Note to My Readers: from mid-June to mid-August (6/18 - 8/20), I will be taking a summer break from posting new articles for my Thursday and Friday slots. This will only affect my Thursday series on the global growth of Christianity, and my Friday series, the "Theological Bestiary" of birds, both of which will resume in late August. During the summer, I'll be dusting off some of my best essays from the first few years of this blog (a decade ago), as well as my verse play "Thus Ends the World," and re-posting them in the Thursday and Friday slots. All other weekdays will continue to feature new material throughout the summer.
Sunday, July 31, 2016
Saturday, July 30, 2016
Show unto me, O Lord, thy mercy,
And delight my heart with it.
Let me find thee,
Whom so longingly I seek…
I am the sheep
Who wandered into the wilderness:
Seek after me,
And bring me home again to thy fold.
Do with me what thou wilt,
That all the days of my life
I may bide by thee, and praise thee,
With all those who art in Heaven with theeFor all eternity. Amen.
- Jerome, early church father
Friday, July 29, 2016
(Painting: "Still Life with Grapes, Apple, and Two Books," by Francois Barraud, 1929)
I'm sometimes asked for book recommendations, but the truth is that all my recommendations, while hopefully reflecting something of the innate value of a book, are also deeply rooted in my subjective personal experience. So, for my Friday essays during these summer months, I'm going to be giving some brief book reviews and recommendations by relating the works that have been most influential in the various stages of my life.
17.) Category: Poetry
Top Pick: The Works of Alfred Lord Tennyson
Honorable Mentions: The Works of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow; Four Quartets and Murder in the Cathedral, by T. S. Eliot; Lays of Ancient Rome, by Thomas Babington Macaulay
Here's another area of literature, just as in fiction, where I'm far more keen on the 19th century than I am the 20th or 21st. I love poetry--it's like music for the soul, and truly good poetry speaks to me in the voice of my deepest mystical instincts. Snippets of poetry have become the mottoes and anthems of my life's adventures. But, unfortunately, much contemporary poetry is rather too dark, and too dismissive of the basic beauties of the poetic tradition (such as meter and rhyme), such that I find it only rarely appealing. That's probably nothing more than a matter of personal taste, but, as Pascal said, "The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of," and for me that means that I love old poetry and usually detest new poetry. Unfortunately, this also means that my own poetry (in addition to being held back by my rather obvious limitations as a poet) will never be regarded as being of great literary quality, because it rhymes too much and rarely broods on depressing subjects.
But I adore the Golden Age of English poetry--the Romantic and Victorian periods, where good poets were the rock stars of their society, and new releases of poetic works were received with the anticipation of a new Star Wars movie. (I think I would have fit rather well in that society.) Tennyson has always been my favorite, and his justly-adored popular poems, such as "Ulysses" and "The Charge of the Light Brigade," have long been go-to sources of inspiration for me (the ending of "Ulysses" is so good that it merits memorization and frequent recitation); and his Idylls of the King are simply beautiful. Longfellow is another of my favorites, fondly admired for being a Mainer and a distant relation of mine as well as for the quality of his verse--his Song of Hiawatha is near the top of my list of most beloved poems. T. S. Eliot is growing on me (even though he's from the 20th century!) as a remarkable poet combining faith and artistry. Finally, I've also listed Macaulay's Lays of Ancient Rome, a somewhat lesser-known work, but of high merit, particularly if classical history is of interest to you.
One caveat that I have to include is that appreciation of great poetry is usually limited, unfortunately, to one's own native language--so while I'm sure that Homer and Virgil and Dante and Baudelaire are breathtaking in their grace, and while I've enjoyed translations of their works, I probably won't be able to fully understand the beauties of their verse until I can speak ancient Greek, Latin, Italian, and French like a native. Nonetheless, I'd be remiss in not mentioning them.
18.) Category: Mysticism
Top Pick: Revelations of Divine Love, by Julian of Norwich
Honorable Mentions: Hymn of the Universe, by Teilhard de Chardin; Seeds of Contemplation, by Thomas Merton; The Cloud of Unknowing, 14th-cent. anonymous; The Dark Night of the Soul and The Ascent of Mount Carmel, by John of the Cross; Interior Castle, by Teresa of Avila
As you can tell from my rather lengthy list, Christian mysticism is a large part of my intellectual and devotional life. "Mysticism" is a word that sounds odd and scary if you're not familiar with it; but that's mostly because the Western tradition has intellectualized its doctrine to too far a degree. In point of fact, mysticism and doctrine are two sides of the same coin of everybody's Christian experience (and the Eastern Christian tradition has done a much better job of keeping them together). Mysticism refers to the experiential reality of the Christian person's journey with God, of those almost-ineffable qualities and processes of a soul's slow formation into the likeness of the image of Christ. Mystical literature, then, is that which focuses on this "interior" dimension of Christian experience, and particularly on the upward progress of a person's spiritual journey toward greater union with God. In some of the literature, this is accompanied by visions, but that's not an essential element--it is characterized more by a focus on prayer and divine union than anything else.
My favorite work in this regard is Revelations of Divine Love, a breathtakingly beautiful reflection on the love of God written in the midst of a time of almost unbelievable suffering (the Hundred Years' War and the Black Death). It also incorporates a wildly hopeful view of the final judgment, of God's great work yet to come, restoring all things and making "all things well." My life has been so enriched by this book that it cannot really be fully expressed. Julian of Norwich is too often under-appreciated by evangelicals (even though the much-admired evangelical writer A. W. Tozer went so far as to laud Julian as being his "girlfriend"). A familiarity with her works would prepare the soil of evangelicalism to consider certain elements of classical Christian theology that we've largely lost (such as the hope of an optimistic final restoration for all things and a sense of divine union as being the goal of our spiritual ascent). Julian is probably now best read in a translation, since her English is archaic to modern ears--I'm now using, and very much enjoying, the John Skinner translation.
Thursday, July 28, 2016
Copyright Matthew Burden, 2001
(See sidebar menu for links to all previous chapters)
It was a long journey, but a joyful one. Thirteen Scots, two Northumbrian knights, two Saxon brothers, and a young Jewish woman and her uncle made a happy company as they returned along those same roads that they had traversed so quickly before. The weather had grown slightly colder as they faced the onset of the winter months; chill winds descended upon them from the west. In every village they approached, their reputation had already preceded them by days, sometimes and they found many of the villagers had withdrawn from their daily tasks to see what the group of travelers would do in their settlement. Edward would often take the time to stop, to speak to the local people—the priests, the magistrates, the leaders of the Jews—to spread the message of Christ’s love for all people.
The journey northward, back toward Newcastle and the Scottish border, proved relatively uneventful compared to their former travels. The greatest event of that journey proved not to be a battle, a chase, or a desperate escape, but the slow transformation of one man’s life. Hannah’s uncle Eleazer, who up to that point had kept his involvement in the group fairly withdrawn, was struck by Edward’s message as they wound their way along the journey. He began listening attentively to the Gospel story, began sitting in on the friends’ times of prayer together, and lent his strength to help in their work for the poor. He began to brighten to this new friends, and, even though he still did not appear to wholly agree with their philosophies, he enjoyed their company. Hannah was delighted to witness the change in her beloved uncle. It seemed that at long last, the scattered shards of her life were beginning to re-align themselves into something beautiful.
After passing York, the travelers pressed north with a renewed sense of urgency. Time was slipping by, and winter was setting in, wrapping its icy fingers around the land. They were drawing so near that it felt like a daily call on their hearts to make it home, and the desire to see their old friends burned ever brighter.
The roads seemed to stretch out longer and longer each day, and their feet felt as though they were weighed down by lead ballast. Yet as they drew nearer to Newcastle, Edward felt an issue heavy on his heart, which he had been too frightened to approach. But it was coming, and he knew it. Soon he would be forced to decide, and his heart was split.
Then they saw them--the walls of Newcastle reaching out like the welcoming arms of friends long missed. The sky was overcast, sporting dull gray tones, but that did not succeed in keeping down the spirits of the travelers. They practically ran over the old Roman bridge to the city, their feet flying. They gathered one last time for prayer and bid a fond farewell to Thomas and Stephen, who set off for the castle.
The rest of the group stayed with Hannah as she proceeded to the house of Ruth. He heart was beating with excitement, her eyes filled with light. She rapped on the door, biting her lip with hopeful anticipation. The door swung inward, and Ruth stood there with little Samuel in her arms. As soon as she saw Hannah, Ruth let out a cry of joy and rushed out to embrace her.
“Jacob!” Ruth called happily into the house. “It’s Hannah! She’s back!” Her eyes wandered over the company until they fell on Eleazer, and she smiled brightly. “You did it!” she whispered happily.
“Yes,” Hannah smiled. “And I had some help, too.”
Ruth’s eyes widened as she looked over the company of Scots, and she nodded. “I can see that. There’s obviously quite a story behind all of this.”
“More than you know. I have so much to tell you.”
Samuel reached up and grabbed a lock of Hannah’s long hair. “Han! Han!” he bubbled with the sheer joy of young laughter.
“Oh, I’ve missed you, Samuel,” she said, taking the boy out of Ruth’s arms and twirling him around.
Eleazer came up close to them and laid a gentle hand on the child’s head. “Perhaps now we can begin to build another life out of these ashes,” he said, placing his strong arm around Hannah’s shoulders.
Hannah melted into his embrace, taking comfort in his warm strength and remembering how her father used to do the very same thing.
“Yes,” she replied, casting a smile in Edward’s direction, “a new life.”
~ ~ ~
Raymond’s house appeared much the same as it had on their last visit: quiet, peaceful, and quite full. Edward, Malcolm, and Alfred had decided to visit the place again, a place where so many memories had been wrought for them. They were greeted by several of the older boys who had been working in the fields, bringing in the very last of the harvest.
One of the boys, whom Edward recognized as Kurt, immediately set off running to the house to find Raymond. They continued walking, smiling and waving to the orphans as they appeared, gazing curiously at them from across the field or from behind the house. By the time they were almost up to the door of the house, Raymond appeared from within, a warm smile on his face.
“Edward! Malcolm! So, you’ve returned at last!” He shook their hands vigorously, then turned to Alfred. “Ah, yes, and I remember you too. Brothers, right?”
“Well, I’m glad to see you’ve found the right company at last.”
“It took me a while, but the good Lord was patient with me.”
“He always is,” said Raymond, giving him a hearty pat on the back. “Well, come in, my friends. No doubt you’ve a story to tell, and I want to hear every word of it!”
They followed him inside, out of the chill winter wind. Felice was there, and served them each a small loaf of oven-baked bread. Alfred was hesitant to look at her, wondering if she would blame him for what happened at their previous encounter. She, however, seemed calm and serene, unperturbed by the visitors’ presence as she listened to the story from start to finish.
When the long tale had been told, Raymond and Felice sat in stunned silence.
“Well,” Raymond found his voice at last. “The Lord was certainly merciful to you.”
“Amen,” Edward said, putting away the last of his bread.
They sat in silence for a long while, each one contemplating the spread of adventures that had caught them up in the past weeks.
Then Alfred rose, his brow furrowed in thought. “May I speak with you alone for a few minutes, Sir Raymond?”
“Of course,” he replied, rising from his seat. “Let’s step outside.”
They exited, leaving Edward and Malcolm alone while Felice busied herself with tending the fire.
“Malcolm,” Edward said softly, “I don’t know what to do.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, with…with Hannah. I feel as though I belong in Melrose. But I also feel somehow that I belong with her now.”
Malcolm nodded astutely, rubbing a hand through his red hair. “I wondered when you would bring that up.”
The Scot chuckled. “It wasn’t difficult to see. You’ve been brooding about something ever since we passed York.”
“So…what do you think?”
Malcolm shrugged, leaning back in his chair, his hands clasped behind his head. “How can I offer advice on this? I have my own feelings, certainly, but that doesn’t mean that they’re right. I would tell you to pray, and to talk with Hannah. She should have some say in the matter, I think.”
Edward nodded. “All right. That’s sound advice. But let me ask you this: where am I needed most? Am I needed in Melrose?”
He gazed around the little lodge-house as if seeking inspiration for an answer. After a long period of silence, he sighed. “I know this: you are loved in Melrose. And whatever you choose, you will always have friends there. But in all honesty, Edward—we have heard and learned the lessons that you came there to teach us.”
Raymond appeared in the doorway and beckoned Felice to come out to him. She left the fire, stepping outside and walking slowly with him down the trail to the pond. They watched her leave, then Malcolm turned back to his friend.
“Yes, I would definitely say that this is something you should discuss with Hannah. I know the Lord will guide you in this, Edward.”
He smiled at the Scot. “If I leave Melrose, though, I will sorely miss all of you.”
Malcolm shrugged a little, trying to downplay the wistful sorrow that showed clearly in the lines of his face. “You’ve been a good friend to us all. You will, of course, have to stop by at least once. After what we’ve gone through to keep you safe, we’re not going to let you get away without coming back for a few days.”
“All right,” he laughed. “I’ll return once more to while away the morning hours on the banks of the Tweed. And then—who can say?” He sat back in his chair, a smile on his face. “It’s a confusing matter, Malcolm—to find one’s place in the world. Some people are born and raised knowing what they will become, but for those of us who don’t have that privilege…well, it’s rather frightening. Exciting, but frightening.”
“Live it out for Christ,” Malcolm said, “and he’ll take care of the rest.”
The door swung open, and Alfred strode in, beaming brightly, followed by Raymond and Felice. His boots thumped heavily against the wooden floor, marching purposefully forward. It was clear he had an announcement to make.
“Edward, Malcolm,” he nodded to each of them in turn. “I’ve decided that I will be staying here.”
“Here?” Edward repeated.
“Yes, Ed. I—I feel responsible for what happened when my men were here, and I feel I owe Raymond and his family a love-debt that I am obligated to fulfill. They’ve agreed together to take me on, and I will be living here, working with them in the fields and with the children.”
Malcolm could not hide his surprise, but Edward rose from his seat, stepped forward, and embraced his brother.
“I can think of no better place.” Then he paused, stepped half a pace back, and looked into his brother’s face. “Not so long ago, I never thought I would be able to embrace you again, Alfred. I thought you were too far out of reach. I’m glad I was wrong.”
Alfred smiled. “Thank you, Ed,” he whispered.
~ ~ ~
Twilight descended quietly over Newcastle. Edward and Malcolm had walked back from the house of Raymond, leaving Alfred to get adjusted to his new home. The Scots had made camp along the banks of the river, not far from the house of Ruth, where Hannah and Eleazer were staying.
Malcolm bid his friend goodnight and went to join his men by the riverside. Edward stood for some time, gazing out over the dark waters of the Tyne. His breath formed puffs of steam in the cool air as he contemplated what to do. His body cried out from exhaustion, and his mind screamed against him, pulling him in a thousand different directions at once.
“Lord, help me,” he breathed, drawing in a great gasp of night air. He spun on his heel and marched toward Ruth’s house, the flickering light of candles still showing through the cracks in the wall. He was about to knock on the door when he noticed a figure standing outside, in the deep shadows under the eaves, watching him closely.
“I’ve been waiting for you,” she said softly.
“Shall we go for a walk by the river?”
She nodded. “Do you remember what happened last time we took a walk by the river at night?” she asked when they were down near the water’s edge.
“How could I forget? Let’s pray that such a thing doesn’t happen again. I think I’ve had enough of that sort of adventure.”
They came to the far side of the bridge, a good distance away from where the Scots had pitched their camp. The same thoughts were surging through both of their minds, but neither spoke a word in the magic of the moment, watching the night mist swirl over the river. The moon, a thin crescent hanging just above the horizon, showered dim light down on them, just to enough to be able to read each other’s expression.
“You remember,” Edward said, turning to look into her eyes, “when I awoke after my injury—what we spoke about?”
She smiled as he took her hands in his. “I remember,” she replied. “We spoke of—of life, the adventure of it all—of living for Christ.”
“And we said that we would face the adventure together.”
“Yes,” she murmured, leaning close to him. Her voice was barely above a whisper as they stood there, the sound of rippling water filling their ears.
“But where will the adventure take us?” he wondered aloud.
“Does it matter? Wherever the need is greatest, we’ll be there together—and the Lord will always be with us.”
“Yes,” Edward agreed, his eyes flooding with tears as he looked at her, leaning in to place a gentle kiss on her cheek. “Always.”