Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Gloom to Radiance: reflections from Oxford

Addison's Walk, Oxford

Two days home from leading the latest Oxford Creative Writing Master Class, and, now that the phantasms of jet lag have faded, I'm eager to share a highlight from one of our OCWMC participants.

Mary Lynn Spear is no literary neophyte. Bringing a depth of artistic experience to the master class, and an imagination well-seasoned to wonder, Mary Lynn wrote an enchanting piece that exposes a breathless insider's vantage point on the array of literary stimulation lying around every country footpath and cobbled street corner.  

I went for a walk in the Cotswolds today.  Not so very far from where Churchill was born, and CS Lewis walked. It’s no wonder this place breeds inspired men.  A hundred birds sounded, and I saw a pheasant skitter out across the path. Wood pigeons cooed incessantly in the trees before bolting up into the sky feather-powered, adding drumbeat to endless birdsong.

But it was the sun—the sun breaking over plowed fields and green paths through the hedgerows glistening with morning dew. The sun, illuminating a honey stone cottage in the distance, bordered by undulating ribbons of green and broken brown. The sun, glowing through white blossoms on branches stretched in morning praise, white scattered on the grasses beneath--so many fallen stars soon to go the way of all un-branched things.  …the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine. The sun, laying softly on moss mounds trailing off into the underbrush.

They are like a dream, like grass that is renewed in the morning.  In the morning it flourishes and is renewed; in the evening it fades and withersSatisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, that we may be glad and rejoice all our days.

I stopped and read Psalm 90. Yesterday we sat in Baliol College’s hall, where farmer-boy John Wycliffe, economist Adam Smith, and atheist Richard Dawkins studied and thought the great thoughts which would move men and nations. How Moses’ words turn in to the core of humanity, like an x-ray machine opening up the secrets of the inmost being and revealing the spiritual skeleton which forms man. How they open up my ways, night-vision seeing into the gloom of wandering days and sight struggling with unbelief.  Always, always, God is good. It is easier to take heart, in a woodland forest kissed by the morning.

Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us, and for as many years as we have seen evil. Return, Oh Lord, how long? Have pity on your servants!

Massive beams soared over the expanse of Baliol’s ceiling, keeping mysteries they had looked down upon for centuries. But grounding them to earth still stood the stone walls, stained with drips downward like so many spoiled thoughts and dreams birthed in this ancient room. Carvings of design and beauty traced across wooden walls. Yet the dust on them spoke of days passing into night. You return man to dust and say, “Return, O children of man!”

Faces of men looked on from vast, gilded paintings: men who posed to be remembered by posterity, but who knows now, who they were? You sweep them away as with a flood; they are like a dream, like grass…

Under their noble white collars so dated, billowing sleeves and august look, what secrets lived? You have set our iniquities before you. Our secret sins in the light of your presence.

Some of these walls have stood a thousand years, yet more. For a thousand years in your sight are but as yesterday when it is past, or as a watch in the night. You sweep them away as with a flood, they are like a dream, like grass.

Yet-to-be-famous faces filled this hall, saw while not seeing these familiar walls; left their scuff on floors and bowed the benches deeper, who became fine artists of philosophies destined to raise up, and to ruin. For we are brought to an end by your anger; by your wrath we are dismayed. You have set our iniquities before you…
I am here in Oxford for a writer’s conference.  I am supposed to write. This desire to  write, it burns in me for giving just a few, effective words for our children’s children, and for those setting the breakfast table every morning for a posterity who will turn their faces upward or inward, outward or into the depths. Let your work be shown to your servants, and your glorious power to their children. I do not know if God will give me words. I do not know if He will withhold words and make the pressure of thoughts without words an affliction of its own kind. I do not yet know what will be.
Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and establish the work of our hands upon us; yes, establish the work of our hands.


Next morning I started out under a lowering sky, and the world seemed changed. I’ve thought a time or two about how life under common grace must be like the world at dawn: not black, but grey with enough light to see and do.  Contrast life in Christ, not grey but gold, emblazoned with Light, seeing and doing for eternal days.

The path on which I set one foot after another is the same chipped mulch as any other person on the planet would find it. Birds still sound out in number, but I confess more tentative than yesterday. I almost want to say that the white of the blossoms show more white-ly against the gray sky, perhaps like true goodness and truth against the graying of modernity.

But altogether, the fields don’t gleam gold today, or the sunrays flaunt their abundance over steaming soil of the plowed hills.  Dew doesn’t expend a million diamonds, and the sod beside the path is just damp, a bit cold, last year’s leaves dead-fallen among them.  A closed sky wrapped in clouds stands still and somber over the future of this day, over the distance of the horizon.  No birds startle hastily to wing, though a few brave ones sing. Cooing of a pigeon is answered by another but somehow they sound mournful in the gloom under the trees. I thought I remembered them sounding peaceful. I thought I remembered a little kingdom shining under those trees, amid the moss and bracken, where felled flowers shone. The wild yellow primroses stay closed, their heads bowed.

What marks us called by His Name, compared to those nameless who pass us on the sidewalks of Seattle and London? With what difference do we walk through? In our world, where Christ says to us, “…you are my friends…I have called you friends…” the dark places shine in the light of His Presence and the rough places are made plain. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a Light has shown.  Hidden in Him we see not only night turn to grey but the sun break over the hills and flood gold into secret places. He is the radiance of the glory of God, and the exact imprint of His nature. The Light walks with us and in us.

We met Lili yesterday.  She up and walked into our lives in an Oxford cafe, and spent the day with us.  She didn’t want to hang around if we were some religious sect, she said. But she stayed, and I think she had a memorable day.  We walked the streets of Oxford and she pointed out how rare it was to hear footfall any more—people’s shoes are mostly silent. “Silent feet,” she said, and told me about her poetry and we talked about the mystery of trees. Addison’s Walk we found blooming wildly, that place where CS Lewis spent his last night as an atheist before the Light found him. She stayed, and told me all about her atheist self, how she’d walked into that church at thirteen and looked around, pronounced them all hypocrites in her mind, and walked out the door. How could God possibly be a Person, she wondered? Does that mean He has a male anatomy, she asked, just not in those words exactly; and then laughed and said she’d bet I didn’t expect to be talking about that today. But she looked curiously at me when I said I knew Him, and that I could not be good apart from God.

No light until He fills up with Light.

I think…I think she gave up a sunny day, back at thirteen years, and took up an overcast in its place. She met us at sixty-nine years, hours sans color, and she was captivated by a glimpse into the sunlit places.

With what words does one begin to explain?

Mary Lynn Spear (OCWMC, April, 2017)

For more information about future Oxford Creative Writing Master Class opportunities, email me at bondbooks.net@gmail.com and visit bondvoyage.webs.com

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