…wouldn’t you want to?
I certainly would.
He may have died long before I was born, but his books came to me like letters from a kind and witty and child-hearted godfather. Narnia companioned my childhood. Cair Paravel became a home within my thought that I roamed in imagination. The Pevensies were comrades in my play and challenged me to bravery. Talking stars and valorous mice and dryads peopled my dreams. When my siblings and I rigged up the oak tree in our front yard and called it a ship, it was the Dawn Treader I considered myself to be sailing. And it was Aslan’s country I desired to find.
Ah, Aslan. Bold and beautiful, never tame. Who can fathom the power of a story in which Christ bounds in, unfettered by the usual assumptions and in a form so wondrous and wild? I loved Aslan. And even as a little girl, I knew it was God I was learning to love through him.
When I grew up and began to wrestle with the reality of that God, again Lewis (and the old picture of Aslan) came to my rescue. I have read letters that Lewis wrote to his actual godson, and the kindly, bracing advice, the take-yourself-lightly tone and the urge to throw one’s whole self into the loving of God were familiar to me. I had already encountered that eminently insightful voice in Lewis’s spiritual and apologetic works. Like the kindly godfather he was, he walked me through doubt, assuaged my frustration; his words pulled me back from the brink of disbelief. And the stories that came from that vivid imagination of his taught me to hope that every longing of my heart would one day find its home.
So yes, if Lewis were anywhere on earth, I’d trek my way to him, shake his hand, and say the thanks that’s been years in the making. I can’t wait to do it in heaven. But I can make a down payment on that thanks right now. And I simply have to tell all of you about this rather momentous opportunity. I know this is a place where C.S. Lewis is greatly loved, so… perhaps you’d like to join me?
Well, it’s time. High time. I’ve been hoarding a literary treasure for far too long. I did tell a few good souls about this gem of a writer at Hutchmoot, but really, the whole world needs to know and its time I sound the trumpet.
Have you ever discovered an author who speaks the language of your inmost thoughts? A writer who answers the questions that were just beginning to ghost about your mind before you even knew what to call them? Have you, moreover, discovered such a writer who is also a poet, a priest at a Cambridge college, a masterful sonneteer, a folk musician, and, well, has an air definitely hobbit-like?
Let me introduce you to the inimitable Malcolm Guite.
I first encountered this lovely writer several years ago as a speaker at a C.S. Lewis conference, where he gave an intriguing talk on the spiritual value of poetry. I loved it, but several years passed and I forgot the encounter. When my Dad got me his just-published Faith, Hope, and Poetry last year for my birthday, my memory stirred and my curiosity was piqued. But when, in the first chapter, I encountered Guite’s central theme of defending “the imagination as a truth-bearing faculty,” I was captivated.
My St. Patrick’s day celebration was impromptu. I love all things Irish and think St. Patrick himself the hero indeed, but the great day found me mired in about a thousand unanswered emails. I got home from church to face the prospect of a Monday morning to-do list that stopped me cold in my tracks. The fact that it was Sunday and I was supposed to be sane and calm and thinking holy thoughts added guilt to my fretting. I despaired of fun and set to work. But a phone call late in the windy afternoon changed the fate of my day: “Sarah,” said my mom, “we’re downtown; do you want to just go for a quick bite of fish ‘n chips at Jack Quinn’s? Leave the emails. There will be music!”
I couldn’t say no. Jack Quinn’s is a dim old downtown Irish pub, floored in dented, honeyed wood, with tiny booth rooms windowed in stained glass just like the pubs I visited in England. It has the dusky depths, old-photos, and jumbled shelves of mugs and jugs to give it the feel of a real pub. But steeped in age and shadow as it is, the ceilings are high and sheathed in forest green tin. Voices and folk music bounce in a rollick of notes from the floor to the heights in a brightness and dance as good as light. For such a place, I always want to spare an hour. I paused at my desk and almost stayed. I stared at my list, I despaired of my life. But as the sun set, I flung down my pen and out the door I went.
The spice of it caught their notice first. As they entered the chapel for the Christmas Eve service, they lifted their noses to scent the air like a pack of curious hounds. The dim place was fragrant with the sharp green tang of holly and fresh air and the undertone of something sweet. Old and young, dean and student, the freshness spurred them to a sprightlier step toward their accustomed pews. Instantly, they spotted the gifts. A chorus of tiny gasps fluttered through the chapel as the people filed in, for perched atop each hymnal was a tiny trinket with a paper folded neatly beside.
Neglecting even to sit or straighten their coats, they pulled off their gloves and reached for the treasures. A tin car, a teacup, a rusted brooch, they cradled the trinkets in their hands and glanced at their neighbors, eyebrows arched in curiosity and amusement. That’s when the laughter began, a polite twitter that sounded like a flock of small birds chirping in the seats. When they opened their notes to find angels laughing, dancing, or waving at them from the paper in their hands, the smiles burned in the dim shadows. A little boy, clutching a tin soldier, pointed from the paper to the ceiling with immediate recognition.
His breath made a rope of mist in the icy air. Like a dancer, it whirled and climbed toward the brightening sky as Father Jonas turned two merry little twirls beneath it. His old bones were stiff in the bitter cold of the damp courtyard, but the sun was sitting in triumph on the chapel tower, and a brave bird was crying so wild a good morning that his heart leapt up to meet its note of joy.
Christmas Eve had dawned and Jonas felt as weightless in spirit and free in soul as the misty air. Birdlike, he hopped through the courtyard, chirping a carol under his breath. Despite his thin skin and rheumatic bones, he felt this lightness most days, for the self he had always been was slipping away, replaced by something that felt like sunlight. He was very old and couldn’t remember much, even his own name at times. But oh, he was happy.
For a child reared in the back alleys and knotted lanes of East London, to slip unnoticed out a window as dawn breathed blue beneath the stars was easy as taking a breath. The man and woman in the next room did not even stir. To patter down the tree-lined street of an Oxford neighborhood was even easier, and to slip into the shadows at sight of an adult, like a slim, swift shadow himself, was easiest of all. When the neighbors were questioned later that day, not one of them remembered seeing a small boy, freckle-faced and thin, though many had passed him unaware on their way to work or early church.
Bren loped through the dim streets, loving the ease of his stride. He did a small dance, and shook his skinny arms as if to rejoice that no hand held his own and curbed his movement. When he crossed the bridge by Magdalene College, he knew himself safe and free as one of the birds cutting circles through the cold dawn sky. The morning crowd was at flood tide; at the least scent of danger he could disappear within it, darting through its flow like a minnow disappearing in a stream.
Father Eric knelt to pray in the college chapel just before Evensong a few days before Christmas. The long, high dark of the church leapt away behind him, a dusk he used to love for the star-like glimmer of the stained glass and the whispers that filled its watchful heights. Tonight though, it was only a vast, chilled cave at his back. Even the rustling far behind him in the shadows did not turn his head.
It would have once. When he first came to be chaplain he knew, sure as he took his own breath, that the great angels carved in the dark wooden rafters of the ceiling sometimes stirred. He could swear it. A half smile, a teasing beat of a great wing just to keep him lively as he went about his work in the echoing old place. They laughed at him, they sang, even if he only caught the faintest echoes of their song when he entered and they froze in holy mischief. Once, the whole world hummed with music and the birds told of a country far up in the sky and the trees he passed in the lane looked as if they knew great secrets if he could only learn their language.
But now, all was silent. The music was gone, the angels did not laugh or stir, and the rustling in the far back pews was only old Father Jonas with his wild eyes and shuffling steps, setting the hymnbooks straight and lighting the candles for the choir. Since the letter had come a month before, Eric felt that a great door had slammed in his face, for the world had become a silent place in which he was utterly alone. The day the letter came, he had staggered into his chapel and knelt, as he did now. His own voice echoed off the stones in the awful dusk of that afternoon, rose to the rafters and when he was exhausted, died. That was when the hush began, a silence so mighty he felt that he must have gone suddenly deaf. At his first cry the angels froze and the music ceased.
Elbows on the stainless steel kitchen counter at a recent weekend retreat, I listened enrapt to a high school violinist describe his experience of music. With the waving arms and burning eyes of a poet or madman, Steven described music as an encounter with a whirlwind of color. Not a note could he play on his violin or a concert could he hear, but it came to his mind as a picture, a swirl of color in motion. Even better, he explained, each composer had a hue all their own.
Beethoven, he said, worked in blues. Cool, deep, starlit blues of pain and passion and crystalline violets like the coming of dawn. Mozart? Crimson was his verdict. A definite theme of red, with great flares of orange and little bursts of yellow like sunlight. How about Bach? But at this he sighed, and smiled a very knowing smile. “Bach is the best of all,” he sighed, “his music is pure, pure gold.” At my raised eyebrow and obvious curiosity he smiled. “Let me tell you a story,” he said.
I write this from a seat in the waiting area of Heathrow Airport. My flight is delayed. I find it best to take these things sitting down, with a cup of coffee, and some means of writing. Pret-A-Manget supplied a cappuccino, my faithful little laptop the means to write, and here I am to scribble until my gate finally opens.
The post that I’m burning to write is the one (or three) I have all ablaze in my mind about my days on the Isle of Skye in Scotland. But I pause as I begin, struck by the vast differences between the utterly remote reaches of Skye, and the place in which I find myself at present. Here, countless faces bob round me in a waiting room, accents and loudly-spoken annoyances swirl and ebb, the flight screens blink their constant departures. I’m solidly back in the indoor realm of modern day travel, with its swift flow of talk and time. You might think that in here, my two short days in the wildlands of Skye would seem almost not to have occurred. Or at very least, rather irrelevant.
But au contraire. Right here, right in this skinny airport seat of navy vinyl, with pop music thrumming in the shop nearby, I can still taste Skye. Breath its calm. Get a bit giddy at thought of the walk down to the shore. For Skye, my friends, is now a place of its own at the center of my heart.
Dark is thick, and I am weary as the frayed last light dying out beyond the trees. The mud and cold stick to my boots and my sigh etches a frozen circle on the air. The river path I walk home at night in Oxford is a shortcut to my flat, but also a reprieve from the clatter of the streets. Sound is swallowed here, mostly, by the brooding water and untrimmed woods. Houseboats dock along this path and I cannot help but spy through the round windows as dusk falls and sets the inner rooms in bright relief against the night.
They draw and, somehow, dismay me–these long, low dwellings with narrow rooms, docked low in the muddied stream, ever in a lilt and knock against the riverbank. Most are a clutter of cups and books, clothes and logs and old plants piled on the decks, whole lives crammed into a space too narrow to contain them. They remind me of myself.
I am a gypsy soul, a restless-hearted wanderer. For far too long now I have sought my place on earth. My life, outer and inner, feels ever crammed in suitcases as I soldier on to one more new frontier. Though the journey is bright and the changing landscapes rich with adventure, come night, I am weary. My hope grows frail as I trudge alone, again, to a temporary home. The loneliness of my one, striving self far from home; the constant fight to work, to perform, to achieve; the sense of being adrift in an unsettled world: these cluster about me at night. The dread of my own unmoored existence is something I can almost taste. If only, I think, if only I could find my place on earth.