"As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame; / [ . . . ] Each mortal thing does one thing and the same: / Deals out that being indoors each one dwells; / Selves -- goes itself; 'myself' it speaks and spells, / Crying 'What I do is me; for that I came'." --Gerard Manley Hopkins

28 April 2008

"Terribly Good"

Standing outside the car this morning at home, I looked up at black clouds churning against a charcoal grey background. "Beautiful!" I exclaimed. "Threatening," another voice murmured in my ear, as I thought of lightning strikes and tornado warnings. A few minutes later, as I stepped out of the car on campus, the chill wind whipped tree branches and my fresh-washed hair. "Invigorating!" I cried. "Destructive," that other voice whispered, as I trod on pear blossoms and broken twigs littering the ground.

A "terrible beauty," Yeats called the martrydom of the Irish rebels. A "terrible gift," Byron called melancholia. The world is "terribly good," says Stanhope in Charles Williams' novel Descent into Hell.

Life is made of paradox and mystery. I want to accept it -- no, more than accept -- embrace it, run toward it, or at least not run from it and let it embrace me, as Pauline finally allows her most terrible fear to overtake her, only to find it is precisely what makes her most fully herself, most wonderfully able to serve others, most joyfully confident in a Power greater than any she could conjure or imagine, and which she now understands is indeed "terribly good."

22 April 2008

Under the Mercy

So I got two novels by Charles Williams last week -- War In Heaven and Descent into Hell -- and inhaled them both over the weekend. (Really, they are pretty short, I swear.) I've been finding in the past couple of years that I much prefer to just take in a novel wholesale and then, if it has spoken to me, go back and re-read it, perhaps many times, at a slower pace to figure out why I fell in love with it. I shall revisit both these novels, and the other two Williams novels I have , over the summer, not to mention adding to my collection till I have them all . . .

War in Heaven is a grail story, superbly done in Williams' inimitable style, bringing together the most unlikely group to save the holy object. Williams suggests through the story also the most unlikely -- from our human perspective -- possibilities for individual salvation, reminding me of Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh, who also make much of our human frailties and God's mercy.

But Descent into Hell is the one that had me barely breathing Sunday evening. Williams takes the understanding that self-absorption is hell and shows the temptations to it, the ways out of it, and the consequences of choosing both rightly and wrongly. It is horrifying in its picture of Lawrence Wentworth's fall, and there is nothing simplistic about Pauline Anstruther's salvation from the same fate. It is a true book . . .

Rambling notes:
There are doppelgangers, suicide, ghosts walking, visions of heaven and of hell, the temptress Lilith (whose story I really must become more familiar with; so many of my favorite writers make use of it), the doctrine of substitution applied in our lives in a more compelling way than I've ever seen it, and again the constant suggestion that the slightest choice that is not evil could serve to put us on the way of salvation . . .

Early on, one of the characters says to poet Peter Stanhope, whose latest play they are going to produce, that "nature is so terribly good."

He agrees, but taking her literally: "it comes from doing so much writing, but when I say 'terribly' I think I mean 'full of terror'. A dreadful goodness."

She replies resentfully, "If things are good they're not terrifying, are they?"

Pauline, who confronts daily her own personal terror, interjects at this point the question, "And if things are terrifying, can they be good?'

Stanhope: "Yes, surely. Are our tremors to measure the Omnipotence?"

At the end, "Under the Mercy," Stanhope tells Pauline. "Go in peace, under the Mercy."

20 April 2008

"Because I do not hope"

from T. S. Eliot, Ash Wednesday


Because I do not hope to turn again
Because I do not hope
Because I do not hope to turn
Desiring this man's gift and that man's scope
I no longer strive to strive towards such things
(Why should the aged eagle stretch its wings?)
Why should I mourn
The vanished power of the usual reign?

Because I do not hope to know again
The infirm glory of the positive hour
Because I do not think
Because I know I shall not know
The one veritable transitory power
Because I cannot drink
There, where trees flower, and springs flow, for
there is nothing again.

Because I know that time is always time
And place is always and only place
And what is actual is actual only for one time
And only for one place
I rejoice that things are as they are and
I renounce the blessed face
And renounce the voice
Because I cannot hope to turn again
Consequently I rejoice, having to construct something
Upon which to rejoice.

And pray to God to have mercy upon us
And I pray that I may forget
These matters that with myself I too much discuss
Too much explain
Because I do not hope to turn again
Let these words answer
For what is done, not to be done again
May the judgement not be too heavy upon us

Because these wings are no longer wings to fly
But merely vans to beat the air
The air which is now thoroughly small and dry

maller and dryer than the will
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still.

Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death,
Pray for us now and at the hour of our death.

-- T. S. Eliot