Tag Archives: C.S. Lewis

Bicycling ages considered.

I didn’t know C.S. Lewis had written about bicycles until I read The Inklings blogAntique-Bicycle-Girl-Image-GraphicsFairy-1024x984, but I was considering my own history of bicycling when, while on vacation and staying in a house whose amenities included eight bicycles in the garage, I went for a spin with my granddaughter.

It was the first time I’d been on a bike in about 20 years, as lower back problems had made perching on a bike seat uncomfortable during my last pregnancy and beyond. I wasn’t motivated to try very hard, because by the time my back was healthier, we had moved to the suburbs,  and riding where there are a lot of cars and stop signs to look out for and accommodate is at worst harrowing, and at best a chore.  So we gave away my bicycle.

The bike I rode for just a few minutes in Oregon was a bit large for me, but that didn’t prevent me from enjoying the sensation of rolling along with the wind in my hair, smelling the pines and listening to the chatter of my little companion.

It all took me back to the freedom and happiness of my youth, when for a few years in adolescence two or three friends and I would tool around the back roads of our Central Valley villages, spanning the miles that separated our houses hidden in orange groves.

From Lewis: “‘Talking about bicycles,’ said my friend, “I have been through the four ages. I can remember a time in early childhood when a bicycle meant nothing to me: it was just part of the huge meaningless background of grown-up gadgets against which life went on. Then came a time when to have a bicycle, and to have learned to ride it, and to be at last spinning along on one’s own, early in the morning, under trees, in and out of the shadows, was like entering Paradise. That apparently effortless and frictionless gliding — more like swimming than any other motion, but really most like the discovery of a fifth element — that seemed to have solved the secret of life. Now one would begin to be happy. But, of course, I soon reached the third period. Pedalling to and fro from school (it was one of those journeys that feel up-hill both ways) in all weathers, soon revealed the prose of cycling. The bicycle, itself, became to me what his oar is to a galley slave.’

“‘But what was the fourth age?’ I asked.

“‘I am in it now, or rather I am frequently in it. I have had to go back to cycling lately now that there’s no car. And the jobs I use it for are often dull enough. But again and again the mere fact of riding brings back a delicious whiff of memory. I recover the feelings of the second age. What’s more, I see how true they were — how philosophical, even. For it really is a remarkably pleasant motion. To be sure, it is not a recipe for happiness as I then thought. In that sense the second age was a mirage. But a mirage of something.’

“‘How do you mean?’, said I.

“‘I mean this. Whether there is, or whether there is not, in this world or in any other, the kind of happiness which one’s first experiences of cycling seemed to promise, still, on any view, it is something to have had the idea of it. The value of the thing promised remains even if that particular promise was false — even if all possible promises of it are false.'”

— C.S. Lewis, Present Concerns, “Talking About Bicycles”

For myself, my memories also include unpleasant experiences on bicycles in my youth, both involving moments of panic at the realization of my helplessness. Once I was borrowing the bike of my grandmother’s friend, in a strange neighborhood. The bike had been offered to keep me entertained while the ladies had tea indoors. I blithely pedaled around the residential streets for a very few minutes and suddenly knew that I had no idea where Grandma’s friend lived, or how to get back there. I didn’t know her name; I hadn’t noted what street she lived on.

The feeling of being lost was so sharp and guilty — it was my own stupid fault, of course. With my heart beating madly I rolled along vaguely back the way I had come, and eventually saw my grandmother’s car. I went back in the house with the awareness that no one there knew how close I’d come to disaster; and I never told my secret, about how the lighthearted floating through space took away my common sense.

bicycle bloomersAnother time, with my cousins in their city, we walked our bikes up a hill so that we could ride down fast. I was wearing my cousin’s child’s cowboy hat, and as we picked up speed on the descent I felt the hat fly off at the same moment I saw that the traffic light at the bottom of the hill was turning red. My instincts told me not to slam on the brakes, for fear of losing control even more, so I ran a red light, and I think I might have screamed at least a little. Drivers of cars waited for us to go through, and as we slowed to a saner speed I noticed that the cowboy hat had a neck cord that had kept it on my head after all.

No, I didn’t get off to a good start with city riding. My favorite rides of all time are the country ones I took with Pippin riding on a small plaid child’s seat behind me, when she was a toddler. We would take a half-hour ride in the mornings sometimes, when her father worked swing shift and could watch the older children. There was a narrow road I liked to take, with oaks arching over, and in springtime the banks along the way were covered with sweet-smelling broom.

Even then, the pleasure of bicycling was for me as much in the surrounding sights and smells as in the mode of travel — which means a preference for meandering rural rides. Mr. Glad has teased me for decades about getting a tandem machine for us to pedal together, but that has never sounded relaxing in the least.

I wonder if there could be some more appealing variation of my earlier experience still ahead for me, maybe a “third age,” as above, followed by a richer “fourth age”? The gentle prodding I received to revisit the topic has made me more open to the possibility of a bicycle (or a tricycle??) in my future.bicycle_woman_rider

140th birthday of a star

g-k-chesterton at desk

Today is the birthday of our dear friend G.K. Chesterton. He was born in 1874, which makes it 140 years since God gave him to the world. I’ve begun reading Chesterton’s autobiography two times, and it seems the least interesting of all his writings I’ve tried, because it doesn’t come naturally to the author to talk about himself. Much of what I read in the first chapters was about other people, perhaps well-known in his day but not to me.

Chesterton liked people, as this clip from The Daily Herald in 1913 attests: “Quite a swamping majority of the men and women I have met in my life I have liked very much indeed. I have never met that Ordinary Man who seems to bore some people so much. All the men I have met have been the most extraordinary.”

It’s a good thing that the man’s own personality and character shine through his writings, so that we may know how extraordinary he was and is. He is for me a stellar example of the sort of writer with whom a reader can have a rich relationship. You might think from looking at my blog today that he is my literary Significant Other, being the author of my one current Bedside Book and my theme quote, and the subject of this post. He isn’t even my favorite author, but I happen to have put his birthday on my calendar.

A few years ago, for the July/August 2011 issue of Gilbert Magazine, the editors asked some Chesterton experts, “What is the most Chestertonian book you’ve ever read that was not by G.K. Chesterton?” A couple of them thought there was nothing else that could compare.

But James Woodruff named The Wind in the Willows, which happened to be published the same year as Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, because it is “a celebration of the primal things Chesterton loved — Home and Friendship and Adventure — all suffused with a sense of wonder and lived out by characters who write poetry and go forth to battle and wwind in the willows boatho eat and drink with right good will…”

Nathan Allen named The Abolition of Man by C.S. Lewis, “…because he deals with a lot of the issues that Chesterton cared about: education, the loss of a sense of a common culture, and so forth.” Other titles suggested were That Hideous Strength, also by Lewis; The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster; The Restoration of Property by Hilaire Belloc; The Restoration of Christian Culture by John Senior; and Pinocchio!

I wish I had a tidy way to take a few thoughts from and about this hero of mine and craft them into a fitting birthday tribute, but my skill and understanding don’t come near the level of my appreciation. [To demonstrate that fact: when I wrote that sentence I wasn’t yet aware that I had somehow moved his birthday forward 20 years. Ack! I think it’s fixed now.] Maybe after some more years — for his 150th? — I will do better than this mishmash. For today I will stop and let Chesterton’s own words from What is Right With the World convey the kind of attitude that has made him a favorite of mine and of ever-increasing numbers of readers:

“We are to regard existence as a raid or great adventure; it is to be judged, therefore, not by what calamities it encounters, but by chesterton hair flyingwhat flag it follows and what high town it assaults. The most dangerous thing in the world is to be alive; one is always in danger of one’s life. But anyone who shrinks from that is a traitor to the great scheme and experiment of being.”

HAPPY BIRTHDAY, Mr. Chesterton!

(May 29, 1874-June 14, 1936)

Space is the womb of life.

G.K. Chesterton said he believed that…the most practical and important thing about a man is still his view of the universe.” (I can’t find the source for that quote; does anyone know it?)

He would have liked this article I read in Touchstone magazine, “Lost in Space.” In it Michael Baruzzini compares the viewpoints of Carl Sagan and C.S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy character Elwin Ransom, and relates what modern astronomers have discovered about just how empty it is out there.

Ransom’s thoughts are quoted in the article, and they are appealing in their expression of what seems to me the nurturing and provision of the Creator:

 “…the very name ‘Space’ seemed a blasphemous libel for this empyrean ocean of radiance in which they swam. He could not call it ‘dead’; he felt life pouring into him from it every moment. How indeed should it be otherwise, since out of this ocean the worlds and all their life had come? He had thought it was barren: he saw now that it was the womb of worlds, whose blazing and innumerable offspring looked down nightly even upon the earth with so many eyes….”

Baruzzini: “Where Lewis had Ransom find a life-giving environment, Sagan found affirmation of man’s essential loneliness. While Sagan’s picture of space focused on the vast distances and vacuity of the heavens, Lewis’s character, eschewing the nihilism of modern sentiment, focused on the connections between the planets and space.

“Who was right? Is space really just a vast, empty void, as Sagan imagined? Or is the earth not rolling through emptiness, but floating in a cosmic sea of light and radiance, as Lewis envisioned?

“It turns out that Lewis was largely right.”

space240-small-magellanic-cloud_66026_600x450“Without the astrophysical processes that power the stars, the very matter that makes up our bodies would not be here. Science writer Simon Singh points out that this means we are made of nuclear waste; Carl Sagan for once got it right, and poetically so, when he stated that this means we are made of star-dust. In either case, Lewis’s instinct is confirmed: Space is the womb of life; it creates the very matter from which life and its home on earth is made.”

Read the whole article here.

Linking up to Weekends With Chesterton.

What to read during Lent? Maybe Austen.

screwtape letters book old Some people who watch a lot of television are exhorted to turn off the tube and read something – anything – during Lent. I suppose the assumption is that if they are serious enough about their repentance to change their use of leisure time that drastically, they won’t waste the effort by taking up unedifying reading habits.

Our parish bookstore is full of titles obviously appropriate for the season, like the classic Great Lent by Protopresbyter Alexander Schmemann. And I know many people who read The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis, because the senior devil’s instructions on how to keep a man in chains are so revealing of all the subtle sins we like to ignore or make excuses for. screwtapes-desktop1 FOFI didn’t get around to adding a Lent-specific book to my stacks this year, and I felt a little embarrassed about taking up a Jane Austen novel last week. If I had been more familiar with her books I might have known that there is plenty of material there for God to work with. But I blush to say that I hadn’t read one Austen book since high school.

I don’t remember what it was the particular bloggers said, but more than one book review that came my way in the last few months made me think I would like Mansfield Park. Soldier and Joy gave it to me for my birthday, and here I am.

mansfield park

The introduction by Amanda Claybaugh quickly piqued my historical/philosophical interest, as she explained the context of the story (The French Revolution) and Austen’s metaphorical connections with lines like this:

“The theater thus functions in this novel as the art form of unbridled ambitions and abrogated duties, as the art form of revolution.”

Right there, lines from our lenten prayer of St. Ephrem come to mind, the ones referring to Lust of Power and Sloth. I couldn’t wait to get into the story itself, where I was immediately introduced to sinners as common as myself.

Mrs. Norris: “As far as walking, talking, and contriving reached, she was thoroughly benevolent, and nobody knew better how to dictate liberality to others, but her love of money was equal to her love of directing, and she knew quite as well how to save her own as to spend that of her friends.”

Have you known anyone like Mrs. Norris? I have. Not being a delegating kind of person, I don’t fall into that particular type of sin. Mine are perhaps more along the lines of the Miss Bertrams, whose “vanity was in such good order that they seemed to be quite free from it, and gave themselves no airs….”

It’s these sins of vanity and pride that we who look respectable on the outside seem most prone to — and that are often invisible to ourselves. Self-centeredness is my default setting, after all, and feels perfectly natural, so why should I even think of changing the setting for a minute, much less manage to leave it at a strange place on the dial?

The same could be said of Mrs. Norris, of whom the narrator tells us: “…perhaps she might so little know herself, as to walk home…in the happy belief of being the most liberal-minded sister and aunt in the world.”

It’s good to read something during Lent that warns me not to think highly of myself, not to think I am “spiritual.” Something that facilitates my efforts to join those happy/blessed ones who in the Gospel Beatitudes are called Poor in Spirit. It’s toward that end that we pray along with St. Ephrem the Syrian: “Grant me to see my own errors and not to judge my brother….”

How can I see my own errors, when the window of my soul is all dirty with various sins? Perhaps if I repent of what I do know, I will find the window a little less dirty, so that I can see more to repent of. I’m hoping that as I progress through Mansfield Park I will encounter more stunning examples of smudged windowpanes that with God’s grace I’ll recognize as similar to my own, and get on with the scrubbing.