Pieces of Today, March 27th

#1. From the beautiful Starkindler album, this glad celebration of Psalm 23, in light of the good things that have come.

#2. The opening Spring. Like this: ChestertonExile

#3. Recuerdo, testifying to the way that love makes everything an adventure after all….

[by Edna St. Vincent Millay]

We were very tired, we were very merry—
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry.
It was bare and bright, and smelled like a stable—
But we looked into a fire, we leaned across a table,
We lay on a hill-top underneath the moon;
And the whistles kept blowing, and the dawn came soon.

We were very tired, we were very merry—
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry;
And you ate an apple, and I ate a pear,
From a dozen of each we had bought somewhere;
And the sky went wan, and the wind came cold,
And the sun rose dripping, a bucketful of gold.

We were very tired, we were very merry,
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry.
We hailed, “Good morrow, mother!” to a shawl-covered head,
And bought a morning paper, which neither of us read;
And she wept, “God bless you!” for the apples and pears,
And we gave her all our money but our subway fares.

The War From Where We Are

In eternity this world will be Troy, I believe, and all that has passed here will be the epic of the universe, the ballad they sing in the streets,

writes Marilynne Robinson, in Gilead. If we are among the courtiers of the Kingdom that is coming, this fragile hope of glory should transfigure all our moments, make an epic out of our days. For a day is coming when all will be revealed, all uncovered, all told. The unsung heroes will be sung, the darkly glass will shatter, and everything will be seen exactly as it is.

Into such an existence have we been born – into a state of being that matters everlastingly.

I spoke of this to some young girls recently. We were discussing character, and I am weary of the words that traditionally accompany that one, weary of abstract exhortations that don’t take root in the reason for being. “Character,” I said to them, “is who you are in the story of the world.”

Our characters matter because there is a story, because to be alive is to be a part of a tale of deeds that will be a bit of the lore of the ages to come.

“I wonder if we shall ever be put into songs or tales?” muses Samwise Gamgee, in The Two Towers, just a few hours before his own tale takes a particularly nasty turn. We laugh at him fondly and knowingly. We know, of course, that he is in a story now. We almost wish he could be out of it for a moment and witness the way the world is reading it.

Because the stories are not quite the same thing from the inside. We, looking in on the panorama of The Lord of the Rings, see a tremendous epic, a collage of action, a medley of intertwined adventures. But if you are Samwise Gamgee or Peregrin Took, or Frodo Baggins, you only get to see that story minute by minute, day by day, uncomfortable inconvenience by uncomfortable inconvenience.

One day you might wake up and life might proceed like this:

They made their way slowly and cautiously round the south-western slopes of the hill, and came in a little while to the edge of the Road. There was no sign of the Riders. But even as they were hurrying across they heard far away two cries: a cold voice calling and a cold voice answering. Trembling they sprang forward, and made for the thickets that lay ahead. The land before them sloped away southwards, but it was wild and pathless; bushes and stunted trees grew in dense patches with wide barren spaces in between. The grass was scanty, coarse, and grey; and the leaves in the thickets were faded and falling. It was a cheerless land, and their journey was slow and gloomy. They spoke little as they trudged along. Frodo’s heart was grieved as he watched them walking beside him with their heads down, and their backs bowed under their burdens. Even Strider seemed tired and heavy-hearted.

Before the first day’s march was over Frodo’s pain began to grow again, but he did not speak of it for a long time. Four days passed, without the ground or the scene changing much, except that behind them Weathertop slowly sank, and before them the distant mountains loomed a little nearer. Yet since that far cry they had seen and heard no sign that the enemy had marked their flight or followed them. They dreaded the dark hours, and kept watch in pairs by night, expecting at any time to see black shapes stalking in the grey night, dimly lit by the cloud-veiled moon; but they saw nothing, and heard no sound but the sigh of withered leaves and grass. 

Even as a hero right in the middle of an epic that has captivated the world, you might have a day like that. You might have many, many days like that.

nativityA girl in a remote corner of our own world, a great lady in our own story, was overtaken once by an angel who told her how her whole life would be utterly altered, how she would be swept up into the eternal company of heroes.

“The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God…nothing is impossible with God.”

What a place to be planted in the story of the world! What a splendiferous role – to carry in your own body the baby-flesh of the Wonderful Counselor! How happy we would all have been to be there!

And yet, that real life of hers – how different it must have been from our romanticized notions. For a revelation can change everything and still change nothing at all. That girl had to go on living as she always had – ground by poverty and oppression and now misunderstood by her own family, by the very man she was preparing to call husband. In solitude and loneliness she surely strove to work out some understanding of the Almighty power at work within her. She surely buoyed her uncomprehending heart with hope.

All the way through, she must have turned back again and again on this wobbly anchor. When her little boy was bleeding out under the spears of the very oppressors she had expected him to overthrow, did she lean into the hope that the story was somehow working itself out in spite of her confusion and her shattered expectations, and the intolerable bleakness of everything? Because in the end, hope was all she had.

Would you with joy trade your spot in the story for King David’s place, for the hands that strangled lions and bears and swung the pebble that felled the fell giant? How about for Esther’s? For the queen that tasted royalty solely for the purpose of saving her whole people? Would you trade your own dim, obscure chance of glory for that of Abraham, called out of his country to be still under the stars and hear the promises of God? You would be so glad to get to stand in that furnace with Shadrach and Abednego in the company of a shining one, and hear the stunned surprise of your enemies, wouldn’t you?

You think you would, because you are looking in from the end of things, you know the ends of all the stories. They are good stories. But a hero’s own story is never clear to him. And all these ever had was hope.

“All these,” so the Good Book says, “died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth.”

Someday, we shall all step out of our story, and witness the way that the host of heaven is reading it. That prospect makes a good many things worth doing well, even when we are quite alone to our own eyes.

On the Significance of Death Beating the Door In

anneMy little sister has been on an L.M. Montgomery kick and a couple of nights ago she came into my room in a suppliant posture, begging me to watch Anne of Green Gables with her. This we did end up doing, into the early hours of the morning.

It had been some time since I’d seen this old classic film, which I have always enjoyed very much, but which has always touched some raw spot of longing in me. There is a hurt and a fear that goes along with being young and having the world ahead of you, and knowing that every decision you make slams a hundred doors of possibility. This movie deepens the ache.

Anne Shirley, who is a foolish romantic as well as a hard-working and promising scholar, is in love with Gilbert Blythe from the beginning, although she girlishly scorns his attentions and convinces herself that she is holding a grudge against him.

When we are watching this movie, we know they are meant to be together. We know we will be content with nothing else. And as Anne is growing tall and lovely and chasing tenaciously after her (often misguided) dreams, we are half-afraid for her all the time. We are half-afraid she is going to do something irrevocably foolish and turn her back on this story’s only happy ending – on the boy who is her only perfect future.

It is a central theme of so many stories: that one satisfactory ending that dangles before us like the proverbial carrot, and it is, perhaps, an absolutely necessary tool of drama.

But doesn’t it sometimes carry with it a sad kind of fear for us on the outside? For it bears with it a gnawing suggestion that it is the chief end of man to uncover out of the seemingly impenetrable murk of the future that one perfect turn of events which is his only good end and his best happiness under the sun. Elizabeth Bennett must marry Mr. Darcy, and Elinor Dashwood’s future will be jeopardized if she does not spend it with Edward Ferrars. If the Prince does not come wandering through the woods just at the very time when the dwarves are setting Snow White to rest in her glass coffin, all is lost.

Yet, in the real world, all of that is not really true.

The chief end of life is no mystical, star-crossed state of existence. “Vanity,” says the Preacher, of everything. “Vanity,” of the hopes of youth – even when fulfilled,  and “vanity” of all dreams – even the ones that do come true. “Vanity,” of Mr. and Mrs. Blythe and their house of dreams and their beautiful children and all of the great gladness that wisdom and kindness and money can give. This is not the chief end.

It is true of them what was said of Ephraim, when a prophet gave warning: Gray hairs are sprinkled upon him, and he knows it not.”

We had a poet who was closely acquainted with the vanity of all things. Writes Edna St. Millay:

This I do, being mad:
Gather baubles about me,
Sit in a circle of toys, and all the time
Death beating the door in.

White jade and an orange pitcher,
Hindu idol, Chinese god, —
Maybe next year, when I’m richer—
Carved beads and a lotus pod. . . .

And all this time
Death beating the door in.

One day, he is bringing up his cows over the green fields of Green Gables and Matthew Cuthbert’s life-pump stops. Just quits. He lays in the grass with his head cradled in the lap of the one little girl he has loved and chokes some last words she will try to find comforting. Then he leaves her to her tears and the black cloth of mourning and the wakeful nights of aching.

One day her own dear Gilbert will leave like that too. One day he will just up and go, and there will be nothing that either of them can do about it. One day even the children they talked of and dreamed about and created and cared for will be aged and whitening and flown away. One day she will stand at her kitchen window and put her apron to her eyes and understand the somber significance of, “death do us part.” One day they will both be dust again, and no one will even remember the place.

But there is a chief end – only one. And the way to it is fraught with peril and with danger and all our fears that we might not stumble over it really are justified. There is an end which is the only perfect happiness for every little girl with wonderful, starry-eyed dreams, and every little boy with grand, world-toppling ambitions. There is a marriage which is the only really glad one, an engagement without which our futures really are bleak blanks and wastelands.

Have you heard the Great Lover with the music in his golden mouth and laughter in his eyes, singing:

…Lady, lady, will you come away with Me?
Was never man lived longer for the hoarding of his breath;
Here be dragons to be slain, here be rich rewards to gain…
If we perish in the seeking,…why, how small a thing is death!