What If We Are Alone? [A Marsh-Wiggle Speaks]

Orphaned2Our lives are staked on such simple things, aren’t they? Because it isn’t only true that no man is an island, it’s vastly more true that no belief is marooned, that ideas have consequences, and that every accepted truth claim moves in with its entire family. So “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” rather quickly turns into, “whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for My sake will find it,” and before we know it, the ball’s in our court.

But when you give every last thing, you want it to be worth it, don’t you? And sometimes, to be utterly honest, we’re not quite sure.

At the back of our minds, is there sometimes this lingering gnawing, the dark suggestion that what we see is all there is? It isn’t that we have strong reasons for disbelief, or that we’re out of evidence for what we do believe, but only that we’ve come to love it so very much – to depend on it and live and move and have our being in it – that even a mustard-seed of uncertainty is unbearable.

LonelyPlanetK.S. Rhoads puts words to this frightful sadness in Orphaned,

you’re born into a union
but you die on your own

a bear on the iceberg
is burning in the sun

what if I go behind the curtain
and see no one?

When I was a child, I asked these questions. Sometimes I opened my mind to the possibility of the void, of everything glad becoming untrue, of life going out like a candle, and all things being of no account. How do you explain the dark aloneness of dust?
Emerald City
When I was eight years old, I read The Wizard of Oz. I read chapter after chapter without pause, and enjoyed it so much I couldn’t find the self-control to put it away and save something to read later. But when at the end of the yellow-brick road the wizard wasn’t a wizard after all, and the city wasn’t erected of emerald, and there was no fix, no cure, no king, I lay awake and cried my heart out in the dark and wanted my mother.

It’s the ghastliest question of all:

Are we orphaned?

But when I was a child, I didn’t know about amor tan inmenso. I didn’t know there was a love so mighty that the idea of it was better than the substance of anything else; so colossal that we would sooner die for that fantasy than live for the bleak reality of anything else.

Now I don’t ask that question anymore. It isn’t that I’ve outgrown doubt, or moved past anguish or this diseased vision of mine, but in a way I’ve come to happy terms with even the uncertainty that slips in sometimes when I’m not looking. I’ve made my peace with it.

SilverChairThis peace has come all by itself – just slipped quietly in as the years rolled on – but the echo of it exists in many places, leaving me to know I’m not alone in what I have decided. Maybe my favorite of these is found in The Silver Chair.

If it’s been awhile since you’ve read it, remember: Eustace and Jill and the pessimistic Marsh-Wiggle Puddleglum are trying to free Prince Rilian from the evil Lady of the Green Kirtle, a witch who is keeping him an enchanted prisoner in the Underworld. In the climactic scene, the witch begins to lose ground as the children and the Marsh-Wiggle recognize the Prince and break his enchantment. In desperation, she resorts to sorcery and begins to work magic on the whole party, to talk them out of their belief in the world outside her caverns.

“Narnia?” she said. “Narnia? I have often heard your Lordship utter that name in your ravings. Dear Prince, you are very sick. There is no land called Narnia.”

“Yes, there is, though, Ma’am,” said Puddleglum. “You see, I happen to have lived there all my life.”

PuddleglumThe answer is straightforward enough, incontrovertible. But the witch laughs, and laughter is a better weapon than words of reason. She goes on laughing, and bewitching, and before you know it, the whole party hardly even believes in their own homeland anymore. There is something they remember, though. They cling to it frantically: the sun coming up out of the sea of a morning and sinking behind the mountains at night. And up in the midday sky when they couldn’t look at him for brightness.

“What is this sun that you all speak of? Do you mean anything by the word?” asked the Witch.

“Yes, we jolly well do,” said Scrubb.

“Can you tell me what it’s like?”

“Please it your Grace,” said the Prince, very coldly and politely. “You see that lamp. It is round and yellow and gives light to the whole room, and hangeth moreover from the roof. Now that thing which we call the sun is like the lamp, only far greater and brighter. It giveth light to the whole Overworld and hangeth in the sky.”

“Hangeth from what, my lord?” asked the Witch; and then, while they were all still thinking how to answer her, she added, with another of her soft, silver laughs: “You see? When you try to think out clearly what this sun must be, you cannot tell me. You can only tell me it is like the lamp. Your sun is a dream; and there is nothing in that dream that was not copied from the lamp. The lamp is the real thing; the sun is but a tale, a children’s story.”

“Yes, I see now,” said Jill in a heavy, hopeless tone. “It must be so.” And while she said this, it seemed to her to be very good sense.

Slowly and gravely the Witch repeated, “There is no sun.” And they all said nothing. She repeated, in a softer and deeper voice. “There is no sun.” After a pause, and after a struggle in their minds, all four of them said together, “You are right. There is no sun.” It was such a relief to give in and say it.

“There never was a sun,” said the Witch.

“No. There never was a sun,” said the Prince, and the Marsh-wiggle, and the children.

For the last few minutes Jill had been feeling that there was something she must remember at all costs. And now she did. But it was dreadfully hard to say it. She felt as if huge weights were laid on her lips. At last, with an effort that seemed to take all the good out of her, she said: “There’s Aslan.”

Aslan_SunBut the witch claims no understanding of this word, she doesn’t know what a lion is. How can they explain it? It’s like a cat, only it’s not, it’s bigger and grander with a mane like a judge’s wig.

The Witch shook her head. “I see,” she said, “that we should do no better with your lion, as you call it, than we did with your sun. You have seen lamps, and so you imagined a bigger and better lamp and called it the sun. You’ve seen cats, and now you want a bigger and better cat, and it’s to be called a lion. Well, ’tis a pretty make-believe, though, to say truth, it would suit you all better if you were younger. And look how you can put nothing into your make-believe without copying it from the real world of mine, which is the only world. But even you children are too old for such play. As for you, my lord Prince, that art a man full grown, fie upon you! Are you not ashamed of such toys? Come, all of you. Put away these childish tricks. I have work for you all in the real world. There is no Narnia, no Overworld, no sky, no sun, no Aslan. And now, to bed all. And let us begin a wiser life tomorrow.”

At this point, it’s practically over, the enchantment is nearly complete and Rilian and Eustace and Jill are abashed and quiet. They have given up at last. Puddleglum though, is not quite spent, and with the last of his strength he strikes out and stamps out the witch’s mystic green fire with his two bare feet.

And three things happened at once.
First, the sweet heavy smell grew very much less. For though the whole fire had not been put out, a good bit of it had, and what remained smelled very largely of burnt Marsh-wiggle, which is not at all an enchanting smell. This instantly made everyone’s brain far clearer. The Prince and the children held up their heads again and opened their eyes.

Secondly, the Witch, in a loud, terrible voice, utterly different from all the sweet tones she had been using up till now, called out, “What are you doing? Dare to touch my fire again, mud-filth, and I’ll turn the blood to fire inside your veins.”

Thirdly, the pain itself made Puddleglum’s head for a moment perfectly clear and he knew exactly what he really thought. There is nothing like a good shock of pain for dissolving certain kinds of magic.

narniaThen Puddleglum speaks, and his speech is at one time defiant, trusting and deeply wonderful, because circumstances have forced him to look that frightful question squarely in the face, and it doesn’t scare him away, and he gives it an answer.

“One word, Ma’am,” he said, coming back from the fire; limping because of the pain. “One word. All you’ve been saying is quite right, I shouldn’t wonder. I’m a chap who always liked to know the worst and then put the best face I can on it. So I won’t deny any of what you said. But there’s one thing more to be said, even so. Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things – trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the play-world. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia. So, thanking you kindly for our supper, if these two gentlemen and the young lady are ready, we’re leaving your court at once and setting out in the dark to spend our lives looking for the Overland. Not that our lives will be very long, I should think; but that’s a small loss if the world’s as dull a place as you say.”

If in some unforeseeable future, everything should crumble and prove to be a lie, and we be left with the mere idea of the Immortal, Invisible Only-Wise, I think I’d be happier serving the thought of that, than the being of any other. Wouldn’t you? Better to be swallowed up in a good story, I say, than choked to death by a bitter actuality. It’s better to go down fighting for theIvanMoiseyev kingdom of heaven if it is a shadow-kingdom, then to rise up ruling in any other. Because if the legend of the God-With-Us is only mythology after all, it’s the best thing to come out of this doubly-wretched world.

And if you give every last thing for the very best thing, it’s worth it. Even if we are alone.

In me there’s this nagging feeling that us feeling like this is strong evidence against our aloneness, that if the story transcends even its own negation, that’s one point for the crowd that says it’s a true story. And when I think about that crowd, I hardly know how to disagree with them.


More About The Great Minimum

Bryana Johnson - Stars - Space - Chesterton - Minimum - Having Decided To StayLast week on a date set aside for gratitude, I wrote about the gift universe & the story of a man who knew how to give thanks. G.K. Chesterton suggested that even in sorry & desolate conditions the bare fact of existence is mighty enough a miracle to warrant thanksgiving. He wrote a poem about it. & when I had read it & come to understand it, I was so glad that I wrote one myself — albeit a lesser composition by far:

Snatched from the yawning nothingness
and the not-being, the abyss,
He has planted you on the planet
like a lover plants a kiss.
Out of the soundless empty space
of a black hole beside a star,
He has called you up into sensing
like no kind of metaphor,
made you a beggar, grimy waif,
to take bread from the dirt with dogs,
to wring one lonely earth with anguish
like the night is wrung with frogs.

‘Joy to the world, the populace,
and the urchins beneath, and kings,’
He has shouted it to your darkness,
your orphans, your saddest things.
‘Joy if your name be listed here,
yea, if even among the slain,
you in ink lay beside the fallen,
Joy that you have a name!
Joy for the cold that drives you on,
and the wars that have made you roam,
for the way that I sent you forth and
for the long fall back to home.’

(Bryana Johnson)

Thanksgiving, Dandelions and the Great Minimum

Bryana Johnson - Dandelion - G.K. Chesterton - Having Decided To Stay - The Beatific Vision
Through what fierce incarnations,
furled i
n fire and darkness, did I go,
Ere I was worthy in the world
To see a dandelion grow?

(G.K. Chesterton)

We get pulled in, reeled like flopping fishes to the light and the air we don’t think we want.

I gave in, and admitted that God was God … perhaps that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England,

wrote C.S. Lewis of his own encounter with the Day. This concept of the unwilling convert, the one knocked about and cast down and brought utterly low in order to be brought higher up and further in, was one with which Lewis seems to have been very familiar. He asked in another place,

Who can duly adore that Love which will open the high gates to a prodigal who is brought in kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting his eyes in every direction for a chance of escape?

But there was another mighty man of letters – a man influential in Lewis’ own life – who came to the surface in rather a different way. He was not chased in by the snapping dogs or the wrecking ball but rather came up gasping from the many waters to exclaim about how wonderful everything was. Beginning with the miracle of existence.

[is] magnificent as compared with nothing,” this man said. “You should not look a gift universe in the mouth.”

It was this conviction that brought Gilbert Keith Chesterton out of the hideous darkness of pessimism. He called it “a sort of mystical minimum of gratitude.” He expressed it on reams of paper.

Chesterton went on to write some of the finest poetry that has come out of the British Isles in any era. He wrote fiction also, and literary criticism and biographies, philosophical and ontological commentaries and apologetics and plays. But Chesterton was by nature a poet, for he was a man with a mind fixed on cosmic subjects, a quintessential optimist, a writer given to bold generalizations, and a thinker whose highest virtue was his ability to praise everything in flaming colors.

The fact that Chesterton’s poetry is so little appreciated in academic circles today is a sad reflection on academic circles. One of my copies of his “Complete Poems” bears this melancholy blip on its back cover:

[Chesterton] remained a Victorian throughout his life and his poetry admittedly reflects that age. He rejected the modernist movement that developed after World War I, holding fast to his own standards. ‘Quite clearly,’ writes Professor Daniel B. Dodson in an introduction to the Chesterton poems, ‘this is the expression of a very ancient poetic mission, primitive, indeed bardic, in its appeal.’ Chesterton is not for readers who seek complex ambiguities in poetry; he is for those who enjoy the traditional and the heroic.

It’s hard not to be discouraged by the disdain that drips from the lips of these scholars when they are confronted with Chesterton’s persistent belief in an enduring and all-encompassing ideal. It’s also difficult to imagine how anyone acquainted with Chesterton’s writings could say that they lack “complex ambiguities,” for Chesterton was a man fascinated by the greatest complexities and ambiguities of all. His weakness, of course, in their eyes, was that he believed in a light at the end of the tunnel of murky complexities and ambiguities, and all displays of hope are insufferable to those who have none.

Chesterton, of course, had an answer prepared for these critics before they were even born. In 1905 he wrote scathingly in Heretics,

We are more and more to discuss details in art, politics, literature. A man’s opinion on tramcars matters; his opinion on Botticelli matters; his opinion on all things does not matter. He may turn over and explore a million objects, but he must not find that strange object, the universe; for if he does he will have a religion, and be lost. Everything matters — except everything. There are some people, nevertheless — and I am one of them — who think that the most practical and important thing about a man is still his view of the universe.

One can picture Chesterton responding to his antagonists of our era by leaning back in his chair with a profound look of amusement on his face and removing his wire spectacles for a good laugh. “What a man can believe depends upon his philosophy,” he once said.“Not upon the clock or the century.”

For the followers of Christ in this present age, these words ring truer than ever. We are beset by a thankless scurry of consumerism, by the deceit that there is something other than Jesus which we must acquire, by the anxiety of many improperly oriented aims. We inhabit a washed-out world that is grappling with the wages of sin, and, unlike Hercules in the old story, is losing. It is not so hard for us to be other than wholly satisfied, to be outside of the peace that passes understanding. We need Chesterton’s exuberant vision now more than ever, for all around us the citizens of the world are thumbing their noses at the suggestion that things are worth celebrating.

At a time and in a culture where material wealth abounds more widely than at any time in the past, our possessions, our comforts, our little amenities become sometimes, in a very real sense, more trouble than they are worth. They do much to distract us from fixing our eyes, much to make us weak and unfit for the war that is ahead and closing in all around. To approach these objects with a grateful and an awestruck heart is wholesome, certainly, and does much to put them back into the place they should occupy. Our gratitude, however, may endure longer if it finds a more lasting, a more universal foundation.

Chesterton was convinced he had found this. He called it The Great Minimum, and he outlined it in one of his most beautiful poems.


It is something to have wept as we have wept,
It is something to have done as we have done,
It is something to have watched when all men slept,
And seen the stars which never see the sun.

It is something to have smelt the mystic rose,
Although it break and leave the thorny rods,
It is something to have hungered once as those
Must hunger who have ate the bread of gods.

To have seen you and your unforgotten face,
Brave as a blast of trumpets for the fray.
Pure as white lilies in a watery space,
It were something, though you went from me to-day.

To have known the things that from the weak are furled,
Perilous ancient passions, strange and high;
It is something to be wiser than the world,
It is something to be older than the sky.

In a time of skeptic moths and cynic rusts,
And fatted lives that of their sweetness tire,
In a world of flying loves and fading lusts,
It is something to be sure of a desire.

Lo, blessed are our ears for they have heard;
Yea, blessed are our eyes for they have seen:
Let thunder break on man and beast and bird
And the lightning. It is something to have been.

This Thanksgiving holiday I hope to look hard at the particular things. At the shimmer of the light on the thick, aromatic casings of citrus fruit. At the red trees lining the drive in front of my house. At the enduring joyousness of The Sound of Music, which is a Thanksgiving tradition in my family. At my little brother and my little sister and their being children while they still are. I plan to be grateful for the unexpected gifts which no on one else has except for me.

Beyond all of that, though, I plan to be especially glad about some things that the loneliest orphan and the most bereaved widow have also. I plan to be glad that I am here, glad that He was here, glad that He will be here again.