Repeating Wonders and New Mercies

Because it’s practically summer and there’s still a pandemic on and I’m an adult and I can do what I want, I’ve been rereading old favorites lately. I may eventually wend my way around to some Laura Ingalls Wilder or P.G. Wodehouse (one of my more worthwhile middle school obsessions) but recently it’s been Flannery O’Connor and the Narnia books.

My grandma too used to reread her favorite books over and over, aloud to my grandpa and aunt in the evenings. She always spoke about it as if doing so were a bit of guilty pleasure, as if she knew she should stretch herself with something new, but Emmy Keeps a Promise was just so comforting and reliable, with its stories of boarding houses and clams. And rereading is a comfort. I picked Narnia up on purpose because I was searching for comfort, for a bit of stability, for a well-trod path. 

But though many of the things I’ve been reading lately are familiar, though at certain points in my life I’ve been known to corner people and monologue in my enthusiasm for both Voyage of the Dawn Treader and O’Connor’s “Revelation,” I find on rereading that though I thought I’d already analysed them to the hilt, their deep roots and truth are alternately knocking me upside the head and stealing softly into the echoing, aching cavity of my chest all over again.

I used to think this sort of thing was just a process of something hitting me differently than before or on a deeper level, but I don’t think that’s always the case. Sometimes the same thing is hitting me on the exact same level. I am Eustace dragoned and undragoned, and I am part of Mrs. Turpin’s beatific procession into the sky. It was this way last time and it will be this way again. Everything strikes me fresh, though I remember it striking me fresh before. I am, it would seem, in a constant cycle of forgetting and being reminded.

My first temptation upon realizing this is to chastise myself for forgetting. To tell myself to learn better this time, to please actually retain and apply this knowledge, for goodness sake! But I have quietly begun to suspect that this is not the best approach. I have begun to suspect that on a certain level I was made for this cycle of amnesia and wonder. The Lord intends us to have to keep coming back and beginning again, over and over. It is one of the ways that he teaches us to become like little children. As Chesterton wrote, “We die daily. We are always being born again with almost indecent obstetrics.” 

We are so often concerned with decency and propriety and progress in ourselves and in others, when instead what is on offer is the promise of messy, glorious rebirth, a rebirth which, spurred by a children’s book, a simple meal, a passing comment from a friend, may happen almost hourly. His mercies will, in fact, be new over and over and over. This, apparently, is the life our good and full-of-mirth God means for us to have. 

And every spring we get to look up into the trees through the new leaves and relearn green as if we never knew it before. Every time.

Violent Graces

A few weeks ago I had a brief conversation with my friend Abbie about the nature of God’s grace, whether it is violent or gentle. To be honest, we didn’t really get into it–we were really talking more about Christian writers and who each of us tended to gravitate towards–but I have been thinking about violence ever since.

I have been thinking about what Marilynne Robinson calls Flannery O’ Connor’s “appalling imagination” and about how that imagination is pretty nearly reflective of the contents of the human heart. I have been thinking about Jacob wrestling with God all night, how he demands a blessing, and how, as the sun rises, he walks away with a limp. And I have been thinking of a Man dying naked and alone of asphyxiation on a wooden cross and knowing it was love.

Throughout human history, many of our truest examples of promise and mercy are red with blood. I believe that violence is usually ugly, and very often wicked and repugnant. The school shooting this week? I do not believe that it was grace. I believe that it was evil. I also believe that God can bring grace out of that situation, but even that is not what I’m talking about.

What I am talking about is our hearts, those hearts meeting God in a dark alley. Coming around a corner and finding the light of light, very God of very God standing there, right where we least expected him. He stands and he offers goodness and grace, but those meetings are so often violent because sinful people like you and me will naturally rebel against goodness. He is gargantuan and clear and bright. We are dusty and crumbling. The light is too brilliant, and it burns us clean and refines us, strips the rot out of our souls. The flames rise higher and higher around us, and we are not consumed.

But isn’t God gentle? Doesn’t he care for the orphan and the widow and the sparrow? Can’t his changes in our hearts be soft and his love be sweet? Perhaps Jacob did walk away with a limp, but didn’t the lepers leap for joy, and run? Christ bid the little children to come to him. I know he meant it.

I am going back to the basics here (I’ve been doing that a lot lately, for my own benefit), but God made us and God loves us. He knows the caverns of our hearts. He knows whether they need soft light or a sharp blaze. He knows how to mold with strong, sure hands. He both pays the fee and does the labor to make us whole, so he knows every part of the job.

I am making a muddy-eyed conclusion, as I usually do, but I think that for most of us children of God, our relationship with the Lord’s grace will be like that of Paul. He goes towards Damascus with murder in his heart, and is knocked down and blinded by the light. Then as he lies in the darkness, God sends Ananias as a bearer of grace to pray for him and baptize him. He gains new sight and a new name. When he leaves that place, everything is different. This is most of our stories, told again and again and again. It is the story of our daily lives. We learn love slow.

“Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved.”