It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between.

C.S. Lewis, "On The Reading Of Old Books"

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It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between.
C.S. Lewis, "On the Reading of Old Books"

Attuned to God
Based on the biography William Wilberforce – A Hero for Humanity 
by Kevin Belmonte

What Shall We Pack
Essay inspired by Standing on the Shoulders of Hobbits
by Louis Markos
 

To Truly Live
— Barricade and Blessing in Les Misérable
Essay inspired by The Grace of Les Misérable
by Matt Rawle

Restless for a Reason
— Soren Kierkegaard
Essay inspired by Vintage Sinners and Saints
by Karen Wright Marsh
 

Agape
— Sonnet for Ivan Ilych
Essay and sonnet inspired by The Death of Ivan Ilych
by Leo Tolstoy

Attuned to God

Essay based on the biography William Wilberforce – A Hero for Humanity

By Annie Nardone

God moves in a mysterious way

His wonders to perform;

He plants His footsteps in the sea,

And rides upon the storm.

William Cowper, “Light Shining Out of Darkness”

In His infinite wisdom, God has set a unique path for each person. Many years ago, I attended a women’s weekly Bible study at our church. The text we read was Experiencing God by Henry Blackaby, a solid and convicting study to be sure; but the tales of his mission-filled life were a bit unsettling. Many in my class affirmed his life of purpose ministering in far-flung areas in the world that took him away from his wife and children for months at a time. I, however, was filled with dread. When the teacher asked us if we had any thoughts to share, I tentatively raised my hand. “But what if God calls ME away from my family and sets me in the middle of nowhere?” I said. “I couldn’t do that!” Well, of course I couldn’t. I was not called to such a mission. But some take on herculean tasks, equipped for the purpose by God, who sees the beginning and the end of all endeavors.

“Deep in unfathomable mines

Of never-failing skill

He treasures up His bright designs,

And works His sovereign will.”

When God grants us a gift or a call, we may choose to take it or toss it. As we reflect on our study of William Wilberforce, it is inspiring to note how many times he was undaunted by the call to serve others. The common thread through every endeavor he approached was his acknowledgement that God went before him. Shortly after his spiritual transformation, Wilberforce wrote an entry in his diary stating that “God Almighty has placed before me two great objects, the suppression of the slave trade and the reformation of manners [that is, morals].”[1] These ‘objects’ required a nationwide change of heart! Although these tasks took years to accomplish, he stayed the course and accomplished both.

“Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take,

The Clouds ye so much dread

Are big with mercy, and shall break

In blessings on your head.”

William Wilberforce’s life shows us that there is a time and a solution for all good purposes. The strength of his religious convictions enabled him to forge ahead through many difficulties. He took as a matter of course troubles that would dishearten or destroy others. When “the grossest falsehoods and…the most unfounded assertions”[2] were cast against him, his frank reply was “It is in little things that men are seen.”[3] Shortly before his death, when most people hope to enjoy comfortable twilight years, his eldest son’s poor business decisions brought about the loss of most of the family fortune. The family was forced to give up their estate. William Wilberforce wrote that this was “not a great evil…[as I have] so many kind friends who will be happy to receive [me].”[4] As in all other troubles, William again turned to prayer and reflection and came to the conclusion that “this turn of events was in some way part of God’s plan for his life.”[5] He remembered the hardships and continual illnesses that God had carried him through. When this unexpected financial hardship hit home, he concluded that “a man can be as happy without a fortune, as with one.”[6] He still considered himself immeasurably blessed.

“Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,

But trust Him for His grace;

Behind a frowning providence

He hides a smiling face.”

Most people would say that William Wilberforce’s life exemplified a well-lived life. He rose early in the morning to study scripture and pray; dined with and led his family in prayer, was incredibly well read in theology, classical literature, and current events; and traveled in powerful political circles. By all accounts, he had a wonderful relationship with his family. William Gladstone noted after watching the family pray together, “Blessing and honour are upon his head.”[7] He balanced government and personal responsibilities and gave generously whenever he found a need, truly investing in people with his finances and his time. He was a blessing to every person he met. His true nature radiated “abiding eloquence,” compassion, and humility. How else could he have softened the hearts of slave owners and government powers alike? Childlike wonder filled his observation of the smallest detail in nature, grace was in his every step, and he demonstrated thankfulness in all circumstances. Wilberforce was attuned to God in all things.

“His purposes will ripen fast,

Unfolding every hour;

The bud may have a bitter taste,

But sweet will be the flower.”

At his death, as during his life, William Wilberforce continued to unite people to one cause. With patient work, he brought about the abolition of slavery in England in spite of the odds against it. On July 26, 1833, nearly fifty years after beginning his mission, Wilberforce heard that “a bill for the abolition of slavery throughout the British colonies was now assured of becoming law.”[8] He reformed the manners of his country “to turn the tide of immorality in Britain.”[9] His funeral was attended by Whig and Tory, royalty and commoner. All were impacted by what William Lloyd Garrison described as “dove-like gentleness, amazing energy, deep humility, and adventurous daring,” the soul-gifts bestowed on Wilberforce that enabled him to accomplish so much. Churches and schools stand today because of his boundless philanthropy. He is a great encouragement to us when we face fierce storms and struggles in our own lives. If God has given you a task, He will equip you to see it through. Stay the course and most assuredly you will hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

“Blind unbelief is sure to err,

And scan his work in vain;

God is His own interpreter,

And He will make it plain.”

Endnote

William Wilberforce said that William Cowper was his favorite poet. Clearly, Cowper respected Wilberforce as well, for he penned the following sonnet as a tribute to him.

“Sonnet to William Wilberforce”

Thy country, Wilberforce, with just disdain,

Hears thee, by cruel men and impious, call’d

Fanatic, for thy zeal to loose th’ enthralled

From exile, public sale, and slav’ry’s chain.

Friend of the poor, the wrong’d, the fetter-gall’d,

Fear not lest labour such as thine be vain!

Thou hast achiev’d a part; hast gain’d the ear

Of Britain’s senate to thy glorious cause;

Hope smiles, joy springs, and tho’ cold caution pause

And weave delay, the better hour is near,

That shall remunerate thy toils severe

By peace for Afric, fenc’d with British laws.

Enjoy what thou hast won, esteem and love

From all the just on earth, and all the blest above!

[1] Kevin Belmonte, William Wilberforce – A Hero for Humanity (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2007), 97.

[2] Belmonte, 284.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 320.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., 332.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Belmonte, 152.

[10] Matthew 25:21 (ESV).

[11] William Cowper, “God Moves in a Mysterious Way.”

What Shall We Pack?

Essay inspired by Standing on the Shoulders of Hobbits by Louis Markos

By Annie Nardone

‘I do really wish to destroy it!’ cried Frodo. ‘Or, well, to have it destroyed. I am not made for perilous quests…. Why did it come to me? Why was I chosen?’

—J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

            We have begun our journey. The tales of the joys and perils of our fellow travelers make for wonderful stories shared around the hearth, but now the reality of our own pilgrimage is at hand. How shall we prepare? Weaponry, food, and proper clothing of course. (Perhaps a little box of salt for the taters.) But what we carry in our heart and head is more important than what we heft onto our shoulders. Every journey holds the possibility to challenge and teach us something, but when the road becomes truly grueling we will need more than the physical basics.

            Just like Frodo who was chosen for the task of destroying the One Ring, we never know what we are truly capable of accomplishing. Most of us will endure our own Mount Doom experience that leaves us curled up in the ashes of agony, completely numb and in shock. Once on the other side, we may look back in disbelief and wonder, “HOW ON EARTH did I get through?” But how can we ever know what we are capable of until we are refined in the fire of hardship, which kindles courage. Then our experience brings wisdom, wisdom fosters temperance, and justice is revealed when we apply our discernment. Tolkien and Lewis write of characters who inspire us to be better because they exhibit the cardinal virtues. We seek these virtues because the desire for truth, goodness, and beauty is built within us. Created in the imago dei, we have an innate understanding and longing for justice, temperance, wisdom, and courage. These virtues are embodied in the great heroes of Lord of the Rings and the Chronicles of Narnia.

            One of the most significant and convicting storylines in Lord of the Rings is that of Gollum and his place in the story with the rest of the Fellowship. Easy to despise as he sneaks about, trying to steal his “Precious,” endangering Frodo and Sam — I must admit, I would have administered my own justice because (in my ignorant and judgmental opinion) he deserved death. After all, he was a murderer and a thief! Each virtue is put to task and which of us wouldn’t fail in the face of the trouble?

            When Gandalf tells Frodo the history of the ring and how it came to Bilbo, Frodo exclaims, “Do you mean to say that you, and the Elves, have let him live on after all those horrible deeds?...He deserves death.” Gandalf replies, “Deserves it! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends. I have not much hope that Gollum can be cured before he dies, but there is a chance of it…My heart tells me that he has some part to play yet, for good or ill, before the end and when that comes, the pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many – yours not least.” (Fellowship of the Ring, Book 1, Chapter 2) In one conversation, Gandalf’s gentle correction fulfills all four virtues. He grants justice in acknowledging that Gollum had worth, even if it was not immediately known. Gandalf demonstrates the highest example of temperance and self-control because he could have easily eliminated Gollum several times. His wisdom and discernment provide insight into how Gollum might benefit the journey. (I never would have given him the chance.) These three virtues are built on a foundation of the fourth, and arguably the most important, virtue of courage and fortitude.

            The cardinal virtues are necessary for any society to survive. Unfortunately, our postmodern age is full of self: self-care, self-improvement, self-absorbed introspection, and finding oneself. We have hollowed out the classic virtues. What society forgets is that our best self is given over for others and for a greater purpose. Our pride is our undoing. In contrast to selfish motives. Frodo journeyed to destroy the ring rather than secure the ring for himself. Sam, Merry, and Pippin left the comforts of the Shire to aid their fellow Hobbit. Faramir does not take the advantage when he has a chance. When we read Tolkien and Lewis, the truly virtuous characters show their quality. The golden thread that binds them together is their humility — putting the call, the journey, and the well-being of others ahead of self-preservation. The characters who finish the course well started with an attitude of humble servants, and that humility fostered the development of virtue.

            So, what shall we pack for our journey? Begin with a humble heart because “humility comes before honor.” (Prov. 18:20) Then justice, temperance, wisdom, and courage will grow from there. And remember, fellow travelers, to “clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.’” (1 Peter 5:5)

To Truly Live — Barricade and Blessing in Les Misérables

By Annie Nardone                             

It is nothing to die; it is frightful not to live.

  • Victor Hugo, Les Misérables

Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables is a novel steeped in Holiness — gritty, bleak days wrapped in life-affirming Holiness. And in our current state of affairs, we must remember that the Holiness has not left us.

Although I initially wanted to avoid weaving the current Coronavirus pandemic into this article, there are parallels between the events in the final chapters of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables and life as we know it now. We live today like the French revolutionaries in that great novel. Barricades surround our lives, not with timbers but with overwrought schedules, pursuance of perfection, and a perpetual focus on media. Our vision is distracted from the holiness of relationships and fixed on temporary demands and material importance. Similar to the protesters, desiring to protect ourselves from what we disagree with, we isolate into self-interest. Now, because of a worldwide crisis, our society is forced to see the fallout from decades of little protests we make each day.

As living is currently distilling down to the most basic of needs, we find ourselves in what Matt Rawle describes as the “’what does it all mean’ kind of moment.”[1] At the beginning of cultural unrest, issues like hunger, injustice, crime, poverty, or disease are remote problems in somebody else’s country. They are vague notions shelved as things to pray about or tag with an emoji of praying hands, then carry on with life. But like a growing shadow, the ugliness finds a foothold in our own backyard. There have been plagues throughout history, but until you find yourself not just reading about it, but actually living through it do questions take on any significance. Now pandemic is personal, so what can we learn from it?

Why would God stay his hand and not stop this pandemic? Christ tells us that God “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.”[2] Similarly, while reflecting on his life with Cosette and what they both endured, Valjean tells her that “Such are the distributions of God. He is on high, he sees us all and he knows what he does in the midst of his great stars.”[3] Civil unrest, no matter the era, is disorienting. In the novel, The Friends of the ABC suddenly found themselves questioning their own uprising. In a similar way, we are now questioning how our modern society so quickly moved to what by our standards is primitive - no travel or entertainment, limited and distant contact with others, rationing of essential items. Is this the way that life will go forward?

What becomes evident is that our modern culture has built barricades for a sense of control because we believe they will offer protection and strength, but instead they bring isolation and captivity. The revolutionaries in Les Misérables concluded that the governmental system that was in place needed to be reversed by any means necessary, even violent rebellion. Turbulent events are often the only way change is made, and in our own time, we can thank the virus. Through hardship, often the best teacher, we begin to learn what really matters.

Are we without hope? No! Now that we are being stripped of the materialism and busy-ness that so defines our lives, we are left to focus on relationship and look for encouragement and beauty. The physical isolation that we are now living in due to the COVID-19 affords us the time to call and chat with neighbors and loved ones and minister to others. Spring weather tempts us outdoors to our gardens and flower beds to dig deep and plant new life.  Time has slowed down enough for us to notice buds and blossoms poking up through the soil. We are becoming reacquainted with love, hope, laughter, faith, and contentment, which build the foundation of our joy. Glimmers of new life cast a promising brightness into a confusing time.

 This life comes from a Creator who “made the moon to mark the seasons.” The sun still knows its time for setting.[4]  The garden theme appears time and again in Les Misérables, and in the darkness of the story, the reader is always brought back to a garden for refreshment. Upon reuniting with Valjean at the end of Les Misérables, Cosette implores him to rejoin her and Marius, assuring him that “Your room is still in our house, she continues. If you knew how pretty the garden is now. The azaleas are growing finely…You shall eat some of my strawberries. I water them myself. And no more madame, and no more Monsieur Jean, we are a republic, are we not, Marius?”[5] A republic. Wholeness and new life have replaced destruction and death. As the story concludes, to be reunited again in their garden with Marius and Valjean is the only thing that Cosette desires. It would be the birth of a fresh chapter for them.

Our lives are now pared down daily to the very core essentials of what make us ‘us’ — the intangibles that we experience by truly living and which cannot be bought. As he lay dying, Jean Valjean leaves Cosette and Marius with these words, “Love each other dearly always. There is scarcely anything else in the world but that; to love one another.”[6]  As our modern barricades dismantle, we begin to understand Valjean’s words as truth.

[1] Matt Rawle, The Grace of Les Misérables (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2019), 106.

[2] Matthew 5:45 (ESV).

[3] Victor Hugo, Les Misérables (New York: Random House Modern Library), 1221.

[4] Psalm 104:19.

[5] Hugo, 1216.

[6] Ibid., 1221.

 

Restless for a Reason — Soren Kierkegaard

Essay inspired by Vintage Sinners and Saints by Karen Wright Marsh

By Annie Nardone

Most people, if they had really learned to look into their own hearts, would know that they do want, and want acutely, something that cannot be had in the world. — C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

Recently, I visited a nearby Cistercian abbey in the rolling hills of rural Virginia to spend hours of prayer in their silent chapel. I had just wrapped up my master’s degree program, accepted writing opportunities, and begun work on two wonderful projects; however, playing the dangerous comparison game, I was utterly restless in my Christian self — I was looking at what other church folk were doing with their lives, but those ideas fit me as well as an uncomfortable pair of boots. Who was I and what was the next step in my faith walk?

Kierkegaard wrestled with the same idea. He didn’t fit into a Christian mold either. Peter Kreeft, author of Socrates Meets Kierkegaard, calls him the Father of Christian Existentialism — which is a wonderfully different title that doesn’t fit into a comfortable Christian category. Kierkegaard was a seeker, always pursuing deeper answers. “What am I to do?” he asked. “The misfortune of my life is perhaps that I am interested in far too many things and not decidedly in some one thing. What I really lack is to be clear in my mind what I am to do, not what I am to know, except in so far as a certain understanding must precede every action. The thing is to understand myself, to see what God really wishes me to do… to find the idea for which I can live and die.”[1]

Humans are a restless lot, never comfortable in our own skins or circumstances. If I could just… If only… When I grow up, I’ll… What we see in others who seem to have life all together becomes our golden fleece. I will boldly admit that I am chief among the restless, especially in my spiritual life. But of course, we will remain restless because we are not created to fit in this world; rather, each Christian is meant to stand as unique — the only person who can accomplish the exact call given. We are equipped for a purpose here on earth that helps others see a glimpse of the eternal. As C. S. Lewis so eloquently states, “I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find till after death; I must never let it get snowed under or turned aside; I must make it the main object of life to press on to that other country and to help others to do the same.”[2]

Each of the vintage saints stumbled and searched for meaning and significance. They found more than they bargained for and not what they expected, but there is a common thread that runs through their holy and very human lives. They all lived with restless struggle — the inner self vs. outward appearance. They bore the weight of the thought “What if everyone knew who I really was?” This is one of the deepest, darkest secrets in the Christian life — to determine what we put forward publically. Our egos want to keep up appearances, but in our gut, we feel Kierkegaard’s internal awkwardness; perhaps identify with Augustine’s reckoning with his hedonistic past; admire Thérèse of Lisieux’s radical humility; and relate to Lewis’s wrestling with the numinous — that supernatural experience of awe and wonder. Like Henri Nouwen, we ask, “Who am I?”

These people are brilliant examples for us. As Christians, we are not called to quietly fit in. How would we be able to relate to a broken world if we didn’t struggle ourselves?

So, what can we learn by studying the lives of these struggling believers? Whatever your unique call, it is a continual process and lifelong mission to serve the truth. Soren Kierkegaard’s “interpretation of the process of becoming a Christian, of the movement toward authentic personal existence, is the fruit of his own experience and the movement of his own life.”[3] Your unique story will be used to speak to another who is struggling. St. James tells us that we “will meet trials of various kinds,”[4] but they will teach us to be steadfast. We will endure sometimes more than we imagined, but we will not press on alone and that is a great comfort. No matter our failings, there is purpose in the story we are living out. Growing in steadfastness will bring us to be “perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”[5]

[1] Soren Kierkegaard, quoted in The Prayers of Kierkegaard, ed. Perry D. LeFevre (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1956), 129.

[2] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 137.

[3] Perry D. LeFevre, The Prayers of Kierkegaard, ed. Perry D. LeFevre (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1956), 196.

[4] James 1:2, ESV.

[5] James 1:4, ESV.

 

Agape — Sonnet for Ivan Ilych

Essay and sonnet inspired by The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy

By Annie Nardone

1 John 2:15-16 (ESV)

Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world.

______

Ivan Ilyich labored his entire life in the pursuit of worldly success. He made decisions based on a list of society’s materialistic requirements: attend the right school to secure a prestigious job, climb the corporate ladder, marry out of duty and support the requisite family, move to a lovely house in the suburbs that features the perfect furnishings. By the world’s standards, Ivan was succeeding because he was following a formula and achieving “the good life.” Leo Tolstoy wrote The Death of Ivan Ilyich shortly after his conversion (circa 1870). We moderns changed for the better?

As he becomes sick and fragile, he glimpses deep compassion through the care he receives from his caregiver, Gerasim. Years wasted on gathering fleeting markers of success when true beauty, compassion, Moments before he dies, Ivan realizes that he had lived for appearances and approval of others. He had pushed aside everything that would give and receive love — his family, friends, and God — in exchange for empty pursuits. Will we wait until the last moment of our lives to lift our eyes to meet Agape?

 

Agape

Striving in shadow, lit by my own power.

Climbing, I grip the rung. Succeed, I must

Pursue phantom time – tyrant of hours.

My aspirations turn to choking dust.

 

Empty myself for assent, add dark strife.

Confirming my value to hollow hearts.

Tightly woven mirage of a “good” life.

Tangled ropes of purpose tear it apart.

 

I look from my weak flicker to the Fire

Light undimmed, Agape knows my name.

Awe in the ordinary, captured by

Eyes of pure love, my heart to reclaim.

 

What once was empty with longings unstilled,

Met love at last, what joy! My soul fulfilled.