Monthly Archives: December 2009

Book Review: Lilith

Imagine your spiritual experience as a fantastical world.

I find this to be a cathartic and highly entertaining excercise. I can imagine my hand-clasped, grit-teethed struggles over sin or loneliness as a tumultuous landscape of sharp-jawed mountains and valleys pocked by caves. Or my days of solace and hope as strange silent gardens, like those in fairy tales, with voices in the air and wondrous fruit on elvish sized trees. My hopes, my desire, become flitting birds and butterflies of outlandish blues. Virtues, mine and God’s, well, I’ve always imagined them as tall, lithe companions with a light on their faces that doesn’t fade at dusk. As to my vices and those of the sullied world, they are a troupe of brutes and fiends with leering eyes and misshapen bodies, who all know my name far too well.

If you could take that sort of imagined world, add a smidgen of creative genius, an author with a soul “closer to the spirit of Christ than any other encountered,” and weave a story about a young man plunged into an epic journey through that soulish land, you’d have something approximating the brilliant spiritual fantasy of George MacDonald’s Lilith.

The tale itself is simple; a wealthy, leisured young man inherits an old estate and in its library discovers a presence he didn’t expect. A form, alternating between a huge raven, and a tall, raggedy-coated old man seems to haunt his house. In following this specter one day, the young man forays up to the attic and stumbles into another world. There, he meets Adam and Eve, who become his guides on a journey to his own salvation. In his quest, he encounters Mara, the Lady of Sorrow, Adam’s daughter, and eats the bread of her house. He takes refuge with the Children, a band of innocent, fairy-like little ones who never seem to grow up. And then, he finds Lilith, the dangerously lovely and utterly evil first wife of Adam. The incredible quest of the book is to explore how the most evil being in the world can be brought to repentance. The journey is the quest for redemption, but it leads, every step of it, through the mercy of pain.

Lilith is typical of George MacDonald’s unique spiritual fantasy in that the author takes the stuff of our spirits, the journeys toward salvation, the mercy of God that each of us will encounter in this life, and fleshes it out in faces and forms of fantastic imagination that somehow manage to bring God and all his goodness close as breath. Lilith (and Phantastes, it’s informal prequel) are not books to be easily explained, or lightly read, but they are stories that will shape the way you perceive God. In a way that no sermon ever could, they will present God’s mercy as a story, a song, they will show you how pain can be woven into the happiest of endings.

I don’t find this book easy to explain. (I’ve rather avoided writing this review because of it.) It’s a bewildering world, but the story, the light, and the grace are clear. C.S. Lewis himself, literary critic and verbose commentator, merely said after reading Phantastes that it had “baptized his imagination.” I suspect he couldn’t find more words. It’s enough though. When you enter a MacDonald world, you recognize mercy and goodness, love and grace as the powerful, beautiful things they are. Lilith is a world of a book- you taste it and touch it and find yourself face-to-face with some strange creature that you suddenly recognize as yourself. I find my soul sight clarified after reading MacDonald. In keeping with Lewis, I won”t say much more.

So go. Experience this world of a soul and story, look for yourself within it, look for mercy and pain and innocence to suddenly take form and speak to you through the characters of the books. And when you’ve read it, come tell me what you think. Maybe you’ll have more words than I did.

(And if you have read it, please, speak!)

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Joy!

The light of the Christmas star to you
The warmth of home and hearth to you
The cheer and good will of friends to you
The hope of a childlike heart to you
The joy of a thousand angels to you
The love of the Son and God’s peace to you.

-Irish Christmas Blessing


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Circles of light

The last dusk before the marvelous day has come. Behind our Christmas tree, the bay window is filling up with light like blue velvet, it’s frame the pale curve of aspens with bare, frosted arms. Drip by drop, the daylight is stained with dark and the flow of night rises and spills into our house through the glass. Shadows crawl up the walls, reach with long, knobbly fingers across the wood floor. But not around the Christmas tree. Sword straight, arms stretched out to hold the thousand smalls stars in its greenery, our tree stands like a fighter in his own unbroken circle of light.

A sacred circle, that. I think most children know this. It is, after all, the place where presents miraculously appear. It’s something more though too. When I was small child, I’d sneak in alone to lay on my back, face stroked by fir branches, the scent of the needles like a heady wine to my senses, and I’d look up, up, up. Through a maze of fir boughs like tiny paths that led somewhere I wished I could go. Alive in thought, alert as if I’d stepped out of the ordinary into somewhere marvelously else, I’d stay there as long as I could. The Christmas tree was always the centerpoint of holiday wonder to me, the live, almost personed presence of the strange gladness that invaded my home once a year. In the circle of its light, sparkle, and scent, anything might happen.

It was the circle of possibility. I feel it still tonight. Sitting alone in this darkling room, I feel hope edge up to me in that light. I’m older now, all the unnameable wonder of being little and having a few toys satisfy my hunger is gone. I want a lot more now. Things like peace in my soul, love without conditions, the way cleared for dreams. But tonight, my eyes opened by the beauty of the room and hour, I feel a bit of my childhood wonder coming back, and with the insight of adulthood, I understand that at its heart is hope.

This season is a celebration of unchangeable things being changed. Of death being made into life. Of the eternal outcasts being reconciled to the One who will always belong. In this way, the Christmas lights are an echo of the light that fell from the Bethlehem star. Within the circle of that light rested a baby who was what Madeleine L’Engle called “the glorious impossible.” His birth remade all that was wrong into all that is right. It is that glorious fact I celebrate tonight two thousand years later. It is that impossible good becoming possible that is the reason for all our extravagant celebrations. Christmas presents appearing in the circle of Christmas tree light just echo the gift of a God baby born for us into a circle of starlight.

Christmas is all about the circles of God’s light which enter this world and alter the wrong. It is all about the impossible becoming possible. And that is where the wonder lies. It’s what every child senses, beyond the simple love of gifts, a great, impossible good looming up beautifully all about them. I want to enter that wonder again. I want to stand by the circle of Christmas tree light, and let my heart enter its world-altering ground. Light Himself has carved a circle of possibility into the universe, and its echo is in the circle round my tree.

So I’ll sit here tonight and rejoice.

May you do the same.

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Sing, oh!

Tomorrow shall be my dancing day;
I would my true love did so chance
To see the legend of my play,
To call my true love to my dance;

Sing, oh! my love, oh! my love, my love, my love,
This have I done for my true love.

Then was I born of a virgin pure,
Of her I took fleshly substance
Thus was I knit to man’s nature
To call my true love to my dance.

In a manger laid, and wrapped I was
So very poor, this was my chance
Betwixt an ox and a silly poor ass
To call my true love to my dance.

Sing, oh! my love, oh! my love, my love, my love,
This have I done for my true love.

Traditional English Carol
Go here to hear it sung by a choir at King’s College, Cambridge.
The picture is by Arthur Rackham.

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To Make You Merry

The season is bright my good friends! A week from tonight is Christmas Eve. There is something in me still little girlish enough to feel that this is a marvelous thing. I get heady with the wonder of it all…still. Look at us all, decking whole rooms and trees with lights, making feasts, singing from the bottom of our hearts and tops of our lungs as if we really believed that Goodness had stormed into our plain lives and we must welcome him with brightness. It’s beautiful to me.

The last two weeks have been crazy; I’ve spent most of them in a stint as a one woman shipping company, but I’ve also traveled, Christmas partied, and cooked up a veritable storm for my home-bound brothers. But, like light glinting off jewels, there have been these diamond drops of loveliness amidst the rush. These minutes which, one by one, lead me into the joy of this season. I thought I’d share a few:

What Child is This? duet sung by Andrea Bocelli and Mary J. Blige. (You can get it on iTunes, but the link will take you to an upcoming free download.) Plaintive, earthy, transcendent. I first heard this as we drove over sere, wheaten fields and my throat was so full of a joy that was half tears, I couldn’t speak. Gwen found it first. A friend of her’s had said “we should have to listen to eachother’s music.” The woman who said it had originally meant that the youth, traditional, and contemporary services were a bit too fragmenting to the relationships of her church. Gwen however, took this to mean that we girls should all pick our favorite songs and listen to them on our long winter drives through the hills. Chills, tears, or some jolt of wonderment. I’ll be surprised if one of them doesn’t come to you when you hear this song.

Pilgrim’s Inn, by Elizabeth Goudge. I will be reviewing this book (along with three others I’ve neglected) quite soon. In a way, this story is a picture of what I hope to one day create in and through and by the mysterious power of my someday home. The story culminates in a Christmas celebration, and so I always feel it to be appropriate to this season. But the spiritual depth of insight, the startling liveness of the houses and countrysides in Goudge’s novels, the characters that feel real as your family, they are a comfort and a world in which to sink oneself when Christmas craze needs quieting.

Sticky Toffee Pudding. I served this at my book release/Christmas teas and think it is about as English as you can get. Though not exactly the “figgy pudding” of the carol, it’s close. A warm, spicy cake drenched in a caramel sauce requiring an unholy amount of brown sugar, butter, and cream. It has all the hallmarks of a decadent holiday desert. I make a point of getting this whenever I am in England. My friend Stephanie has tweaked her recipe to perfection.

And just so you’ll know, a friend suggested I blog a bit of what went on last Saturday at the book teas. So, if you want a taste of the literary festivities, you can read the post: Books, Tea, and Celebration – A Recap of the Parties in Three Parts.

Peace, peace, and oh such joy to you this week my friends.

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Patterns

I spent most of my four hours of fly time last week gaping out my window. The skin of the earth, glimpsed from a few thousand feet up, is a shocking thing. I am smitten by the patterns that dance ceaselessly through creation. The lacework of trees, twining and reaching to the sky is writ large in the delicate cut of a river over sere, wintered plains. Each canyon is a sturdy root, each gully a frail new branch. How right, and strange, that that shape, the twirl and reach of active lines means life; water in dry places, trees pressing up to bear their fragile leaves.

And the whorl of clouds, like the rills in a stream, like the whirl of ancient stars. Lines in motion, straightness bent to laughter, to dance.

Look at this world! It’s as if all the earth and sky were carved with letters and songs. The patterns are large as the land and sky I saw from my window, yet also incalculably small. The same rills and branchings, whorls and dancings, are etched in atoms as well as atmosphere. Frenzied joy is written all over this place in which we exist, in a language we can’t yet read. I think my heart, once in awhile, knows how to sing it though.

Surely we all walk awake in a real faery land and barely know it.

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I’m off…

to Nashville. Have a cocoa and carols sort of weekend. And think good thoughts like these while you’re at it:

Earth strike up your music,

Birds that sing and bells that ring,

Heaven hath answering music,

For all Angels soon to sing.

Earth put on your whitest,

Bridal robe of spotless snow,

For Christmas bringeth Jesus,

Brought for us so low.

-Christina Rossetti

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