Thursday, March 20, 2014

What Are We Saying?

I shocked myself when the words were out. My family was busily preparing for the arrival of out of town guests, the atmosphere was a bit harried and tense, and my ten-year-old quoted some dialogue from Lord of the Rings perfectly - for the third or fourth time in the hour. I burst out: "Can't you say anything that isn't out of a book?"

What was I saying? Was my son exhibiting a weakness or a strength? I had to laugh at myself, as if lines borrowed from books, especially in a home where the reading of books is so highly valued, was to be criticized.

I'm sure I haven't written anything original, that hasn't found its source out of a book. "The mind feeds on ideas," says Charlotte Mason, and "the best thoughts the world possesses are found in books." These oft repeated phrases are from her books. The more we read, the more ideas our mind gathers and feeds on. This whole exchange with my son got me thinking about all the books I had read most recently and some of the ideas I had absorbed from them, pondered, evaluated, accepted or rejected. Our hearts are a bottomless repository of the ideas we expose them to; our meditations inevitably result in speech, just as Jesus reminds us: "out of the heart the mouth speaks."

Sometimes it's an idea from a book that takes hold and causes me to reconsider or change something in my life. A simple example of this happened recently after I had been reading Davita's Harp by Chaim Potok. Davita related how every time she asked her mother what a word meant, her mother sat her down and gave a very long and detailed description of the word from its origin, through it's derivations, down to its current use. It inspired me to return to an old hobby of studying the etymology of words and I made a mental note to myself to find a good resource online to spend more time studying the history of words.

At other times, the circumstances of my life that occupy my mind seem to be reflected in some passage or other I come across in reading. In the latter case, I often wonder if I wasn't in this particular situation if I even would have noticed the thought on the page. In the past six months I have experienced the death of a mother, the birth of a grandchild, and shared in many inexplicable and difficult sufferings of close friends, not to mention tremendous trials in my own life. God's ways in our lives are often dark to the eyes of our understanding.

So when I run across comments by characters in A Peasant Girl's Dream by George MacDonald like this:

"So what is going to happen," she asked. "The will of God," he responded, I smile and my heart agrees.

Again, I came across this perplexity in the profound truth reflected by the illiterate cottage woman giving counsel to Silas Marner in his bafflement at the ways of God:

"If us as knows so little can see a bit o' the rights, we may be sure as there's a good and a rights bigger nor what we can know..."

And: 

"It's the will of them above as many things should be dark to us, but there's some things as I've never felt in the dark about and they're mostly what comes of a day's work. You were hard done by, Master Marner, once, and it seems as you'll never know the rights of it - but that doesn't hinder there being a rights, Master Marner, for all it's dark to you and me."

This comfort was reflected in the writing of Mako Fujimura when he expounded on that shortest, and most profound verse of scripture, "Jesus wept," which shows our Lord's sympathy in our pain and loss this side of heaven, which I also hear echoed in these lines from The Wreck of the Deutschland by Gerard Manly Hopkins:

"Beyond saying sweet, past telling of tongue,
Thou art lightning and love, I found it, a winter and warm;
Father and fondler of heart thou hast wrung:
Hast Thy dark descending and most art merciful then..."

So often our response to the burdens of life is to want to cast them off, to run from our problems, change our physical surroundings to restore some feeling of equilibrium or peace. We throw off our anchors, as Wendell Berry so often bemoans, in failing to value community and chasing some elusive better place, that old "grass is greener on the other side," thinking. In his description of his fictional Port William, I read this comment in That Distant Land:

"It looked older than its history, and yet, in Port William, as everywhere else, it was already the second decade of the twentieth century...one of the characteristic diseases of the twentieth century was making its way: the suspicion that they would greatly improve if they were someplace else...If port William could not save him, then surely there was another place that could."

And I could continue on and on in this vain, one quote linking to another, one book connecting to the next, one thought provoking word dropped here and there in this novel, that poem, the other essay. Our reading gives counsel, waters our dry souls, sheds light, provides comfort, tidies our ragged edges. In acknowledging this, I am not suggesting there is anything wrong in just letting it simply bring us pleasure, entertainment, or relaxation. I agree with another author I'm reading, John Stewart Collis who reflects in his memoir of his war-time service on an English farm in The Worm Forgives the Plough:

"He who seeks happiness can find it in two ways. He can find it when the mind is absorbed and the body pleasantly active...He can find it also when the mind is absorbed and the body forgotten. This happens when reading a great book: on such occasions we as good as leave our bodies and go a-journeying without them. Few, if any, pleasures excel this and the secret is that in both cases the ego is disposed of - quite forgotten. Consciously or not, that is the goal of everyone, to forget his ego, and to subdue the ego's two servile and obsequious slaves - the restless body and the wandering, lunatic mind."

Ought I not then to have been grateful rather than irritated when, in the mind and body frenzy of household preparations, I heard my youngest making the load lighter by bringing forth the rich treasure stored up in his heart out of the other world, that ever present and accessible world of books?

For the joy of reading,

Liz

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