The Earthquake on the Earth

Nuclear BombEven after all these thousands of years, each generation that comes along keeps thinking there will be a new thing, a better ideal, a revelation, don’t they? The world doesn’t make sense yet, so there must be something more to be discovered.

Wouldn’t that be something? If all the ages of the past were full of darkness and misery just because the philosophy that cracks the code hadn’t been uncovered yet? And of course, mine will be the generation to decipher this mystery. No doubt we are the people, and wisdom will die with us.

The young are strong, and want to do great things, and stand apart from the gloomy masses on the earth. They want change, and no one can deny it’s a gaping need. The thing is, it always has been, and all the striving towards new philosophies has ended in the quagmire of old sins.

The great century that brought us jet engines and helicopters, brought us death camps and gas-showers. It gave us the band-aid and penicillin – and Aryan eugenics. It gave us a glorious civil rights movement – and abortion.  The same era that gave us the radio and the air conditioner, and sliced bread itself, gave us the mushroom over Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The truth is, all our imaginings of radical change fall short in one very crucial respect: we fail to recognize that the truth which is, always has been. The moral mandates that are, aren’t new.

What would be a really new thing, would be obedience.

Says Chesterton, in What’s Wrong With The World:

“There is no new ideal imaginable by the madness of modern sophists, which will be anything like so startling as fulfilling any one of the old ones. On the day that any copybook maxim is carried out there will be something like an earthquake on the earth.

On Adventure: A Letter To My Children

JackGiantSlayer
[Someday, perhaps, I will have children. But today I am just flipping the page on twenty-one years, and there is already so much I want to tell them and can’t yet. Here where I stand on the threshold of adulthood, looking back on aspirations and ahead towards all the bends in the road, I want to say a few words about adventure, so they will know that I was young once, and boisterous, and learning so tremulously to trust that what is ahead must be even better than all that has been behind. I will write a letter…]

My Dear Children,

You want to kill a dragon with your own two hands and a sword that gleams like a stroke of light. I know you do.

You want to set off over mountains hatted in mist and recover the golden hoards of kings. You want to sprout the magic beans and chase a splendid princess right into the heart of an adventure. You want to press through the wardrobe and shatter the wand in the hands of the witch, and go thundering after the white stag of wishes in the forest of forgotten things. You want get your hands on the giant’s heart. You want to come home cradled in an eagle’s talons. You want to take a little coracle over the white wall of foam at the end of the world.

Me too.

CliffJumpingAnd there is more. At the brink of waterfalls and in the hills over the river, we get a little wild, don’t we? You all want to go hurtling right through, to the far side of sanity and fences, with your hearts like songbirds. You want to plant your feet on a rock no other bared, leathery feet have hugged, and look down with scorn on ordinary things. Me too. We want to flip our boats into the shock of cold, and chase the current and work our immaculate lungs and flaunt the fabulous mystery of our being like we earned it.

This is not to say you are not afraid of anything. For you are, aren’t you? You are afraid of growing rich and respectable and predictable and doing things according to form and custom. You are afraid you might grow old and give up on the dangerous business of stepping outside your door. You are afraid you might stop going on adventures.

Me too. I am afraid you might do that. Please don’t.

You are getting old enough to see that the grim world is full of people coming and going with harried scowls, not-believing in fairytales. People who see drudgery and inconvenience where they should see hazardous journeys with treasures at the finish line. You laugh at them now. “Adults,” you say, and you shake your head, as though that explains everything.

But my children, here I am, blowing the lights off my 21st birthday cake. And I was like you, such a little while ago, with youth laid out before me like an eternity of possibility. Now, there is no standard by which I’m not an adult.

And the grey, sagging woman behind the cash register at the grocery store was like us once, though one look at her now will tell you she doesn’t believe in fairies anymore. Do you suppose the black-suited businessman at the bus-stop, who goes babbling angry words into the mouthpiece hanging off his ear, has quite forgotten that he once wanted to put a black arrow into the armpit of a firedrake, and save a whole terrified village?

The poison of the age is more potent than you think.

For some, it looks like a hope of comfort which turns into fear, and eyes closing to the war around. And if you never look out the window, you will forget about adventures altogether, and perhaps it will quite slip your mind that somewhere a princess needs rescuing.

For some, fear makes friends with arrogance, and swells into a golden idol. And a man who goes chasing after the green dollars has hardly got time to comb the rugged crags for the giant’s heart.

Children, sometimes a sorrow comes in that blacks out the sun. And today you are untouched by any such thing, but maybe one day you’ll go to sleep and hope you never wake up again.

There are so many ways to settle. And whether it’s settling for security or settling for selfishness, or settling for sadness, if you settle down for what there is, you will never get out to the way things ought to be. And this world is a mighty dull place if you stop going to war.

Yes, you’ll grow up and learn a great many things. And you’ll learn that fairies aren’t real and neither is the wild white stag, and the knights are no more, as the old song says, and the dragons are dead.

But you already know these things. You were never really fooled into thinking that the stories are true in the sense that they actually happened. What then do we mean when we say you’ll stop believing in them? What do you mean when you make fun of adults who complain about cold weather and ice on the roads, and thunderstorms and unexpected guests?

Simply that the world has grown grey to their eyes, and commonplace, and ceased to be a perilous countryside where quests are waiting to be embarked upon.

But that can be fixed. “This world,” said G.K. Chesterton, “can be made beautiful again by beholding it as a battlefield.

And oh, children, it is. You don’t have to look hard to see that the planet is riven right through, and replete with monsters. You know it now, that cruelty thrives on the air of this place. Every day that you live here, you will know it deeper.

VillageBurningDragonThat there is a sickness on the loose and no heart is untouched. And rulers are sated and overfilled while the world is filled with the hungry. There may not be dragons on the loose, but there are still whole villages going up in smoke. The things that you’ve read about are real: like widows turned out of their homes, and cripples crushed and enslaved, and an entire generation of starved minds. There are a great many things you haven’t read about yet, and they are real too. One is almost ashamed to be alive in the same world with some of the things that are. And people in fine houses are deaf and blind and don’t hear how the globe is rank with horror.

What is worse is that truth, which should go up on the lamp-stands of every street and free the whole world, is hated and hidden away. What is worse is that the lovely and glorious truth is mocked and assaulted when it dares to show its face. It will be a mighty adventure to set out to free the world, with truth like a crest on your helmet, on a planet of armies armed with lies. Don’t you think?

I want to tell you something else about adventures, though.

This war is going to wear you plumb out. It’s more than likely one day you’ll take such a beating you go reeling with the shock of your own blood on your tongue. It’s more than likely that the world you want to save will deliver this to you, with bony fingers curled into fists, taking delight in giving you grief. It’s more than likely you’ll sit down and say you don’t care if the giants and the trolls win. It’s more than likely that the adventure will be a great deal too big for you.

I want to tell you about another kind of adventure. A kind of adventure that you’ll keep going out on, as long as you live. The kind of adventure you’ll never be too little for, or too old for, or too weak for. The kind of adventure that’s worth running after, even when the world doesn’t want to be saved.

There was a prince who came through once, to take the globe out of the clutch of the dragon. The morning star heralded him, and the very dove of God went to war with him. And you can love the world with your whole heart, but be assured that this sorry old world which didn’t receive its only Hero, won’t love you back.

Come away, for there is a higher adventure.

After all, what is the philosophy of adventure? Is it not the idea that that which we have to do is of grand significance and laced with risks? And it is this which turns the weary now into war, and this is the sort of war which makes everything joyous. Whether the sad world receives you or not, you can go out on this sort of adventure.

KnightIndeed, the Prince of Champions has asked for you especially,

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!’ “

This is the adventure of love. For love makes everything an adventure, a setting out in expectancy. And if you love the only utterly complete prince, you will have the only utterly complete adventure.

Regarding The Time That Is Given To Us

FlagOfRohanDecember was a bit of a rough and overbooked month, and the days that came after were so full of catching up, and so things have been mostly quiet on here. But nearly a year to the day after we started reading the Lord of the Rings to our little brother by candle-light in the middle of the nights, and under umbrellas in gullies on weekends and under trees big with white blossoms all spring, and on the living-room couch with pots of tea steaming, we finished it. And so he was with us for the eighth year of the adventure of watching all three movies into the little morning hours of the New Year, and finally initiated into the world the rest of the family lives in.

All year, as we read it, I found I was more grown than last time, like a child who goes away from home and comes back to find she is tall enough to see over the kitchen countertops. Perhaps the most significant example of this is the way I heard the line that is the most familiar to me of anything in this story. Gandalf said exactly the same momentous words he always says, but I had changed in the meantime, and so heard something I had never heard before.

TheTimeThatIsGivenToUsAll we have to decide” (who hasn’t heard these words?) “is what to do with the time that is given to us.”  And Frodo is in despondency and comfortless and has a bit of an attitude problem, and he doesn’t want to hear it, and it doesn’t make anything better at the time. Indeed, it isn’t until later that these words make any difference to him at all.

And I have been a little like this, all these years that I’ve known this line like the back of my hand: unassured and comfortless. Because it sounds lovely and important, but what does it mean? I think I had it all wrong.

I thought that the stress of these words was on the decision. I supposed that the time was a little blank space that we’re given to be breathing, and that the wise word was to fill it well. It seemed to me that there must be some perfect arrangement of activities and challenges and dreams to stick into that little blank space, and if you got it right, it would be splendid, and if you got it wrong, it would be nothing but a vast regret. And when you think about it like this, it is a matter of great stress.

When I was a child, the life that was ahead was one long bucket list, and the idea of dying before I’d done every single thing I wanted to do and a great many others I hadn’t thought of yet, was unthinkable. Have you been there?

Then, at some point, the days narrowed rather suddenly into obligations, and choices couldn’t be put off any longer, but had to be made. And whenever we decide, no matter how we decide, there is loss.

Sam_ImBack
And there are questions: did I make the right choice? Did I lose the right thing? Perhaps I should have been chasing that instead, when all along I was chasing this… And the comfort is cold: “All you have to decide is what to do, etc.”

Because deciding is wretched and it’s no relief to know that is the lot that has fallen to us. When we were children and still had all our choices, we felt like we owned them all, in all their beauty, merely in virtue of the fact that they were all still before us. But when I get down to really choosing, I get so many things wrong. Do you?

Thank goodness that’s not what Gandalf was saying.

Thank goodness the stress of the comfort is not on what we have to decide but on the other thing: The Time That Is Given To Us.

The Time doesn’t come to us like a blank space, as we suppose when we are children. It didn’t come to Frodo that way, did it? Oh no, the Time comes with a face and a place and a history, and the stress of Gandalf’s comfort wasn’t that there is much to be decided and we ought to do it carefully, but that there is so much we don’t have to decide.

They are sitting by the fire in Bag End, and ahead there is the road winding away from peace and out into wounds and war and loneliness, and although Frodo can’t know it yet, he feels it and is afraid. “I wish it need not have happened in my time,” says Frodo.

FaramirOh, so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. We think we could have made a better choice for our days, if the choice had been ours. All who live to see such times wish that, says Gandalf. But would they really? If they knew what a miserable thing it is to make choices, would they still want to decide? If they knew that in peace we are anxious for adventure, and wandering and ways to prove ourselves, and that in war all the world’s longings are condensed in our ache to be home one more time and eat a quiet supper and kiss our children goodnight? Would they still want to choose?

The comfort is that we don’t have to choose the time we are given, don’t get to, aren’t expected to. It might be the barren fear of Weathertop or the long dark of Moria, or embarking alone in a little white boat, scared stiff and so lonely. But it’s not yours to choose the color of your times or even the road under your feet. We are born into a time and a story and we aren’t allowed to ask for another time or another story. All we have to decide is how we shall make glory out of the time and the story that is ours. And that is not so wretched, although it is very, very hard.

HaldirDeath
When the time that is given to you comes defined and fitted with a face, the choice is simpler, and happier. If your lot is a hopeless battle and bloody death in a war that no one will remember, you must do it well, because it is all you get. If your time is evil days and ruin closing in and the Ring of Power flashing the red eye at you in the council of the confused and confounded wise, you must get up and take it, because that is your road. And if you are stuck in a waste of uncertainty and cannot see what is around the bends, and everything is bleak, bleak, you must press into the fog and find Him. And you don’t need to be thinking about all the ways you might have had a more fulfilling time given to you, because it was never yours to choose. It was a gift. And if you know the Giver, you know it was a good one.