Madeleine L’Engle and the Poetry of Us

Madeleine L’Engle gets one of the “honourary Inklings” spots here on A Pilgrim in Narnia. A mythopoeic writer and creator of fantastic worlds, I know little about her poetry and adult novels. In this essay hosted by the Eclectic Orthodoxy blog, Alana Roberts talks about where L’Engle fits as a Christian poet. This essay is built upon a previous one that is a bit more technical. I hope you enjoy this Friday Feature.

Eclectic Orthodoxy

by Alana Roberts

Madeleine L’Engle as a poet doesn’t muddle herself into blah, kneel to politics, or contemplate evil. Yet she will never be considered by such as Harold Bloom to be a first-rate or canonical poet. For one thing, her poetry is flawed. It has virtues, but flaws as well. Not all her word choices are the inevitable choices. In fact, she once began a line with the term, “Aaaaaaargh!” (Perhaps there was an ‘a’ or two more; please don’t make me count!)

These flaws are probably present because, when it came to writing poetry, L’Engle’s method of composition was, scandalously, the irreverent one-off, as she tells her reader in a 1996 Mars Hill Review interview:

ML: Poetry is very different. I’ve written very little poetry since my husband died. Last summer I was traveling in Ireland and Scotland, and I wrote twelve sonnets. They just flowed out…

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Some British Nonscents

20160816_122011I am sitting in a sort of international hipster clubhouse. It’s a makeshift lean-to made of corrugated plastic and 3×3 poles. On two walls there is the old brick garden wall; on a third wall there is fishing net. Wooden pallets covered in old mattresses and blankets in twelve shades of brown make for a common seating area. Pillows cast about on the couches include a red double decker bus set against London in black and white, an American flag, and a moustache pillow with the words “HELLO HELLO” screen printed in black.

There are also touches from past guests cast about here and there: a St. Lucia flag, a pretty good painting of a beach far away, a pair of pyjama bottoms, an ashtray full of cigarette butts, and a motivational poster that says “Happiness is Not a Destination, It Is a Way of Life.” Just below is a sticker that says “piss off.” On a makeshift clothing line, next to a pair of stretchy teal men’s undies is a shirt that says, “Living Super Since 1906.”

Thinking about that t-shirt, owned by a Romanian nuclear plant worker, makes me realize that I am probably allergic to Britain.

20160812_142625When you hear that, you might think of hay fever. Yes, that has happened to me. After almost two weeks of tramping through ruined castles, peaking through dusty church towers, and hiking through stone-fenced grasslands, my senses had had enough. I sat for a few minutes in the long dry grass beside Addison’s Walk at Magdalen College, and my head exploded. Punting on the Thames is challenging: it looked so easy when Dick Van Dyke pretended to do it in Mary Poppins. Doing it while sneezing and blowing my nose in Tesco toilet paper made it a whole new kind of tourist experience.

That night I fell asleep to some pill my wife gave me, hugging a box of Kleenex and dreaming of Oxford’s dreaming spires dripping in dew.

It is actually quite unusual for me to have any kind of natural allergy. I can think of only two other times I’ve had hay fever. Even the “cotton trees” of the prairies seemed to work with my bodily ecosystem. Perhaps that comes with growing up on a farm where we piled loose hay in great mounds to break our fall from ever increasing heights.

Honestly, I think in my heart, I have always looked down upon asthmatics just a little bit. I suppose that’s a funny kind of bigotry, but I’m working on it.

20160823_175820My natural resistance to things that make others sneeze all changed a few years ago. At that time I was running a car detailing business. I spent my days surrounded by scent. I purchased waxes, polishes, and cleaners that worked the best—we were a high-end joint—and that made my work more pleasurable. I still enjoy the smell of citrus oil, Poorboy’s wax, and the cherry soap my cousin mixed up for me.

I had scent-free customers. One dropped off a car, but could not come into the shop. Another sent her husband to get the car detailed whenever she went on a two-week holiday. She was so allergic to smells that they could not purchase a new car. The “new car smell”—really the carpet glue gassing off—sent her into agonies. I would clean the car with natural products that didn’t work as well, then leave the car in a cold place for two weeks. Another couple of weeks in the fresh air and she could drive it again.

Then, one day, it happened to me.

It was not long after I sold the business. I was at the gym and they were giving out samples of Axe Body Spray, also known as Liquid Satan for Guys Stupid Enough to Think This Will Help. I walked into the change room and nearly passed out. My head started to pound, my eyes watered, and I found it hard to catch my breath. I changed as quickly as I could and found my way to fresh air.

We all know that Axe is on the extreme end of the artificial scent spectrum, so I didn’t think much of it. That experience, though, was near the beginning of a long period of high scent sensitivity for me. I think my friends all knew I struggled with it, but I’m not sure how public that struggle was.

Church was especially painful for me. Walking in the sanctuary was like walking into a wall of pain. It was especially hard in winter when the windows were closed and the heat was cranked up. I sat on the edges or volunteered for the kid’s program. Not infrequently I would head outside and greet people coming in and out so I could avoid the main hall. I still do these things.

20160823_161220The scent problem has meant some career limits. I can’t teach English to foreign students. Cultures that value perfume and smoking as signs of manliness or prosperity create an environment that is just too much for me. I haven’t taught ESL for a decade now.

Mostly, I can adapt pretty well. There are certain scents that are okay with me, like citrus-based smells (which are cheap to produce without artificial chemical add-ins). Anything floral or in the classic perfume family will send me out to check the oil level in the car. I announce to my students that there is someone with a scent allergy in the class and remind them about what they can do to adjust. And we have adapted our family perfumes to reduce smells as much as possible.

So what has this got to do with a hipster clubhouse in Great Britain? Actually, it’s the “super” t-shirt and the teal tighties. I can smell them from across the garden.

20160821_165640Not a bad smell. I am at a hostel—hence the clubhouse—and staying in a dorm room filled with European men. Bad smells aren’t really the issue.

It’s the detergent he used to wash the shirt and the dandy teal undies that is the issue. It is probably called “Mountain Breeze” or “Seascape Pantomime” or something, an aroma to give the laundry that clean-fresh manufactured scent commercials tell us we love. It smells great to most people, but it makes my head swim.

Which is why I might be allergic to Britain. Sidewalks here swarm with cigarette smoke. Every shopping area has an import perfume bar, with happy tourists spritzing here and there. Instead of dealing with mould in a house, locals use scent to cover it up. And then there are the normal parts of life in a community: car fumes, shampoos and deodorants, dish soap, flower gardens, leather treatments, insense, rubber tires, and freshly cut lawns. Many of these are wonderful, evocative scents, but there is a group for whom daily life with them can be a struggle.

20160819_131150For the most part I have been pretty good. Three or four days ago I found the full day’s experience a bit much. I had to do some laundry, and went into the common area of my Oxford guest house to wash the clothes. The smell of the detergent, fries (chips) boiling in an open pot, the perfumes of the people gathered there, the close smell of garbage in a kitchen that needs windows … it was overwhelming. I grew dizzy, my head pounded, and I fled. A few hours later, in the dark and cool of my room, the ibuprofen started to work.

I’m pretty luck, actually. I can eat most anything while my friends are allergic to everything from grains to milk to fruit to any food that casts a shadow on the autumnal equinox. There are people allergic to hair or their own skin. Some get hay fever so awful that they go to sleep in March and wake up in late November.

So, I think I will deal with it the best I can. I may ask the macho man from Hungary in my room if he could body spray out in the hall. But I think I can tough it out. I’ll probably hang out here in the club house until the nuclear plant workers come out to smoke. The teal underpants are actually starting to grow on me.

That wasn’t an ideal way of putting it, was it?

Note: the photographs are just pictures of signs I took that I thought were interesting. Don’t read to much into them.


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A Love Hymn by Thomas à Kempis

imitation-of-christThe Imitation of Christ, often called Imitatio Christi, is a Latin devotional handbook attributed to Thomas à Kempis. Perhaps the most widely read devotional book other than the Bible, the Imitatio is not merely a classic Christian text, but where most Western Christians of the modern world turned for spiritual formation. The copy you bump into is likely to be divided into four books:

  1. Helpful Counsels of the Spiritual Life
  2. Directives for the Interior Life
  3. On Interior Consolation
  4. On the Blessed Sacrament

It is not really a single book, but an eclectic collection of devotional material tested by a community. It includes short lyrics, wise sayings and proverbs, commands, meditations on texts, rules for daily life, and prayers to Christ and from Christ to the disciple. It is best read slowly, perhaps reading a chapter a day over four months or so. While only five minutes of reading in a day, the ideas are rich and poignant, pressing in to the heart of discipleship. These devotions are designed for male monks in the late medieval-early modern era, and are sometimes troubling and problematic. From time to time, the language will be shocking to our cultural ears. But as whole, it is filled with spiritual support for the reader who would like to be like Christ.

Gero Cross, late 10th centuryIn my reading this year I was particularly struck by chapters V and VI of book 3, which speak of love. It begins with a prayer from the disciple to the Lord:

I bless Thee, O Heavenly Father, Father of my Lord Jesus Christ, for that Thou hast vouchsafed to think of me, poor that I am. O, Father of Mercies and God of all comfort, I give thanks unto Thee, who refreshest me sometimes with thine own comfort, when I am unworthy of any comfort. I bless and glorify Thee continually, with thine only begotten Son and the Holy Ghost, the Paraclete, for ever and ever. O Lord God, Holy lover of my soul, when Thou shalt come into my heart, all my inward parts shall rejoice. Thou art my glory and the joy of my heart. Thou art my hope and my refuge in the day of my trouble.

But because I am still weak in love and imperfect in virtue, I need to be strengthened and comforted by Thee; therefore visit Thou me often and instruct me with Thy holy ways of discipline. Deliver me from evil passions, and cleanse my heart from all inordinate affections, that, being healed and altogether cleansed within, I may be made ready to love, strong to suffer, steadfast to endure.

Crucifixion (Corpus Hypercubus), 1954, by Salvador Dalí crossThen, in the same voice of prayer, the disciple extols the virtues of love. While longer than St. Paul’s hymn of love in 1 Corinthians 13, this passage has a potency when thinking about the power of love in a life of faith. I thought it was valuable, then, to introduce readers to the Imitatio’s hymn of love and the desire of the disciple to be lost in the love of God.

Love is a great thing, a good above all others, which alone maketh every heavy burden light, and equaliseth every inequality. For it beareth the burden and maketh it no burden, it maketh every bitter thing to be sweet and of good taste. The surpassing love of Jesus impelleth to great works, and exciteth to the continual desiring of greater perfection. Love willeth to be raised up, and not to be held down by any mean thing. Love willeth to be free and aloof from all worldly affection, lest its inward power of vision be hindered, lest it be entangled by any worldly prosperity or overcome by adversity. Nothing is sweeter than love, nothing stronger, nothing loftier, nothing broader, nothing pleasanter, nothing fuller or better in heaven nor on earth, for love was born of God and cannot rest save in God above all created things.

He who loveth flyeth, runneth, and is glad; he is free and not hindered. He giveth all things for all things, and hath all things in all things, because he resteth in One who is high above all, from whom every good floweth and proceedeth. He looketh not for gifts, but turneth himself to the Giver above all good things. Love oftentimes knoweth no measure, but breaketh out above all measure; love feeleth no burden, reckoneth not labours, striveth after more than it is able to do, pleadeth not impossibility, because it judgeth all things which are lawful for it to be possible. It is strong therefore for all things, and it fulfilleth many things, and is successful where he who loveth not faileth and lieth down.

Love is watchful, and whilst sleeping still keepeth watch; though fatigued it is not weary, though pressed it is not forced, though alarmed it is not terrified, but like the living flame and the burning torch, it breaketh forth on high and securely triumpheth. If a man loveth, he knoweth what this voice crieth. For the ardent affection of the soul is a great clamour in the ears of God, and it saith: My God, my Beloved! Thou art all mine, and I am all Thine.

Enlarge Thou me in love, that I may learn to taste with the innermost mouth of my heart how sweet it is to love, to be dissolved, and to swim in love. Let me be holden by love, mounting above myself through exceeding fervour and admiration. Let me sing the song of love, let me follow Thee my Beloved on high, let my soul exhaust itself in Thy praise, exulting with love. Let me love Thee more than myself, not loving myself except for Thy sake, and all men in Thee who truly love Thee, as the law of love commandeth which shineth forth from Thee.

Love is swift, sincere, pious, pleasant, gentle, strong, patient, faithful, prudent, long-suffering, manly, and never seeking her own; for wheresoever a man seeketh his own, there he falleth from love. Love is circumspect, humble, and upright; not weak, not fickle, nor intent on vain things; sober, chaste, steadfast, quiet, and guarded in all the senses. Love is subject and obedient to all that are in authority, vile and lowly in its own sight, devout and grateful towards God, faithful and always trusting in Him even when God hideth His face, for without sorrow we cannot live in love.

Imitatio Christi Thomas_von_KempenChapter VI moves into a gentle rebuke of Christ about why the disciple is not living free in this love. There is much that is strict and even harsh in the Imitatio. If we were to weight the chapters by focus, one would assume that God’s grace and love were a minor add on to the tremendous responsibility of the believer to be good–indeed, to be perfect, as God is perfect.

I think, though, that the entire discipline manual is based upon passages like this one. It is not an ideally organized book; I would place the passages of love and grace at the beginning, reminding readers that the engine of our goodness is also God’s good gift. Perhaps, though, discovering passages like this one in the midst of rules, discipline, and the demands of holiness will remind the reader just in time that God always takes the first step. In any case, it is important to remember the cry of aged writer–“Enlarge me in thy love!”–as we turn to this classic text.

Imitatio Christi old

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The Invisible Fellowship of Readers, with Annie Dillard

 john w doull booksellerAt a recent conference, we were sitting around on Sunday morning in the afterglow of the great weekend. Someone asked what we might do to attract more university students and young scholars to the next conference–not because we were lacking in twenty-somethings, but because they did so well at the conference.

I smiled to myself and bit my tongue. This is the moment in these sorts of events where the pandering comes in, the new adult versions of the bouncy castle and free puppies. Fortunately, there wasn’t really anything ridiculous offered up to lure younger scholars in. After a bit of discussion that I thought might start to lead to parallel sessions targeted at youth, I spoke up.

“I agree that our communication should be strong,” I said. “And I’m glad that we have a student price for the conference. But I think we should make it harder for students to participate, not easier. The students who are here are eager to participate at an academic level. They want to dig in hard to great literature. They are part of an invisible fellowship of young readers that resists culture’s attempt to make things easier. If we make it a great literary event, they will come.”

SarahsBooks LabyrinthImay or may not be right about how to run a conference–it was others that ran the awesome conference, not me– but I think I am right about this secret fellowship of readers. All over the world, I believe, there are young readers who come home from school or soccer practice, hang up their bags, and collapse into a chair with a book. At any one moment there are millions of pairs of feet dangling off the edge of beds as pages are being turned on the bedspread. There are many for whom the only part of high school they connect with is the part where they get to read something good. And they wish they could read more.

beautiful bookshelf design stairHow many kids pull the covers up over their heads and read long into the night by the glow of the flashlight? How many science and business students are sneaking off to literature and humanities classes, filling every elective they can with great books? How many teenager have their phone flipped open, their eyes fixed on their Kindle app? How many college dorm makeshift bookshelves of lumber and cinder blocks are tumbling over with yard-sale classics or their favourites from childhood?

If we look carefully enough, avoiding the glare of screens vying for our attention and the pundits that would press down a generation of seekers, you will find there is a secret club of readers, and invisible fellowship of the incurably curious. One of my hopes for this blog is that it will serve as a place for those fellows to meet one another, to trade book ideas, and to know that they are not alone.

Of course, a reader is never really alone, are they? There are the books–the words, the stories, the characters, and the authors.

annie dillard young writerOne of the great resources for bibliophiles is Annie Dillard. Dillard is a precise and elegant prose writer. Her works include poetry, novels, and her transformative essays, including the Pulitzer Prize winner, A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, and her inspirational, A Writing Life. Thoughtful readers would do well to find their way to Annie Dillard.

I have just finished her An American Childhood. I had to stop highlighting it because I was filling up every page. In this memoir, Pittsburgh becomes a character, a member of Dillard’s family. I know almost nothing about Pittsburgh, but I feel like I know Dillard’s childhood streets. More than just a memoir of Dillard’s early years, it is a memoir of America coming of age in the years after the war into the early years in the 1960s, when no one knew what would come next, but it felt like everything was shifting.

An American Childhood is also a biography of reading. Dillard’s life disintegrates as she comes into teen life in early 60s. She was restless, filled with anxious energy and desperate rebellion. At times she was even rebelling against her self, her own body, her own point of view, and her own critical intelligence. The reader feels the desperation, like we are watching a prairie fire racing toward’s the upcoming winter’s wheat, and we have no way of stopping it.

Annie Dillard an American ChildhoodI wanted to include here just a little bit of writing that captures the intensity of her feeling. I think you need to read the book yourself as it builds toward that threat of personal disintigration. But I really want to highlight the bit about reading, what I call the invisible fellowship of readers. As Dillard points out, it really is a revolutionary exercise, a quiet literary act of rebellion.

Parents have no idea what the children are up to in their bedrooms: They are reading the same paragraphs over and over in a stupor of violent bloodshed. Their legs are limp with horror. They are reading the same paragraphs over and over, dizzy with gratification as the young lovers find each other in the French fort, as the boy avenges his father, as the sound of muskets in the woods signals the end of the siege. They could not move if the house caught fire. They hate the actual world. The actual world is a kind of tedious plane where dwells, and goes to school, the body, the boring body which houses the eyes to read the books and houses the heart the books enflame. The very boring body seems to require an inordinately big, very boring world to keep it up, a world where you have to spend far too much time, have to do time like a prisoner, always looking for a chance to slip away, to escape back home to books, or escape back home to any concentration—fanciful, mental, or physical—where you can lose your self at last. Although I was hungry all the time, I could not bear to hold still and eat; it was too dull a thing to do, and had no appeal either to courage or to imagination. The blinding sway of their inner lives makes children immoral. They find things good insofar as they are thrilling, insofar as they render them ever more feverish and breathless, ever more limp and senseless on the bed.

It was clear that adults, including our parents, approved of children who read books, but it was not at all clear why this was so. Our reading was subversive, and we knew it. Did they think we read to improve our vocabularies? Did they want us to read and not pay the least bit of heed to what we read, as they wanted us to go to Sunday school and ignore what we heard? I was now believing books more than I believed what I saw and heard. I was reading books about the actual, historical, moral world—in which somehow I felt I was not living.

What I sought in books was imagination. It was depth, depth of thought and feeling; some sort of extreme of subject matter; some nearness to death; some call to courage. I myself was getting wild; I wanted wildness, originality, genius, rapture, hope. I wanted strength, not tea parties. What I sought in books was a world whose surfaces, whose people and events and days lived, actually matched the exaltation of the interior life. There you could live. Those of us who read carried around with us like martyrs a secret knowledge, a secret joy, and a secret hope: There is a life worth living where history is still taking place; there are ideas worth dying for, and circumstances where courage is still prized. This life could be found and joined, like the Resistance. I kept this exhilarating faith alive in myself, concealed under my uniform shirt like an oblate’s ribbon; I would not be parted from it.

We who had grown up in the Warsaw ghetto, who had seen all our families gassed in the death chambers, who had shipped before the mast, and hunted sperm whale in Antarctic seas; we who had marched from Moscow to Poland and lost our legs to the cold; we who knew by heart every snag and sandbar on the Mississippi River south of Cairo, and knew by heart Morse code, forty parables and psalms, and lots of Shakespeare; we who had battled Hitler and Hirohito in the North Atlantic, in North Africa, in New Guinea and Burma and Guam, in the air over London, in the Greek and Italian hills; we who had learned to man minesweepers before we learned to walk in high heels—were we going to marry Holden Caulfield’s roommate, and buy a house in Point Breeze, and send our children to dancing school?

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Chris Armstrong’s Medieval Wisdom for Modern Christians

Armstrong, Medieval Wisdom for Modern ChristiansChris R. Armstrong, Medieval Wisdom for Modern Christians: Finding Authentic Faith in a Forgotten Age with C. S. Lewis (2016)

You might say that old is the new new. As culture commits itself further to its pathological aversion to stillness, and as the American evangelical church betrays its artistic, intellectual, and communal thinness, we should not be surprised that many people are searching for something more. Plastic church and two-dimensional relationships are not enough for those who are desperately seeking a deeper life. There is, I think, a remnant of rooted Christians. It is not a visible revolution, but an invisible fellowship of artists, writers, bloggers, academics, servants, and worshippers.

Chris Armstrong is one of these secret seekers. His Medieval Wisdom for Modern Christians (2016)—much like his Patron Saints for Postmoderns (2009)—tries to give a resource to root contemporary seekers into the rich soils of the past. As the subtitle suggests, Armstrong uses C.S. Lewis as a primary link to medieval faith and practice.

In the first chapter, Armstrong offers a critique of what he calls a culture of “Immediatism”—a spiritual habit in contemporary evangelicalism that leaves it culturally irrelevant and spiritually anemic. His second chapter will be of great interest to many readers. In “C.S. Lewis—A Medieval Modern Man,” Armstrong shows how Lewis acts as a bridge for us to the very strange land of the middle ages. Lewis remains a guide to that land throughout the rest of the book.

Armstrong patron saints for postmodernsAfter a defense of tradition as a source of meaning and truth, Armstrong takes a chapter each to discuss Christian thought, morality, acts of service, the human connection to the natural world, the development of heart-felt faith, and the importance of humanness. In each of these chapters Armstrong surveys medieval figures in conversation with biblical texts and modern thinkers. Using C.S. Lewis as that primary contact point, Armstrong uses the medieval habits that we have regretfully lost to touch on points of weakness in the church and world today.

Chris Armstrong finishes with a call to a new kind of monasticism meant to resist twin challenges: on one side, a world adrift in its own cultural myth; on the other side, a church corrupted by the subtle prejudices of the rootless culture. I don’t know who will answer this call, and whether we can integrate the best of monastic life in our urban-embedded lives, but I found this one of the more inspiring chapters. I gained the most from the chapter, “God’s Second Book—The Natural World,” but was pleased that throughout I was being educated in a way that I know mostly second hand.

For me, the particular strength of Medieval Wisdom for Modern Christians is how we are drawn back to the middle ages—a period foreign to most of us. Working as a professional historian and Christian leader, and using C.S. Lewis as a guide, this book is filled with meaningful ways to deepen life in church, family, and neighbourhood today.

Who is this book for?

  1. Readers of C.S. Lewis who would like to go deeper into his world. This book can be a warm up to Robert Boenig’s S. Lewis and the Middle Ages (2012) or Lewis’ own The Discarded Image (1964).
  2. Students of C.S. Lewis at the beginning of a survey of secondary literature. Following the footnotes will allow you to capture some of that conversation (see the Conversational Group Clusters below).
  3. Evangelical and charismatic Christians looking to root their faith in richer soil. This is really the reason Armstrong wrote the book. A reader in this stream committed to following the trail-markers that Armstrong has left behind can find in it a decade of rich devotional reading, spiritual habits, and acts of service.
  4. Evangelical and charismatic Christians offering a critique of their own community. This is Armstrong himself, and I am in this camp. Leaders, teachers, pastors, journalists, bloggers, and professors can use this text to help form a substantial new posture before their community of faith.
  5. Students of American faith movements struggling to understand the great shifts taking place in those communities. I don’t know if there is a lot of these, but future historians will see this period as a definitive shift in American religious life.
  6. Christians who have always been attracted to art, activism, contemplative practices, and the life of the mind, but have never had a community that supports that kind of expression. There are others like you. You are not alone. The footnotes in this text will help you find the books you will love.

Conversational Group Clusters: Besides historians—the bulk of Armstrong’s dialogue partners—there are certain clusters of people he is reading that you might find helpful in the next stages of your reading.

  1. Christian writers drawing contemporary readers into the past: Phyllis Tickle, Kathleen Norris, Eugene Peterson, Frederick Buechner, Dallas Willard, Bruce Hindmarsh, and Richard Foster
  2. Experts on Evangelical self-critique: James K.A. Smith, Eugene Peterson, Dallas Willard, Christian Smith, Hans Boersma, Mark Noll, and Ron Sider.
  3. The Inklings, Friends, and Influences: J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, Dorothy L. Sayers, George MacDonald, and (especially) G.K. Chesterton and C.S. Lewis.
  4. Creative Christians: T.S. Eliot, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Dorothy L. Sayers, and the Inklings.
  5. Critical writers on C.S. Lewis: David C. Downing, Michael Ward, Paul F. Ford, Andy Barkman, Marsha Daigle-Williamson, and Will Vaus.

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Why C.S. Lewis Says My Reading Program is Wrong, or What Cheese has to do with Reading

beautiful bookshelf designThis year on A Pilgrim in Narnia we have been doing some thinking about programs for reading great books:

I am a list-driven reader. I like logging my works on Goodreads, and use an excel sheet to keep track of the books and essays I read. My bulletin board has certain lists I’m going through: top 20th c. SF books, top 20th c. Fantasy books, Discworld, Harold Bloom’s Essential List, a World Fantasy Conference List, everything C.S. Lewis wrote, and a list of key Christian books. I am slowly going through these lists, book by book, and hope to be done around 2030 or so, provided no one writes anything good between now and then.

SarahsBooks LabyrinthAll of this is part my attempt to struggle with the Western canon–the essential books that have shaped our culture. Really, I’m making up for severe lack of education I received growing up, filling in great gaps in my cultural bookshelves. I am missing amazing stories, and I want them all.

C.S. Lewis was often writing to people about what books to read. He argued for a certain approach to reading and research in the university context, and his own reading is sprawled across the centuries and over great lands. So, I thought I would turn to Lewis’ letters to see if he ever talked about a canon of literature, the ultimate to-read list. Here is what he wrote to American correspondent looking for a list of books that college students should read.

collected letters cs lewis volume 3 ed by walter hooperC.S. Lewis’ response shows why my approach to reading is almost entirely wrong.

As from Magdalene College
25 Aug 59

Dear Mr. Metcalf

I don’t feel at all qualified to contribute to a ‘master’ list of writings. The languages I don’t know are of course very much more numerous than those I know; and even in the languages I do know there are a great many books I have not read. And I rather doubt whether a list of masterpieces picked from all over the world–mostly, I presume to be read in translations?–is a v. useful thing.

I would rather see young men beginning from where they are and being led on from one thing to another: e.g. that Milton shd. lead them either to Virgil and Homer (and therefore to a really serious study of Latin or Greek) or to Dante (and therefore to a whole course of Medieval and Italian studies). That, after all, is how every educated person’s development has actually come about.

The sort of culture one can get from the 100 or 1000 Best Books read in isolation from the societies and literatures that begot them seems to me like the sort of knowledge of Europe I shd. get from staying at big hotels in Paris, Berlin, Rome, etc. It wd. be far better to know intimately one little district, going from village to village, getting to know the local politics, jokes, wines, and cheeses. Or so it seems to me.

But here I go offering you advice, which you didn’t ask for, and refusing that which you did! Forgive me, and believe me

Yours sincerely,
C.S. Lewis

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The Narnian Pilgrim in the UK

Dear Fellow Pilgrims,

I chose the image of pilgrimage when I began this blog 5 years ago last week (here was my first blog, on Letter Writing in a Digital Age). I come from a Christian tradition that has tended to lack the aesthetic and the tactile. Strong on doctrine, practicality, history, and friendship, it lacks a sensual connection to faith. In an effort to make all spaces sacred, it has meant that no one space is more sacred than another. As a result, the intentional movement of our bodies through creation has not been valued very highly. The lifting of hands to heaven, the sulfuric tang of a match to wick, the tannic surprise of wine to the tongue, the imprint of cobblestone upon the knee, the shuffle of feet upon the dusty path–these are not experiences that my first church could have shared with me.

Yet, even early on, I have had an instinct that whatever the eccentricities of our shared Christian heritage, pilgrimage was something I wanted to recover. After a year of training in biblical studies, I felt the text world of the Bible threaten to drift away from me. So I went there, traveling to those ancient-modern lands, visiting the holy and historical places I had learned about. Since then, neither the stories and poetry of the Bible nor the contemporary politics of identities at war can ever be simply words on a page. I had touched that soil, knelt at those altars, haggled in those same streets, and walked through the rubble paths.

Even now, I have these places that are sacred to me where I make pilgrimage from time to time. All Souls Chapel, the Hidden Acre, and Cymbria are three local ones. But there are more modern kinds of spaces, like campfires and libraries, that do what a pilgrimage does for me, integrating body and soul with Story.

A Pilgrim in Narnia is meant to be about the metaphorical journeys of life and letters, exploring the crossroads of faith, fantasy, and fiction using C.S. Lewis, J.R.R Tolkien, and others as guides for that way. The path of intelligent reflection on faith and story has grown over a little, but there is an eager generation of pilgrims who are seeking it. I am pleased to be one walking on the way.

We can find our way into C.S. Lewis’ life through his books and letters. Tolkien is a little harder, and we are indebted to his biographers and the curators of his unfinished corpus. I meant to think of exploring their ways like a kind of pilgrimage, so that reading and writing become the palmer’s habit. 5 years and 500 blogs later, I still think it is a helpful image, and I am loath to change the outdated header at the top of the page. It still resonates with me.

Still, there is a life of complexity on the other side of every screen. The temptation to move beyond the metaphor has taken me over once again. With my family beside me, we are making our own pilgrimage to the space that lives behind the stories we love. The Dickiesons are going to the UK!

As frequent readers will suspect, I will be doing some work at the Bodleian library on C.S. Lewis manuscripts. I am also presenting a paper at ISRLC in Glasgow in September, and working at my home campus in Chester. I have serious reasons for visiting the UK–or so I will tell you if you are offering grants!

Before I settle down into the hush of the reading room, however, our family will do some exploring. We will see the London of Dickens, Shakespeare, Sherlock, and Harry Potter. We will wander beneath the singing spires of Oxford, exploring the homeworld of Tolkien, Lewis, and our great University tradition. Castles, cathedrals, and Roman remains help define our time in Chester in the North and our visit into Wales. It is hard not to think of Arthur in those areas–even as those ancient spaces fill out with factories, suburban homes, and hipster cafes. And, of course, we will see the other places of many pilgrims: Bath, Stonehenge, Stratford, and Starbucks.

And if I see a wardrobe anywhere in England, you know I’m going to peek in.

We will also raise a glass, empty some plates, visit with dear friends, and work through the rubber on the souls of our shoes. In the midst of what has been a very difficult year, we are also hoping for that certain kind of rest that richness of the mind, body, and soul can bring. We are very much looking forward to our vacation.

Not everything is planned. I am a believer in pilgrim’s providence. Sometimes we must take the fork in the road in front of us rather than the one we thought was on the map. As pilgrims we set our face toward Canterbury, so to speak, but our spirits are open to the pilgrimage that happens along the way.

I will be blogging on my usual schedule throughout the month, with upcoming blogs on Terry Pratchett, Annie Dillard, Chris Armstrong, Thomas à Kempis, and the continuing conversation on the canon. I won’t be able to dialogue as I normally would, but I will read best wishes–and critiques!–as I always do. You can also follow travel tweets @BrentonDana, or see our daily updates on facebook (my full name is Brenton Dickieson–send a friend request).

Best wishes this month, and let me know if our paths will cross in the UK.


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