at Maria and she had made him smile, he had been aware that there was something he had forgotten, something important.

He had forgotten the most important condition that made it possible for him to go on living: that he should never again grow fond of anyone. When Johannes died he thought he would die too. But when he had recovered and knew he was not going to die, he realized that he must never, never care for anyone again – never. That was what he had kept in mind through all the years that followed – until he saw Maria.

And now nothing would ever be the same again: even if they were not looking for him, even if he could preserve his liberty and could avoid being too cold or too hungry. It would never be the same again, because he would always have to remain himself, a boy who belonged nowhere.”

Of course, the story doesn’t end there, but I won’t give away the rest of David’s journey and transformation. I will say that I am David is one of the best children’s novels I’ve read. As a young boy’s perspective on a new and strange world, it’s masterful. The story is raw and real, but it’s also beautiful and poignant without being in any way saccharine. It’s well worth reading as an adult, so if you missed this in your childhood, you can make up for it now….