Mercies

Mercies

This post has been brewing for a good long time. Ten years, as a matter of fact.

What follows is something of a personal retrospective, probably not of the least interest to anyone but me. Truthfully, it’s one of the most difficult things I’ve ever written—how to confine an important decade to a few paragraphs?—and more than once I’ve nearly given up the attempt altogether. As it is, I’ve refined it to death, wrestling over that balance between candor and abstraction (and taking myself far too seriously in the process). And for all that, who knows but that in the end I’ve succeeded at nothing more (or less) than an egocentric ramble. That’s not my intention; what I long to do is memorialize what God has done in my life, to mark this passage with an altar of remembrance and observe an epoch with deep attention and gratitude. Love compels me to try, while joy tugs, colt-like, against the reins of my limitations. At any rate, I’ve given it a go. The very fact that I feel obliged to open with such an accounting may serve as warning enough of the wanderings to follow…

It was ten years ago this Maytime that God started something in my life from which I’ve never recovered—and never want to. Anniversaries are important to me, and this May I’ve been blessed with ample time to take a long, backward glance. To remember where I’ve come from; to measure my charts and check my course against where I’m going, where I want to go. For three weeks I have lived by the sea—really lived, in the way I first began to dream of a decade ago. I have put countless miles on my trusty Schwinn (Holly Golightly’s the name), traveling daily the same beloved paths, stretching over a gold and green salt marsh or winding beneath moss-hung oaks, each one a familiar friend. Kingfishers have been my comrades, and snowy egrets, and red-winged blackbirds with their liquid music like flutes coming through water. I have worn my hair in a ponytail and the same gorgeously-comfortable, perpetually-sandy, linen cargo pants (except on the days when I’ve donned my favorite, lucky writer’s frock: perfect shade of sailboat blue and works well on a bike) and I’ve pedaled off with a laptop in my backpack and my wicker bicycle basket stuffed with books and blanket, seeking some sunny refuge where I might warm the bones of my soul and weave a few words into the bargain. (I’ve literally followed the sun all over this island and I’m brown as a nut in consequence—all but my face, which I slather daily with SPF 20. Yes, I’ll admit, it looks a bit odd. I’ve also mastered the art of riding a bike with a tall Darjeeling in hand, for what it’s worth. What would we do without our cups of tea?)

And at the end of the day, we’ve stretched on the sand, my husband and I, or on a sun-gilt verandah in rocking chairs, sipping cocktails and reading books—or talking of books and the dreams they have kindled.

What is it that Thoreau said—“How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book?” I certainly can. I have often thought that God all but placed a book in my hands that He wanted me to read, something that would unravel a bit more of the fabric of unexamined belief about Him and the world and other people—and myself. But ten years ago this May, I know He did. It was as if the Holy Spirit propelled me bodily towards the bookcase and pried open my fingers to receive a volume off the shelf. It was a book that had been sitting there for four years, ever since Philip and I had been married, and it was the story of a great love. But one of the lovers did not survive the book. This much I knew. And I did not want to read it.

When God gave it to me, however, I did. (We did, rather, for I firmly believe that this is not a book to be read by one spouse and not the other.) And it completely changed my life.

It broke my life wide open, broke my heart with joy and beauty, breathed a brisk wind into the sails of my deepest, most intrinsic, most instinctive longings. The book itself is so precious to me I can hardly bear to write about it. I feel so jealous over it, so careful for the pure, golden-hearted rose of friendship it extended to both of us—indeed, a sacred thing. It represents beauties to me which I could never articulate to another living soul but Philip. And that’s all right. I don’t need to in order to tell this story. But ten years ago, A Severe Mercy brought me to my knees—I type the very title with a catch in my throat—and from that low place, I looked upon Love itself.

I was in the midst of a real crisis of faith—though I didn’t know to name it such at the time—spiraling into a blackness of anxiety and depression such as I had never experienced my life. I think in my naivety I even doubted such a place existed for a lover of God—such deadly innocence!—though I had the whole counsel of Christendom at my back proclaiming otherwise. But to know of something is not to know it, and it was not until I felt the cold shadows creeping around me that I understood just how terrifying and unavoidably real a “dark night of the soul” could be. Looking back, I can see how the strain of too many years of perfectionism primed me for such a descent, how an accumulation of grace-less ideas about Grace had burdened all the “first, fine careless rapture” out of my walk with Christ. I was exhausted, body and soul, from striving to be and do and think and believe and say and exemplify everything that I was supposed to. Early in my teens, an older woman had extolled me for the example I was to the younger ones behind me, roundly exhorting me to “keep it up.” I know she meant well, dear heart, but I have always remembered those words with a strange sinking of the heart, a chest-tightening reflex of panic, expressive as it was of the pressure to perform that began to circle round me as a teenager—and threatened to choke the life out of me as an adult. At twenty-eight years old my health was breaking; anxiety was uppermost and fear had me by the throat. I was afraid of everything—of life; of my own desires; of love itself and its deathless grasp. When it came right down to it, I was literally afraid of God, in the unholiest sense. All that great, swirling sovereign power—and what might not He do to chasten these competing loves from my heart?

So, there I was, my scared, rabbity soul shivering in the darkness, almost too ashamed to ask for help. Almost—and, thank God, not a whit more. I cried into that void, and, instead of accusing, echoing silence, there came a strong hand to clasp and a presence so precious I had never known anything like it and a little gleam of light that made even the darkness dear—because it was Jesus Himself. Jesus like I had never known Him; Jesus, not mad at me for my brokenness, but sitting right down there with me in the middle of the mess.

It was into this “horror of great darkness” that A Severe Mercy entered my life. And here is what God began to say to me, by way of that book, in addition to the thousand other sweet influences that were wakened by it, all converging in a glad shout that echoed through every hall and chamber of my heart:

You cannot, you simply cannot love “too much.” Man or beast or life itself—it isn’t possible. Love cannot be contained or measured. It simply is and it is entire! Love madly, love with abandon, loved one. Open your heart to the ‘pain of too much tenderness’ and the sting of your own frailties. Only don’t exclude Me—that is all I ask—by your fears or your principles or your careful weighing of consequences. Ground your very human love in my great, boundless one, and do not be afraid.

He said much else that I’ve kept and pondered in my heart ever since, but this was the inciting flame—this freedom to love and this fury to live without fear. It changed the inner landscape of my life and would gradually affect the outer one, as well. I literally began to laugh for joy—right there in the midst of my pain—at the outlandish dreams that started to take shape: the things I suddenly knew I had always wanted to do, but had become too hagridden with convention to seriously consider. Dreams of books written and read; of studies and travels; of boats and music and poetry and the footpaths of England; kinships, liturgy, and a livelier life in Christ! Dreams more remembered than devised, it seemed, though I had never thought of some of them before. And in that deep remembering, I found something I had lost along the way, something so precious it had captured my heart with the love of Christ in the first place: namely, desire points. Beauty beckons beyond itself. Longings, whether attainable or not, are sign posts to safe haven, the inconsolable sehnsucht that lures our hearts to the Love we’re made for.

There are a lot of traditions out there that imply (or outright teach) that the desires of our hearts are not to be trusted; that anything originating from the inmost being of man is wrong out of the gate and should be subjugated without question. I honestly had come under that persuasion myself, thanks to some fundamentally flawed perceptions of grace—though it took the demolishing of an ideological stronghold for me to realize how dark and tall and menacing it had become, like one of the infernal towers in The Lord of the Rings, casting an unwholesome shadow over the innocent pleasures of life. (I personally think that one of the most radiant moments in that whole trilogy is when Merry and Pippin are sitting amid the flooded ruin of Isengard, drinking plundered beer and smoking pillaged tobacco, celebrating the fact that if the darkness had not yet fallen utterly, it had taken a serious rout.) I do not believe that Scripture teaches or the character of God supports the notion that our desires are bad simply because they are ours. Of course, there are evil desires, desires bent on selfishness and cruelty, but that is not what I mean when I refer to the “desires of our hearts”. Even the most malevolent has some hook, buried howsoever deep, upon which that unseen line of joy can twitch.

In The Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins is irrevocably drawn from the comforts of his respectable life into the adventure of a lifetime by nothing more or less than the song of uninvited dwarves, circled round his fireside of an evening. It was an ancient song, a song that roused latent ancestral longings he scarcely imagined to possess.

“Then,” Tolkien writes, “something Tookish woke up inside him, and he wished to go and see the great mountains, and hear the pine-trees and the waterfalls, and explore the caves, and carry a sword instead of a walking stick.”

For once in my life, I could identify with Bilbo’s yearnings and conflicted amazement. A holy restlessness had captivated my heart and unsettled all my calculations, and I began to wonder if I would ever know a moment’s peace again. All of these multitudinous channels of longing, broken loose by beauty’s light touch and running free towards an ocean of abundant living!

“What on earth is wrong with me?” I asked God, in a tumult of amusement one morning. We had just hatched our Airstream dream: a gypsy caravan that would make the Open Road our own. And I was amazed. The whole thing had been my idea—and I didn’t even like camping. Or so I thought.

Something Tookish is waking up inside you, God said, laughing back into the silence of the room. And I laughed with him. It was too late to do otherwise.

(Incidentally, we did chase down that Airstream, a 1962 TradeWind, dreamed up that summer and purchased that autumn for a song. And it’s in that very 24 feet of silver-sheathed simplicity we’ve made house so merrily all these weeks by the sea.)

In addition, my ideals of domesticity, already ingrained, were deeply refined through all that sifting of light-pierced darkness, though it took a while to manifest in visible ways. Indeed, I sometimes wonder if it has manifested visibly, for much of my day-to-day life looks the same as it did before—only I don’t let my worth as a woman get muddled with how clean my floors are, or how many times I’ve vacuumed the refrigerator coils (never). And I leave stacks of books all over the house. A subtle, though fundamental, shift in perspective began to move beneath the surface of things ten years ago, an uncovering of identity from out of that broken place, and as perfectionism loosed its stranglehold on my life, I learned to breathe a new air, to embrace my home and the work I did there with a new significance. Increasingly, my work was not so tangled with image as it was dictated by love, which changed everything. It meant that I could leave certain things undone as freely as I could take up others. That one task was not ‘holier’ than another simply because it fit nicely into the groove of an accepted standard.

It was just as valid, I saw, to hammer out words on my laptop for people I would never meet as to give an entire day to preparing a beautiful meal for beloved friends. I gave myself permission to write, not for a few hours a week, but a several hours a day. Interminable chore lists languished, trumped by the lure of a poetry book or a garden sketch. I was a homemaker, in the truest sense of the word, but not only that—and this little clause was vastly, wildly, magnificently important. I began to realize that my “deep gladness,” the gift I had to give to the world, was at once simpler and more complex than could be confined to one blanket term—simpler because there was suddenly no need to align myself with one narrow definition or another; more complex because I was, to my growing astonishment . . . more. As much scribbler and wayfarer and dreamer of dreams as housewife, sacred as that calling is to me.

Early in our marriage, I wrote an essay in which I attempted, most sincerely, to express the deep joy and satisfaction I felt in the making and keeping of a home. It was undoubtedly earnest, but, as most things seen at nearly a decade’s distance, wincingly flawed. I cringe now to think of some of the blithe assumptions, the poor word choices and slight know-it-all edge to my voice. (Oh, friends. When I’ve sounded like I have all the answers over the years, or even some of them, please forgive me. I don’t.) It’s not that I take my vocation any less seriously or hold my young passions in contempt—I’ve just lengthened my tent stakes, enlarged my thinking to make room for ideas and contingencies I hadn’t considered before. I no longer equate homemaking with the essence of my wifehood, but see it as an expression of it—one among many—and that’s a terribly important distinction for me. Philip and I are co-heirs, co-laborers in this vision of our lives, co-adventurers. And while I refuse to attach any moniker to this wider calling (not sure there is one), I will swear to my dying day that there are no sweeter words in the English language (or any other) than husband and wife.

What’s more, I don’t assume that the essence of my personal obedience to God is so much expressed in how I love Him, as in the fact that I do love Him, practically and openly. And if my way looks different from everyone else’s way, and theirs from mine—well then, perhaps we’re getting somewhere.

The words of poet Kahlil Gibran express beautifully the way I’ve grown to view my home and the lives lived in it:

Your house shall be not an anchor but a mast . . .
You shall not fold your wings that you may pass through doors,
nor bend your heads that they strike not against a ceiling,
nor fear to breathe lest walls should crack and fall down.

For that which is boundless in you abides in the mansion of the sky,
whose door is the morning mist, and whose windows are the songs and the silences of night.

Flying and roosting; hangar and runway: these metaphors work better for me than long commentary to express how our home—and, consequently, our lives—look and feel these days. I’m less concerned with appearances than I am with experiences: encounters with God and the with holy, shining wonder of other souls. Loosening my death-grip on the control of my environment that I might embrace the unseen realities—and essential adventure—of the everyday.

Less dogmatism and perfectionism and any other ism, for that matter; more starlight and mystery and birdsong and paradox.

And less fear. I’m not afraid now to say that Brideshead Revisited is one of the top three favorite books of my adult life as I once was (crazy as that seems), or that I love a good gin and tonic almost as much as a stout pot of tea. Ten years ago I could not bring myself to tell anyone but my husband and my sister that I was writing, much less fling my words far and wide like scattered seeds. I can admit that I have a temper to rival Anne Shirley’s and that I believe to the very marrow of my soul that animals will be in heaven. These things may seem trivial (all but the bit about animals), but they represent a massive overhaul of grace in my life, a work-in-progress that continues to spread like a fresh, southerly breeze over the country of my heart.

It’s been a long gestation, this broadening of personal borders. And that’s just the terror (and the blessing) of letting your words out into the world: over time, other people get to see your stretch marks. Interestingly enough, it’s the occasional denigration I’ve encountered that has helped me refine some of these growing realities, which is gift upon gift, even though I am mortally afraid of criticism. But it’s the overwhelming kindness of people I’ve never met, people who take the time to listen and whisper that they understand (you, in short, whoever you are, reading this, God bless you), that gives me courage to keep creating and processing, scratching out one word and trying another. My heart has been in your hands again and again, and you have been so kind. I salute you with the profoundest gratitude and a deep, floor-sweeping curtsey.

And so, that plunge into darkness and the light that I found there was an experience I mark time from. Reading A Severe Mercy gave me back my Christianity as high romance, as beauty and longing and pilgrimage along which love might goad my heart with gladness. It helped me recover myself from a rubble of accumulated expectations, helped me see that my soul is more gypsy than I’d imagined. Most importantly, it convinced me that what I’m really longing for in all I love is Christ himself and that a life of love for him could be one of such adventure that the fairy tales of my childhood pale in comparison. “Love God and do what you will,” wrote Augustine so famously. I began, finally, to dare to believe that the two were not mutually exclusive.

All these glowing coals a single book stoked and stirred and breathed upon, and, afterwards, we read nearly every book mentioned therein—at least, the ones we hadn’t already, such a company of old friends! I bought and devoured books by Charles Williams, Dorothy Sayers, Chesterton and, of course, Lewis, branching later into Evelyn Waugh and T.S. Eliot, as a matter of course. My mind expanded in pursuit of my leaping heart, chasing all these soaring themes of Christian thought which bore one unmistakable family likeness: God is not only as good as you’ve hoped—He’s better. I saw it everywhere, from the substitutionary love imaged in Williams’s novels, to the romance of Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, to the steel-bright shrewdness of Eliot’s poetry. Such a spangled web of holy kinship! Years later, when I discovered the lectures of Peter Kreeft and the writings of Thomas Howard (our “American C.S. Lewis”), I was not a bit surprised to learn that these two men were chums of our old friend who started it all, Sheldon Vanuaken, author of A Severe Mercy.

One night last week we took a long walk along the shore. It was the most enchanted evening imaginable: little shreds of clouds in a star-scattered sky; a slice of moon lending a silver haze to the purple shadows; low tide, and not a single soul in all the world. We walked so far, with the waves lapping at our ankles and the lights of a neighboring island shining out across the way, that, suddenly, we were at the northernmost point, standing on the very peak of the land, as it were. To the right, lay the sound and the estuary flowing into it, with the bridge—my bridge, the bridge that carries me over all that water to the home of my soul—its lovely, graceful arches atwinkle against the dark sky; so familiar, so loved. It seemed to represent—seems even more so now, looking back—all that is dear to me of my past, where I have come from, the influences that have contributed to who I am. The experiences that have shaped my dreams, refined my hopes, and which I always seem to recover when I return to this place.

And to the left—the sea, limitless, unknowable, black but for the specks of light shining on the far horizon. Those who go down to the sea in ships . . . I saw hopes we’re gathering courage for: the wayside poems, the lure of unlost islands, the mountainous ambitions, and the hearthside songs of adventures remembered. It all was so keen, there in the wind at the edge of the world, as though we stood upon the shoreline of a tangible hope.

I have no idea what it will look like in a practical sense, even as ten years ago I had no idea where the influences then beginning to stir in my heart would take me. If anything, I have less answers and more questions, which is rather exhilarating than otherwise. But it’s been a grand adventure, a hoisting of sails and a breathless scanning of new horizons. I glance back over a wake of faithful Love; I inhabit the present with wonder. And I look to the future with awe, and a (characteristically) crooked smile.

The goodness of God staggers my heart; His mercies have stolen it utterly.

[This post originally appeared on Lanier's blog: LaniersBooks.com. A Severe Mercy is available here in the Rabbit Room store.]

"Here's, Hail! To the rest of the road!"

“Here’s, Hail! To the rest of the road!”