Tag Archives: the heart

The old child at the heart of him.

Morning light was filtering through fog as I read this passage from Luke Chapter 11:

No man, when he hath lighted a candle, putteth it in a secret place, neither under a bushel, but on a candlestick, that they which come in may see the light. The light of the body is the eye: therefore when thine eye is single, thy whole body also is full of light; but when thine eye is evil, thy body also is full of darkness. Take heed therefore that the light which is in thee be not darkness. If thy whole body therefore be full of light, having no part dark, the whole shall be full of light, as when the bright shining of a candle doth give thee light.

Soon enough there began to play in my mind a hymn that I haven’t sung since childhood in the Presbyterian Church, “Open My Eyes, That I May See.” I looked up the hymn in one of the several hymnals our household has collected from previous generations of my late husband’s family, and the lyrics contain the essence of a humble prayer.

But though spiritual sight must be part of what Christ is talking about, twice He uses the words, “whole body full of light.” Pause and think on that! What can it even mean? We can theorize about it, but Christ, Who called Himself “The light of the world,” is not an idea or a theory or a spiritual practice. He will have to teach us what this means by experience. Our yearly Lenten effort is our effort to return again and again to that lifelong process. And He has many ways of opening our eyes and bringing us to Himself, customized to each person’s unique situation.

In The Princess and Curdie, we meet Curdie again not long after the exciting events of The Princess and the Goblin, during which he learns a lesson on humility. But already Curdie, in his young teens, is losing some of his youthful goodness. If our lives are like mirrors that are meant to reflect the glory of our Creator, his mirror is not doing that very well; it has gotten dirty by slow degrees and not even his parents understand why their son does not bring them joy as he used to.

One reason for his not being “in a good way,” our narrator describes like this: “As Curdie grew, he grew at this time faster in body than in mind – with the usual consequence, that he was getting rather stupid – one of the chief signs of which was that he believed less and less in things he had never seen.”

MacDonald sermonizes more in this book than in The Princess and the Goblin. But his little sermons are wise and kind, so I don’t mind them. I do wonder if children would make much use of them, however. He contrasts what is happening to Curdie with the ideal:

“The boy should enclose and keep, as his life, the old child at the heart of him, and never let it go. He must still, to be a right man, be his mother’s darling, and more, his father’s pride, and more. The child is not meant to die, but to be forever fresh born.”

Looking at Curdie, I am reminded of why we are on our Lenten journey: so that we can by some small effort cooperate with God as He does whatever work is necessary to bring us back home, as the Prodigal Son came home, to the “old child” of our heart.

For Curdie, the means involved a white pigeon:

“Curdie had made himself a bow and some arrows, and was teaching himself to shoot with them. One evening in the early summer, as he was walking home from the mine with them in his hand, a light flashed across his eyes. He looked, and there was a snow-white pigeon settling on a rock in front of him, in the red light of the level sun.

“It was indeed a lovely being, and Curdie thought how happy it must be flitting through the air with a flash – a live bolt of light. For a moment he became so one with the bird that he seemed to feel both its bill and its feathers, as the one adjusted the other to fly again, and his heart swelled with the pleasure of its involuntary sympathy. Another moment and it would have been aloft in the waves of rosy light – it was just bending its little legs to spring:  that moment it fell on the path broken-winged and bleeding from Curdie’s cruel arrow.

“With a gush of pride at his skill, and pleasure at his success, he ran to pick up his prey. I must say for him he picked it up gently — perhaps it was the beginning of his repentance….”

As the pigeon lay bleeding and limp in his hand, and looked long and wondering at him, Curdie’s heart began to grow very large in his bosom. What could it mean? It was nothing but a pigeon, and why should he not kill a pigeon? But the fact was that not till this very moment had he ever known what a pigeon was.”

The drama of the next moments captures the storminess of a human heart when it strives against the pain of self-knowledge, and the temptation to despair. In the Curdie stories the white pigeons figure as messengers and angels of the divine Love, and after an indefinable time out of time, which may be less than a minute, our boy comes through the storm with clarity, and proceeds with his repentance.

With clarity… under the influence of that Light that wants to fill all the dark corners of us, to make us radiant with Himself. It does seem an impossible image, until we remember that our personal task is to respond to the light we are given, respond to the Light Who is Christ, in this moment, and do the next thing that we are able, to “clean the dirt from our mirrors.”

During Lent, the Orthodox Church gives us many tools for this holy work, and one of them is the Holy Unction service. In addition to the one I described here, another General Unction service is often held during Lent in which anyone prepared may participate, whether or not they are gravely ill, and I am looking forward to being the recipient of its healing grace this evening.

May we all make good use of our sins,
and of the lights that come to us,
and Dear Lord, fill us with Your Light.

See how the sower goes on.

“When the times are fulfilled and the end is at hand, when the world’s autumn comes and God sends His angels to reap the harvest — what will they find in the barren fields of our hearts? And yet, the time is nearly accomplished and the end close by for each of us, the time which we shall each face even before the common harvest.

“But let us not be downhearted. See how the sower goes on sowing among the rocks and thorns and by the roadside. This means that he places some hope even in such fields as these.

“And we know from the lives of the saints how often a soul which had seemed irreclaimably stifled by sin, blinded by passion, hardened in evil, became good ground, fertile and productive, purified of poisonous mixtures and alien seeds.”

-Fr. Alexander Elchaninov,  Diary of a Russian Priest

 

Since we are poor, a warmth.

FINAL SOLILOQUY OF THE INTERIOR PARAMOUR

Light the first light of evening, as in a room
In which we rest and, for small reason, think
The world imagined is the ultimate good.

This is, therefore, the intensest rendezvous.
It is in that thought that we collect ourselves,
Out of all the indifferences, into one thing:

Within a single thing, a single shawl
Wrapped tightly round us, since we are poor, a warmth,
A light, a power, the miraculous influence.

Here, now, we forget each other and ourselves.
We feel the obscurity of an order, a whole,
A knowledge, that which arranged the rendezvous.

Within its vital boundary, in the mind.
We say God and the imagination are one…
How high that highest candle lights the dark.

Out of this same light, out of the central mind,
We make a dwelling in the evening air,
In which being there together is enough.

-Wallace Stevens

I discovered this poem on the blog Kingdom Poets, where the poet-blogger D.S. Martin wonders if Stevens ought even to be “mentioned in a blog about Christian poetry.” Martin also quotes a few speculative lines from a biographer of Stevens, as to the lifelong skeptic’s motives for receiving Christian baptism on his deathbed. I’d like to read more of what he wrote later in life, but the images and evocations of this poem are familiar enough to me to make me think that Wallace Stevens had truly tasted of the Kingdom of God, that Holy Spirit-quickened heart where Christ dwells, of which He spoke when He said, “The Kingdom of God is within you.”

St. Porphyrios said provocatively, “Whoever wants to become a Christian must first become a poet.Father Stephen Freeman has quoted the saint when he writes about “what can drive us both to poetry as well as theology”:

“The reduction of the world and its ‘history’ are the tools of those who lack the imagination and patience to find the truth. The Fathers tell us to ‘pay attention.’ This is true with regard to the heart, but it is also true with regard to the world around us. Attention does not solve the mystery, but it at least acknowledges its presence and gives rise to enough wonder to make understanding possible at some point.”

“Evil is never creative. It is destructive and occasionally diverse in its activities. But creativity requires energy and commitment. Evil’s own entropy always reduces it to banality and boredom. It prefers prose: poetry is too much work.”

Fr. Stephen also quotes a poem from e.e. cummings, including the lines, “i do not know what it is about you… only something in me understands…”

The type of somethings that e.e. cummings refers to can’t be known intellectually, but they are the testimony of our own experience that “mystery is not only an aspect of the divine, but part of the nature of all reality. Everything is far more than it appears.”

I am eternally grateful to writers like Wallace Stevens who commit their strength of mind and length of days to sharing their glimpses of the mysterious reality behind the obvious,

…since we are poor, a warmth,
A light, a power, the miraculous influence.

The poetry of a wise man might crack your shell.

Many people seem to think that politics will save us, that if we could just get the right people, or “our people” in office, they would begin to set things right, however we envision that. Anthony Esolen in the article Listening Up, in the Nov-Dec 2019 issue of Touchstone magazine, discusses some reasons for this idea, and its often corresponding impulse to judge our human forefathers for their sins, judgment not “by eternal verities, but by the cheap modern substitute, the ‘political.'”

He believes we lack historical imagination, and he sets out to consider the different ways one might make better use of stories and history in general, giving examples first from antiquity:

So to attempt to transpose Xenophon or Cyrus to the current day, and to grill him with “political” questions, is not to think politically at all, but to replace reality with a caricature. You will learn nothing from Xenophon that way. You may instead be out to teach him a lesson, him, that is, being the cartoon Xenophon you have made. At no time do you allow yourself to be still and to learn, so that the poetry of a wise man might penetrate your shell, crack it open, and show you the stars.

Once you enter the world of history, you encounter the maddening complexity of human affairs, not to mention that labyrinth called the human heart. With hindsight we can say, with some confidence, that the young Octavius was far better suited for governing the Roman world than was the elder and more experienced Antony. We cannot be so sure of ourselves, though, when it comes to the noble-minded Brutus, and the ambitious and capable Julius Caesar, whom he assassinated.

Esolen goes on to mention American leaders of note, and of complex history and character, such as William Tecumseh Sherman, and Stonewall Jackson, “a genuinely kindly owner of slaves.” And then he comes to his “three broad categories of modern man, each of them characterized by the stories they listen to and tell”: The Man of Faith, The Man of Wistful Unbelief, and the Man of Superstition.

I found his categories to be very helpful in understanding differences between people in the first two groups especially, and their stories that nourish our hearts. Oh, if only the third group would quiet down and listen to some true stories! But they don’t like the stories of the other two groups, and have their own ever-changing and doubtful heroes.

“History is too dark and tangled a forest for them, sacred Scripture too high a mountain to climb. Therefore they fall into worship of the biggest or most prominent things near them: sex, themselves, the State.”

“They are not brave enough to enter the dark caverns of the human heart…. they cannot forgive what men and women really are. They have no sense of sin, which afflicts everyone, including themselves, but they grasp at being among the elect, by having the most up-to-date pseudo-political opinions.”

You can read the whole article here: “Listening Up.”

People who make history know nothing about history.
You can see that in the sort of history they make.
-G.K. Chesterton