Divine Cartography: Dreams and Memories at the Close of 2020

St. Andrews in a radiant purple dusk

After Elizabeth made a joyful prophecy over her, Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.” (Luke 1:46b-48, ESV). I am no Mary, but after this long year and a semester in Scotland, I marvel at God’s goodness to me this year – through a pandemic that shut down the world, through civil and political turmoil, through visa applications and loneliness and quarantine and study. 

Three years ago, I commuted 50 minutes each way to my first job, through New Hampshire farm country. I would use the morning ride to pray and arrive at my last requests just as I turned left at the last stoplight onto a quiet road lined with oak trees on one side and cattails on the other. Once, I saw a beaver emerge from the rushes and ponder the road (don’t try to cross! I begged him); another time, I stopped and waited as two Canada geese and their goslings waddled across in a solemn line. One of my last prayer requests would be about my dreams for grad school: that God would help me find a good program where I could learn more and grow into a better writer. 

His guidance was so gentle. That first job had its challenges – gray cubicles with high walls, humming fluorescent lights, dull work in front of a white computer screen – but established job skills I didn’t know were essential for anyone who produces any kind of content, including copy editing. Other jobs since then opened my mind to the imaginative possibilities in the business world, the energy and creativity of corporate life, which has more potential than I think many people realize. The world of software is a wonderland of human subcreation, as it’s created out of language (like the physical world is!) – and software developers are basically wizards: quirky, brilliant, and witty people who are a delight to work with.

God gave me loneliness – a precious gift that broke me out of the prison of shyness and taught me to seek community and find ways to love people. He gave me boredom, another gift that motivated me to create beauty and adventures where there were none: Spotify playlists for work that made my heart dance, mountain hikes on weekends, books and literary journals and conferences that filled my mind with wisdom and mystery. 

After all that – God the Giver, the Divine Cartographer, led me to the gift I had asked for, a year in grad school, in one of the hardest years anyone can remember. A few weeks ago, I turned in my last paper for the first semester of my Theology and the Arts program at St. Andrews. (I also published a short and wild Christmas story in my program’s blog, Transpositions, called “Flight of the Gift-Giver.”)

These past few months have been a glorious carousel ride, a snorkel through a rainbow reef, a telescope-view of dazzling constellations. Quarantining for two weeks and surviving on egg-and-mayo sandwiches and fruit in September was difficult, and the visa process confirmed my hatred of paperwork and red tape, but I survived – and found that the Gray Havens had all the magic promised to us and more. 

Our professors took us on a straight path through the mythical zoo that is the growing Theology and the Arts field: we studied Dante’s Divine Comedy and Jeremy Begbie’s work on a musical analogy of the Trinity, re-enchantment, the emergent church, kitsch, Greek Orthodox icons, and other works of scholarship and art. Much of our work focused on epistemology (different ways of knowing) contrasting the rational, intellectual epistemology of reason, logic, and argument which makes up a lot of theology with the emotional, affective epistemology of narrative, poetry, visual art, music, film, and other art forms. We looked at the arts as a means of praising vs. understanding God, an area of orthodoxy or transgression, as a fountain of joy and wisdom vs. distraction or idolatry.

I’ve explored some of Scotland. We can’t leave Fife yet, but staying here has motivated me to find hikes and little villages and ruins I may not have found otherwise. I’ve hiked up a windswept hill that once housed a Pictish fort; through the shadows of a golden sunset in pine woods; on the coast where rainwater made rivers across our path; past a solemn stone church and castle among gray-green hills. Scotland can be radiant, ominous and dark, shimmering with puddles, wind-brushed, or crystallized in frost. 

I’ve discovered academic areas I want to explore. A Master’s degree does not get you anywhere near mastery of a subject; even a PhD only gives you a narrow sliver of human knowledge. The best you can do is learn the major names and areas in your field of study so that you can choose where you will delve deeper. With my eclectic range of interests, I still have multiple areas I want to explore, including: 

  • Theology of play – I heard of this in my undergrad, but now know a few more names and specifics: some theorists think that play may be a better means of worship, of knowing God and glorifying Him, then we realize. 
  • Metaphor theory – One of my papers examined how metaphors (such as “poetry is a snowstorm”) can open your mind to multiple layers of meaning, as opposed to the more direct representation of allegories or some types of symbols. However, metaphor theory is a huge field, with links to poetry and philosophy.
  • Paradox – Christ is God and man; the Kingdom of heaven is here already and not yet; good works reveal the state of the heart but do not earn salvation. Christianity is a country of paradoxes, or seemingly contradictory statements, that we need to hold in tension, and the arts are an excellent means of grasping paradoxes.
  • Re-enchantment and sacramentality – The word “re-enchantment” gives me a shiver of delight, but after reading a small portion of Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, I feel that the medieval worldview may have its own theological problems – for example, believing that the “white magic” of church sacraments and saints’ relics counteracts the “black magic” of demonic activity. I want to research the medieval worldview and how art can bring a spiritual renewal and healthy re-enchantment.
  • Poetry and faith – I feel myself falling deeper in love with poetry as a way of gesturing towards the ineffable, of expressing the infinite, including the realm of faith. I listened to a discussion by the poet Malcolm Guite in which he quoted George Herbert’s “Agony Poem,” which concludes: “Love is that liquour sweet and most divine, / Which my God feels as bloud; but I, as wine.” Poetry can use metaphor and simile, rhyme and meter, image and description to embody spiritual truths we struggle to articulate in any other way. I want to research this truth-bearing aspect of poetry further.

There are so many worlds to study and create. I want to join the academic conversation in Theology and the Arts, but my creative side also yearns to Make, to spin these insights into stories and poetry that reawaken people to wonder and mystery and delight. Lord willing, I can explore both in what remains of this winter break – as snow settles on the hills across the bay, blue dawns creep back from 8:44 a.m., and ice stills the tidepools below the cliffs.

Moving, Mountains, and High Places

Three weeks after moving farther south in New England, from a land of lobsters and lighthouses to a region of reservoirs and shopping centers, I’m feeling the ground steady under me again. I’m beginning to realize why some people rarely move: the paperwork, phone calls, and sheer mass of identification you need is significant. But again, the boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places.

In some ways, in moving south, I feel like Jill in C.S. Lewis’s The Silver Chair when she leaves the high mountain to begin her quest in Narnia. Aslan warns her that the air on the mountain is clear, and her mind is clear; but the air in Narnia is thicker. He warns her to be careful to not let it confuse her mind.

But she had to go, and so did I. Northern New England, with its green fields and farms, sprawling forests, mountains and blue lakes, feels like an escape, but a lonely one. Southern New England with its little villages, winding rivers, neighborhoods of colonial mansions or cottages is fertile with opportunities for work and community.

I miss the north, and I wish I was closer to the mountains. But I’ve found a different kind of summit as I’ve reinvested in morning quiet times:

It shall come to pass in the latter days
that the mountain of the house of the LORD
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be lifted up above the hills;
and all the nations shall flow to it… (Isaiah 2:2, ESV)

For ten years, classes, homework, and commuting filled up my mornings. I knew that cursory readings or listening to Scripture on my ESV podcast wasn’t as rich as actual study: mining the treasures of the text through notes, questions, outlining, and researching. In this new chapter of life, I’ve started using the extra minutes in my morning to read through Isaiah. 

Isaiah is a symphony of contrasts: blood and wine, burned rubble and blooming vineyards, mountains and valleys, rivers and fires. God proclaims judgement on the wicked, and then promises redemption and blessings on the righteousness. The paradox of His justice and grace is terrifyingly, beautifully clear.

In Isaiah 2, the prophet proclaims peace, prosperity, abundance, and joy on the mountain of the LORD when people are in loving obedience to Him. When God is lifted high, the land is fruitful.

But in Isaiah’s time, the Lord is not lifted high by the people of Jerusalem and Judah; instead, the people raise themselves up. 

The haughty looks of man shall be brought low,
and the lofty pride of men shall be humbled,
and the LORD alone will be exalted in that day.
For the LORD of hosts has a day
against all that is proud and lofty,
against all that is lifted up—and it shall be brought low…” (Isaiah 2:11-12)

This past Sunday, the worship leader at a church I visited said something I’ve never heard before. “You know in Psalm 121 when the psalmist says ‘I lift my eyes to the hills, from where does my help come. My help comes from the LORD’?” he said. “So in Palestine, when you lifted your eyes up to the hills, you would see altars to false gods. The psalmist is denying those false gods and choosing to trust in the true God.” 

Sacrifices in the high places and under every green tree…I remembered warnings from Numbers, Deuteronomy, 1 and 2 Samuel, and on through the Old Testament. Mountaintops: lonely heights where Abraham, Moses, Elijah, and others worshiped the true God, but also high places where people sacrificed to false gods.

I miss the north, and I wish I was closer to the mountains. But these passages remind me that the summit I really long for is that joyful obedience of a right relationship with God, not the mountains of New England, and not the idols I raise for myself. 

So now in these green lowlands, among the woods tangled in bittersweet vines and golf courses that hum with crickets each morning, I pursue purpose and community. And I long for His mountain. 

Wars and Weddings

Summer is in its noon. This season, midsummer, was always the most heavenly time for me. New England is steamy with humidity on sunny days and rumbles with thunderstorms at least once a week. The lilies are opening up like small trumpets, pink tea roses bloom in my mom’s garden, and every weekend, the highways glimmer with the red taillights of families going to or from the beach.

In my childhood, mid-July was the climax of the year: swimming among the water lily pads in the kettle ponds of Cape Cod, hiking and catching salamanders in the green mountains of New Hampshire, and backpacking in the blue wilderness of Yosemite. 

A few months ago, I was musing about story climaxes and happy endings. My favorite stories ended happily, usually in one of three ways: with a war (or at least a battle), a wedding, or both. (To be precise, the war is often the climax, and the wedding is the happy ending.)

  • WeddingLast of the Really Great Whangdoodles, Half Magic, Jane Austen, Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Shirley, The Sherwood Ring, Time at the Top, Ella Enchanted, The Farthest-Away Mountain
  • WarThe Hobbit, Harry Potter, The Battle for the Castle, A Wind in the Door, The Great and Terrible Quest
  • Both The Lord of the Rings, The Hunger Games, the Prydain series, The Fairy Rebel

Wars and weddings make excellent climaxes/endings: the violence and suffering of war resolves itself in victory, and the pain and desire of love are resolved in marriage. I think there’s a deeper reason why these events make good endings, though: they point us towards the true end of the world.

Christians believe that history is teleological, or has a purpose and and ending (instead of being random, meaningless, or endless). The telos or purpose of history is the fulfillment of God’s judgement and redemption. God created humans to be in an intimate relationship with Him, but when the first man and woman sinned (broke God’s law), humanity separated from God. Jesus Christ’s death on the cross paid the price for sin and allowed humans to be reconciled to God. At the end of the world, that reconciliation will be complete, and those who believe in God will enter heaven to be with Him forever.

The end of the world includes the end of a War that has raged throughout history, the battle between Satan and the armies of God. It will conclude with a Wedding, the marriage of the Lord Jesus Christ and His Bride, the Church. 

I think every story that ends with a war, a wedding, or both foreshadows the reality of the last days. The War will be greater and more terrible than the flood that destroyed the old world – but it will end with victory. The Wedding will be more glorious than a summer sunset. Believers will cross the edge into eternity, where worshipping God is truly our happy ever after.

Revelation 21:1-4 – “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”

Happy endings anticipate eternity. When a good book or series ends with “happily ever after,” readers can imagine the victory and marriage continuing in perfect joy, without having to watch the problems that are inevitable in a fallen world.

Not all good books end with wars and weddings – or, the war and the wedding are not the whole resolution. Some end with new beginnings, like Anne of Green Gables or Hannah Coulter. Others end with homecoming, like The Hobbit. Some end with a joyful death, like Les Miserables. I think all these happy endings are wrapped up in our yearning for heaven: the Homecoming, the Rescue, the beginning of the delicious mystery of Eternity.

A few years ago, one of my favorite English professors warned us about climax seasons. He said times of greatest joy and fulfillment – such as our wedding days – can also carry the greatest grief and yearning. Climaxes remind us how much we yearn for the true Happy Ending.

In this climax season (of the year, if not my life) of summer, I yearn for the end of the War, the Wedding, the Homecoming, and the New Beginning. And the happy endings of the books I love remind me that it is coming soon.

Musings from the UK: The Lake District, Edinburgh, and Durham

After some full, exhausting days at Oxford (we walked 13 miles each day), we went to the Lake District, Edinburgh, and Durham. Miles of train travel past thick forests, green fields, and small villages showed me that some of my favorite books – Watership Down, Jane Eyre, A Room with a View, and others – captured and mythologized a place of real beauty and intrigue. The feeling of being in a story turned out to be a theme of the trip.

I also gained a new appreciation of J.K. Rowling’s genius. Train travel is fast, convenient, and lets you relax and watch the countryside, but is also stressful, dirty, and chaotic. Rowling turned a monotonous necessity into a delight with the Hogwarts Express. I kept thinking of Harry Potter every time the food cart rattled by.

I also gained even more insights about imagination and story-telling.

Stories are mythologized truth

Every scene was a story; I’ve read about the loveliness and mystery of this place from dozens of authors. They saw truth, and they told it slant. The shaped it in imagery and metaphor and breathed life into characters who embodied the human experience.

Kendal was all gray stone, with tight corners and winding streets – somewhere Father Brown or Sherlock Holmes would have walked. The taxi ride was on winding rows and hills through green fields, pastures, low stone walls, hedgerows, woods, and little farms – a country of borders. You’ll have to take my word for most of it; our speed and the rain made picture-taking difficult.

Bowness-on-Windermere, a village next to Lake Windermere, was all shops and restaurants painted white, walled gardens with white and yellow roses, and a shining lake reflecting the green mountains around it. It was Laketown from The Hobbit.

The hikes were glorious. We stepped into a shadowy tunnel of green trees covered in thick moss, up through hill pastures ringing with the forlorn bleating of sheep, to a hilltop shrouded in silvery mist. The dim outlines of trees were all we could see, but I didn’t mind – it felt secret, ominous, and foreboding as Weathertop or the moors of Wuthering Heights.

The magic of stories is the magic of real, natural beauty on God’s earth, expressed in minute detail by people He gifted with wordcraft. I’m burning now to spin a story out of the beauty of New England.

Travel for people

The allure of the Lake District, Edinburgh, and Durham was worth traveling to see. But the best parts of this trip really were the people. Though we trekked 15 miles up and down the streets of Edinburgh to collect Scottish tartans and chocolates as souvenirs, it’s the conversations that I value the most.

We talked with our taxi drivers about English weather (one said that snow shuts down the Lake District; the other said that now winters were too warm and wet for snow); “health and safety” regulations set by the government; and regional accents (two of them warned us about Liverpool and Newcastle accents). The owner of the hotel in the Lake District told us what he knew of the history of the place, his previous career, and his aunt’s paintings which hung in the dining room. I spent hours talking about food, travel, dating, and culture with two Americans, a British woman, and an Australian woman on our last train.

In college, and just after, every glamorous Facebook picture of my friend’s travels filled me with envy and yearning: European castles, Italian vineyards, and tropical reefs. Now, after being able to take a few pictures of my own, I feel stronger knowing that I want to travel for people, not just scenery – fellow travelers, conference attendees, and hopefully new friends.

Seek out the family of God

Sunday morning in Durham, just before we had to get back to Heathrow, I was feeling sick, and we were both tired. We persevered enough, however, to get to Christchurch for their service.

The meeting room had a high ceiling, large windows, and white paint that caught the light. It was full of families: men and women talking in small groups, college students, and children who ran among the metal folding chairs, filling the room with laughter.

“If you get Jesus wrong,” one pastor began, “you get everything wrong, and you can’t relate to Him.” We recited the Nicene Creed, and sang through Christ-centered songs based on the Psalms. The main pastor talked through Psalm 8, pausing at verse 2:

Out of the mouth of babies and infants,
you have established strength because of your foes,
to still the enemy and the avenger.

“Oh, good,” he said, when one of the children there let out a happy cry. “I was hoping that would happen. In fact, I prayed that it would happen.” He continued to explain the majesty of God in making human beings, as helpless and small as babies, into priceless treasures. He went to Hebrews 2 to explain how Adam’s race had failed to rule this world as God created us to, but Jesus Christ became the ruler Adam failed to be.

I felt like crying with joy; to travel across the Atlantic and much of England and Scotland, and then find my family – radiant with worship, full of love for each other, steadfast in the truth – was exactly the encouragement I needed.

And then we returned. Now, I sift through my memories and new resolutions: to mythologize the beauty around me in stories; to use travel to build relationships, not just view pretty scenery; and to seek out the family of God everywhere.

While we were gone, summer arrived: tree canopies are lush and green, white spirea and pink rhododendrons are blooming, and the ocean is impossibly blue. For the first time, I can taste the sweetness of the word homecoming.

Musings from the UK: Oxford

On June 2nd, I flew back from a week in the UK – exhausted, content, pondering, and with a renewed sense of yearning. May was an intense month of travel (Colorado Springs, Denver, Pennsylvania, and then the UK) and I was more than ready to come home.

But it was beautiful. The rich history and traditions of Oxford, the mysterious beauty of the Lake District, the medieval look and modern busyness of Edinburgh, and the green peace of Durham gave me images and insights enough to ponder for a long time. I still need to sift through my hundreds of pictures and thoughts, but at first glance, here are a few things I discovered.

Oxford

Oxford has layers of loveliness: the old beauty of stone walls, buildings, spires, and statues, all covered in the fresh spring beauty of yellow roses, green ivy, and flowering vines. We walked through the green parks every day, dodging bikes and other foot travelers, listening to birds cooing in the trees and watching ducks, swans, and ravens hop around among the lilly pads and cattails in ponds.

The town was full of tourists like us, the murmur of many languages, and students in black robes. We got chai tea and Italian hot chocolate (my life will never be the same) at a tea shop, wandered through a curio/bookshop full of quill pens and gilded masks, and explored the stalls of the Covered Market.

We heard echoes and whispers of the spirit of Oxford. The town and university are centered on thought leadership and intellectual discovery, but remember faith: we attended a lecture on “The Failures of Political Journalism” at Green Templeton college, wandered through the University Church of St. Mary, went to exhibitions on language and 3-D images at the Weston Library and Museum of the History of Science, and enjoyed an Evensong at Magdalen College.

Every day brought so much to ponder and so much to enjoy. I’ll reference this trip in many future posts, but for now, I came away with some important resolutions:

Enjoy nearby beauty

Oxford was breathtaking with its ancient stonework, glassy rivers, yellow roses, and silver skies. But I had a recurring realization: New England is just as beautiful: its starry mayflowers and pert black-capped chickadees, fragrant beach-roses and green maple trees. Though traveling is great in many ways, I only need to step out my front door to see beauty. I need to value the treasures around me, not just those that are far away.

Seek unity in diversity

Most of the “content” we found at Oxford in lectures and exhibitions presented a set of different opinions on each topic, without identifying any as primary or true. Diversity, inclusion, and redefinition (breaking down old meanings of humanity, gender, faith, language, science,etc.) were celebrated as the highest good.

I love listening to people who are different from me, being sharpened as iron sharpens iron. But I believe that the highest good is celebrating true things, not just different things. The original purpose of universities was to seek unity in diversity, with every individual discipline striving together to unravel mysteries. I yearn to seek transcendent, unifying truth, Wisdom, in literature, art, language, and theology, and from people of all nations, backgrounds, and experiences.

Burn bright in darkness; cultivate in the desert

While rushing to the lecture, we had two minutes to duck into the Eagle and Child Pub, were Lewis, Tolkien, and the Inklings used to meet. My glimpse of the place stayed with me: dark, tiny rooms dimly lit by light bulbs, with barely enough places to squeeze faded armchairs beside brick fireplaces. The famous Rabbit Room was plain, with only a wooden table that may have seated five.

Lewis and Tolkien lived in a dark time: through the blood, fire, and fear of two world wars, sickness, grief, and a growing cynicism and loss of belief. But in imitation of God in Genesis 1, they spoke worlds into being: stories that acknowledge darkness and despair, but burned bright with love, beauty, and hope. The Inklings’ fellowship by the fire nurtured friendships, creativity, and joy that they poured out in stories that still kindle imaginations today.

The Christological center of Lewis and Tolkien’s imaginations stirred me deeper still. People of different faiths or no faith at all (like George R.R. Martin, Philip Pullman, Tamora Pierce, and Patricia McKillip) can also imagine worlds into being. But the narrative of an all-powerful, loving Redeemer who sacrificed Himself for humanity is the greatest Story; all other good stories echo it.

The world is still dark – maybe darker – today. But there are many light-bearers and dream-cultivators, people of strong faith and abundant imaginations, in Oxford (including Michael Ward, Sarah Clarkson, Joy Clarkson, and many others), in New England, and in the whole world. I can’t wait to discover more of them.