Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Divine Authorship: Reflections for Novelists from "Mere Christianity"

Photo by JulesInKY,
In my post last week I mentioned that one of the most significant events of my spiritual retreat was reading C. S. Lewis' Mere Christianity. It was the last major work of his I hadn't yet read, so I was very pleased to find it in the monastery library. As usual, Lewis' perceptive insights, personable style, and profound implications made Mere Christianity very much a life-changing read. Venturing into this book is a little like a conversion experience in itself--whether you're already a Christian or not.
During the "dramatic arc" of my retreat, I strongly heard God calling me to a complete surrender of my will to His own, and a renewed faith in the reality of His love. There were many, many passages in Mere Christianity which guided me through that week's journey--too many to write about in one blog post. Instead, I would like to share one particular passage which, while not directly related to the main "drama" of my retreat, still affected me deeply--thanks to my experience as an aspiring novelist.

In the chapter "Time and Beyond Time," Lewis attempts to explain in layman's terms the mind-boggling mystery of God's life in eternity:

Almost certainly God is not in Time. His life does not consist of moments following one another. If a million people are praying to Him at ten-thirty tonight, He need not listen to them all in that one little snippet which we call ten-thirty. Ten-thirty--and every other moment from the beginning of the world--is always the Present for Him. If you like to put it that way, He has all eternity in which to listen to the split second of prayer put up by a pilot as his plane crashes in flames.

That is difficult, I know. Let me try to give something, not the same, but a bit like it. Suppose I am writing a novel. I write "Mary laid down her work; next moment came a knock at the door!" For Mary who has to live in the imaginary time of my story there is no interval between putting down the work and hearing the knock. But I, who am Mary's maker, do not live in that imaginary time at all. Between writing the first half of that sentence and the second, I might sit down for three hours and think steadily about Mary. I could think about Mary as if she were the only character in the book and for as long as I pleased, and the hours I spent in doing so would not appear in Mary's time (the time inside the story) at all.

Instantly, when I read this paragraph, I could relate to Lewis' analogy. In working on my own novel over the past several months, there have been countless times when I've left a scene, or even a sentence, suspended while I picked up my journal and did some brainstorming. It's such an everyday experience for an author (or reader) that the profundity of it never struck me before. While I was still marveling over this, a new insight unfolded in my mind, related to my specific relationship with the characters in my story.

I have known my full plot for a long time. I have lovingly crafted my protagonist's journey, aware of both the entire arc of his character development, and experiencing individual events through his eyes as I write out the story. Any event--the trials my character has already experienced, in his "timeline," and the ones he has yet to undergo--can become the present to me, whenever and however long I desire.

The result of this mock-eternal viewpoint is that I know my protagonist fully, and I am extremely fond of him. So I was a little mortified when, after giving the several first chapters of my novel to family and friends, several commented how much they disliked the main character. (He's a cocky, irresponsible hothead of a medieval Scottish prince--I will leave the rest to your imagination.) I admitted that, at the beginning of the story, the protagonist was supposed to be a jerk. So I should not have been surprised at the negative reaction. And yet I still felt defensive of my character. I wanted to exclaim to my readers, "You have to wait and see how he turns out before you decide if you like him!"

Lewis' comments on eternity shone new light on my novel-writing experience. After reading the above passage of Mere Christianity, I realized more clearly how my early readers and I could have two completely different attitudes towards the protagonist. My readers, in a certain sense, share the timeline of the novel's characters. They cannot see (until the end) the full arc and meaning of the events, much less foretell the development of individual characters. They disliked my protagonist, quite naturally, because most of what they saw of him in the early chapters was dislikeable.

I, on the other hand, knew my character not only for his actions at any given moment, but also for who he would be by the end of the story--who I was crafting him to be. Thus I could love him (though not necessarily approve of him) even in the midst of his rash, prideful, and downright dumb mistakes. In fact, I found myself especially close to him in the fury of his darkest and most anguished moments.

All this to say, I realized that God probably sees me--and all of us--in something of the same way a novelist sees his characters. The comparison is only a shadowy hint of the reality, but it is worth reflecting on nonetheless. God loves each of us infinitely and intimately, not for our weaknesses and failures in Time, but for the splendid vision He conceives of each of us at every moment in the Eternal Now. If we thought of this more often, how would it change our approach to life's challenges and trials? And how would it alter our treatment of the people we encounter every day--fellow characters, who are, together with us, being crafted by the Holy Spirit--all towards that astonishing and unimaginable moment, when we will step out of the book of His Story (history) and into Reality--the full life of the Trinity.

C. S. Lewis in Mere Christianity reminds us of our true place in the spiritual world. I know I could stand to think about it a lot more often. If you have not read this classic work, I urge you to acquire a copy as soon as possible. Like a mountain climb, it's a self-revealing journey--and the view from the summit is beyond breathtaking.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

A Week at Christ the Bridegroom Monastery

Greetings, readers! It's very good to be back. A few days ago I returned from a week-long retreat at Christ the Bridegroom Monastery in Burton, Ohio--a new women's monastic community in our Ruthenian Byzantine Catholic Eparchy of Parma. It was a beautiful, life-changing experience--the week was so chock full of reflections and insights that I think it will take me the whole next month to unpack them on this blog!
Since I'm still recovering from the experience, so to speak, this is really a mini-post, a sort of preview of what I read and reflected on over the week. Hopefully I'll write in more detail about at least some of these points in the coming month. (If there's a particular one you'd like to hear about, let me know in the comments!)
Also, in gratitude to the sisters of Christ the Bridegroom for welcoming me into their community for the week, I'd like to share the link to their website and blog, and a few points of their mission.
I did more reading over the past week than I probably have in the past three months. It reminded me again just how much I need Great Books--spiritual and literary--to nourish my mind, heart, and soul. Here are some of the discoveries I delighted in, with mini "teaser" reflections!
"Leisure: The Basis of Culture" and "The Philosophical Act" by Josef Pieper
A pair of essays by a Catholic German professor and philosopher, written after World War II. Full of sound and piercing insights on the nature of true leisure as opposed to the "workaday world", receptivity to the "essence of things", philosophy's relation to poetry and wonder, etc. Fabulous. They've inspired me to pick up my Plato again!
Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis
A Lewis classic that I'd been wanting to read for a long time and finally got around to. Reading it was a kind of re-conversion experience in itself. If you've never read this book, watch out--it's life-changing.
Song of Songs and Theology of the Body
If there was one book of the Bible I'd avoided for years, it was the Song of Songs. Similarly, I'd long avoided picking up any works on Theology of the Body. It was a topic I simply didn't want to deal with for most of my teenage years--and my misunderstanding of which caused me quite a bit of emotional and spiritual pain. Finally allowing God to open me up and lead me into a truer understanding of both human and divine love, was the climax of this retreat. I feel a new world has opened up before me.
Christ the Bridegroom Monastery, on their website, describes their identity thus:
We are a Byzantine Catholic monastic community of women in the Eparchy of Parma dedicated to a vigilant life of prayer and hospitality according to the traditions of the Christian East. Laying down our lives in imitation of the Bridegroom, we joyfully embrace the monastic virtues of poverty, chastity and obedience. We participate in the dynamic love of the Trinity by sharing a life of prayer, work and recreation at our monastery. Meditating on Scripture, especially the Song of Songs, and immersing ourselves in a life of personal and liturgical prayer, we enter into a spousal relationship with Christ the Bridegroom. Looking to the Theotokos as our model, we open ourselves to the Divine life of the Holy Spirit, bearing forth fruit for the Church and the world. Our monastery provides a spiritual garden and a bridal chamber in which we draw others into this same life-giving relationship with Christ the Bridegroom.
The emphasis on the spousal relationship with Christ was the most significant aspect of the monastery life for me. I had long been familiar with the icon image of Christ the Bridegroom, but had never seriously ventured into having that kind of personal relationship with Jesus. As I've only just begun to discover, it is infinitely beautiful. The sisters elaborate on this unique ethos of their community:
We seek to reclaim the spousal language from the distortions of our culture, showing not only that monastic celibacy points to mankind’s union with God in heaven, but also that human sexuality is designed by God to lead men and women to this same union and to participate in the life of the Trinity.  Being vulnerable to the movement of the Holy Spirit, our monastery aspires to remind all baptized Christians of this personal invitation to union with Christ as their Bridegroom and to renew a healthy, integrated view of the human person, body and soul. 

It certainly reminded me. Honestly, my life is not the same. God bless these nuns for nurturing this crucial aspect of our humanity and our relationship to the Divine Trinity!
Besides this mission, the sisters also provide hospitality to visitors and retreatants, support of priests and seminarians, a witness to youth groups and pro-life events like the March for Life, and a joyful example of Eastern Catholic monastic life. They are small, but already doing wonderful, wonderful work. Check out their blog here:  They also have a presence on Facebook and Youtube, so be sure be take a look at those links as well! And if you happen to live or be passing through the Cleveland, OH area--what are you waiting for? Go down and stop by for an hour--or a day--or a whole week...
All photos and quotes taken from

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Being Happy Thinking: Tidbits from Stevenson's "Walking Tours"

View of Glen Frankfort (aka Island Prairie Park), where I have spent many hours "being happy thinking".

Dear readers,

My apologies for the irregular blog posts, which will continue to be irregular for a while yet. Working part-time and attempting to finish a novel before August do not leave much time for reading and reflecting on Great Books. Thus this week I do not have much prepared to share with you except a passage pulled from my faithful commonplace book. (See my first post on that here.) It's a quote from Robert Louis Stevenson's essay "Walking Tours".

A bit ironically, this particular selection has nothing to do with either walking or touring, but rather sitting by the fire. It's one of Stevenson's numerous odes-in-prose on the importance of leisure. I thought it particularly appropriate for me just now--the past several months I've been working my head off, applying for scholarships, saving for college, and writing a fantasy novel. But next week I'm putting that all away for seven full days, going on retreat at a small Byzantine Catholic women's monastery in Ohio. I know it's going to be a challenge, denying my workaholism for an entire week, but I believe this retreat will be the best thing I've done for myself for years. I look forward to many hours of being "happy thinking".

Stevenson does not venture into the spiritual effects of leisure, although he comes very close, in the moralistic tone he was rather fond of. What I mean to say is, that although he does not bring up the essential part God plays in contemplation, some of his points are spot-on anyway. I'll expound further as we proceed through the quote. Without further ado...selections from RLS's "Walking Tours":

Or perhaps you are left to your own company for the night, and surely weather imprisons you by the fire. You may remember how Burns [Robert Burns, 18th-century Scottish poet], numbering past pleasures, dwells upon the hours when he has been "happy thinking." It is a phrase that may well perplex a poor modern, girt about on every side by clocks and chimes, and haunted, even at night, by flaming dial-plates. For we are all so busy, and have so many far-off projects to realize, and castles in the fire to turn into solid, habitable mansions on a gravel soil, that we can find no time for pleasure trips into the Land of Thought and among the Hills of Vanity.

The poor, clock-haunted moderns Stevenson was referring to, by the way, were the inhabitants of Victorian Britain. How much deeper have we moderns of the 21st century fallen among the "flaming dial-plates"! From education to the workplace to being up on the latest technology, so much of society is focused on that vague thrill of "getting ahead". Apparently the phenomenon isn't quite so modern as we thought, if Stevenson sensed it back in the 1870s.

Another interesting point: "Hills of Vanity" might strike one as an odd phrase at first reading. The word "vanity" generally has negative connotations, calling to mind the shallow, the ephemeral, the ultimately meaningless. But in this context, Stevenson uses the word to the precisely opposite effect. The Land of Thought and Hills of Vanity are those pursuits of leisure which seem vain in the eyes of a utilitarian, materialistic world, but in truth are a return to the contemplation of goodness, truth, beauty, and God--everything that makes us human.

To continue:

Changed times, indeed, when we must sit all night, beside the fire, with folded hands; and a changed world for most of us, when we find we can pass the hours without discontent, and be happy thinking. We are in such haste to be doing, to be writing, to be gathering gear, to make our voice audible a moment in the derisive silence of eternity, that we forget that one thing, of which these are but the parts--namely, to live.

I rather think Stevenson would have disapproved of social media. Even when things like Facebook and Twitter are being used in good causes, so much of it simply makes us crave constant distraction. One of the immediately noticeable things, when watching people in a public place (like the restaurant where I work), is the apparent inability of many individuals to sit still for two minutes without taking out their phones. This includes adults, not just tech-savvy teens! Passing contented, quiet hours without the iPhone or tablet on hand might be unimaginable for these technology users. But our brains and souls need rest--to nurture things like creativity, real relationship, and wisdom. As Stevenson says, to live!

As we've seen, even these couple of short passages contain a plethora of points for reflection. Stevenson was fond of writing about imagination and leisure--just recall any of his famous poems from A Child's Garden of Verses, or, less well known, his essay "An Apology for Idlers" (a defense of leisure against constant work and study). His words are excellent reminders for all of us about the perils of over-activity. That's what our Christian Sabbath is for--to slow, to stop, to turn back towards our Center, Who is God. I look forward to a whole seven days of slowing down as I take my retreat next week in Ohio.