When It Hurts, God Is

So Anna, over on Insanity Comes Naturally, posted a very heart-felt piece on the rubbishiness of a Christian supposing himself just too useless to live. She pulled on the age-old beginning of the Westminster Confession (we all know it, don't we?): What is the chief end of man? To glorify God and enjoy him forever. It seems like a question-and-answer that is as old as time (and it is, really), but it's as true today as it was then. And having to learn this truth, as Anna found out, for one's very own often hurts. It requires being led to the end of your prideful road and whirling in circles trying to chase the shadow that you think is your own worth, and staring down at your own empty clenching hands wondering why you don't possess anything of use...

...and then having your head lifted by the Almighty to look above and beyond to Christ, the author and finisher of our faith in whose image we are daily being shaped. This way we learn that all we think we are isn't, and all we dream to be sleeps in Christ, ready to be revealed on the last day. We despair because we cannot see what we long to see, and we see the wretchedness that we carry about in the body from day to day.

Anna dealt with the rising above this pain, this misplaced sense of humility. I want to deal with the pain that comes from realizing that our place is to glorify God in this life. You and I and all of us, the closer we draw to God's holiness, the more painfully we feel this coarsely-cobbled, tattered garment of our body rubbing wrong against our spirits, the more we feel the pressing darkness of this world. It's like being pressed through a bottle-neck: the closer we come to the thrown-wide glimmering gates of Heaven, the darker seems the night through which we walk. It hurts. The more we grow, the more it hurts.

But what a splendid agony! What marks of faith our scars become! When it hurts, it means that God is working in us. When it hurts, it means we look unto a king and country that we can call our own. When it hurts, it means that all is working from glory to glory within us. When it hurts, it is well with my soul. When sin and death and the dark grate against our spirits, when we feel their presence as an agony to our Godward-reaching souls, then we know we are born of the Spirit.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven.
Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth
Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.
Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake.
Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.

Light Unconquerable

There is an ancient Eastern religion called Mithraism, whose details no one has really worked out yet, but which possessed one peculiarity of note. They, like many pagans, revered the sun. This is where our December 25th became important, that the adherents of Mithraism would watch the sun 'die,' and come to life again. The Romans, borrowing this religion, called it the Sol Invictus: the Unconquered Sun.

Mithraism aside (because I am not a pagan), I found this name fascinating. The Unconquered Sun: a light which no length or depth of darkness can quench, an immortal source of radiance, a sentient light. This concept, hastily torn from Mithraism, was dragged off to my mental lair for me to brood over like some dragon brooding over mounds of gold. I have come across many such almost-truths in various pagan religions, but this one topped them all.

Of course we are familiar with the idea of an undying, eternal Light - our God is light and the father of lights, in whom there is no change or shifting shadow. This is a truth we hold to be self-evident, an indisputable truth of our very lives. He is the light of our souls. But this unexpected phrasing, this freak twist of man's eye as he gropes for the light himself, this idea of the "Unconquered Sun" shed, as it were, a whole new light on my understanding. The whole title is infused with an indomitable sense of hope, a rock-solid assurance of goodness and warmth and life.

I don't know about some, but I know what it is like to be afraid of the dark. Not just the dark, but The Dark. I know what it is like to sit in the long dark cold of despair and wonder if Christ's light would ever come touch my withered petals. So when I heard the words 'sol invictus,' something in me answered with a shout. Yes! I have known this truth for years upon years, but condensed into two words - only two words, yet so powerful - I found my legs again. No matter how long the dark, or how deep the dark,

Thine eye diffused a quickening ray;
I woke; the dungeon flamed with light.
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed thee.

So a story began to shape itself in my mind. There was a man called Tabby, Tabby O'Connor, and place called the Land of Nod, and a great deal of darkness and bastions of light, and the whole long struggle of being a light in a dark place began to be a tale. It's still percolating, but perhaps Megan will help me get it sorted out.

It is perhaps my own experience which draws me toward phrases like "Sol Invictus," or inspires titles like "The Fire Trinity" or "A Countenance of Light." The theme is quite strong in Between Earth and Sky. It seems almost unavoidable to me: it is so very crucial to my own life as a Christian (which, spiritually, is embarrassingly redundant). In my darkest night I have this unfailing light within me, and I can't avoid touching on this in my works. When I write 'dark' it is only because I want to show that the Light is unconquerable, that the highest, coldest Atlantic waves of wickedness dash to useless pieces against it - and turn to silver glass and shine. The one side of the coin is that this Light is unconquerable; the other is that this Light conquers all.

There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty forever beyond its reach. The Lord of the Rings

Wordles!

After a long morning of cleaning the church and putting out a local homeschool newsletter, I was poking about some other girls' blogs, and I found Wordle, a site for making word clouds. I had seen these sorts of things around, but suddenly I found I could make one of my own. Having better things to do, but not having the immediate energy or will-power to do them (i.e. I was lazy), I made two 'wordles,' one for Between Earth and Sky and one for Adamantine.



Adamantine! This was my first one, and I had a lot of fun skimming through the manuscript picking out all the pertinent words. (And now I want to make a silver-grey dress with dark crimson ribbons, because the colour-combination is just so stunning!)


And Between Earth and Sky. This one was harder to choose colours for, but I think in the end I got it. Colour combinations are difficult. Grey-blues for coastal skies, blue for waters, dark greens for turf and, I don't know, purple for the heather? Sounds right. Sounds like I took the time to think this out.

Enjoy my sojourn into Lazyville. Now it's time to clean the shower. Happy scribbles, all!

The Human Character

Undoubtedly, when I say "the human character" you will understand me to mean something like "a character which is not an elf, which is not a hobgoblin or a fairy or an animal - a character which is a human being." And in a sense, you would be correct. It's the natural thing to deduct from such a title. But what I mean is more than that, more splendid and rather deeper than just "a human." I mean THE Human. I mean Man.

Anthropology, in a biblical light, is an unavoidable course for me, but neither is it an unpleasant one. Biblically, Man is the greatest of all creation, the noblest, the most complex: he is wildly fantastic at an essential level, the place in which rational spirit and physical body come together into a single whole. He is the lord of creation, he is the fallen king, he is the redeemed figure of clay.

But what does all this pedigree of Man have to do with writing? Well, we mustn't put the cart in front of the horse. IT doesn't necessarily have something to do with WRITING, but WRITING must have something to do with IT. As in all things, philosophy colours actions both physical and intellectual. At this point, I am discussing the intellectual, and I trust it is well worth at least a brief look-over.

From the vantage point of a Christian mind, when I handle the Human Character, I must take into account Hamartiology and Soteriology: the studies of Sin and of Salvation. These impact the Nature of the Human Character. In two diagrams we observe the ripple effect of these two truths: Man sinned, creation fell; Man was saved, creation has been redeemed. At a fundamental level, this will be an undercurrent to Christian writing both Fictional and Non-Fictional. These two circumstances are as unavoidable to Christian philosophy as Anthropology is to my own personal study. The Human Character is going to be impacted by both of these camps all throughout its tenure in any given story: at first the Human Character may be in the Wholly Sinful camp, at which points its nature is to sin; and later on the Human Character may be in the Redeemed camp, at which point its nature is to be righteous, but is still combating, from within and without, the tendencies to sin.

Now, whether the thrust of your story is to chart this course or not, you must at least touch upon the undercurrent of the Nature of the Human Character. I have read characters in stories that professed to have one Nature (a redeemed one) and acted for all the world like die-hard sinners. Why? It is possible that the author didn't take the time to look at the Nature of the Human Character, and thus failed to pull off a well-constructed, realistic representation of Man.

A lot of people tend to take the approach of observing one Nature give way to the next. And that is very good. But so many people do that I choose, myself, to take a rather different tact: I observe the two Natures in complete opposition of each other. This is also biblical, and it is a tact more sustainable over a story-arch.

For our struggle is not again flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.

I have found David My servant; with My holy
oil I have anointed him, with whom My hand will be established; my arm also will strengthen him. The enemy will not deceive him, nor the son of wickedness afflict him. But I shall crush his adversaries before him, and strike those who hate him. My faithfulness and My lovingkindness will be with him, and in My name his horn will be exalted. I shall also set his hand on the sea and his right hand on the rivers. He will cry to Me, 'You are my Father, my God, and the rock of my salvation.' I also shall make him My firstborn, the highest of the kings of the earth. My lovingkindness I will keep for him forever, and My covenant shall be confirmed to him. So I will establish his descendants forever and his throne as the days of heaven.

This is the Nature of the Redeemed Human Character: to do good always, to love the light and everything that is in the light, to love God and to obey him forever. This is an end to which I push in my own writing: to get a clearer glimpse through the obscuring darkness of what that Nature looks like, to break down the encroaching hum-drum roll of life and see the colossus that is the Human Character. This is not an easy thing to do. We easily lose sight of Man when we are faced with the overly large woman at the check-out at the store, or the man singing horribly off-key in the pew behind us at church. Mankind is just kind of flimsy and shabby and rather ridiculous.

But is it? Is it really? Aren't we confusing this earthen vessel for the Nature - no, the Essence - of Man? Let's go deeper. (Deeper, Jenny? Yes, deeper.) We touched on the Nature of the Human Character. Now we're going to get to the Essence of the Human Character, that which makes the Human Character what it is, and nothing else.

Throughout history, actions against Man such as murder have always been considered crimes, not against society, but against a Natural Law, a law which is fixed, immovable, which has always been, and which no one has refuted with success. Why? The Human Character is universally corrupt save where it has been Redeemed. What is to say that a wholesale slaughter of the Corrupt Human Character by itself is not a bad thing? It's because there is more to the Human Character than its mere Nature. 'Man' is not an attribute as something like 'mammal' or 'reptile' is: 'Man' is what the Human Character irreducibly is. This is his Essence. But what is his Essence? What makes it any different from any other Essence? What makes Man, even in his Corrupt Nature, to be something worth keeping around on at least a temporal level? What is it at the core of his being, unchanged by corruption, which still makes him Man?

The Image of God.

This, we could call it, is the Irreducible Minimum of Man's Existence: that he is made in God's image. Without this, he is no longer Man. This is why Man is the lord of creation. He is the best and the brightest by virtue of his archetype. This is Human. This cannot be reduced or destroyed even through his own corruption, for when a thing changes essence, it itself no longer exists: therefore, it never changed at all. All human dignity, all morality, must hinge upon Man being what he is, made in the image of God.

We're on our way out from the philosophical depths into the pragmatic application. After all that, we're coming back around to writing. How does this impact my writing? I look on the Human Character as something fantastic. Not unbelievably fantastic, not mythical: and yet having the properties of the mythical, and even ends which are almost too much to believe. This is what I like to touch on in my writing, the renewed Human Character, of which Christ is the first-fruits: the lonesome hero who is not alone, the unearthly and at the same time far more elemental figure, terrible but never afraid, the great colossus: Man.

Jenny's Five Favourite Books

I have been meaning to get around to doing this. It's the sort of thing I know I like to know about people. You can tell a lot about a person by what they read- or what they don't read, as to that. Anyway: the first three are easy to assemble for several reasons, not the least of which being I actually know where I put them away when I was last finished with them. The last two books are less easy to cull from the literary ranks in my house. Well! I will be honest, if a little narrow-minded, in my selection.

1. The Silver Branch by Rosemary Sutcliff.


"When they accidentally uncover a plot against the British emperor Carausius, a young army surgeon and his soldier cousin are caught up in a maze of intrigue that leads them first to exile at a distant outpost and finally into an underground organization of secret agents in the service of Rome."

Can it get any better than this? Jenny doubts it. For years Justin and Flavius have been the best companions in literature I've ever wanted. Added to Sutcliff's natural ability to bring Roman-Britain to life with her wide spaces of forbidding Scottish moorland and her magical, brief glimpses of dawn by the sea, ginger-headed Flavius and shy, stuttering Justin give this historical fictional all the pulsing life it could ever need. I could go on. I could go on and on. I could give the whole plot away, but suffice it to say that I have yet to encounter such a vivid combination of tatterdemalion yet fitting figures in a story so charged with vitality, simply, yet elegant, and worthy of being read to tatters.

2. The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis

A strange bus-ride of Ghosts from Hell to visit Heaven. Written today, written by anyone else, it might come off as presumptuous. Who dares write on Heaven - or even Hell, for that matter? But Lewis isn't so much writing on them, as about them. You'll all be familiar with the phrase "The Kingdom of Heaven is like..." In a way, Lewis' approach is very like that with his discourses between the Ghosts and the Bright People. I find myself kicking myself over and over as I read this book, wondering why Lewis could see the profoundly obvious, and why I was too dumb to see it myself without his help. But still, I like to hear him say it.

"What do you keep on arguing for? I'm only telling you the sort of chap I am. I only want my rights. I'm not asking for anybody's bleeding charity."
"Then do. At once. Ask for the Bleeding Charity. Everything here is for the asking and nothing can be bought."

3. The Gammage Cup by Carol Kendall

"Say wha...? Jenny, it's a kid's book!"
Nope, wrong. That's what Carol Kendall thought when she wrote it. She was wrong too. Sorry. The Gammage Cup ranks up there with Winnie-the-Pooh in its ageless beauty. This book makes me laugh, it makes me cry, it makes me wonder in amazement at how sophisticated, and yet how unassuming it is. Minnipins! Minnipins arguing over the colours of cloaks and doors! What talent can wrap up a reader in such petty squabbles, and then touch with a sense of dreaded urgency as the pettiness falls away in the face of true danger! Every character is bursting with life, his or her own personality, the whole setting is fresh and unforced. It struck me the other day that one of Kendall's characters probably, quite without my knowing it, influenced one of the best characters I've written yet. Huzzah!


4. The Silver Chair by C.S. Lewis

Yes, Jenny has a thing with C.S. Lewis. You'll get used to it, don't worry. It would also appear that she has an affinity for silver, and that, too, is true. But this is rubbish and bunny-rabbit trails. I will get on with myself. The Silver Chair is such a fun book, especially because of the profound discourses between the children and Aslan. And Jill, who is my favourite English character, makes her debut here. Puddleglum is a brick, and a real hero. Lewis infuses a delightfully medieval atmosphere into this story without weighing it down. Mingling the seriousness of the children's quest with moments of light-hearted fun, Lewis pulled off a wonderful little book here.

"But," said Eustace, looking at Aslan. "Hasn't he - er - died?"
"Yes," said the Lion in a very quiet voice, almost (Jill thought) as if he were laughing. "He has died. Most people have, you know. Even I have. There are very few who haven't."

5. The Last Battle by C.S. Lewis

Again? Jenny! For pete's sake... Yes, again. For the same reason I like Justin and Flavius, I adore Tirian and Jewel and their steadfast love for each other. Not only that, but together they share an unfailing (if sometimes misunderstanding) love for Aslan, and they are willing to fight to the death to preserve the truth. That's the sort of hero that is worth reading about. And Lewis, though he brings Narnia to an end, manages to do so without the bitter taste of loss, for he understands that all creation will be made anew by Heaven's breath, and nothing worth keeping in Heaven's eyes will be lost.

Then Aslan turned to them and said: "You do not yet look so happy as I mean you to be."
Lucy said, "We're so afraid of being sent away, Aslan. And you have sent us back to our own world so often."
"No fear of that," said Aslan. "Have you not guessed?"
Their hearts leapt, and a wild hope rose within them.
"There was a real railway accident," said Aslan softly. "Your father and mother and all of you are - as you used to call it in the Shadowlands - dead. The term is over: the holidays have begun. The dream is ended: this is the morning."
And as He spoke, He no longer looked to them like a lion; but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them. And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.