Fiction as a Means of Grace

For the last six months or so, I’ve been in a dry spell with novels. I can’t tell you why, but I’ve had trouble picking up and sustaining a good novel. (The exception has been the John Russell series by David Downing: even when I can’t read fiction, I’m always up for a good spy story.) Recently it’s been a season of history and physics, the New Yorker and Food & Wine and the Slurve. We all have seasons in our reading lives, and sometimes the spiritual attention that a good novel requires just isn’t available; at others, we just have more pressing interests and concerns. So I haven’t been terribly alarmed. But yesterday I came across something I wrote several years ago for a class on faith and fiction at Luther Seminary, and had the funny experience of being instructed by my past self:

“There is a discipleship component to [reading fiction] as well. Like the Truth by whom we were all created and in whom the universe lives and moves and has its being, its [fiction’s] means of communication is bodily human life. Watching Ivan Karamazov crouch on his father’s stairs as he listens to him breathing down below , knowing that he is abandoning his father to death the next day, is a treatise itself on original sin; moreover, it is a treatise that involves us, makes us complicit, and sends us away grappling with the dark desires in our own hearts. This is reason enough that the discipline of reading fiction seriously and openheartedly is a practice that ought to be encouraged in church alongside other means of discipleship.”

It was just the encouragement I needed to return to the fiction shelves, not as escape but with serious spiritual intent. Fiction has (if this isn’t too bold a claim) been a means of grace to me, and has required the same sort of engagement on my part as other more traditional means — prayer, fasting, fellowship. I feel more relaxed about taking a break from fiction than I do from the other biblically mandated avenues, but was thankful nonetheless to receive my own encouragement on this one.

Since it’s that delicious season where we find ourselves still in the midst of summer reading as well as planning the upcoming fall, here’s what’s at the top of my fiction list right now. Once I’ve finished Stones from the River and am home for the fall, these will be the books I’m hunting down at Books Inc or ordering from Hearts and Minds:

What Happened to Sophie Wilder, Christopher Beha
Things Invisible to See, Nancy Willard
Station Eleven, Emily St John Mandel
The Bird in the Tree, Elizabeth Goudge
Souls Raised from the Dead, Doris Betts

How about you? Has fiction been a means of grace for you? How so? I’d love to know which books, and what you’re planning on reading in the upcoming months!

“Earth’s crammed with heaven…”

A few nights ago, my seven year old walked out (about 45 minutes after she was supposed to be asleep) and asked me, “Hey Mom, who’s Elizabeth Barrett Browning?”

I blow lots of things about parenting. I am not an expert. I actually internally winced the other evening when an acquaintance who is expecting her first turned to me and said, “I’ll be asking you for advice!” (My very best pregnancy advice: eat lots of donuts. Because you are MAKING A PERSON, and if that’s not a blank slate for apple fritters, then the universe does not make sense to me.) But here was a softball. When your daughter stays up past her bedtime in order to listen to Jim Weiss’ Treasury of Wisdom, and then rouses herself enough to come ask about Elizabeth Barrett Browning, do not send her back to bed. A little free advice: it’s why you read this blog, right?

Anyway: of course I wanted to know why she was asking.

“Oh,” she replied. “In the beginning of the story about Michelangelo and Raphael, there’s a quote by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. She said” (child screws up her face and thinks), “that ‘earth’s crammed with heaven, and every common bush afire with God; only he who sees takes off his shoes.’ Is that from a poem? Was she a poet?”

Well, yes, sweetheart, she was. And so of course we had to look her up, and the poem this passage was from, and copy it onto the laundry room door. And then it was back to bed, with Jim Weiss taking her the rest of the way to sleep. (Non-theological plug: if you haven’t already discovered his CDs, please stop reading and go buy a few. Thanks. He’s the most fantastic storyteller, and 100% responsible for this post, as well as the 4-year-old’s current obsession with King Arthur. Plus about 55% of the imaginative play at our house.)

Since then, I’ve been gazing at that passage every day. And thinking: what if I really believed that?

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I mean really: I walk past hundreds of bushes every day. I never take off my shoes. (I live in San Francisco: this is a risky proposition.) But I’ve also been doing some reading in modern physics lately, and if quantum physics is going to make any sense at all to this creature of the humanities, I have to believe that God is acting constantly in every single imperceptible motion of the tiniest particles of existence. Every briefest perception of light, every whisker on my cat’s face is afire with God, let alone bushes and stars. The world around us is more wonderful and fraught than is safe to believe.

To be perfectly honest, at this point in my life I’m unable to move through my days in the constant awareness of this truth. I’m not sure I would make it through the grocery aisles or swim lessons trying to keep the radical awareness of God’s pervasive action in the forefront of my thoughts. It takes a greater saint, I think: my finite, broken self gets tired contemplating it.  But I want to. I think about the material repetition of my days — waking up, making breakfast, cleaning up & making beds, getting everyone dressed and out the door, making lunches and snacks and dinners, getting everyone to bed — and the thought that God is afire, at work, illuminating and sanctifying those moments, electrifies me. What would my daily life, my daily interactions with my kids and husband, look like if I really believed that every earthly, mundane moment was crammed with heaven? I think I would relax. I just might give thanks more. I would certainly be less anxious. Because if every moment is crammed with heaven, there’s more there than I can control — and my efforts honestly aren’t so crucial. I can’t imagine better news.

An opportunity to say thank you to Mr. Lewis

In case it’s not obvious from the title of our blog, we owe a great debt to C.S. Lewis. A little over 5 years ago, our book club read An Experiment in Criticism; I’d like to think that the seeds for this blog project were planted then. Much of my philosophy, and Haley’s, around providing books to our children is received as a gift from Lewis.

For instance:

A passage that I recite to myself gently when my daughter makes straight for the serial easy-readers about unicorn fairies at the library: “The best safeguard against bad literature is a full experience of the good; just as a real and affectionate acquaintance with honest people gives a better protection against rogues than a habitual distrust of everyone.” It helps me breathe a little as I slip 2 or 3 really good books into the pile.

And on why we don’t write negative reviews: “These dethronements are a great waste of energy. Their acrimony produces heat at the expense of light. They do not improve anyone’s capacity for good reading. The real way of mending a man’s taste is not to denigrate his present favourites but to teach him how to enjoy something better.”

I’ve also written about how much I love Westminster Abbey, so imagine my delight this morning when, over at Rabbit Room, I discovered that C.S. Lewis will be getting a memorial plaque in Poet’s Corner! There will also be a two-day conference and a service of thanksgiving commemorating the 50th anniversary of his death.

However, as Sarah at Rabbit Room points out, it’s a project that needs support, as the Abbey doesn’t finance such memorials. You can learn about the memorial and donate at the Lewis in Poets’ Corner site.

In An Experiment in Criticism, Lewis observes, “Those of us who have been true readers all our life seldom realise the enormous extension of our being which we owe to authors.” I certainly owe some of that debt to Lewis: my imagination, my attempts at literary parenting, even the end of my childhood fear of heaven (which would require a whole other post to explain!) have all grown out of his work. I can’t pay him back, of course, but I’m planning on honoring him by donating to the memorial. I invite you to participate too!

“By thee all heaven is poured into my heart…”

Holy Saturday

When Satan approaches may I flee to thy wounds,
and there cease to tremble at all alarms…

Thy cross was upraised to be my refuge,
Thy blood streamed forth to wash me clean,
Thy death occurred to give me a surety,
Thy name is my property to save me,
By thee all heaven is poured into my heart,
   but it is too narrow to comprehend thy love.
I was a stranger, an outcast, a slave, a rebel,
   but thy cross has brought me near,
     has softened my heart,
     has made me thy Father’s child,
     has admitted me to thy family,
     has made me joint-heir with thyself.
O that I may love thee as thou lovest me,
   that I may walk worthy of thee, my Lord,
   that I may reflect the image of heaven’s first-born.
May I always see thy beauty with the clear eye of faith,
   and feel the power of thy Spirit in my heart,
   for unless he move mightily in me,
   no inward fire will be kindled.

From “Need of Jesus,” in The Valley of Vision

“Give me perpetual broken-heartedness…”

Good Friday

Grant me to hear thy voice assuring me:
that by thy stripes, I am healed,
that thou wast bruised for my iniquities,
that thou hast been made sin for me
that I might be righteous in thee,
that my grievous sins, my manifold sins, are all forgiven,
buried in the ocean of thy concealing blood.
I am guilty, but pardoned,
lost, but saved,
wandering, but found,
sinning, but cleansed.
Give me perpetual broken-heartedness,
Keep me always clinging to thy cross,
Flood me every moment with descending grace,
Open to me the springs of divine knowledge,
sparkling like crystal,
flowing clear and unsullied
through my wilderness of life.

From “The Broken Heart,” in The Valley of Vision

“In this supper I remember his eternal love…”

Maundy Thursday

When I gaze upon the emblems of my Saviour’s death,
may I ponder why he died, and hear him say,
‘I gave my life to purchase yours,
presented myself an offering to expiate your sin,
shed my blood to blot out your guilt,
opened my side to make you clean,
endured your curses to set you free,
bore your condemnation to satisfy divine justice.
O may I rightly grasp the breadth and length of this design,
draw near, obey, extend the hand,
take the bread, receive the cup,
eat and drink, testify before all men
that I do for myself, gladly, in faith,
reverence and love, receive my Lord,
to be my life, strength, nourishment, joy, delight.
In the supper I remember his eternal love,
boundless grace, infinite compassion,
agony, cross, redemption,
and receive assurance of pardon, adoption, life, glory.
As the outward elements nourish my body,
so may thy indwelling Spirit invigorate my soul,
until that day when I hunger and thirst no more,
and sit with Jesus at his heavenly feast.

From “The Lord’s Supper,” in The Valley of Vision

“I am always going into the far country…”

Wednesday

I need to repent of my repentance;
I need my tears to be washed;
I have no robe to cover my sins,
no loom to weave my own righteousness;
I am always standing in filthy garments,
and by grace am always receiving change of raiment,
for thou dost always justify the ungodly;
I am always going into the far country,
and always returning home as a prodigal,
always saying, Father, forgive me,
and thou art always bringing forth the best robe.
Every morning let me wear it,
every evening return in it,
go out to the day’s work in it,
be married in it,
be wound in death in it,
stand before the great white throne in it,
enter heaven in it shining as the sun.
Grant me never to lose sight of
the exceeding sinfulness of sin,
the exceeding righteousness of salvation,
the exceeding glory of Christ,
the exceeding beauty of holiness,
the exceeding wonder of grace.

From “Continual Repentance,” in The Valley of Vision

“…take me to the cross and leave me there.”

Monday

Lord, it is my chief design to bring my heart back to thee.
Convince me that I cannot be my own God,
or make myself happy,
nor my own Christ to restore my joy,
nor my own Spirit to teach, guide, rule me.
Help me to see that grace does this by providential affliction,
for when my credit is good thou dost cast me lower,
when riches are my idol thou dost wing them away,
when pleasure is my all thou dost turn it into bitterness.
Take away my roving eye, curious ear, greedy appetite, lustful heart;
show me that none of these things
can heal a wounded conscience,
or support a tottering frame,
or uphold a departing spirit.
Then take me to the cross
and leave me there.

From “Man a Nothing” in The Valley of Vision

Prayers for Holy Week

Palm Sunday

It feels a little perverse to confess that Holy Week is my favorite week of the year, if not borderline morbid. After all, what kind of person looks forward to a murder – especially one that they help perpetrate? But as someone who tends to float in the spiritual shallows more often than not, I grab onto Holy Week each year like a life preserver. It is the one week each year that practically forces me to structure life around Jesus’ experience rather than my own; it’s an annual invitation to see and believe that his story is the only one that matters; and it is, each year, a revelation that God knows just how messed up my own story is and moves towards me all the same, knowing fully what it will cost.

I know all of these things, all year long. But I can’t maintain the intensity of focus. The cares of the world spring up and choke out much of my growth. And then comes Holy Week – with my church’s corporate fast, with the building crescendo of services, and the slow approach into the dark waiting of Holy Saturday – and the weeds begin to wilt. Strangely, annually, out of death comes new life.

In keeping with Holy Week tradition at here Aslan’s Library, we’ll be offering daily reflections as Christians the world over walk through Jesus’ last week together. Not too much talking from us, since this is a week more for listening and waiting, quietly standing by. My fabulous sister-in-law gave me a copy of The Valley of Vision for Christmas, and I’ve been savoring the frankness, the incisiveness, and the desperate hope in some of the old Puritan prayers. I hope you’ll join us, and that they’ll speak to you as well.

Here’s one for Palm Sunday (from “Love to Jesus,” in The Valley of Vision):

The Son breaks out in glory
when he shows himself as one who outshines
all creation,
makes men poor in spirit,
and helps them to find their good in him.
Grant that I may distrust myself, to see
my all in thee.

Lent as a Gift

Lent is a gift

Each year the season of Lent asks us to embrace a spiritual gravity, a downward movement of soul, a turning from our self-sufficiency and sinfulness. In such quiet turning we are humbled and thus made ready to receive from God a fresh and joyous grace.

Bobby Gross, in Living the Christian Year

When I came across this observation a week or so before Ash Wednesday, it occurred to me suddenly that I am deeply grateful for the gift of Lent. Those early Christians, guided by the Spirit, were wise to set this season aside and I would like to thank them publicly.

You see, the characteristics of Lent – humility, simplicity, repentance, self-examination – strike me as absolutely necessary for the human condition but almost impossible to inhabit in a sustained way. I tend to walk around with the vague sense that I ought to be denying myself more, that I am probably too much at home in the world, that I don’t spend nearly enough time in prayer and self-examination. Probably if I devoted all of my time to these things, I’d still never quite get the job done. (Lots of monastics testify to this: the only problem with entering a monastery is that your self goes too!)

But somewhere, a long time ago, some very wise men and women developed a focused season in which to practice humility, prayer, fasting, and all the other spiritual exercises that are so very necessary for us scattered and broken beings. And it happens over and over again, because every year we will fail in some way and need to keep practicing. What a gift: to have a demarcated, sacred time in which to practice specific disciplines. These men and women knew we need these things. They also knew we can’t do them all the time, at least not with the same intensity. But we can do them together, at the same time every year.

And the season of Lent ends. While fasting might seem like the most appropriate way for me to live most of the time – I don’t know about you, but there is a lot I need to learn to say no to – that’s actually not the case. Lent transitions into Holy Week and death, which transitions again into Resurrection and feast. And while those of us with a healthy sense of total depravity may occasionally forget it, feasting is just as appropriate and necessary as fasting. We are (and now I’m mixing my Reformers; forgive me)  simul iustus et peccator; wholly broken and wholly justified; dead in our trespasses and alive in Christ.

We need to fast and we need to feast. To everything is a season, and right now I am terribly grateful to be told when they are.