From Walking On Water
Along with reawakening the sense of newness, Bach’s music points me to wholeness, a wholeness of body, mind, and spirit, which we seldom glimpse, but which we are intended to know. It is no coincidence that the root word of whole, health, heal, holy, is hale (as in hale and hearty). If we are healed, we become whole; we are hale and hearty; we are holy.
The marvelous thing is that this holiness is nothing we can earn. We don’t become holy by acquiring merit badges and Brownie points. It has nothing to do with virtue or job descriptions or morality. It is nothing we can do, in this do-it-yourself world. It is gift, sheer gift, waiting there to be recognized and received. We do not have to be qualified to be holy. We do not have to be qualified to be whole, or healed.
The fact that I am not qualified was rammed into me early, and though this hurt, it was salutary. As a small child I was lonely not only because I was an only child in a big city, but because I was slightly lame, extremely introverted, and anything but popular at school. There was no question in my mind that I was anything but whole, that I did not measure up to the standards of my peers or teachers. And so, intuitively, I turned to writing as a way of groping toward wholeness. I wrote vast quantities of short stories and poetry; I painted and played the piano. I lived far too much in an interior world, but I did learn that I didn’t have to be qualified according to the world’s standards in order to write my stories. It was far more likely my total lack of qualifications that turned me to story to search for meaning and truth, to ask for eternal questions: Why? What is it all about? Does my life have any meaning? Does anybody care?
To try to find the answers to these questions, I not only wrote but read omnivorously, anything I could get my hands on – fairy tales, the brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen, Oscar Wilde, the story of Tobias and the angel, Gideon and the angel. Very early in my life the Bible taught me to care about angels. I also read about dreams in the Bible, and so I took dreams seriously. I read and reread and reread Emily of New Moon, by L. M. Montgomery, author of the more famous stories about Anne of Green Gables. I like the Anne stories, but especially I loved Emily, because she, too, wanted to be a writer, a real writer; she, too, walked to the beat of a different drum; she had a touch of second sight, that gift which allows us to peek for a moment at the world beyond ordinary space and time.
My lonely solitude kept me far more in touch with this world of the imagination than I would have been had I been off with the other children playing hopscotch or skipping rope. It was this world which gave me assurance of meaning and reality despite the daily world in which I was a misfit, and in which I knew many fears as I overheard my parents talking about the nations once again lining up for war.
If I found this world in Emily of New Moon, in books of Chinese fairy tales as well as in Andrew Lang’s collections, I also found it in the Bible stories. I was fortunate (in the strange way in which tragedy brings with it blessings as well as griefs) because my father’s deteriorating lungs dictated an unusual schedule; he worked best in the afternoon and evening, and slept late into the morning. Therefore there was no one to take me to Sunday school. I have talked with such a surprising number of people who have had to spend most of their lives unlearning what some well-meaning person taught them in Sunday school, that I’m glad I escaped! All the old heresies of the first few centuries – Donatism, Manicheism, Docetism, to name but three – are still around, and Satan doesn’t hesitate to use them wherever possible.
In the world of literature, Christianity is no longer respectable. When I am referred to in an article or a review as a “practicing Christian” it is seldom meant as a compliment, at least not in the secular press. It is perfectly all right, according to literary critics, to be Jewish, or Buddhist, or Sufi, or a pre-Christian druid. It is not all right be a Christian. And if we ask why, the answer is a sad one; Christians have given Christianity a bad name. They have let their lights flicker and grow dim. They have confused piosity with piety, smugness with joy. During the difficult period in which I was struggling through my “cloud of unknowing” to return to the Church and to Christ, the largest thing which deterred me was that I saw so little clear light coming from those Christians who sought to bring me back to the fold.
But I’m back, and grateful to be back, because, through God’s loving grace, I did meet enough people who showed me that light of love which the darkness cannot extinguish. One of the things I learned on the road back is that I do not have to be right. I have to try to do what is right, but when it turns out, as happens with all of us, to be wrong, then I am free to accept that it was wrong, to say, “I’m sorry,” and to try, if possible, to make reparation. But I have to accept the fact that I am often unwise; that I am not always loving; that I make mistakes; that I am, in fact, human. And as Christians we are not meant to be less human than other people, but more human, just as Jesus of Nazareth was more human.
One time I was talking to Canon Tallis, who is my spiritual director as well as my friend, and I was deeply grieved about something, and I kept telling him how woefully I had failed someone I loved, failed totally, otherwise that person couldn’t have done the wrong that was so destructive. Finally he looked at me and said calmly, “Who are you to think you are better than our Lord? After all, he was singularly unsuccessful with a great many people.”
That remark, made to me many years ago, has stood me in good stead, time and again. I have to try, but I do not have to succeed. Following Christ has nothing to do with success as the world see success. It has to do with love.