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Archive for November, 2012

There’s a divinity that shapes our ends. Consider the case of Henry Pifield Rice, detective.

I must explain Henry early, to avoid disappointment. If I simply said he was a detective, and let it go at that, I should be obtaining the reader’s interest under false pretences. He was really only a sort of detective, a species of sleuth. At Stafford’s International Investigation Bureau, in the Strand, where he was employed, they did not require him to solve mysteries which had baffled the police. He had never measured a footprint in his life, and what he did not know about bloodstains would have filled a library. The sort of job they gave Henry was to stand outside a restaurant in the rain, and note what time someone inside left it. In short, it is not ‘Pifield Rice, Investigator. No. 1.—The Adventure of the Maharajah’s Ruby’ that I submit to your notice, but the unsensational doings of a quite commonplace young man, variously known to his comrades at the Bureau as ‘Fathead’, ‘That blighter what’s-his-name’, and ‘Here, you!’

P. G. Wodehouse, Bill the Bloodhound, in The Man With Two Left Feet and Other Stories (1917).

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If I am asked, as a purely intellectual question, why I believe in Christianity, I can only answer, “For the same reason that an intelligent agnostic disbelieves in Christianity.” I believe in it quite rationally upon the evidence. But the evidence in my case, as in that of the intelligent agnostic, is not really in this or that alleged demonstration; it is in an enormous accumulation of small but unanimous facts. The secularist is not to be blamed because his objections to Christianity are miscellaneous and even scrappy; it is precisely such scrappy evidence that does convince the mind. I mean that a man may well be less convinced of a philosophy from four books, than from one book, one battle, one landscape, and one old friend. The very fact that the things are of different kinds increases the importance of the fact that they all point to one conclusion. Now, the non-Christianity of the average educated man to-day is almost always, to do him justice, made up of these loose but living experiences. I can only say that my evidences for Christianity are of the same vivid but varied kind as his evidences against it. For when I look at these various anti-Christian truths, I simply discover that none of them are true. I discover that the true tide and force of all the facts flows the other way.

G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy ch. ix (1908).

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Over the past two years I have devoted a handful of posts to the subject of the Christian year, and, specifically, to how the liturgical calendar can fund and shape our imaginations. In a series at the Lantern Hollow Press blog, I’ve posted on Advent, at Christmas, at Christmas again, at Epiphany, and at Ascensiontide. Here, I’ve posted several times on Lent.  Today, on our national Thanksgiving Day, I have these grateful reflections on the longest season of the Christian year: Trinity.

From Advent through Pentecost, the liturgical calendar tells us to look at the great events in redemptive history, both those past and (especially in Advent) those still to come. Trinity, by contrast, is present-focused. It’s about plodding along in ordinary time. In Trinity we spend about half the year thinking about how to live in a good Creation in light of the Triune God’s reign over it.  This is time well spent. We are, after all, creatures ourselves, set in a world of other creatures God called “very good.”  We need extended time to appreciate the grace that God gives us daily, mediated through His creatures.  And more, we need time to better learn how to steward those things God has entrusted us with: how to inhabit our land, our communities, our bodies.  This work, incidentally, follows quite naturally from observation of the great Feasts of Easter and Pentecost.  The Resurrection was and is a bodily resurrection.  The Spirit, sent in power at the first Pentecost, fills the bodies of the redeemed, knits them together into one body – the Church – and, with the earth, groans in anticipating the last liberation of earth and body from their present futility.

And so in Trinity we work out the rightful and yet dearly-bought lordship of the Triune God over the world and the body, bringing His lordship to bear on every aspect of ordinary life: buying and selling, working and resting, sowing and reaping, making war and making peace, being born and dying, marrying and being given in marriage.  In sum, you could call this working out the lordship of the Author of life over our stories — those we live and those we tell alike.  To the extent we do this well, we may reap in joy.  To the extent we do it unwisely or slothfully, we will have to repent.  But however we do it, we will learn something very important: that under the sun – even in our redeemed-in-principle world – all is vapor, and our work a vain attempt to shepherd the wind.

Now on the one hand, the vaporousness of life under the sun ought to annoy us in a way that stirs in us a healthy longing for Advent and all that season represents. But if we spend Trinity season stewing in that annoyance, we frankly won’t be much good for anything. We will be men and women for no season.  For though the world has been subjected to futility, does it not retain an astounding measure of its original goodness?  And was it not subjected to futility in hope?  Did not the promise of its redemption follow fast on the heels of the Fall?  And, if we don’t have eyes to see and ears to hear these things now, how will we see and hear when every last promise has been fulfilled to the utmost?

Therefore, on this Thanksgiving Day, and in these final days of Trinity — after months of seeing just how much of its original goodness creation retains, and listening to how the echoes of the promise of redemption resound through the world to this day — we should be thankful. We should give thanks for the last harvests, for the leaves that have persevered into the first weeks of November and, in their age, surpassed the brilliance of their youth. These tell us that there is a peculiar excellence to things that have the perseverance and grace to go on to maturity. They call us to be among them.

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I don’t assume that renunciation goes with submission, or even that renunciation is good in itself. Always you renounce a lesser good for a greater; the opposite is what sin is. And along this line, I think the phrase ‘naive purity’ is a contradiction in terms. I don’t think purity is mere innocence; I don’t think babies and idiots possess it. I take it to be something that comes either with experience or with Grace so that it can never be naive.

Flannery O’ Connor, To “A,” 1 January 56, in The Habit of Being 126 (Sally Fitzgerald ed., 1979).

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And presently the tide would ebb. The waste of waters became a sea of mud, cheerfully covered as to much of its surface with green grasses. The evening sun struck rainbow colours from the moist softness. Birds sang in the thickets. And George, heaving himself up, walked back to the friendly cosiness of the Marshmoreton Arms. And the remarkable part of it was that everything seemed perfectly natural and sensible to him, nor had he any particular feeling that in falling in love with Lady Maud Marsh and pursuing her to Belpher he had set himself anything in the nature of a hopeless task. Like one kissed by a goddess in a dream, he walked on air; and, while one is walking on air, it is easy to overlook the boulders in the path.

Consider his position, you faint-hearted and self-pitying young men who think you have a tough row to hoe just because, when you pay your evening visit with the pound box of candy under your arm, you see the handsome sophomore from Yale sitting beside her on the porch, playing the ukulele. If ever the world has turned black to you in such a situation and the moon gone in behind a cloud, think of George Bevan and what he was up against. You are at least on the spot. You can at least put up a fight. If there are ukuleles in the world, there are also guitars, and tomorrow it may be you and not he who sits on the moonlit porch; it may be he and not you who arrives late. Who knows? Tomorrow he may not show up till you have finished the Bedouin’s Love Song and are annoying the local birds, roosting in the trees, with Poor Butterfly.

What I mean to say is, you are on the map. You have a sporting chance. Whereas George . . . Well, just go over to England and try wooing an earl’s daughter whom you have only met once—and then without an introduction; whose brother’s hat you have smashed beyond repair; whose family wishes her to marry some other man: who wants to marry some other man herself—and not the same other man, but another other man; who is closely immured in a mediaeval castle . . . Well, all I say is—try it. And then go back to your porch with a chastened spirit and admit that you might be a whole lot worse off.

P. G. Wodehouse, A Damsel in Distress ch. 7 (1919).

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When I drift away in dozing, will You softly light the candles
And touch the piano with Your kind, strong fingers,
Set stern fugues of Bach and stately themes of Handel’s
Stalking through the corners where the last disquiet lingers?

Dorothy L. Sayers, Christ the Companion, in Catholic Tales and Christian Songs (1918).

About twelve years ago I discovered the foregoing poem — Dorothy Sayers’s requests to “big brother Christ” — and was particularly struck by this stanza.  In large part, that was because I was just then learning to love the music of Bach.  But there was also something about the image: music “stalking” disquiet through corners.  I could feel in those corners a heavy, lonely disquiet, and then — ah! — sound waves, dancing through the heavy still of the night, their light steps chasing away the lingering disquiet.

When I pick up a stringed instrument to set music stalking through the disquiet corners of my house, I nearly always think first to play something by Bach.  And I can tell you: the effect even of two measures of Bach is magical.  His music is like aural athelas (let the Tolkien reader understand).

So imagine my delight in reading this wonderful essay by Sarah Clarkson, in which she considers a story about the premier of one of Bach’s cantatas. Take up and read.

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. . . the three hunters plunged into the forest of Fangorn. Legolas and Gimli left the tracking to Aragorn. There was little for him to see. The floor of the forest was dry and covered with a drift of leaves; but guessing that the fugitives would stay near the water, he returned often to the banks of the stream. So it was that he came upon the place where Merry and Pippin had drunk and bathed their feet. There plain for all to see were the footprints of two hobbits, one somewhat smaller than the other.

‘This is good tidings,’ said Aragorn. ‘Yet the marks are two days old. And it seems that at this point the hobbits left the water-side.’

‘Then what shall we do now?’ said Gimli. ‘We cannot pursue them through the whole fastness of Fangorn. We have come ill supplied. If we do not find them soon, we shall be of no use to them, except to sit down beside them and show our friendship by starving together.’

‘If that is indeed all we can do, then we must do that,’ said Aragorn.

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Two Towers 96 (Random House 1965)(1954).

 

 

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