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CLXXXXII

Wordsworth wrote an endless poem in blank verse on” the growth of a poet’s mind.”  I shall attempt a more modest feat for a more distracted age: a blog, “Things which a Lifetime of Trying to Be a Poet has Taught Me.”

 Plato started a lot of conversations that he couldn’t finish.  He was trying to find the universal and the absolute by looking in the wrong place.  He sought well, but the final answer was beyond his grasp.  But he sets the questions up better than anyone.  What if there was someone who could come into Plato’s Cave from the outside world of the sun?   What then?

Plato

REFLECTIONS FROM PLATO’S CAVE

The fleeting shadows flow across the wall;

That’s all we know.  We think they may arise

Outside our minds, and bring before our eyes

Some glimpse of Truth–but by the time they fall

To us, a faint and hieroglyphic scrawl

Is all that’s left.  We try to analyze,

Deduce from patterns what the shapes disguise–

They’re hard to catch and harder to recall.

 

We think reflections of Reality

Are cast by Sunlight shining–how we crave

To turn and look–but still we strive in vain.

No merely mortal man will ever see

Whether the Door behind us in the Cave

Is there, so firmly Fate has bound our chain.

 

So many years we strove against the chain

That gradually some gave up, and hope was dead.

“There is no Door; there is no Cave,” they said,

“No explanation, nothing to explain.

It’s just a game you play inside your brain:

All the poetry you’ve ever read

Makes chemical reactions in your head;

That’s all that Pleasure is, and also Pain.”

 

What of the Beautiful, the True, the Good?

“They’re all illusions; they are all the same,

Sounds upon the wind, an empty name,

And that is all that can be understood.”

But then the rule that says that nothing’s true

Must be applied to their denial too!

 

So hope could not completely be denied.

Yet still the shadows flicker on the wall,

And we’re not certain what they mean at all

In spite of every theory we have tried.

If only one of us could get outside

Into the Light that fills that vaster hall

And not go blind, but come back and recall

For us the land where the True Shapes abide!

 

If only–but the ancient Grecian knew

No way that it could be.  It seemed absurd

To hope or to despair.  So still the True

Was but in shadows seen, in echoes heard–

Until the birth of a barbaric Jew

Who was in the Beginning; was the Word.

The Word

Remember: for more poetry like this, go to https://lanternhollow.wordpress.com/store/ and order Stars Through the Clouds! Also look for Inklings of Reality and Reflections from Plato’s Cave, Williams’ newest books from Lantern Hollow Press: Evangelical essays in pursuit of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty.  And look for Williams’ very latest book, Deeper Magic: The Theology behind the Writings of C. S. Lewis, from Square Halo Books!

Donald T. Williams, PhD

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The Time Being

The frenzy of the Christmas Rush is mercifully over.  The felt joy of Christmas Day itself, while real and memorable, was already fading by Boxing Day, and now we begin to remember where we are: facing the long weeks of Seasonal Affective Disorder until the light begins to return, interrupted by the forced celebration of New Year’s Day.  And the culture we inhabit seems in the doldrums of winter itself, poised between forced celebration and despair.  The words of the poet ring true:  “The time being is the hardest time of all.”  What are we to do in such a moment?

There is no hope to be gained by looking to society or to the state.  The irrational hatred of everything good and wholesome by Islamic Terrorists is matched only by the sad inability of the West to find a reason to preserve itself.  Multiculturalism has blinded us to the stubborn fact that not all cultures are created equal after all.  There is a difference between barbarism and civilization.  Civilization is to be preferred, but it cannot be preserved or defended if it refuses to believe in an objective difference between itself and the barbarians.  There is a difference between health and decadence within that civilization, even when it is not threatened from without.  Health is to be preferred, but it cannot be preserved if we refuse to believe that there is an objective difference between good and evil, if we are unable to use a word like “wholesome” without irony.  We have met the enemy, and he is us.

pogo enemy is us

There is no hope to be gained by looking to the church.  The most popular and fastest growing form of Christianity in the world is the so-called “Prosperity Gospel,” the health-and-wealth or “name it and claim it” (more accurately, “blab it and grab it”) movement.  If ever we wanted a theology scientifically designed to confirm the suspicions of our secular neighbors that ministers are just in it for the money, boy, have we got one!  More faithful followers of the Savior who sacrificed Himself, not for self but for others, seem more marginalized than ever.  They have not adjusted well to the loss of the position of cultural privilege they once enjoyed, and half of the adjustments they propose to the new situation they have finally come to recognize sound more like strategies for retreat than for a better and more effective engagement.  Scandal, compromise, and accommodation where there is not actually false teaching–no, if you are looking for encouragement, do not look to the church.

How then is the faithful remnant to sustain itself in this moment of cultural Seasonal Affective Disorder?  As it has always done, when it faced even worse times like the fall of Rome: by staying focused on the things that do not change; by remembering that while Seasonal Affective Disorder may seem permanent while you are in its grasp, it is, by definition, seasonal;  by staying faithful to its Lord as something worth doing for its own sake whatever the outcome and leaving the consequences in His hand.  It will do so more effectively if it remembers the wisdom of Gerard Manley Hopkins:

space-sunrise

For though the last lights off the black West went,

Oh, morning at the brown brink Eastward springs

Because the Holy Ghost over the bent

World broods with warm breast, and with, Ah! bright wings.

For more of Dr. Williams’s writing, check out his books on the Lantern Hollow estore:  To order ($15.00 each + shipping), go to  https://lanternhollow.wordpress.com/store/.

A book that fights back against the encroaching darkness.

A book that fights back against the encroaching darkness!

CXX

Wordsworth wrote an endless poem in blank verse on” the growth of a poet’s mind.”  I shall attempt a more modest feat for a more distracted age: a blog, “Things which a Lifetime of Trying to Be a Poet has Taught Me.”

Any excuse will do for a pun, as you will see from the title.  This Common Flicker, a large, ground-feeding woodpecker that looks like an overgrown Brown Thrasher with a chevron of bright red on the back of his neck, was remembered from the back yard of the house in Athens, actually.  In a way to make Wordsworth proud, he was “recollected in tranquility” two years after his actual appearance.

Flicker1

A Flicker of Hope

The world was thick, gray fog and shiny, black

Uplifted limbs of trees, and falling rain,

And mud and water running in the track

And dripping from the twigs.  My window pane

Could scarcely shut it out; into my brain

It came without resistance, wet and cold,

And drumming endlessly its dull refrain

Of all things growing, slowly growing old.

For weeks, thus.  Once more into bed I rolled

And woke to find the rain had turned to dew

And all the dew the sun had turned to gold.

Colaptes Auratus, the Common Flicker, flew

Into my garden.  Nothing was less true

About him than the “common” in his name.

Flicker3

A more uncommon creature never drew

The sunlight with such concentrated aim

To fan his chevroned shoulders into flame:

Sharp red amidst the gold upon the brown-

Piled rug of pinestraw into which he came

To look for bugs to eat.  I hope he found

Some juicy ones; I know that he brought down

With him the wind that drove the clouds away

And scattered all that gold upon the ground.

And I would give much more than bugs for pay,

After such a damp and dark dismay,

To see again the long-lost light of day.

Flicker2

Remember: for more poetry like this, go to https://lanternhollow.wordpress.com/store/ and order Stars Through the Clouds! Also look for Inklings of Reality and Reflections from Plato’s Cave, Williams’ newest books from Lantern Hollow Press: Evangelical essays in pursuit of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty.

Donald T. Williams, PhD

Stars Through the Clouds

Thanksgiving and desire for ordinary time and Advent: In praise of C. S. Lewis

For several years now I’ve regarded it a happy coincidence that in my country Thanksgiving Day occurs the fourth Thursday in November.   This same Thursday happens usually to be the last Thursday in Trinity Season, which is most of what the Church sometimes calls “ordinary time” – which makes it the last Thursday before the season of Advent, the first Sunday of which is the Christian new year’s day.  As such, the national Thanksgiving Day is an ideal occasion to reflect upon blessings given us in “ordinary time” before proceeding into Advent and the new year.

This year Thanksgiving Day falls on the last possible day, November 28, which is also the eve of C. S. Lewis’s birthday.  (This November 29 would have been Lewis’s one hundred and fifteenth birthday.)  The earliest day upon which Thanksgiving Day can fall is November 22 – the day Lewis died.  (This year November 22 marked the fiftieth anniversary of Lewis’s death.)  The upshot is that in addition to the notable shift in the liturgical calendar which occurs alongside Thanksgiving Day, during the week of Thanksgiving I usually have C. S. Lewis on the brain even more than usual.

I give thanks for Lewis every time I read him, which is often.  I give thanks for him because he has taught me much of what I know about how to give thanks, and to Whom I give thanks.  Take, for example, this passage from Letters to Malcolm:

Gratitude exclaims, very properly, “How good of God to give me this.” Adoration says, “What must the quality of that Being whose far-off and momentary coruscations are like this!” One’s mind runs back up the sunbeam to the sun . . .

If this is Hedonism, it is also a somewhat arduous discipline. But it is worth some labour.[1]

Time_cslewis_coverPerhaps more than anyone else, I owe Lewis thanks for showing me the connection between thanksgiving, adoration and joy with arduous discipline and labor.  It takes work to see extraordinariness in “ordinary” time: to see a sunbeam shining through a cracked door into a dusty toolshed as a parable for the contemporary world; to see praise as inner health made audible; to see a world in a wardrobe.  Lewis never shirked the hard labor of looking at things with his eye lighted by imagination and his imagination disciplined by sense – with sense and imagination both tethered to affection.

There is more, though.  Just as every year ordinary time gives way to Advent, some day the term ends and the holidays begin.  We perceive that day by hope and faith, not yet by sight.  Here I find that Lewis trains my appetite to desire every bit as well as he trains my eye to adoration:

If there lurks in most modern minds the notion that to desire our own good and earnestly to hope for the enjoyment of it is a bad thing, I submit that this notion has crept in from Kant and the Stoics and is no part of the Christian faith. Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.[2]

“Far too easily pleased.”  And yet the “displeasure” into which Lewis would train me is a thousand miles from that of the malcontented crank.  Into an age whose heroes and sages call discontent the mother of progress and Christian hope the opiate of the masses, Lewis speaks a word both sweeter and truer: as discipline produces gratitude and adoration, so gratitude and adoration whet, and do not quench, desire.


[1] C. S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer 90-91 (Harcourt 1992)(1963).

[2] Lewis, The Weight of Glory 26 (HarperOne 2009)(1949).

9/11, Fantasy, and How We Deal With Evil

My theme this month is Instant Plot ideas, but I thought I’d deviate this week.  My post this week falls on September 11th, and I was thinking about how we struggle to cope with evil in this world.    What I believe shocks people most about the event that happened back in 2001 is the sheer villainy required for anyone to voluntarily cause the deaths of so many people.  We have our Hitlers and our Stalins of history, but it’s easy to put those in the past.  They are part of history.  This is still part of our present.

graveyardWhile not everyone ascribes to a set of beliefs in which there is a dichotomy of good and evil, instinctively, most of us still see it in the world.  We can’t help it.  It’s not enough to explain something away by pointing to psychological damage or confusion or perspective differences.  We continually confront evil in the world, even if some of us don’t want to call it that.

This connects, in my mind, to why so many of us write stories, particularly fantasy stories,  and why we are drawn to read them. Within many of those fantasy novels is the great struggle between evil, in some form, and heroism, flawed but irrepressible, and we do not tire of seeing our heroes win.  We read those stories and in some ways, they help us come to terms with what we see happening around us.

A mistake many people make, however, is to view these forays into fantasy as mere “escapism”, as if reading about a world that isn’t “real” makes it somehow irrelevant to real life. The flaw in this reasoning comes when we set up false contrasts between truth vs fiction or fantasy vs reality.  Fiction isn’t the opposite of truth because fiction can reveal truth through its story telling.  And good fantasy certainly isn’t the opposite of reality because it has the ability to use the fantastic elements of its worlds to reveal profound and powerful meaning in our world.  Now, to be fair, many of us do read in order to escape into another world, but we always return to our own and, if the book was good enough, we bring something back with us.

wall of stars washington dc

Here We Mark the Price of Freedom

Tolkien set the standard, but the stories came before him – stories with monsters and dragons and evil knights and wicked kings.  These forces of evil were not “real”, but they represented for their tellers and listeners a reality that was undeniable – Evil exists and we are fighting against it every day.

The most important truth and reality that we can draw from these fantasy villains, however, is that they are temporary forces and they are inevitably the losing side.  A good fantasy novel also  has heroes, and the heroes – at no small cost – are the ones who win in the end.

“Fairy tales are more than true – not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten” ~ G.K. Chesterton

Now, I am generalizing fantasy novels in this post, since many have deviated from the traditional good vs evil to show less dramatically opposed characters or different scenarios, but I think that the idea is still there – rooted in the genre – and we still read it and write it quite often.  We want to create a believable, shiver-inducing evil because we  want to give our heroes something to defeat.  And through the telling of a “mere story”, we also want to show our readers that evil is a real force in our world, but not the force that wins out in the end, even when it seems like it must. Tolkien called it the “eucatastrophe” of the fairy tale, and there is nothing quite so profound as that sudden turning point from darkness to hope.  It is difficult to cope with the existence of tragedies on any grand scale, and yet our stories include them regularly, because in a story we get to see the ending, and the ending is good.

That glimmer of a picture of how this world’s story will end is nothing if not encouraging.

Just a thought.