The Only One Whom We Know There

Having Decided To Stay - Bryana Johnson - The Only One Whom We Know There - Globe - Island of the World“Come now, curse this people, since they are too mighty for me,” the Moabite ruler Balak entreated the prophet Balaam. He was afraid of the people of Israel, for the Lord was with them and “for them like the horns of the wild ox.” He would pay handsomely for an enchantment against the enemies closing in around him. There was a serious detour involving an eloquent donkey, which, as we all know, put a kink in the schedule temporarily. Then Balaam spoke these words over the people of Israel:

“How can I curse whom God has not cursed?
How can I denounce whom the Lord has not denounced?
For from the top of the crags I see him,
from the hills I behold him;
behold, a people dwelling alone,
and not counting itself among the nations!”

Much has changed since the children of Israel wandered as strangers in a strange land, but the people of God are still sojourners, still wanderers. Still not tied to any nation or its flag, to any loyalty but the love of Christ. And “all those homes were not ours.”

We live in them, though. We live in them and must work to pay for them and furnish them and clean them and eat in them and own a quiet place in them to sleep. Sometimes our lives in them are so constricted, our worlds so small, that we fail to be conscious of the invisible Kingdom which knows no barriers of ocean or distance, which claims all our allegiance. If we’re not taking every thought captive in the war-zone of the world, it’s easy to forget where we come from.

Robert Murray M’Cheyne wrote in one of his journals of the way that the familiar shuts out the holy:

“A foreign land draws us nearer to God. He is the only one whom we know here. We go to Him as to one we know; all else is strange. Every step I take, and every new country I see, makes me feel more that there is nothing real, nothing true, but what is everlasting.”

The great challenge is to live as foreigners in the land of our birth, as representatives of another kingdom in a land that we wish to root ourselves in, to embrace. The great challenge is to be on the green globe and not of it. To love its streets and its asphalt jungles, its high, cloud-scraping hills, its weary and near-sighted citizens, its flags and its colors, its sad, grim history – and yet love even better the place we are coming home to and which we have never seen.

C.S. Lewis on Sin as Sacrilege

Having Decided To Stay, Bryana Johnson, C.S. Lewis

Every sin is the distortion of an energy breathed into us—an energy which, if not thus distorted, would have blossomed into one of those holy acts whereof ‘God did it’ and ‘I did it’ are both true descriptions. We poison the wine as He decants it into us; murder a melody He would play with us as the instrument. We caricature the self-portrait He would paint. Hence all sin, whatever else it is, is sacrilege.

— C. S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm

Nevertheless Come Autumn

Having Decided To Stay - Bryana Johnson - Nevertheless Come AutumnOur hard-burning summer has shattered into September and slow rain at last. I took my little brother on a picnic yesterday afternoon and we read The Hobbit under an umbrella in a steady drizzle. In the evenings we are lighting candles again and sleeping with our windows open for the air and the little crickets and the plunking drops that come hurtling off of the roof.

Here’s a little piece excerpted from my poetry collection, Having Decided to Stay:

Having Decided To Stay - Bryana Johnson - Umbrella - Nevertheless Come AutumnNEVERTHELESS COME AUTUMN

the ocean-blue bowl won’t
refuse to bruise, won’t hold it back
from the gaping earth-wounds.

There will still come
water, chill wind and happy

and in the utmost corners of oaks,
leaves laughing.

On The Commonplace Book: The Need To Keep Records of Words Not Ours

A great writer is a profesHaving Decided To Stay - Bryana Johnson - Commonplace Booksional reader. The man who strings words that everyone reads, the story-smith who compiles fascinating fictions, the bard who sings the language that wakes us to wonder, these are all mighty borrowers, mighty collage artists, mighty rememberers. They draw from the well of what has been said, to say what has not been said. Indeed, they can do no other. For we are poor and weak creatures when we have only our own minds to entertain us.

All great words spring from other great words. This is a statement we can trace in a backward glance through the pages of history to the first Word that called everything else into being, to the Word that was, in the beginning. Nothing comes from nothing.

This truth about the nature of language and writing gives rise to another truth, which is that really passionate readers have a great need to keep records of the most significant and memorable passages and statements made by the authors whose works they explore.  It is not enough to merely consider for a moment, to allow ourselves to be shaken by the staggering thoughts we encounter and then to close the book on them and leave with only a vague and dusty recollection of what was said. This is inadequate.  We need a ledger, a place to compile the words that change our lives line by line and day by day.

The commonplace book is a tool that was widely used by readers for centuries (until the last one: a century in which we received many new things all at once, and let many irreplaceably good things go.) It is a journal for the words we have not written, a notebook for taking note of the magnificent.

The term, ‘commonplace’ is a translation of the Latin ‘locus communis’ which means ‘a theme or argument of general application’, such as a statement of proverbial wisdom. In this original sense, commonplace books were collections of such sayings.

The commonplace book can be a leather-bound art journal or a cheap, college-ruled composition book. It can be a work of art in itself or merely a collection of scribbled quotations. However, I believe that putting in the time to make the collection a pleasure to peruse is by far the more effective of these options. I know that for my own part I am more likely to want to come back to and read over something that is well-constructed and lovely than something untidy and hastily thrown together. And the commonplace book is something to come back to again and again and again.

Having Decided To Stay - Bryana Johnson - Commonplace Book 3 When I started my new commonplace book, I chose to use an art journal with 90 lb paper and a 0.5 m wet ink pens. These materials have worked very well for me, providing an ideal writing space that is durable and elegant, but almost anything will work as well or better given a determined reader. The most important thing is to begin.

In addition to being a place to gather the words of others, the commonplace book also serves as an excellent collection of writing to memorize. I copy into a journal that is small enough to fit in a handbag and take it with me anytime I think I am likely to be alone. Then I can take it out and go over it.  This record is a way that we interact with literature, that we seize hold of it and make it our own, that we incorporate it into our lives, that it becomes a seed of greatness – or, in the words of Charlotte Mason, “a living power in our minds.”

BOOK REVIEW: The Landlady’s Master

The Landlady's Master - Having Decided To Stay - Bryana Johnson - George MacDonald

Man, the trouble is
we don’t know who we are instead.
         – Jars of Clay, Trouble Is

In Defiant Joy, his biography of literary legend G.K. Chesterton, Kevin Belmonte wrote that Chesterton “was deeply troubled by ‘the problem of a human consciousness filled with very definite images of evil…and no definite image of good.’”  This frustration with the lack of prototypes of purity was a recurring theme in Chesterton’s writing, spilling over into his socio-political analysis in What’s Wrong With the World and haunting his literary criticism. He laments, in Heretics,

All previous ages have sweated and been crucified in an attempt to realize what is really the right life, what was really the good man. A definite part of the modern world has come beyond question to the conclusion that there is no answer to these questions, that the most that we can do is to set up a few notice-boards at places of obvious danger, to warn men, for instance, against drinking themselves to death, or ignoring the mere existence of their neighbours.

I would maintain that the problem Chesterton pointed out to us around a hundred years ago is, if anything, an even greater issue now, an even mightier threat. Popular culture boasts protagonists who are blatant anti-heroes, celebrated films and novels are skillful portrayals of violence and grief, but rarely are they depictions of anyone worth imitating. There are few flaming heroes. There is much to run away from, but little to chase after.

This cancer of evil is one that threatens to overwhelm the followers of Christ, and many who have been ransomed out of the order of darkness continue allow themselves to play on the fringes of it, avoiding deep depravity but shying away from startling holiness. The trouble is, we don’t know who we are instead. And in order to be taught that, we must have examples, we must have models who, literally or figuratively, try out the good life for us and make it winsome. We must have a definite image of good.

In his novel, The Landlady’s Master (originally The Elect Lady), George MacDonald presents a definite image of good that is not only heartening but even a little dazzling and completely irresistible. As far as literary merit goes, this is one of MacDonald’s least worthy books, consisting of a plot that is sub-par at best and containing some portions of writing that are inexcusably bad. However, The Landlady’s Master gave us Andrew Ingram. And the vastness of that gift overshadows this book’s other weaknesses.

Andrew is described in this way,

Andrew was one of the inheritors of the earth. He knew his Father in the same way that Jesus Christ knows his Father. He was at home in the universe, neither lonely, nor out-of-doors, nor afraid.

A young farmer and a poet in rural Scotland in the 19th century, Andrew cuts a magnificent figure and in spite of his overwhelming humility, a daunting one. He is committed to purity in every respect. He is a man who knows the Great Secret:

…a secret proclaimed on the housetops, a secret hidden, the most precious of pearls…that the earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof.

Most importantly, Andrew is a practical man, a man who values only those things which command action on his part. He has found Jesus to be the most commanding Presence in the cosmos, and the one who demands the highest form of doing. It is this theme of doing that reverberates throughout what becomes increasingly a very jarring story.

MacDonald writes thus of the childhood of Andrew and his brother,

There was this difference between them and most grown Christians – when anything roused thought or question, they at once referred it to the words of Jesus, and having discovered his will, made haste to do it. Their faith was not theological, nor did they ever stop to consider whether their beliefs matched the tenets of the Shorter Catechism they had learned. Practicality was the only code between them: could something be done? If so, where was to be found the first opportunity to do it?

And out of this impassioned and onehearted devotion grows two significant things. The first is a flaming heroism, a contagious and a rousing depiction of righteousness. Andrew is the person we all wish we were, who knows the One we all wish to know. The second is the mockery of the world. Andrew does not align himself with the value system of a dark planet and it thinks very little of him. Caught between these two warring factions is a laird’s daughter, Alexa, an intelligent and yet deficient character who is utilized by MacDonald for the purpose of handing each of us a mirror in which to see ourselves.

Alexa is beautiful and clever and even kind in her own way. The story has this to say of her, though,

Diligent in business, not fervent in spirit, she was never idle. But there are other ways than idleness of wasting time. Alexa was continually striving toward what is called ‘improving herself,’ but it was a big phrase for a small matter. She had not learned that to do the will of God is the way to improve oneself.

Ultimately, The Landlady’s Master is a call to action. Its sole intent is to drive the reader to obedience. For this reason, its literary deficiencies can be overlooked. It is not intended to be an exquisite and artistic piece of literature. It is meant to make a difference to what we do with our one wild and precious life.

I do not intend to give away much of this story, because I hope you will click right through and buy yourself a copy of it today.  As a disclaimer, I should add that I am not of one mind with MacDonald on all issues of theology. This, however, did not take away from the beauty of this book.

I give The Landlady’s Master 4 out of 5 stars.