Perpetua

St. Perpetua of Carthage, at Notre Dame.

I have been reading about a martyr today. She rivets me. A young, vibrant noblewoman, married, and with a tiny, nursing baby, she was condemned to death for her faith in Christ. She lived in Carthage, right in the earliest centuries of Christianity. My reading today was marked by humble curiosity. Perpetua was one of those martyrs who seemed to have had the light of the sun in her eyes, who, for the most part, faced death, loss, and rejection with an almost Spartan refusal of grief. I don’t feel I am quite so brave. By all accounts, she was a determined young woman, who would not recant her faith before the Roman ruler even as her father grovelled before her, her newborn child in his arms, begging her to yield. Condemned to the die in the arena by the attack of a mad cow, she was so stunningly joyful, so full of song and this hope like laughter,  she apparently didn’t realize she’d been thrown by the animal. She was brought back in to be kept for a later death by sword and had to be convinced that she was wounded.

I must admit. For awhile today, she stymied me. I have been sitting in my chair this morning, yearning to know how, how, she was so full of joy. I’ve read stories like hers before. I always thought that her sort of joy, her steel-faced faith was a teeth-clenched willing. She must have had willpower on a marathon scale to smile like that. I thought that she was simply stronger than me. Only way I could ever be like her was to gut up my sorrow and quit feeling sad about the world. That will never happen. Down came the guilt.

And yet, wait. I know without doubt that joy like that cannot be gutted out or gritted through. A hope like that cannot be scratched out from the the gravel of a frail, human self. Not one of us, even sun-faced martyrs, has that kind of strength on our own. If there is anything I have learned this year, it is that left to themselves, humans, all humans, are pitiful. We are so fallen. Hope and joy and beauty have to come to us from a source beyond ourselves. Like a spring of water, or the rising of the sun on darkened land, joy must come to us. Perpetua’s brand of strength had to be one that lived outside of herself. Abruptly, I understood that Perpetua was not stronger than me. She was more in love.

What can bring the sort of joy that makes a violent death and the loss of your child something to laugh through? Only an absolute belief that you are irrevocably loved. Loved by a Father whose mercy and power insure that all of you, body and soul and mind and heart, will never be abandoned, but healed in the end. Only by knowing the love with which you are loved to be the one true fact of the universe, a truth that will burgeon into a new heaven and earth of beauty even when all else fades away. A love in which all lost things are kept safe for a future redemption.

I realized that Perpetua was glad, downright drunk with joy so as to be oblivious to pain, because her eyes saw only the God who loved her. The fact of his affection was so real and true to her that in the prison and arena, in the dark hours of the night before she died, in the moment when she kissed her baby goodbye, she saw the good that would come instead of the bad that was happening. It was love that gave her Herculean strength. It was God’s face fixed in her mind that she saw instead of the leering arena crowd. It was his presence growing closer as her life flowed out that she felt instead of her broken body. I think in those agonizing moments of death, her trust in God’s love enabled her to glimpse the end of the story, the redemption that would come. And so, she had no reason to be afraid.

I want to be in love like Perpetua.

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All… the way… home…

Good mornin’ Oklahoma. Ain’t you lookin’ bright and chipper today. Thanks o’ lovely Lord for a clear sky drive. Thirteen hours to go. May the road rise up to meet us. Coffee anyone?

Say hello to the sun, brother. It’s gonna be a ride of a day. What do ya say I slather us up a couple pieces of that baguette we got, cut some Gouda, munch those nuts (no fastfood for us), and we’ll pop in a Poirot. I wonder who did the rich man in? Nine more hours. Sure glad we’re together.

Peekaboo star? One grand, gold eye with a lash of trees? A face so good it’s gaze can’t been seen? Whatever you are, fare you well you bright, bold thing. We’ll follow you down the horizon. Day and storybook end together. The doctor was guilty. We knew it. Five more hours. Time to break out the Trader Joe’s chocolate. Stay open my poor old eyes!

Say goodnight to the sun, my Joel. Funny the way the sky weeps color when the light is ripped away. Funny, the way your soul wants to answer. Do you think our lives are like the bolt of those lights? Dash of a flicker, blinded by flight, while a sky of fire sings overhead and longs to take our light into its own?

Yes. I’ve been driving too long. Three more hours. I’m glad I’m not alone.

And, oh, oh my. Home.

Hello red chair. Hello new Irish calendar. Hello little note from Mom, and cup of tea, and art book open on the table, and lamp blazing away. Hello pillow. Hello bed. Hello…

Goodnight.

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One of my favorites

When in Nashville on a Sunday, I fly like a homing pigeon to a church I used to attend in the ancient days when I had my abode in Tennessee. At the time, I lived way out in the hilly green countryside so the flavor of my visits to this church were somewhat that of a long-awaited event. It was a day in the town and a visit to a spiritual home all at once. The long drive in on a clear, early morning. Highways grey like a clear river, birds (there are always birds singing if you listen) chanting their own hymn, coffee on the way down, and then, the sanctuary. High wooden walls in an arcing curve that put me in mind of the bow of a ship in which my sailing would be strong and smoothe. Slim brick pillars and slim stained glass windows, the faces of saints and elders and legends vying for my eyes. Then, worship.

I loved that church. Headed there yesterday and had the grand treat of hearing one of my favorite hymns, a song I don’t think gets near enough play sung by the choir during the Eucharist. The hymn is Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silent (I’ve copied the words below) and to me, there is a quiet behind the words of this song that is like a vast night sky seen from the window of a lit home at night. Every time I hear this song, I am aware of eternity behind it, looming up in the windows of my mind. I always sing it with a bit of a sudden stillness in me. The rendition yesterday was exactly how I’ve always wished to hear it sung- a few, mystic, uncanny little bells at start and then the bare bones voices, first of a woman with a high, clear voice, then the choir in a simple mesh of harmonies. The words themselves and the grandeur behind them bearing down on our unsuspecting heads. I couldn’t record it, but maybe the sound of it, even in imagination, will kindle your soul as it did mine. Hope your day is a graced one.

Let all mortal flesh keep silence,
And with fear and trembling stand;
Ponder nothing earthly minded,
For with blessing in His hand,
Christ our God to earth descendeth,
Our full homage to demand.

King of kings, yet born of Mary,
As of old on earth He stood,
Lord of lords, in human vesture,
In the body and the blood;
He will give to all the faithful
His own self for heavenly food.

Rank on rank the host of heaven
Spreads its vanguard on the way,
As the Light of light descendeth
From the realms of endless day,
That the powers of hell may vanish
As the darkness clears away.

At His feet the six wingèd seraph,
Cherubim with sleepless eye,
Veil their faces to the presence,
As with ceaseless voice they cry:
Alleluia, Alleluia
Alleluia, Lord Most High!

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Snow Day on the way to TN

Twas a chill and stormy sky as we drove into a brooding, plainsong dawn.

Eighteen hours, one poor little car whose windows refused to unfog, four Starbucks stops, and one Agatha Christie Poirot audiobook later, we arrived to shelter. Home. Primal comfort. 15-bean soup and Ezekiel bread.

And today, sleep. Coffee. More soup. And a walk.

Gnarled old sidewalks with lace draped over their wrinkles. Crunch, crunch, crunch…

Dark, bare branches, silent, writing a song into the sky.

Snowlight, the first sun of the day to break through, fragile as a child with all of its brisk, young laughter.

Home for P.G. Tipps and oven-warmed shortbread. A last bit of sun.

And candlelight. Dinner. Sleep. And a new snow-day morning tomorrow.

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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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