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Posts Tagged ‘George MacDonald’

Job said,

“Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I shall return there. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.”      -Job 1:21

I woke up this morning convinced that I would be able to smile again. I believed, in God’s mercy, the Bell’s Palsy would be gone and the muscles on half my face, which haven’t worked in 17 months, would be supple again, and spontaneously reflect the inner me to the outside world. The real me, a joyful me. Because we prayed last night. Real prayer, Holy Spirit prayer, boldly-approaching-the-throne-of-grace-in-faith-and-obedience prayer, laying on of hands with anointing by the elders prayer. But, no. The right half of my face is still twisted and unresponsive this morning, my eye still unblinking.

I know there is a temptation to question God – Why? Why me? Didn’t we pray right? Didn’t You promise?

Yet I find that my disappointment doesn’t translate into REAL doubting. I find my Hope and Faith stubbornly connected to something deep that I cannot name. Something deeper and more real than this life.

Our lovely Vermont is slowly getting back on its feet again after Hurricane Irene. Or, rather, back on its roads, which in Vermont is the same thing. The roads connect us, small towns and villages, through the green hills and wandering valleys. Crews have been working around the clock, dump trucks full of rock from the granite quarries rumble through town, going where the commercial trucks are temporarily prohibited from traveling, in order to drop their load at the feet of the giant yellow excavators. These in turn maneuver the great chunks of rock to rebuild the vanished riverbank and provide the foundation for a new roadbed. We were told initially that it would be months before the road from here to the NY border would be passable again, but this morning JR had to go into Rutland/Fair Haven, and the road was open all the way – jerkily and still one lane in many spots – and it has only been three weeks!  We rejoice!

For three weeks ago, Vermont was stripped bare, in too many, many places. Charming brooks, streams and rivers turned into raging brown torrents, scalping fields and woodlands. Rambling cornfields were laid flat, buried in thick muck and mud. Trees, large and small, were ripped away and smashed up against old wooden bridges, carrying them away in the deluge. Trestles, farms, bucolic valleys, erased. The pretty calendar-face of Vermont was changed, despoiled, and her lovely smile was gone. Quiet and peaceful pastoral scenes were replaced with ravaged miles of muck and debris; and the thick, choking smell of wet clay, in your mouth, in your nose… Constant sunshine seemed to mock her destitution, paralyzing for a moment our connection to what we had known, what we had taken for granted. Vermont suffered her own case of Bell’s Palsy.

For Vermonters depend on Vermont, it is part of what makes us, well, us. Losing her face is like losing her soul. At the same time, this disaster revealed something truer, deeper. The soul of her people. And her healing is happening, right here before my eyes. Power, communication and access restored; the newly homeless provided for; mud and debris being hauled away; grants and loans for reclamation and re-building made available, including folks to help with the process; businesses rallying and re-opening for the autumn tourist season; neighbors gathering with music, food and festivities… Yes, healing is happening. Vermont’s true face is being seen.

I continue to hope and pray that my face may be healed. And in the midst of my frustrations and loss I am slowly making friends with a deeper me, a face that the world may not see, but that I am coming to know. Standing in the aftermath of the devastation from Irene, confused and angry, I had to remember the words from Job: “Shall we indeed accept good from God and not accept adversity?”  What I see around me, this life, is not all there is. Indeed, it’s not even the most important part of what is. I have learned this with my face, and I see it in Vermont. Perhaps sometimes it takes separating us from what we take for granted as essential, maybe even a brutal stripping away, to allow a dearer, more naked truth to emerge. And isn’t this grace too?

Well may this body poorer, feebler grow!
It is undressing for its last, sweet bed;
But why should the soul, which death shall never know,
Authority, and power, and memory shed?
It is that love with absolute faith would wed;
God takes the inmost garments off his child,
To have him in his arms, naked and undefiled.
-George MacDonald, Diary of an Old Soul, 1880

cleaning flood-mud caked canning jars from a friend's cellar

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Ah, Summertime….

Conjures images of children splashing in the swimming hole; carefree, broad days of endless imagination playing pirates and cowboys and knights and dragons; and late, starry nights of Hide-n-Seek in the shadows.  Memories of stomping down the next-door field of alfalfa into mazes to play tag (sorry, Mr. Farmer…); games of Five-Sticks with the neighborhood kids on the front lawn, after the chores are done.  (Do these memories date me??)

Actually, some of my favorite summer memories are the long hours spent curled in the big armchair in the cool of the house, reading.  Hours at Gramma’s, stretched out on her smooth, green velvet carpet, reading.  Hours in the hammock under the apple trees, reading.

I read everything on the bookshelves at home – Alcott, Austen, Baum, Cooper, Dickens, Eliot, Kipling, London, Maugham, Shakespeare, Steinbeck, Stevenson, Thackerey, Tolstoy, White.  In alphabetical order.  Gone With the Wind, Sherlock Holmes, Robinson Crusoe, The Count of Montecristo – over and over again in no particular order.  I was Scarlett, I was Jo, I was Dorothy, I was Mowgli.  Every once in a while, I would discover a hero, but I don’t think I understood it at the time.  I only knew that something inside of me stirred and shifted; grew bigger and more hopeful; and I seemed to find myself crying for no reason that I could understand and had to put the book down until I wore myself out and fell asleep and then woke up and could start reading again.

C.S.Lewis says that we read to know we’re not alone.  I must have been a lonely child, for reading was my best companion.  When we recognize ourselves or are stirred by some deep, indistinct longing put out there in words, I believe we aren’t so much shaped by what we read, as by what is revealed and exposed in us.  It is a vulnerable thing to read a book.  Heroes, perhaps, help us to know, and believe, the unknown, un-accessed, terrifying part of our better selves.

Now, thinking about those long summer days, there are fictional heroes that come to mind from those pages.  Not the everyday hero with a sword; I mean the quiet kind.  But only a few, really, still stir me.  For today, here are my top five:

#5 – Polwarth

#4 – Sydney Carton

#3 – Rose-of-Sharon

#2 – Cordelia

#1 – Bishop Bienvenu

Polwarth is the unassuming gate-keeper in George Macdonald’s trilogy of parables about the curate of Glaston. He goes about his business quietly, kindly and with his eyes and heart open. Though a dwarf in stature, his simple honesty and wisdom have a gigantic impact on those who tarry with him.  One curious scene, in The Lady’s Confession, portrays Polwarth’s benevolent and humble character as he absorbs the fastidious re-arranging of his familiar old bookshelves by a well-meaning young lady who is slowly recovering from a terrible trauma, and it is a year or more before he manages to get his beloved books  “muddled into order again.”  This scene quite unsettled me for awhile; I recognized my own fierce desire for control even of my ‘messes’, and the agitation that comes with their disruption. I wrestled with what I took to be, at first, cowardly dishonesty on Polwarth’s part, to not, respectfully, ask the young lady to leave his bookshelves alone.  But in a moment of compassion, I was able to grasp what Polwarth understood; her “usefulness” was an important part of her healing, and he graciously set his preferences aside, for her sake.

Sydney Carton, the alcoholic lawyer who steps up to the guillotine instead of his look-alike and love-rival who is the true condemned man in Dicken’s Tale of Two Cities, says that it is “a far, far better thing I do than I have ever done”.  It may be argued whether his death is noble or suicidal, but in any case, he humbly and bravely is willing to sacrifice everything so that another man may live – the condemned husband of the lady he loves. It is suggested that he lived a “worthless” life, but perhaps the honest worth of one’s life is determined by its impact on another, and in this story, Sydney Carton certainly gives back life, liberty, love and family to a doomed and hopeless couple.  And this isn’t even talking about the hope and courage he is able to impart to the imprisoned little seamstress at her death.  You’ll have to read the book.

Rose-of-Sharon – such a delightful name, one of the Okie Joads suffering in The Grapes of Wrath.   She was a self-absorbed, petulant, skinny girl, too soon pregnant, and as the migrant family finally lost every last shred they owned struggling to survive, she too lost her baby.  Barely escaping in the swirl of a muddy flood, they stumble upon someone closer to death than they, and Rose-of-Sharon’s new milk is the only hope of survival. I first read this book when I was 13, but I knew about breast-feeding.  It was a frightening awakening for me that summer, that a young woman could set aside her own dignity and modesty, and, for the first time in the story, despite her own need offer herself for another’s life.  I think the terror was that it might be required of me someday.  This was a scene that never made it into the movie.

Cordelia, of course, is the youngest daughter of Shakespeare’s King Lear.  Her simple statement of loyalty to her father cannot compete with the extravagant protestations of love and flattery offered by her two sisters, and she forfeits her reputation, position, share of the kingdom and, ultimately, her life, for her honesty and integrity.  How I hate to be misunderstood!  How quick I am to defend myself, attempting to secure what I believe I deserve – maybe pardon, sympathy, esteem, good feelings…   Cordelia reminds me that I can “entrust my soul to the one who judges justly”.

Monseigneur Bienvenu, the Bishop of Digne is one of my most favored characters, described thoroughly and delightfully by Victor Hugo in Les Miserables.  Not altogether human, meaning that he is too perfectly good and humble, he lives without disdain and always with serene benevolence.  He once said of a big, black, hairy horrible spider, Poor thing, it is not his fault.  He is the one who restores to paroled convict Jean Valjean both his freedom and his dignity, in the form of two silver candlesticks that he forgot to steal. Free from any need to protect his own safety or possessions, the Bishop treats the tramp Valjean with unexpected respect and kindness, thus shifting the entire course of his life. Forget not, never forget, he blesses, that you have promised to use this silver to become an honest man.  I find inspiration in the character of this humble Bishop, showing me what it could be to live as a peacemaker in the small moments of every day.

These are the heroes I gathered from the summers of my youth.  Not understanding their importance, or knowing what to do with them, I returned them to the shelf and went outside to splash in the sprinkler or play Tarzan in the woods with my siblings; but they each one stayed with me.  Only in time have I gone back, re-read and re-remembered.

Popularly, we tend to think of heroes in the sense of a mighty deed for a mighty cause, a Dragon-Slayer.  My little collection of fictional heroes are unsung people, unnoticed for the most part, doing simply what they each must do to be true to themselves.  They relinquish something that is dear to most of us – life, livelihood, comfort, dignity, reputation, security, – so that some one else can be set free. Someone who may never know, either the gift or the cost.  Yes, reading books helps us to know we’re not alone…. and comforts us in the companionship of humanity.

SYDNEY CARTON

The GOOD PRIEST  Les-Miserables-Movie-Clip-The-Good-Priest.html

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