Train Tickets

One of the only books I had space to bring with me from North Carolina was Corrie Ten Boom’s The Hiding Place, and a few weeks ago, my housemate and I started reading it aloud after dinner, but very gradually because we are often busy. And more than once while reading, I’ve found a lump in my throat that I must push down and push down again.

In the second chapter, young Corrie sees death for the first time when visiting a neighbor and is terrified, most particularly that she will lose her parents like this. Her father gently asks her, When you and I go to Amsterdam–when do I give you your ticket? And she admits, Why, just before we get on the train. He wants her to know that God gives us things only when we need them. Certainly he gives fish instead of snakes and bread instead of stones, but he doesn’t stockpile the bread and fish up around us to go stale and rot. Instead he.places them fresh into our empty hands at the moment we are most hungry for them.

For the adult Corrie of most of the novel, the train tickets God gives her one by one are to deal with the horrors she will witness and experience. I am not experiencing horrors or even hardships, but learning in small ways is learning too. Moving here has been overwhelmingly full of blessing, as I knew deep-down it would be, partially because in so much newness I can’t possibly see more than a step in front of me, so I can’t possibly plan my life the way I did in Greensboro. And as I inhale sharp gulps of fresh air which I sometimes don’t know how to take into my lungs, how to begin to eke the oxygen out of, I have had to rely on those train tickets, one by one.

And this week it was George Herbert’s “Love III.” I can’t say that I found it, more that it found me:

Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lacked anything.

“A guest,” I answered, “worthy to be here”:
Love said, “You shall be he.”
“I, the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear,
I cannot look on thee.”
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
“Who made the eyes but I?”

“Truth, Lord; but I have marred them; let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.”
“And know you not,” says Love, “who bore the blame?”
“My dear, then I will serve.”
“You must sit down,” says Love, “and taste my meat.”
So I did sit and eat.

I’ve known this poem since I was small, from my dad’s little pocket Temple, but it hit me with great force on Wednesday night: knocked me down and lifted me up again. And I don’t think I’ll ever fully comprehend its meaning. In fact, I don’t think Herbert did, either. He, too, was only human. We only begin to understand, but we must keep beginning, over and over.

The line that I wrote on my arm to remember was one of Love’s: “And know you not who bore the blame?” But the one that kept echoing in my head all Thursday morning was the speaker’s petulantly self-flagellating excuse: “Let my shame go where it doth deserve.” Strangely, it was not repeating itself in my own voice, or even Herbert’s. They were still, small words that kept saying, gently, but authoritatively: Let your shame go where it doth deserve. And it meant something quite different than when I say something like that to myself. Instead of implying that I ought to be wrapping myself in my sin like a comforting, moldy blanket and traipsing off to Sheol because that’s where I belong, this whisper meant that I am not my shame and guilt, that I am a made, loved creature, and that Christ bore the blame, lifted the weight off my shoulders and onto his own so it could die. And I must stop clinging to it so that he can throw it far, far away, far as the east is from the west. Yes, let it go where it doth deserve…

You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good. Always.


Good Company

Last week was Grove City’s Christian Writers Conference on George Herbert. My dad came and spoke and there was a poetry liturgy and I gave a paper and there was a banquet and my brother George sequestered himself and his laptop in a thousand different corners. It was a wonderful time and I am grateful to have had it. There were lots of careful words on truth and beauty, and one cannot have that much goodness poured into ones head without it getting stuck there.

But I don’t know if I’m going to get anything worthwhile out onto the page tonight. We have our windows open, because the air is warm and soft at last. I just got back from the last “Conversation on the Virtues” I’ll be going to with my Classical Ed class. This semester with them has been a tiring, tense, funny, and sweet adventure. I think the world of them, as evidenced by the gratuitous number of hours Megan and I spent making them sugar cookies last week. I’m looking forward to a long summer and a fall semester with a fiction writing independent study, but I will miss these people.

I have plenty of friends who are very dear to me, but I am usually best one-on-one. Yet, these kids (or nearly-men-and-women, if you will) are my favorite when we are together, when we are not myself and himself and herself and yourself, but ourselves, sighing and insinuating and reading and asking and contradicting. Actually, at the risk of sounding like I’ve learned precisely what I was supposed to, I’d say we’re learning the awe of neighborliness. I do not know which of us began Samaritans, and which began Jews (or perhaps I do, but I’ll never tell), but I know I have been humbled by unexpected friendships. As Lewis says in The Four Loves, “Who could have deserved it?” Not I.

But this marvelous spread of good company is what has been offered me, so as my friend George Herbert and more importantly, my God, would require, I will not delay, but “sit and eat.”

Changing my Mind

Within the next month I have two term papers due. For Brit Lit, I was going to write about George Herbert for my daddy, because I like him, and for Civilization I was going to write about characterization in the medieval mystery plays. It was all decided, then I put away the ideas and forgot about them. But now warm, compact things have been happening which are forcing me to learn one of those wuthering life lessons college so eagerly shares. I am learning how to change my mind.

It all began several weeks ago when Dr. Brown was teaching the mystery plays. She was talking about the role of guilds in the plays’ production and performance and that was when this sort of hazy glow began. At first, I couldn’t really tell where it was coming from. It certainly wasn’t the powerpoint, and I didn’t think it was Dr. Brown herself. Maybe it was her words. Yes, that was it, they were  shimmering visibly in the blank semi-circle at the front of the room, busily building a medieval village out of their own translucent gold letters. I watched the mussed organization of the little whoville take shape. Clattering bright wagons, laborious heirloom costumes, then the strange timbre of one voice projected loud over a silent, crowded street. “…the piece was then judged by the guild, and if they approved it, he became a master, a member of the guild. Therefore we have master…piece…” And that was when the singing started. I knew exactly where it was coming from this time. A soft, angelic cooing, right from the center of my chest. The village in front of me picked up the pace. The master masons (masters of pieces!) ran round behind their wagon half in and out of costume, clutching treasured bits of script and calling to their overwrought apprentices to “Make haste!” There was a smell in the air as if everything had just been dragged out of the attic, and every villager was taking short, arid breaths, and thinking colorful, interested thoughts. I felt a whelming sense of scarlet and brown belonging. It was magic. I wanted in.

So, I basically had to change that particular thesis. I had already had my original, boring topic approved, but how could I write about characterization, for goodness sakes, when there was a bustling village inside my head? So I came up with a very correct, and secretly exhilarating thesis, spent quite a while emailing back and forth with Dr. Dupree. And…then it was approved. And I rejoiced.

The paper for Dr. Brown is tremendous. It is not long in reality, but it casts a huge shadow. I’m not frightened. I love all papers without exception, but everything about it must be beyond my highest standards, and that includes the topic. As for Herbert, who I had planned to write on, well, he is dear, but there is someone else. He is a comfortable cousin, whose company and wisdom I appreciate,  but John Donne is my lover. If you have ever read any Donne, you will consider that a highly appropriate image. “We can die by it, if not live by love,/And if unfit for tombs and hearse/Our legend be, it will be fit for verse;” I realize he is quite dead, and wrote every poem for a woman other than I, but such separations mean nothing. “Love, all alike, no season knows, nor clime, / No hours, days, months, which are the rags of time.” You laugh, but “For God’s sake hold your tongue, and let me love,”  “For love all love of other sight controls,/And makes one little room an everywhere.” Humph. So there. And I haven’t even mentioned “To His Mistress Going To Bed”. In comparison, George Herbert is “Most poor:” and “Most thin.”  “He is a crazy brittle glass,” “A broken altar,” who merely “did sit and eat.” I cannot “love both fair and brown.”

Of course, I am being quite silly, and it has been fun, but be assured, I am really not throwing Herbert out with the bathwater. I promise. It’s just that Donne has found his way into my eternal soul and made himself comfortable there, or at least his words have. “Wilt thou forgive that sin which I did shun/A year or two, but wallowed in a score?/When thou hast done, thou hast not done,/For I have more.” I am not a poet, and these are words I could never write, but, at the same time, they seem to have been born of the most secret, quiet part of my being. “Batter my heart, three-personed God…/Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,/ Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.” That is almost worthy of ink and needle and permanence on my skin.

Herbert is home and dinner and small, palmable books. He is “a ragged noise and mirth,” and “a box where sweets compacted lie.” But…I got a ninety-five on the Donne quiz today. He and I are meant to be. The two are brothers, though, in a sense. My two metaphysical darlings…I will write about them both, mayhaps. I do know I have changed my mind, (or rather Donne has, or God,) but I’m not sure what to. We’ll see. Dr. Brown will tell me what’s best. I’m flexible.