Growing ever upward

About a quarter-century before 9/11, I had this terrorist for a pen pal. I was a gawky 11 or 12 and met him through a Humane Society group. John, who was, in his forties about my dad’s age and lived in Scotland, always tucked in with his letters photocopied news clippings of attacks on facilities where animals were undergoing experimentation or other cruelties by the shadowy Animal Liberation Front – years before ALF became more sophisticated in their tactics. I had never heard the word terrorism. I didn’t understood that was what those attacks were, only that I loved animals and, with a childlike understanding of justice, wanted it for them after seeing an ad captioned “There will be no Christmas for Red.” In the same way that seeing “The Killing Fields” seven years later awakened me to a savage inhumanity I’d had no idea could happen in our world (I was kind of an idiot), it was a watershed moment in my life. The ordeal of the skeletal Setter is to this day seared into my mind.

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“But the whole point of the Gospels is that the coming of God’s kingdom on earth as in heaven is precisely not the imposition of an alien and dehumanizing tyranny, but rather the confrontation of alien and dehumanizing tyrannies with the news of a God—the God recognized in Jesus—who is radically different from them all, and whose inbreaking justice aims at rescuing and restoring genuine humanness.” ~ N.T. Wright

I thought of John this week after terrorists armed with knives went on a rampage just a few miles from where my daughter is studying abroad in China. Well-meaning and generous enough to spend time writing to an uninteresting kid who also loved animals, and had a sense of justice I now know is imprinted on us as being God’s fallen image-bearers. But I thought, too, of the 29 victims in Kunming: husbands, wives, even children impaled or slashed to death in front of their terrified loved one’s eyes. As good and just as your cause may be, as much as you may have suffered, in stabbing a 6-year-old you lose all moral claim.

But still, I prayed for the attackers and their own families, too. I know now terrorists are real people with real passions who somewhere in their desperation crossed a line and lost their sense of humanity. It is a heartbreakingly awful thing to fall into the hands of the Living God.

And I’m trying to forgive them for giving me a whole new way to play Worst Case Scenario inside my head. Between the few short minutes they said her heart was stopping in my womb and they had to cut her out or she’d die to the moment they put this tiny girl in my arms, I became the worst kind of helicopter mom. God has helped me so much with that as she went 3,000 miles, then 7,300, away to study. But of all the things I imagined could happen to her there, knife-wielding terrorists wasn’t even a remote scenario in the sketchy neighborhood that is my mind. Sometimes I think the knowledge of evil is among the worst curses of the Fall.

Things are so often not what they seem. Kindly friends can be terrorists, and terrorist murderers can have suffered so great an injustice they lose their sight of any other way.

C.S. Lewis touches on this so often, things not being what they seem. In “The Great Divorce,” in “Till We Have Faces,” in his shadowlands and Other. In ‘Divorce,” we come to understand that we’re not fully human until we become what we were created for – when we’ve grown into a Person. Even Creation itself longs to grow into this, and rejoices when it does: “to have been once more ridden,” the very earth and the woods and the waters singing, as it is used in the way it was made for. How much we see this in the Psalms!

In that place – the Valley of the Shadow of Light – we find that that life here is but a shadow of things to come, an inkling. One gets glimpses, even in our country, of that which is ageless, the narrator explains, telling an artist:

“When you painted on Earth – at least in your earlier days – it was because you caught glimpses of Heaven in the earthly landscape. The success of your painting was that it allowed others to see the glimpses too. But here you are having the thing itself. It is from here that the messages came.” the narrator’s friendly guide tells him.

“We’re at present ghosts by comparison, “man-shaped stains on the brightness of that air.”

Growing ever upward! What a great hope we have in this! In losing that which is not us and becoming what we truly are, fully human. I pray that I will in time grow into the mother in the story fought against joy not because she loved too much, but defectively, too little. “Human will becomes truly creative and truly our own when it is wholly God’s.” (“The Problem of Pain”). This is all through the Gospels: “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”

“Son,’ he said,’ ye cannot in your present state understand eternity…That is what mortals misunderstand. They say of some temporal suffering, “No future bliss can make up for it,” not knowing that Heaven, once attained, will work backwards and turn even that agony into a glory.”

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Arts and the New Earth

“But the romantic muse is still called to be a handmaiden of the Lord, and … the Maid of Longing dances wildly but chastely in praise to God. She nourishes us more than we realize, for our taproots which go deep in the soil draw upon the secret mysteries which she provides.” ~ Corbin Scott Carnell, “Bright Shadow of Reality: Spiritual Longing in C.S. Lewis”

I loved this book not just for what it says about Lewis and inconsolable longing – about the divine, the ecstatic wonder – but how vastly the better part of the arts reflect man’s great longing for God, by design or by common grace, and how such arts “give us a foretaste of what an ordered world might be.”

This comes with a caveat; Lewis says in The Great Divorce that “Every poet and musician and artist, but for Grace, is drawn away from the love of the thing he tells, to the love of the telling till, down in Deep Hell, they cannot be interested in God at all but only in what they say about Him.” But Lewis strikes just the right balance on the razor’s edge:

“The Well at the World’s End, the Green Hills Beyond, Shangri-La, El Dorado, Narnia – Lewis believes these are all splashes of Godlight in the dark wood of our life. … Lewis can take aesthetic experience seriously because he does not make it into a religion. By interpreting the aesthetic “under the aspect of eternity,” he is able to let the experience be itself. It points to a Great Dance, yes, and to the Lord of the Dance, but it also provides the first halting steps of that exultant movement and our feet can begin now to learn its figures and its rhythm.” (Carnell)

Exiles amid the homeland

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“I see,” she said at last, thoughtfully. “I see now. This garden is like the stable. It is far bigger inside than it was outside.”

“Of course, Daughter of Eve,” said the Faun. “The further up and the further in you go, the bigger everything gets. The inside is larger than the outside.”

Lucy looked hard at the garden and saw that it was not really a garden but a whole world, with its own rivers and woods and sea and mountains. But they were not strange: she knew them all.

“I see,” she said. “This is still Narnia, and more real and more beautiful then the Narnia down below, just as it was more real and more beautiful than the Narnia outside the stable door! I see… world within world, Narnia within Narnia…”

“Yes,” said Mr Tumnus, “like an onion: except that as you go in and in, each circle is larger than the last.”

~ C.S. Lewis, The Last Battle

That inconsolable longing

“… That unnameable something, desire for which pierces us like a rapier at the smell of a bonfire, the sound of wild ducks flying overhead, the title of The Well at the World’s End, the opening lines of Kubla Khan, the morning cobwebs in late summer, or the noise of falling waves?

It appeared to me therefore that if a man diligently followed this desire, pursuing the false objects until their falsity appeared and then resolutely abandoning them, he must come out at last into the clear knowledge that the human soul was made to enjoy some object that is never fully given–nay, cannot even be imagined as given–in our present mode of subjective and spatio-temporal experience. This Desire was, in the soul, as the Siege Perilous in Arthur’s castle–the chair in which only one could sit. And if nature makes nothing in vain, the One who can sit in this chair must exist. I knew only too well how easily the longing accepts false objects and through what dark ways the pursuit of them leads us: but I also saw that the Desire itself contains the corrective of all these errors. The only fatal error was to pretend that you had passed from desire to fruition, when, in reality, you had found either nothing, or desire itself, or the satisfaction of some different desire. The dialectic of Desire, faithfully followed, would retrieve all mistakes, head you off from all false paths, and . . . to propound, but to live through, a sort of ontological proof. This lived dialectic, and the merely argued dialectic of my philosophical progress, seemed to have converged on one goal; accordingly I tried to put them both into my allegory which thus became a defence of Romanticism (in my peculiar sense) as well as of Reason and Christianity.”

~ C.S. Lewis, From the Preface to Pilgrim’s Regress

Along this vein, I just started an awesome book on Lewis’ notion of Sehnsucht, Corbin Scott Carnell’s Bright Shadow of Reality: Spiritual Longing in C. S. Lewis. It is really intriguing so far; you can buy it here.