The burning of Notre-Dame

French Christians sing “Je vous salue, Marie” (Hail Mary) as the Cathedral burns last night:

I’ve been loosely following reactions to the news in a few forums I read. Most of the comments are about what you’d expect: shock and sadness at the fire, relief that no lives have been lost (or even reported hurt, last I’ve seen), speculation about the cause, people telling each other to stop speculating about the cause. Some are mourning the loss of so much of the Cathedral as a symbol of Christianity; others are pointing out that the Church is made out of people, not buildings; both parties, of course, are correct.

Notre-Dame is a building, of far less worth than human life. It can be rebuilt –it won’t be exactly the same, but it will survive in some form. Just look at Coventry Cathedral: despite its irreparable losses in the Blitz, the new Cathedral is beautiful and does a lovely job of incorporating the ruins of the old. Even with the loss of Notre Dame’s roof, and its spire, and its beautiful stained glass, the destruction was not complete.

At the same time, the Cathedral is much more than “just a building”. It is a symbol of history, memory, the sacred, of France herself. Its site has been a place of worship not just for the 850 years that Notre-Dame has stood, but for hundreds of years before that, dating back to at least the Roman era. Many Cathedrals have been lost to fire and other disasters throughout history (again: see Coventry), but this is the first that I have witnessed*, and I was moved to tears as I watched footage last night. We have lost something beautiful, haven’t we?

Notre-Dame is/was a symbol of Christianity in France — it is my prayer that the burning of the Cathedral will not be for nothing. I hope to see it restored and rebuilt, but more than that, I hope that this tragedy moves many in France and beyond to open not just their wallets for restoration efforts but their hearts to God. May these flames spark revival!

* NB: St Jude’s Cathedral in Iqaluit was also irreparably damaged by fire within recent memory (2005); however, I barely remember hearing about it at the time, so for me it doesn’t count as one I’ve personally “witnessed”.

Boredom as discipline (a follow-up)

Last week I wrote a post about Manoush Zomorodi’s book, Bored and Brilliant and the value of letting our minds wander in as undistracted an environment as we can regularly manage. (Again: it’s a great book and you should read it.) Since that post was closing in on two thousand words I thought I had better stop writing and publish it, but I hadn’t actually yet run out of things it prompted me to think about. So, here are some further things I’ve been gnawing on.

This book actually meshes well — strange as this may seem — with something I read last month, Sara Hagerty’s Unseen: The Gift of Being Hidden in a World that Loves to be Noticed. Since I read Unseen I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to live a “hidden” life, especially in regard to Biblical language around being “hidden in God” or “hidden in Christ”. What does it mean to be hidden in God? How do we cultivate that private, inner life? I’ve been mulling this over with some of my friends (hi, Heather) via email. Hagerty’s whole thing is taking those moments of our days where our instincts are to distract ourselves, or bury our emotions, or vent to friends, and instead use them as prompts to turn toward God in prayer — particularly when we are angry, hurt, etc., but really (ideally) all of the time. It’s like being a tree — we see the trunk and the limbs above the ground, but in reality the great strength of the tree is in the root system, hidden from view. The inner life of relationship with God, hidden from others, is our root system, and it’s what our flourishing depends on.

How does that mesh with what Zomorodi is talking about it? I have no idea if she is religious or not, but that’s beside the point perhaps. What stands out to me in this context is not something from the book, but an anecdote she related in her interview on the Team Human podcast. Zomorodi takes her show on the road to college campuses, and one of the exercises she has students do is to take a piece of paper and write something down on it — just a thought, not necessarily anything weighty. But then their instruction is to tear the piece of paper up and never tell her, or anyone else, what was written on it. And she’s found that students are aghast, they find it really difficult to do, because we are so primed by our natural drive for connection with others and by the techno-social forces driving our world right now, that it seems completely bizarre to have a thought and not immediately share it. Zomorodi is concerned about privacy in the sense that we often think of — stopping websites from tracking our data, etc. — but also in terms of privacy of thought, being not only able but willing to keep things to ourselves, even to take pleasure in that. Is that a skill that is disappearing? It seems to me that maybe it is.

So here’s the intersection of hiddenness and boredom/stillness and the delight of not saying it all: the secret place of prayer. Our days are filled with all these little cracks of time — waiting in line, pausing between activities, settling down before bed, taking a tea break — and we so easily reach for things to fill them: to books, to our phones, to the internet perhaps above all. (Quick, internet! Amuse me!) Zomorodi reminds us that those cracks are where, if we surrender to “doing nothing”, our brains find their most creative space. Hagerty reminds us that those moments are where, if we surrender to “doing nothing”, our hearts find their rest in God. If we never allow ourselves to be bored, to be un-distracted, to be still — we lose not only those chances at productive creativity, but we lose those chances to reorient our souls, to go to the hidden places with the Lord. We lose our roots.

I have been trying to leave myself more cracks in my day… with varying levels of success. It seems to depend a lot on how well I’ve been sleeping, actually. If I’m overtired, all I want is the self-soothing ritual of a blog post (or a dozen) to read or a game of scrabble against the computer. But I am trying — to learn to do this, to discipline my mind, to learn to want to do this more than I want other things.

I feel like this post isn’t quite fully formed — well, my thoughts on this are still not quite fully formed. But I wanted to put it out there anyway, and invite you to mull with me. What does it mean to cultivate a hidden life? To hide yourself in God? What do you do with your cracks?

“… Only the Good”

Yesterday I was in the car and we passed by a church signboard that caught my eye. I wasn’t able to snap a picture, but this is what it said:

God, let me see only the good today.

In some respects, I get that sentiment. There’s often more good going on in the world than we are inclined to acknowledge or able to realise. And looking for the good is a valuable strategy for dealing with evil situations, as Mr. Rogers reminds us:

But I have to admit, I’m not wholly convinced. Not that we shouldn’t be looking for the good — there’s nothing wrong with that — but that we should be striving to see only the good. Refusing to see anything but the good is a profoundly inadequate response to the ills and evils of the world. Too often, seeing only the good means sweeping things under the rug, denying the reality of real problems, and working for a peace that has everything to do with not rocking the boat, and nothing to do with justice, righteousness, or mercy.

Last week I came across this article by Kendall Cox entitled “Everybody’s Business“, about sexual assault on campus and the phenomenon of cheap grace. It’s a fantastic read, and towards the end she points out that the Christian response to evil and suffering should be, first of all, lament:

When we are confronted with someone else’s suffering, our immediate inclination should be to “mourn with those who mourn” (Rm. 12:15, NIV) — not to question or moralize. I recall my Old Testament professor in seminary saying that when reality does not correspond to God’s truth, “we only move into God’s kingdom through lament.” In my limited experience in North America, Christians tend to avoid the work of mourning and lament, even though scripture gives us a substantial basis for doing so (e.g., through Lamentations and the Psalms of Lament). “Negativity” of various kinds is suppressed, ecclesially as well as socially. This is especially the case for women, in whom even the most righteous anger is seen as unattractive and unfeminine.

Lament also helps us see the judgment of God in a new way. I grew up in a denomination that only spoke of divine judgment as a terrible thing to be dreaded by the individual sinner. When I began reading scripture and theology for myself, I was surprised to find that throughout much of the Hebrew Bible, “judgment” is portrayed as a balm for the weary and oppressed. It just depends on which side you’re on really. God’s judgment is also God’s grace and blessing for the brokenhearted. It means: God sees. For many of us, this is actually an enormous relief.

A related reason to hold out space for lament is that Christians can move prematurely to “forgiveness,” which is often the most counterproductive term to introduce in cases of physical violence. We can have a dangerously platitudinous understanding of what it requires and how it should function in the life of faith. Advising forgiveness — or mercy, or grace — at the wrong moment can heap further injustice onto the wounded. It is scripturally unjustifiable to pass over truth-telling and mourning in favor of a cheap and underdeveloped sense of “letting it go.” “Forgiveness” may, on closer observation, function as a whitewashing of deeply problematic human responses to the pain of others. Victim-blaming and denial are closely related to cheap grace.

There are things happening in this world that should make us weep. There are things happening in this world that should make us angry. There are things happening in this world that we can never heal, that we can never confront, that we can never bring the love of God into, if we won’t look at them directly and see them for what they are.

“God, let me see only the good today” is a comfortable prayer. Seeing the good is nice. It makes us feel good — but, I wonder, at what cost? Maybe what we need aren’t comfortable prayers but brave ones: “God, let me see the world with your eyes today.”

Mute Sunday

Sunday began shortly before six this morning, when Anselm bounded into our bedroom and announced that it was time to give me his mother’s day card. And then Perpetua wanted to give me her card, of course, because she wants to do whatever her big brother does, and then presents, and then we all rolled out of bed for the usual Sunday morning half-routine half-chaos that eventually sees us out the door on our way to church. It seems to have gotten lush and green around here overnight, and the fog this morning made our ten-minute drive enchanting. Perpetua sang “Jesus loves me” most of the way there (tunelessly, but with gusto) while Anselm anxiously corrected her on all the words she pronounced wrong. All in all, it was a pretty typical morning.

Except for this: I couldn’t speak. We went away this past week and I managed to leave my voice back at the beach. Well, I can whisper. Sort of. It’s more of a croak. In effect, I’m voiceless — which is a strange sort of thing to be when you’re driving to church. Our liturgy is pretty participatory: there’s a fair bit of moving around, and a lot of singing and praying and formal responses to things. And while losing my voice doesn’t affect my ability to sit, kneel, stand, or cross myself, it did pretty well limit my physical participation in the service to those things.

It feels strange to stand in a pew and just listen when everyone around you is singing. It feels strange to listen to the scripture readings without joining the rest of the congregation in the “thanks be to God!” afterwards. It feels strange to kneel to pray without being able to complete the congregational halves of the set versicles and responses.

But what surprised me about going to church without speaking was that it also felt beautiful. Not being able to sing or speak meant that I was able to listen in a new way, without hearing my own voice at the forefront. I could hear the rumble of a hundred-plus voices praying the Lord’s prayer together. I could hear the full force of the congregation’s voices soaring to “Tell Out, My Soul, the Greatness of the Lord!” And it reminded me of one of the beauties of corporate worship, which is precisely that it is corporate: it’s not just about me and God, but it’s about me, and you, and him, and her, and them, and us, and God. It’s about the whole family of believers. Not to mention the great cloud of witnesses and the angelic hosts! And on the days when I can’t sing or speak or pray out loud, it’s the songs and prayers of the great family that lift me up. Perhaps I should stand voiceless in church more often.

On a journey with Rhoda Janzen

Whenever I’m at a secondhand store, I always check out the books. Most of the time the shelves are filled with self-help treatises, weird diet books, and a dozen used copies of Harry Potter and Twilight — but occasionally you find some gems. I grabbed Mennonite in a Little Black Dress chiefly because of the title — and because I’m always ready to risk a new author when a paperback only costs me $0.50 — and I loved it so much I immediately sent off for a library copy of its sequel, Mennonite Meets Mr. Right (which appears to also have been published under the title Does This Church Make Me Look Fat?).

Although they were published several years apart, these two books make, in a sense, one long memoir detailing the break-up of Janzen’s tumultuous first marriage, her sibsequent refuge in (and reflection on) the Mennonite community in which she was raised, and finally her wooing by “Mitch,” the born-again Pentecostal whom she weds midway through Mennonite Meets Mr. Right. But as it turns out, Mitch isn’t the only “Mr. Right” in this story; the two books also detail Janzen’s long wooing by God as she returns to faith. In between all that there’s cancer, embarrassing childhood memories, a good dose of humour, and of course, plenty of borscht, four-part German harmonies, and prune soup.

The two books are also somewhat divergent. Mennonite in a Little Black Dress made me laugh out loud perhaps a dozen times. Mennonite Meets Mr. Right is also funny — and I did laugh out loud a few times — but it is infinitely more tender. It’s mellower; or I suspect one could more rightly say, Janzen is mellower:

Dating Mitch prompted me to attend church regularly, but spiritual change had been creeping up on me for some time. It started five years ago, when after a long absence I went back to visit the Mennonite community in which I’d been raised. Elsewhere I’ve written about what I saw there, but I haven’t written about what I took away. In simple terms, I saw that people who live by the Spirit experience the Fruits of the Spirit. In the New Testament book of Galatians the Apostle Paul promises believers that the life of faith yields good and practical fruit: love, joy, peace, long-suffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Who wouldn’t want those things? I did. Of the nine, I could then lay claim only to two, love and self-control. I adored my family and friends. But isn’t it easy to be loving to folks you like? As for self-control, it’s no great achievement to run six miles a day when you have a genetic drive to do so. The remaining Fruits of the Spirit were distinctly absent in my life. In fact I was static, restless, impatient, grudge holding, skeptical, and petty. The choices I’d made hadn’t made me happy, so I was ready to try something new.

In these past five years my life has changed tremendously. I’ve had ample opportunity to watch and ward, to look for the Fruits of the Spirit in my own life and the lives of those around me. I still struggle with skepticism, but I’ve made real progress in other areas. And I love it that the mystery of faith turns on what is after all a simple logical equation. In surrendering to the divine, we yield to divine transformation. A causes B. This surrender is the only intentional gesture we can make to invite real and permanent character change. It may not perfect us, but, thank God, it sure makes us better than we were. (171-2)

We can cancel our church’s sermon series on Galatians now; I think she nailed it.

I’ve taken a peek at the Goodreads reviews for Mennonite Meets Mr. Right and they are extremely mixed, which is perhaps not surprising considering the gulf in tone and subject matter between it and the first book. Mennonite in a Little Black Dress is funnier, and snarkier — and also more heartbreaking and ambiguous. Mennonite Meets Mr. Right is written from a very different place and is unapologetically Christian, and I can understand having a bit of whiplash if you’re going into it expecting a straight continuation of the first book. Taken together, though, Rhoda Janzen’s memoirs form a touching story of wandering and coming home again. They may be different than each other — but Janzen is different, too, in a beautiful way. I’m very glad I read them.

A hymn for Good Friday

Ah, holy Jesus, how has thou offended, that we to judge thee have in hate pretended? By foes derided, by thine own rejected, O most afflicted!

Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon thee? Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone thee! ‘Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee; I crucified thee.

For me, kind Jesus, was thy incarnation, thy mortal sorrow, and thy life’s oblation; thy death of anguish, and thy bitter passion, for my salvation.

Lo, the Good Shepherd for the sheep is offered; the slave hath sinned, and the Son hath suffered. For our atonement, while we nothing heeded, God interceded.

Therefore, kind Jesus, since I cannot pay thee, I will adore thee, and will ever pray thee: think on thy pity and thy love unswerving, not my deserving.

Johann Heermann (1630) / Johann Cruger (1899)

Why we keep our kids in church

Ever since Anselm was born, we’ve made it a priority to keep him — and Perpetua as well, once she came along — in for as much of the main church service each week as humanly possible. It began mostly as a practical step (we had mandatory chapel in seminary without childcare) but has become something we really value for what we see it doing in our children’s lives. Our church has a great kids’ program — Anselm loves Sunday School and Perpetua more-or-less tolerates the nursery — but for most of the service, they’re in the pew. This is why.

Knowing how to behave in church comes from being in church. 

Sometimes people compliment us on how well our kids behave in church. This isn’t to say that they’re never loud or wiggly, or that I’ve never had to carry a screaming child or two out of the sanctuary (ha). But by and large, they do fairly well. They sit (mostly) quietly and listen, they stay in the pew instead of climbing over or crawling under. As much as I’d like to say that this is because I am, obviously, a 100% amazing parent… what it really comes down to is that our children know how to behave in church because they’ve always been in church. It’s not a foreign environment to them; it’s just something we do. Since they were born they’ve been watching and listening to what the adults around them are doing. As they’ve gotten older they’ve started mimicking that behaviour. They can’t read, but they hold their bulletins. They stand and sit when everyone else does. Anselm can sing some hymns that he knows. They know how to behave in church because they spend time in church.

We want them to know that church is for them. 

We’re Anglicans, so Anselm and Perpetua were both baptized as infants. They are members of Christ’s body. There are no second-class citizens of the Kingdom of God! God desires our children’s worship just as he desires ours; God works in our children’s hearts through the hearing of his word just as he works in ours; God invites our children into his presence just as he invites us. There are few things that make me grit my teeth like hearing someone gush about how “children are the future of the church.” Y’all. Children aren’t the future. Children are the now.

We trust that God meets them right where they are. 

Can Anselm articulate a coherent, comprehensive systematic theology? Of course not. He’s three. But does he have faith? He sure does. He’s got all of the basics down: God made him and loves him, Jesus died for him and then rose again so that we can be with God forever, we go to church to worship God and learn about him, we can talk to God in prayer whenever we want, and the Holy Spirit helps us in all of that. As he grows he will learn and understand more. God’s grace meets us where we are; there’s no minimum age or cognitive level that we have to meet before he will begin to work in our hearts. Corporate worship is critically important to the process of spiritual formation, and we trust that having our children in church is impacting them in ways that we perhaps cannot yet see or understand, but which are nevertheless very real.

Bringing our kids to church reminds us that church isn’t about us. 

There are times that having the kids in church feels more like a hassle than anything else. I take them out to Sunday School and nursery, respectively, right before the sermon begins, which means that I miss the first few minutes of the sermon more often than not. And I go fetch them during the Peace or the Offeratory, which means that I often miss at least the first part of the Communion liturgy. When they’re with me, my attention is divided; I may be singing or praying or listening, but I’m also keeping one eye and one ear fixed on them. It’s hard for me to completely “enter in” to what we’re doing. But you know what? That’s ok. Granted, I do look forward to the days when I can regularly hear the whole sermon and participate in the whole liturgy, start to finish. But bringing my children into church reminds me that weekly worship is about a lot more than how I feel or what I get out of it. It’s about being with the body of believers, however messy that might look sometimes. It’s about passing on my faith to my children. It’s about a whole lot of things, none of which are centred around my ego or enjoyment.

Our kids need to be in church because the liturgy forms us.

We learn to worship by worshipping. We learn to pray by praying. We learn to sing by singing. Hearing the words of the liturgy week after week lets them penetrate our children’s hearts and minds, just as they penetrate ours. We have consistently been surprised when Anselm comes out with a phrase or idea lifted from the liturgy — but we oughtn’t be. In fact, it’s exactly what we ought to expect. The liturgy is deeply formative and we want our children to be formed by it.

Jesus bids us to let the children come to him. 

This is the big one, isn’t it? Jesus invites our children into his presence, just as they are. Even when they’re too small to understand. Even when they’re fussy. Even when you just get settled into the pew and then someone has a diaper blowout or drops a hymnbook or cries. Even when it’s the last thing we want to do on a Sunday morning. We don’t have to bring perfectly behaved children to church. We don’t have to bring completely attentive children to church. We just have to bring the children we have, again and again, trusting that in their imperfections and ours God is doing something beautiful.

Related Reading: Topical Tuesday: Why are there no children in church? | Children in Worship, or the Mortification of Parents | Welcoming Kids into Worship | Dear Parents with Young Children in Church | Pew parenting | Children belong in Mass

Crochet and Grace

At the last meeting of the prayer shawl ministry at our church, we had a discussion about the way that the shawls/blankets/etc. that we make are distributed. Right now they go through the pastoral care team — so if there is a need, people can request something, either on their own behalf or for someone else. The pastoral team then knows of the need and can pray, follow up as appropriate, etc., and the crocheted or knitted item in question goes to someone who needs it. The question arose as to whether this was the best way to serve people who may, for example, feel uncomfortable going to the pastoral team. Should we just have a stack of blankets and shawls at the back of the church for people to take?

We decided not to go that route, in part because knowing people’s needs so that we can pray for them is an integral part of the ministry. But we also felt that if the blankets were simply out there for the taking, people would just — well, take them. We do want them to go to people, of course — that’s the whole point! But unless you do some sort of handicraft yourself, you probably don’t realise how much time and effort goes into making them. We want them to be given away with intentionality. And in one sense, we give them away because they are too valuable to sell.

Take the half-completed baby blanket pictured above, for example. Let’s imagine that I decided to sell it on Etsy instead of adding it to the donation stash. The pattern I’m using estimated that it would take 10-20 hours to make this project, depending on experience and speed. I haven’t really been keeping track, but I think that it will probably end up being about a twelve-hour project for me. Minimum wage where I live is $9.25/hr, which means that if I’m accounting for my time I’d have to charge $111. Add on my materials cost and it’s $116 just to break even. And of course, let’s not forget that I’d need to take catalogue-quality photos, spend time managing my Etsy store’s SEO so that people could find it, take it to the post office, and the like. So let’s round it up to $125 for a very modest profit after everything is accounted for.

Nobody’s going to buy my baby blankets for $125. Not when there are similar blankets on Etsy going for $25-40. Not when you can get perfectly lovely and serviceable blankets at Walmart or Target or Amazon for $15. I could never sell this blanket for what it’s actually worth. So the only thing to do is give it away.

God’s grace is like that.

If there were to be a price put on God’s favour, none of us could pay that bill. If there was a way to work to earn his love, we could work ourselves to death and still not have worked enough. The free gifts he offers us — his unmerited grace and favour, forgiveness and salvation, redemption and true flourishing — are valuable beyond measure. There is no way that he could “sell” those things for what they’re worth. So the only thing to do is give them away.

But unlike our basket of blankets and shawls, his grace is, so to speak, at the back of the church for anyone to take. There’s no vetting process. There’s no restriction. There is, amazingly, only gift.

That’s grace!

I’ve been going through Hell lately

… with Dante and the shade of Virgil, that is. (I’m fine, Mom.)

The summer that I was doing most of the research for my thesis, I ended up reading all four volumes of Dorothy L. Sayers’s collected letters. I was primarily reading for mentions of my own subject, of course, but Sayers is such an interesting correspondent that I quite enjoyed even the parts that were quite irrelevant to my project. Towards the last decade or so of her life, her letters were nearly all concerned with her massive undertaking for Penguin Books: an entirely new translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy. I had read the first volume (Inferno, as Mark Musa’s translation titles it) as an undergraduate; the course was essentially an introduction to the Western Canon, and so we spent very little time on it, and I hadn’t found it particularly memorable. Sayers’s passion for Dante’s epic, however, made me keen to revisit it, and especially to read the translation to which she dedicated the last years of her life (she died midway through her translation of Paradise, which was completed by her god-daughter, the scholar Dr. Barbara Reynolds). And so I have lately finished Hell, and will shortly start working my way up the mountain of Purgatory towards the heavenly realms.

The experience of reading Hell was most definitely helped by Sayers’s extensive notes, particularly her introductory matter. As she writes herself, the ideal way to read Dante would be simply to pick it up and dive in — but our social and cultural remove from his time means that most of the references that would have been obvious to his contemporaries are opaque to us. The notes, therefore, are a very necessary evil:

Let us suppose that an Englishman were to write a contemporary Divine Comedy on Dante’s model, and that in it, mixed up with a number of scriptural and mythological characters, we were to find, assigned to various circles of Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise, according to the religious and political convictions of the author, the following assortment of people — some referred to by their full names, some by Christian name or surname alone, and some indicated only by a witty or allusive phrase: Chamberlain (“him of the orchid”), Chamberlain (“him of the umbrella”), [Steward Houston] Chamberlain, “Brides-in-the-bath Smith, “Galloper” Smith, Horatio Bottomley, Horatio [Lord Nelson], Fox [Charles or George to be inferred from the Context], the Man who picked up the Bomb in Jermyn Street, Oscar Wilde, Oscar Slater, Oscar Browning, Spencer, Spenser, Lord Castlereagh, Lord Castlerose, Lawrence [of Arabia], [D. H.] Lawrence, […] Dick Sheppard, Jack Sheppard, and “the widow at Windsor”. Let us further suppose that the writer holds strong views on Trade Unionism, the construction of UNO, the “theology of crisis”, Freudian psychology, Einsteinian astronomy, and the art of Mr Jacob Epstein. Let us then suppose that the book is to be read, six hundred years hence, by an intelligent Portuguese with no particular knowledge of English social history. Would he not require a few notes, in order to savour the full pungency of the poet’s pronouncements and thoroughly understand his attitude to the cosmic set-up? (17-18)

Quite so. I need notes myself just to get through Sayers’s paragraph, not living in Britain in the early 1950s; no small wonder that in reading Dante we need not only the language to be translated, but the culture and (perhaps) theology as well.

One of Sayers’s most helpful explanations is to do with the allegorical nature of Dante’s epic. Dante is not expecting us to take it as a literal picture of Hell. We do not need to believe that Satan is imprisoned at the centre of the earth; we do not suppose that suicides really turn into bleeding trees or that there are giants guarding the circle of traitors. But Dante paints a powerful picture of the soul when it sunders itself from God through sin. It is, Sayers writes, “the drama of the soul’s choice … not a fairy story” (11). In approaching the poem, we must “accept the Christian and Catholic view of ourselves as responsible rational beings. We must abandon any ideas that we are the slaves of chance, or environment, or our subconscious; any vague notion that good and evil are merely relative terms, or that conduct and opinion do not really matter; any comfortable persuasion that, however shiftlessly we muddle through life, it will somehow or other all come right on the night. We must try to believe that man’s will is free, that he can consciously exercise choice, and that his choice can be decisive to all eternity” (10-11). What Dante’s Divine Comedy emphasizes for us is that everyone must make a choice to either accept God or reject Him; there is no option beyond those two, and our eternal fate depends on the choice. Dante is unequivocal on this point: “Neither in the story nor in the allegory is Hell a place of punishment to which anybody is arbitrarily sent: it is the condition to which the soul reduces itself by a stubborn determination to evil, and in which is suffers the torment of its own perversion” (68).

That being understood — what of Hell itself? Dante’s imagery is precise and vivid as he depicts the progressive punishments of Hell, from the ever-whirling souls of the lustful (The blast of hell that never rests from whirling / Harries the spirits along in the sweep of its swath, / And vexes them, for ever beating and hurling.” V:31f), to the river of boiling blood in which the Violent against their Neighbours are immersed (“So with this trusty escort, off we set / Along the bank of the bubbling crimson flood, / Whence the shrieks of the boiled rose shrill and desperate. / There I saw some — plunged eyebrow-deep they stood / And the great centaur said to me: ‘Behold / Tyrants, who gave themselves to ravin and blood.’ XII:100f) to the bodily mutilations suffered by the Sowers of Discord (“No cask stove in by cant or middle ever / So gaped as one I saw there, from the chin / Down to the fart-hold split as by a cleaver” XXVII:22f), to the final centre of the earth where Satan perpetually devours Judas Iscariot and other traitors. The images become progressively more and more disturbing as Dante and Virgil travel deeper into the pits of hell (and allegorically, further into sin and away from salvation).

I wouldn’t necessarily recommend Hell for before-bedtime reading! But I would recommend it. Dante takes us on a journey that should disturb us — but all is not grim; he reminds us also that while we are yet living, there is every chance to turn away from this fate. Hell has not been given the final world! I am very much looking forward to continuing this journey with Dante and Sayers, from the mountains of Purgatory to the blessed heights of Paradise itself.

 

Small and holy things

I was one of the speakers this past week at an event for our church women’s ministry; the theme was “seasons of life”. This post is a slightly-more-polished reconstruction of that talk, based on my outline. 

I was thinking about the season of life that I’m in right now, which is being at home with small children. I have a three-year-old and a one-year-old. My children are delightful; they’re sweet, and funny, and interesting; and they drive me absolutely crazy. Our good days are good, but our hard days — well, they’re really hard. There are days when I have to lock myself in the bathroom to get a moment’s peace. There are days when I think, “If I have to make dinner one more time, I’m going to scream.” There are days when it feels like I never leave the kitchen. But in this season of life, I’ve still been learning some things. I’ll frame them as the two spiritual battles I’ve been fighting.

Battle one is against apathy and despair. A lot of my day is really tedious and repetitive. I pick up the toys, they dump them out, I pick up the toys, they dump them out, and on and on we go. Dishes never end. Laundry never ends. Cleaning never ends. And that can be really discouraging, because it feels like my work is never finished, and it can also feel like it’s futile. It’s tempting to throw up my hands and just say that there’s no point. Why bother putting the kids’ toys away if they’re just going to take them out again? Why make my bed if they’re going to be pulling it apart in ten minutes anyway?

But where God has been directing me in this is towards his character. He is not a God of chaos, but of order. He is not a God of confusion, but of peace. When I am working to bring order and peace to my home and to my family’s life — no matter how long or short it lasts before I have to do it again — that is participation in the kingdom work of God. It is good work. It has value. Taking a stand against chaos and confusion — even if all that means is putting the clean dishes away (again) and tidying up the living room (again) — is taking a stand for the values of the kingdom. Our participation in God’s work in the world isn’t always going to be big or spectacular. But it doesn’t have to be.  One of the dismissal prayers in our prayer book asks God to “send us out to do the work you have given us to do”. All we are called to is faithfulness in the tasks set in front of us, no matter how repetitive or humble.

The second battle is against resentment and bitterness. A lot of what I do around the house goes unseen, or at least un-thanked. I know that my husband doesn’t notice everything I do, and my children certainly don’t (though at their age, that is perfectly appropriate). I find myself constantly tempted toward self-pity and allowing myself to wallow in the feeling of being taken for granted. And when I let myself do that, I get bitter and resentful. I resent the fact that my husband leaves the house to go do interesting work and talk with adults all day. I resent the fact that I do so many of the house chores. I grow bitter thinking about all of the things I do that nobody seems to care about.

Where I have found encouragement, though, is in the story of a woman from the Bible who we don’t think about very often: Hagar. The first part of her story is found in Genesis 16, back when Abraham and Sarah were still just plain old Abram and Sarai. They had been given the promise that God was going to bless the world through their family, but the years were going by and still no baby. So they decided to take matters into their own hands. Sarai had an Egyptian maidservant named Hagar, and she offered her to Abram as a means of having the promised child. Abram slept with Hagar — I can’t imagine she had any choice in the matter — and impregnated her. We read that Hagar despised Sarai when she found out she was pregnant, and Sarai complained to Abram about this. His response was simply that she should do what she thought best, so Sarai began to mistreat Hagar. And Hagar ran away into the desert, probably expecting to die out there.

But God intervened. An angel appeared to Hagar, who prophesied over the child she was carrying and sent her back to Abram and Sarai. Before she returned, this is what we read in Genesis 16:13: “She gave this name to the Lord who spoke to her: ‘You are the God who sees me,’ for she said, ‘I have now seen the One who sees me.'” The God who sees me. I love that name! I love the reminder that God sees me and what I do — and not in a “gotcha!” way. God watches me with the same affectionate interest with which I watch my own children — only his affection and interest are infinitely greater than mine, and untainted by sin. He notices my work, even when nobody else does. He values my work, even when nobody else does.

All of us — whether we work inside the home or out of it — have work that we’re called to do. I’m willing to bet that all of us have areas in our lives in which we’re tempted to apathy and despair, or to resentment and bitterness. But remember that God is inviting you into his kingdom work, even in the smallest things. Remember that he is the One who sees you, and that your work is known and valued. Take heart!