Saturday, October 30, 2010

Story through Books, in four parts

Part I

Macrina graciously asked me to consider myself ‘tagged’ for the book meme she did of 15 (or 14) books that were influential in one’s life. So I will do so. The question then is where to start and with what book. Well. I have long been using books to look for answers and for what God may be telling me, not that He cannot tell me directly but that books are a medium that I actually hear a little of what I am being told.

The first book ever, other than the Bible, which I developed a wild love for at a young age, hearing stories of my Grandma’s Grandpa Cornelius being such a grassrooted Bible scholar that the pastors in the area all went to him for advice. Pretty cool to have a protestant Great Great Grandfather who loved God and the Bible so much that others went to him for advice and wisdom. He and my Grandmother imparted a deep love of the Bible in me, that the first book I ever asked for was the edition of the Bible (NIV with Christ as the Good Shepherd on it) that I saw other kids having in my Dutch CRC school. So the first book is the Bible. The second, which I began mentioning before having to mention the NIV Bible itself, I was given by a school teacher that helped me deal with the enormous loss of one of my classmates who, at the age of 10, died of leukemia; he was the most Christian boy I knew and I loved him very deeply. My teacher gave me the young tweens (as it would be called now) book 6 Months to Live

I had prayed every night that God would heal my deeply loved friend and was devastated that instead God took him from me. The first thing I did after hearing of his death was leave the dinner table and go and ask God why He let him die. I kept looking for this answer for months until I found and later was given the book 6 months to live where the main character has cancer herself and loses a new best friend who had the same cancer and was her age. Ecclesiastes 3 was given to this character and it was the only answer that gave me any peace – that there is a time for everything, even dying. Needless to say, in my young teens the book of Ecclesiastes became my favourite book of the Bible and it was not until 20 years later when doing a panakhyda for him that I was really able to deal with and express my grief and love for this young compassionate Christian boy.

Moving along to my teen years, I loved C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity which I was reading, along with others, by about age 13. Lewis book Mere Christianity taught me the only logical thinking that I feel I was really trained in. I read his book carefully, even diagramming some of the sentences as his metaphors could be complex, especially for someone who is in grade 7 and reading the book of my own volition. (My Dad was a big Lewis fan so the reading of Lewis was a normal development for me at that age).

Part II

Then, skipping to 1996, the happiest year of my life; I was 19 and was, in a sense, rediscovering God after going through some painful times in my later teens. I was in love with God again, reading the Bible through for the first time, discovering the alluring romance and poetry of the Book of Isaiah, and about to rediscover the books of Madeline L’ Engle. I was just about to dive into many things at once that would change my life and life with God without being able to turn back. This started with the book by Elizabeth Goudge, The Scent of Water. One of my Roman Catholic friend’s Mothers also has a deep love for Elizabeth Goudge and calls her a mystic. I don’t worry about what to refer to her as, other than as one who really loves God and writes of characters that live in a world I ache to live in, a world that is rapidly disappearing.

This book was a loving life-giving water-shed moment / sea change in my life. I remember talking to everyone about this book for weeks and weeks. I remember siting in my grey horrid cement dorm room (at Calvin College no less, yes, I went there for the first year and a half of my rambling 8 years before I finally finished my honours BA in literature; Calvin College is near where I grew up and is close to me forever like blood because it is my family heritage; I may have never gone to much as a kid, but Calvin is a place I began from, even learned to swim there as a child; my Grandma’s brother-in-law taught math there. when I was young). Anyway, there I was at Calvin, in one of their older cement dorm rooms, reading Elizabeth Goudge and knowing only that this book was bringing out a deep healing and when I finished this book, I looked out the window and all was changed. The colours were deeper, brighter, the berries on the bush were a deep bright red; before I finished reading this book, all was grey, dusty, with a sense of lonely bleakness. I had tumbled into a great new frontier and the colours of my world were forever changed and I was left with the undoubtable sense of hope.

Soon, while I was young enough to have the courage to pursue God with a sense of abandonment, after reading The Scent of Water, and still living on the Calvin College campus (and since I was an English major, already knew the prof who was putting the conference together), I went to Calvin’s Faith and Writing Conference, my life took on another layer. I met and / or heard speak, Madeline L’Engle and Luci Shaw, Annie Dillard, Donald Hall and Lee Smith. An amazing weekend; Madeline’s talk with Luci Shaw was one that radiated a deep sense of love to everyone she was speaking to. I was quickly plunged into these authors worlds, reading Dillard (who read from her now published book for the time being)

and was introduced to Jane Kenyon’s poetry, Jane who had died just about a year before and Donald Hall, her husband and accomplished poet, was still grieving the loss of. Jane’s poetry, especially some that were written on subjects of faith and of death, formed me and still come back to me today. When I write poetry, the best of it is influenced by her; the poem ‘briefly it enters and briefly speaks’ and ‘let evening come’ still come back to me today, the lines welling in me providing the words that I speak inside, words that help me maintain my centre in a increasingly decentred world. I read Dillard’s American Childhood and Donald Hall’s book Without.

I was living in the world of New England (where most of these authors lived), a space I lived in for 6 summers in Connecticut at the same time, working at a Bible Camp. At this camp I found L’Engle’s book Walking on Water which I read and reread at age 19 and felt the world of angels and the possibility of miracles and even walking up stairs as a child without using one’s feet, like Madeline wrote of doing as a child.

My world was full of life, of the excitement and belief in a future with God that somehow would avoid the pain and grief that I had already known, that Donald Hall was already steeped in, that Madeline L’Engle knew, that Annie Dillard no doubt did as well, with her life perhaps not being fully strait forward as a writer, with a focused eye and pen on the unknowable world we live in.

Part III

But this was not to be; I too soon knew death and then even the silence of God. And in this silence of God I read all about God’s silence; L’Engle and Lewis again rescued me, explaining that silence was also the way of God. And then a dear friend in 1999 discovered Kathleen Norris, who I met years later here in Ottawa. I read my friend’s copy of The Cloister Walk and I bought her book Amazing Grace a Vocabulary of Faith (I think I may of actually read this one first) at a bookstore in St. Louis Missouri, in the airport on a flight home from BC Canada to Michigan for Christmas.

I ended up being put in a hotel due to an overnight unexpected flight layover and I remember the glorious adventure of one night in a hotel with this book. I remember sitting on the hotel bed and reading and my life being filled again with the hope of a something much greater, of a God so big that the hope and eternity with Him was so great that nothing could defy it, nothing and that the centuries of the Church and the early church was still with us and deeply alive. I discovered a St. Jerome that Norris said, feminists loved to hate and then she explained that it was not so simple and suddenly St. Jerome was no one to be feared and my then current life of literature, feminist lit theory and God’s silence was again uprooted and flipped and suddenly, give me another two years or so, and I was not a feminist any longer, instead I was on the verge of discovering another new world that I did not know existed.

Towards the end of my degree, I bought (and still have not read much of) Sherrard’s Church, Papacy and Schism which I had no idea what it was really about, only that some of my profs were currently reading it and finding it to be, at least at that moment, of a vital importance. I remember reading the beginning and the only concept of church I had at the time was the Christian Reformed Church of my childhood, a church full of God loving Christians who have the unfortunate inheritance of worshiping in a grey-walled church of cement. But it is the church of my home and is the seat of my family and if I go back for a family occasion, I see people who knew me for all of my growing up years and who still love me and care for me. People who prayed for me when I had my big all day interview back in September. Nevertheless, my concept of church was about to change forever.

Now during my time in 1996 when all was so incredibly new exciting and full of blue skied sunshine, I was also introduced to the Anglican church through a local beautiful stone and brick Episcopal church and, with the help of a Christology Catholic seminary textbook (that I read at Calvin no less) and Madeleine L’ Engle, I fully believed that the Eucharist was and is real and when I kneeled that Sunday years ago to receive Christ’s body and blood I felt the whole of myself falling in sync with a long history of Christians who had received this living presence into their mortal bodies and was never the same. I thought of Martin Luther then, who I really have never read, but he was about as far back in church history as I really knew, so it was him I thought of as my life was unalterably changed.

And so my life was about to change again, which about leads us to the present time – I was still out west and was finishing up my Honours BA thesis on John Milton’s Adam and Eve (especially Eve) and discovered some of the church father’s writing on the creation of Eve and suddenly this was very good and startling and again, I saw that what the feminists were writing and what was actually going on in earlier centuries of Christian thought, were so different that I was soon to be out of feminism all together and would find myself standing in a very different place indeed.

Part IV

And so how did I get to this place? It is perhaps the most unexpected and humorous story of this whole story of books and my life. Some of my friends from my evangelical University who were the Literature and Philosophy loving subversive Christians (i.e. my closest friends) were going to an Orthodox church. This meant nothing to me at all, just where my subversive friends were going. I knew one of my friends in this group was Orthodox and he was pretty cool; he really knew how to listen and loved books; so one day I asked one of my friends for a ride to the small Anglican mission I was going to at the time and she said no, but you can have a ride to St. Herman’s with me and p. (my other friend who listened so well) and so I went. That was Lent. Totally overwhelming and I remembered the candles burning and that image kept coming back to me. So the whole summer passed, I graduated, finished in an exhausted mad-dash my thesis and as the new semester started and I was working, I called my friend for a ride to the same Anglican church and end up back at St. Herman’s again. And this is almost the end of a never-ending story of my life: after liturgy, it being Labour day, I went to a potluck with others from this Orthodox church that I had just gone to for the second time. My friend told me about this book she was reading and loving called Courage to Pray by Metropolitan Anthony Bloom. And suddenly, as I was sitting on the couch while others ate roasted garlic and brie and drank beer, I read the first two pages of this book and suddenly, like reading Elizabeth Goudge at 19, knew I had just found the book I was looking for all my life.

It took me just over a month leave my small Anglican parish, 5 months to become a catechumen in the Orthodox church and another 6 months (by this time I was living in Michigan) to become a chrismated Orthodox Christian. 1 year after that I moved to Ottawa where I have been the past 5 years. Books that have fed me since this time (amongst others) include Christ is in our midst, a book that 8th day books in one of their catalogues called a primer for reading of the Philokalia, Light in the Darkness by Sergi Fudel and Fredrica Mathewes-Green’s book on the Jesus Prayer which, by the way, is finally explaining why I was looking for Met Anthony’s Bloom’s book for all these years; it has to do with the prayer of the heart and the understanding of the human having depths. And that is where this journey of books leaves me; and with the continued question and challenge of going forward into what I have been given.


biss said...

I have been looking for some ideas for books to order from the library.

I think I have found a list.

I don't think I've read any of those. Hard to believe!

elizabeth said...

yay for libraries! We will have to discuss after you read...

E Helena E said...

I have enjoyed this greatly, and will be reading it again. Thank you, Elizabeth!

elizabeth said...

Thanks E-H... it was good for me to write... helps me come back to where I've been, who I am... this in the current situation can get a bit muddled sometimes! :) Books are such gifts to us from God!

DebD said...

This was fascinating! I loved the story behind each book. I'm currently reading "Courage to Pray" and I know what you mean (i'm only a few pages in too).

RW said...

I liked reading this. Thinking about books that have influenced you in profound ways...

elizabeth said...

Deb, thanks. I deeply enjoyed writing it; I love writing and creating a nonfiction piece for this was invigorating. and Yes, Met A Bloom's book _Courage to Pray_ the first pages is so incredible...

RW - thank you. I am so glad you liked reading this.

tamie marie said...

I love that you sort of wrote the story of your life, and especially of your spiritual journey, as seen through the lens of *books* (which are surely one of THE great loves of your life). Well done and beautifully written. Thanks for tapping me on the shoulder and suggesting I come over here! :)

elizabeth said...

Hi Tamie,

Your welcome. Thank you for loving my writing. When I love writing and the creating of sentences, I think of you.


GretchenJoanna said...

What a lot of wonderful books God has spoken through! Several on your list are my favorites, too.

Goudge's world is so incarnational, I know she contributed to my own receptivity to Orthodoxy. My priest early on recommended "anything by Anthony Bloom" to help me learn to pray; his books are really the breath of God Himself. I haven't read the Sherrard book yet but I did give it as a gift; it came highly recommended.

Thank you so much for this list and glimpse into the history of your personal faith.

Elizabeth @ The Garden Window said...

This is an amzing blog post - thank you so much !

I did not know about the Kathleen Norris book; I have only read The Quotidian Mysteries and The Cloister Walk, but loved them both.

I really must read some Madeleine L'Engle very soon !

Donna Witek said...

What a lovely post! Thank you for taking the time and effort to tell this story through books. One sentence in particular caused tears to spring to my eyes:

"And suddenly, as I was sitting on the couch while others ate roasted garlic and brie and drank beer, I read the first two pages of this book and suddenly, like reading Elizabeth Goudge at 19, knew I had just found the book I was looking for all my life."

That last part is so beautiful and powerful, to realize you have found, in a book, what you have been seeking. It is such a relief and comfort, when God speaks to us so clearly through a person's words.

I have never read Courage to Pray and now I can see I need to.

elizabeth said...

Thank you G-J and Elizabeth - yes, K. Norris is great; as is much of L'Engle...

Thank you Donna; your words are a blessing to me!