Back to the Classics: Brideshead Revisited

Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited (1945)

This was a reread for me, and I was already familiar with the plot — I’ll be discussing it here, so please don’t continue if you mind spoilers.

Subtitled “The Sacred and Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder,” the novel opens with the Captain and his army troop moving to another base within Britain during the Second World War. Gloomy and depressed by the ruin of civilization and the uselessness of army life, Charles gets an additional shock when he comes to the estate they are occupying and realizes he’s been there before. Brideshead Castle was the site of his youthful dreams and longings, as he became deeply involved with the family years ago.

He proceeds to tell us the history of this involvement, first with Sebastian, who is in Charles’s year at Oxford, and later with Sebastian’s sister Julia, with whom he falls in love when they are both married to other people. The Marchmains are upper-class, wealthy (though less wealthy than they think they are), and, somewhat unusually within this circle, Roman Catholic — at least the mother is; the father is living scandalously abroad with a mistress, and the children vary from devout to agnostic. Charles is enchanted by the family, by their extravagant lifestyle and by their great, elaborate house and its surroundings, which becomes an Arcadia to him.

The idyll is brief. Sebastian, hounded by his mother and her narrow expectations, becomes an alcoholic and loses himself in Morocco. Charles experiences a short time of happiness with Julia, but she decides their relationship is sinful and abandons him too. And so, with the flood of memories exhausted, we come back to the war, to the Baroque fountain that has been a symbol for Charles’s longings, now a repository for sandwiches and cigarettes. But a flame still burns in the chapel, and it seems to have ignited a spark within Charles as well.

There is much to be said about the book as a picture of the interwar period in England, of class consciousness, of sexual mores, and other sociologial and historical topics, but Waugh himself said it was about religion. What is he saying about it? What is sacred, in this collection of mostly very profane memories?

The search for living substance, and the absence and failure of the symbolically feminine sources of nourishment, is the driving impetus throughout. The motherless Charles, arriving in Oxford fresh from an all-male boarding school and with a distant, insensitive father, has no experience of mature femininity or nurturing care. So when he meets the beautiful and charming Sebastian, who is wracked by a love-hate relationship with his “Mummy” that keeps him in an infantile state (complete with teddy bear), he is irresistibly attracted. But it’s when he glimpses Brideshead that his love is truly sealed.

“Brideshead” is a feminine name; it combines elements of the Church, the Bride of Christ, and of the fountainhead of faith, the springing up of life in the dryness of a profane world. Charles’s great love affair, arguably, is neither with Sebastian nor with Julia, but with Brideshead itself — significantly, in adulthood he becomes a fashionable painter, not of people, but of buildings. Though he considers himself an unbeliever, he yet yearns after the harmoniously ordered, consoling, and protective edifice, which faithful Catholics find in their religion, and which has a motherly, womb-like quality.

A building can be restrictive, too — it shuts out as well as encloses. And so in the end, in Julia’s rejection of Charles, the conservative author seems to be pointing to the importance of rules, of structure, order, and obedience to a higher will. When Lord Marchmain dies and the old reprobate appears to repent at last, Julia’s belief in the sovereignty of personal desire is shaken, and the marriage aborted. But is it really a tragedy?

I don’t believe that Julia was wrong to leave Charles, though I can’t agree with her that loving him would be “sinful,” or get in the way of her love of God. To withhold love from a suffering human being can never be the basis for spiritual evolution. But there are many kinds and degrees of love, and Charles’s love for Julia was still of an immature kind. For him, she was part of Brideshead, of his longing for something higher, deeper, more essential. Even as he added her portrait to his collection of pictures, one wonders if she ever really became a person for him.

Perhaps it was for his sake, not her own, as well as her own, that she needed to leave him, so that he could potentially find his way past the symbols to the reality of living water. The ending of the book subtly suggests that he has made a step in that direction, even in the lifeless desert of wartime. What exactly that means for him is left quite open, but it helps to bring about a conclusion that hints at further possibilities, a story that goes on past the final page.

That sense of “opening up,” of possibilities beyond the page, is a hallmark of true religion, as well as of a great novel. And so one can see why Brideshead has kept its hold on our imagination over the years, and how it points toward the sacred elements hidden in a profane world. Through its vivid memory-pictures of a vanished life, it asks what is eternal in all of it, and perhaps inspires us to do the same for our own lives.

Among many editions over the years, the 2018 Folio Society edition, which I included in a video review when it first came out, is to my mind a brilliantly satisfying interpretation. The two-color woodcuts by Harry Brockway capture Charles’s double consciousness perfectly, evoking the stylized aesthetic of the twenties and thirties, but with a restraint and economy that forecasts the austerity of the war. This time around, I was impressed all over again by Folio’s beautiful presentation, which incarnates an iconic work in such an appropriate form. If you love the book, this is an edition to add to your pleasure.

And as for other visual interpretations, the famous 1981 television adaptation would qualify this book for the Adapted Classic category of the Back to the Classics challenge…though in the end I opted for a different category. I haven’t seen the TV series in full, but the clips I’ve viewed are remarkably faithful to the book, with terrific acting and production values that still hold up today. A  film was also made in 2008.

Have you seen either of these, and/or read the book? What did you think?

Back to the Classics Challenge: Classic about a Family


Back to the Classics: The World I Live In

Helen Keller, The World I Live In (1908)

When I read Helen Keller’s The Story of My Life, I was intrigued by one of the last letters quoted in the book, written to a college professor who found her compositions too derivative and wondered when she would write of her own unique experiences:

I have always accepted other people’s experiences and observations as a matter of course. It never occurred to me that it might be worth while to make my own observations and describe the experiences peculiarly my own. Henceforth I am resolved to be myself, to live my own life and write my own thoughts when I have any…

The World I Live In could be seen as the fruit of this intention, and it is a remarkable piece of work. Composed from essays published in Century Magazine between 1904 and 1908, with an added final chapter, it is an extended meditation on the sensory and mental world inhabited by a deaf-blind person, and a rebuke to those who believe that because she cannot see and hear she cannot be fully human, perhaps does not even exist.

She responds with Descartes’ formulation, “I think, therefore I am,” and it’s clear that thought is her light, that her ability to think is in no way impaired by sensory deprivation. Her lucid, carefully constructed, and often playful prose guides us through her realm of experience, bringing us to understand how a condition that seems so alien and threatening can reveal aspects of our common humanity, our spiritual core.

Keller defends her choice to use visual and auditory imagery in her writing, arguing that she can by analogy comprehend many concepts related to the five-sensed world — just as we understand non-sensory concepts like love, faith, mercy and justice that we have never seen with our eyes. She can “see” a friend just as we do — not with her eyes, but with the inner vision which is what we really mean by that expression.

But it is the description of her other senses, of the world of touch, smell, and taste that she lives in, that is most fascinating and mind-expanding. Her finely differentiated, sensitive observations made me feel how blunt and unrefined my own sensory experience normally is, how I go through my colorful, sounding world without truly seeing and hearing it. Perhaps it is I who am handicapped, rather than Helen Keller, who perceives so much through the faintest vibration in her environment.

In the NYRB Classics edition, the essays along with their coda, the prose-poem “A Chant of Darkness,” are followed by the earlier essay “Optimism” (1903) and the autobiographical sketch she published at the age of twelve, “My Story” (1894). An introduction by Roger Shattuck explains the circumstances of publication and points out elements of note in each work and in Keller’s thought as a whole.

At under 200 pages, it’s a compact but rich encapsulation of the life and ideas of an individual whose true achievements have been little understood or appreciated. I hope that it may become more widely known, and spark our own rehabilitation of the senses we possess but do not fully use, guiding us toward the practice of joyful creative activity that Keller so beautifully demonstrates.

Back to the Classics Challenge: Classic by a Woman Author



Doctors playing God: Awakenings

Oliver Sacks, Awakenings (1999/1973)

Of course I’ve heard of Oliver Sacks, author of many books with intriguing titles (The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, An Anthropologist on Mars, Seeing Voices, etc.). But  in spite of hearing that Sacks was a terrific writer about fascinating topics out of his practice as a neurologist, I managed to avoid actually reading these works for many years.

Until, while questing for something short and inspiring to read this summer, his little book Gratitude — barely even a book, just a compilation of four brief essays that originally appeared in the New York Times — caught my eye. I polished it off in an hour, was captured by the intelligent and compassionate mind that spoke there, and looked for more.

Awakenings, his second published book, was one I had heard about; I had vague impressions from when the Hollywood movie came out, with Robin Williams and Robert De Niro. I haven’t seen that either, but the premise of patients coming out of a decades-long pathological “sleep” sounded interesting. So I checked it out and dove in.

The edition I read in e-book form is the latest of many incarnations. A preface explains some of the transformations the book has gone through: adding footnotes, removing them, putting them back in again; going back to the original stories after further developments; weaving in further developments in neurology, science, and medicine, including chaos theory; adding notes on the stage and film incarnations of the story; and more.

It’s an unwieldy mass of material, and exactly the kind of book I prefer to read in print versus the electronic version. With all the footnotes, cross-referencing, and a glossary of medical terms, it would have made it much easier to flip back and forth, and to maintain awareness of the place of the parts within the whole. If it hadn’t been such a fascinating story at the core, I probably would have gotten frustrated and given up. Probably I will buy a print copy, because I want to go through it again and take it in more thoroughly.

“When is she going to get to that actual story?” you are probably asking. Yes, like Sacks, I am making you wade through a lot of prefatory and explanatory material — probably because that’s how I experienced the book. Pushing all this aside, at the core are twenty case studies of individuals who went through a bizarre, little-remembered epidemic of “sleepy sickness” that erupted worldwide along with the more famous influenza epidemic in the early twentieth century. This viral disease fatally disrupted their brain activity, pushing them into states of torpor and/or of manic inability to sleep; many died, or were left permanently disabled. While some seemingly recovered, later they began to display symptoms of Parkinsonian syndrome, particularly disruptions in movement and speech.

As they became less and less able to function, often needing round-the-clock nursing care to survive, these people were placed in institutions for “hopeless” cases. To one of these institutions near New York City Oliver Sacks came as a young doctor in the 1960s, and there his work with these post-encephalitic Parkinsonian patients changed his life.

In a stroke of fate, Dr. Sacks was present at the moment when a “wonder drug” was discovered that roused these patients out of their decades-long fixation and immobility. L-DOPA, which works to elevate dopamine levels in the brain, at first seemed to promise total, almost instant recovery. People leaped out of their wheelchairs and sang and danced with joy.

But then so-called “side effects” set in, as the medical establishment likes to call unwanted or adverse drug results that are fully as much a part of the treatment as the results they are aiming for. Pulled between extremes of manic and torpid behavior, the patients felt themselves to be walking an ever-narrowing path that became a tightrope over an abyss. Different titrations and schedules were tried, and sometimes a precarious balance was reached that allowed some individuals to have a higher-functioning life for their remaining years.

When that didn’t work out, though, the results were often terrible and tragic to behold. Patients who had to be taken off the drug were left in a state far worse than they had been in before. Frequently they lost the will to live, or went mad, descending into a hellish hallucinatory state. Some were quietly euthanized, mercy killings that also meant the doctors need no longer observe the results of their tampering. One has to wonder to what extent the risk of doing such damage is warranted by the desirable results that sometimes, unpredictably, come about.

Great moral questions indeed are raised by this story. For me, frequently it resembled a horror story, a Frankenstein-tale of men enchanted by the Godlike powers they can achieve through the intellect, without the deeper knowledge of what will result from their experiments. Is it right to tinker with human subjects like this? What truly is the nature of consciousness, of life and death? In our quest for a better life on earth, what harm do we do through unawareness and egotism? Is it enough to have good intentions, or should we also be striving for higher knowledge, for the wisdom that sees the whole and not just isolated, disconnected parts?

For Dr. Sacks, there are no easy answers, but as he portrays his own struggle and his own “awakening” we gain a sense of how one morally striving person has engaged with these questions.  He speaks against the tendency of modern medicine towards a mechanistic view of the human being, and movingly describes his own human encounters with his patients, encounters that inspired in him an awareness of the person who lives beyond statistics, beyond symptoms, beyond paralysis and speechlessness. He is filled with wonder when he observes the strange experiences his patients are subjected to, and humbled by what they need to call up in order to face their existence day after day.

Such an attitude is one we can all strive to emulate, even if we are not physicians. We will all do harm at times, often out of the best intentions, but let us not obscure the real, living human being with our fixed, mechanistic thoughts. The call to awaken to this power and this responsibility was for me the real message of the book.

I’ll certainly be reading more by Oliver Sacks; there is so much to learn from these kinds of stories, pushing us beyond our “normal,” safe ways of experiencing the world. Have you read anything by him? What is your favorite?


New Release Review: Jean Vanier: Portrait of a Free Man

Anne-Sophie Constant: Jean Vanier: Portrait of a Free Man (2019)

When I was living in a community with adults with developmental disabilities, one of my colleagues told me he had been inspired to take up this work by the writings of Jean Vanier, founder of the international L’Arche movement. I was intrigued, because I had never heard of the man or the movement, and I wanted to learn more.

So I read Becoming Human, as an introduction to Vanier’s philosophy. In this brief book, he presents ideas about the human condition, our experience of loneliness and belonging, captivity and freedom, and the difficult but necessary path to forgiveness. Behind every word is woven his experience of living together with the so-called “disabled,” who have been his most radiant teachers of what it means to be human.

This experience is not often explicitly described, and given my interest in this realm specifically, I found that somewhat disappointing. When Vanier talked about how one or another of the residents of L’Arche had been transformed by love, I wanted more details. What were the day-to-day practices, what were the steps of the journey?

But that is not really what the book is about. More a description of general principles than of particular examples (though some powerful ones are given), it’s full of gentle, timeless wisdom that deserves to be slowly pondered in relation to one’s own life. Thus is the fruit of the spirit developed, in patient dedication to the way of self-knowledge, and Vanier was clearly a humble but very dedicated servant of this impulse.

I still wanted to know more about L’Arche and its founder, so I was delighted when the opportunity came to review a new publication, Jean Vanier: Portrait of a Free Man, fresh off the press from Plough Publishing House. This biographical work by a longtime friend of Vanier’s has been translated from the 2014 French edition and updated for the English version. It’s about as up-to-the minute as such as book can be, as it concludes with an epilogue written in January, 2019, and Vanier died just a few months later.

The beginning of the story goes back a full century, though, with Vanier’s father Georges and his baptism-by-fire in the First World War. His heroism and ensuing life as a diplomat — as the Canadian ambassador to France, among other things — indelibly shaped the life of his young family, including the third child, Jean. A childhood spent in the public eye, moving around with no settled home, with parents strongly committed to moral and civic causes, was an unusual and in many ways not easy upbringing.

There are more surprising twists and turns to the story, which you may discover if you read the book for yourself — finding out how this boy from a privileged background chose to share his life with the poorest of the poor, the ones most excluded and shunned by society: the intellectually disabled. In the process he found wealth unknown to those who pursue merely worldly success; and even more remarkably, was able to share it with many others who joined or merely heard about his community.

His strong Catholic faith, which he shared with his parents, had much to do with it. Vanier was committed to following Christ, and he found that his way led into this form of poverty. But it was not a way of penitence and sorrow, nor of narrow sectarian religion, but a gateway into joy, happiness, and the abundance of love that embraces all faiths. This is what he found when he spontaneously decided to move into a dilapidated house with two disabled men, to create a home together with them rather than to found an institution. This impulse of joy is what continues to mark the L’Arche movement, which has spread so amazingly worldwide from that one small household, to this day.

It’s a beautiful story, and I found it moving and inspiring. My only quibble, once more, is that I wanted more specific details. I know from personal experience that it is not easy to create such a community, and to keep it going through the tempests caused by our human failings, however much one may believe that we are all rooted in the spirit of love. How did they manage? What are the practices, not only the principles, that support such a movement? What were Jean’s personal trials, suggested but never thoroughly explored?

But again, that’s not really what this book is about. As the subtitle tells us, it’s a portrait — really just a sketch, as that is all that can be given in less than 150 pages. It’s not enough to convey all that I would like to know, but sufficient to give an impression of a remarkable man and his amazing journey through life.

The wisdom I most appreciate as I grow older is not found in the evolving of great thoughts and mind-expanding innovation; it’s found in the expression of kindness, of the compassionate heart that brings new life into a deadened world by offering a space where the other person can become him- or herself. This wisdom is in its essence so simple, so basic, that we can easily overlook and dismiss it, as we do the “simple” folk who walk unseen in our midst. But at times there appears a person who becomes its representative in such a way that we can clearly perceive its healing power.

Such a man, as this book convincingly portrays him, was Jean Vanier. Even if we are not among the thousands who were directly affected by his work, who experienced him face-to-face, we can be glad to know that such a person existed, and try to learn from his example.


Early Christians: The Blood of the Martyrs

Naomi Mitchison, The Blood of the Martyrs (1939)

Naomi Mitchison, who died in 1999 at the age of 101, was a prolific writer who dipped into quite an astonishing number of genres. She wrote historical fiction based in both prehistoric and historic times, contemporary fiction, fantasy, science fiction, travelogue, essays, memoirs, biography, plays … is there anything left? If she’s not a household name today, maybe it’s because she refused to be pigeonholed and especially to follow the “rules” of writing and publishing. One of her early novels, We Have Been Warned, was repeatedly turned down on the basis of its treatment of sexuality and heavily revised before publication. It still caused a furor when it came out.

I haven’t read that book (not considered one of her best), but I have read the stunning historical novel The Corn King and the Spring Queen and the charming fantasy Travel Light, which both evoke a mythological past with beautiful language and powerful, vivid imagery. I’ve been wanting to read more of Mitchison’s books, but they’re not so easy to find these days.

One that is readily available, recently republished in paperback by Canongate, is The Blood of the Martyrs, another historical novel that takes as its subject the first persecution of the Christians in Rome under Nero. Written in the 1930s, it has clear parallels to the rise of Mussolini and Hitler, with Nero’s cult of bloodlust and violence sustaining a leader drunk on the vision of himself as a god. Contrasted with this state-sanctioned insanity is a small cell of Christians, who look forward to the coming of a “Kingdom” of brotherhood, equality, and freedom. In the meantime they attempt to practice the radical non-violence of Jesus’s teaching, loving one another and forgiving their enemies. The climax of the book shows how they try to do this even in the Arena as they’re being burnt and thrown to wild animals.

It’s hard to describe the book without making it sound like a pious treatise of some kind, but it isn’t. It’s not pious in any cheap sentimental way, and the person and deeds of Jesus Christ operate more as a kind of distant rumor than as an active presence. These Christians base their religion not on a numinous experience of the Godhead but on the bonds of kindness and mutual support that they experience with one another. Many of them are slaves, and the book offers, among other things, a pondering of what makes us slave or free. Is it the outer circumstances of our lives? Or is it a choice that we make in our attitude?

The experience of several of these Roman slaves and freedmen is movingly depicted in the vignettes of the opening chapters, which describe the varying paths they take toward Christianity. These make it clear that the repression of the new religion was not based on its addition of a new god to the pantheon — Rome had no problem embracing all kinds of deities, from Isis to Mithras — but on the danger its values presented to the state. If people can strive for an individual, free relationship to truth, if they make love their highest ideal and motivating force, then they cannot be controlled by punishment or fear. That makes them anathema in a regime founded on the empty-hearted, unquenchable drive for power.

Most of the characters share the naive view that the Kingdom of which Jesus spoke is an imminent physical reality which will somehow suddenly overturn the world of their rulers. This does not happen, of course, nor has it come to pass in the intervening centuries — nor ever will, in such a crude, materialistic form. But the lives and beliefs of these early Christians still hold a mysterious power, showing how the Kingdom may come into being within the hearts of people who dare to live as though it were already here.

As Rudolf Steiner put it, we all as human beings bear the spirit within us, but we can decide to ignore and suppress and even imprison this spirit, or set it free. Which will we choose? Whether in the time of the martyrs, during the rise of Fascism, or in our own day, there is no more vital, more urgent question to be asked. I’m grateful to this brilliant, overlooked writer for bringing it up for me once more.


Blogging the Spirit: The Last Invocation

Afternoon in November by J. Francis Murphy – 1917 (source)


At the last, tenderly,
From the walls of the powerful fortress’d house,
From the clasp of the knitted locks, from the keep of the well-closed doors,
Let me be wafted.

Let me glide noiselessly forth;
With the key of softness unlock the locks–with a whisper,
Set ope the doors O soul.

Tenderly–be not impatient,
(Strong is your hold O mortal flesh.
Strong is your hold O love.)

–Walt Whitman

November is traditionally a time for thinking of those who have crossed the threshold of death, and who can feel very close to us in this season of mists and shadows. At a gathering that I attended earlier this month, the poem above was read, and continued to sound in my mind. Whitman evokes a quiet but powerful picture with the rhythm and sounds of his language.

What has spoken to your spirit lately? Please join us on the last Sunday of the month at Relevant Obscurity if you’d like to share in this topic.

Words and Pictures: This I would fight for

Wanderer above the Sea of Fog

And this I believe: that the free, exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in the world. And this I would fight for: the freedom of the mind to take any direction it wishes, undirected. And this I must fight against: any idea, religion, or government which limits or destroys the individual. This is what I am and what I am about. I can understand why a system built on a pattern must try to destroy the free mind, for that is one thing which can by inspection destroy such a system. Surely I can understand this, and I hate it and I will fight against it to preserve the one thing that separates us from the uncreative beasts. If the glory can be killed, we are lost.

John Steinbeck, East of Eden (1952)
Image: Caspar David Friedrich, found here

Linked in Blogging the Spirit hosted by Relevant Obscurity

Blogging the Spirit: What is love?

A couple of weeks ago, my husband and I watched the movie La La Land. While I did not think it was as amazing as some rave reviews and awards would have it, it did leave me with an interesting image. (Spoiler alert here, for anyone who wants the ending to remain a secret.)

At the end, former lovers Mia and Seb, who met and parted as struggling young performers in LA, glimpse one another five years later across the proverbial crowded room. They’ve since achieved success in their respective fields, and in Mia’s case, acquired a husband and child, but that one look sets off a movie-musical dance sequence of an alternate scenario in which their love remains unbroken as they follow their dreams together. But it is not to be — when they come back to reality, they realize they have to separate once again, with only a smile to indicate that each is glad for the other’s achievements.

What this seems to me to signify is that the most essential, lasting thing about their relationship is not the pleasure and satisfaction they might derive from being in one another’s physical presence, but the joy each experiences in the other’s creative potential. The first is what we normally think of as romantic love, the excitement and heightened sensation we get from being with a person who makes us feel wonderful. The second is a more selfless love, a wish for what is best for the other person even if it results in a loss to ourselves. Though not unmixed with sadness for what might have been, it seemed to me that Mia and Seb’s final glance represented at least a glimpse of this second kind of love.

In a 1912 lecture called “Love and Its Meaning in the World,” Rudolf Steiner says that we gain nothing for ourselves from true deeds of love; we can only offer them as payment toward the creative forces to which we are indebted for our very existence. Striving for wisdom and power, even toward spiritual ends, can lead us to become tremendous egotists, unless we also understand and practice love in this sense.

Steiner identifies this impulse of love with the Christ impulse:

“Christ who came forth from the realms of spirit has united wisdom with love and this love will overcome egoism. Such is its aim. But it must be offered independently and freely from one being to the other. Hence the beginning of the era of love coincided with that of the era of egoism. The cosmos has its source and origin in love; egoism was the natural and inevitable offshoot of love. Yet with time the Christ Impulse, the impulse of love, will overcome the element of separation that has crept into the world, and man can gradually become a participant in this force of love. In monumental words of Christ we feel love pouring into the hearts of men: ‘Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.’ “

In other words, it’s natural and good for us to want to develop ourselves, as Mia and Seb rightly wish to express their talents; this is one expression of the creative force of love. But this development into separate ego-beings should not become an end in itself; it is meant to be crowned by the free offering of a love that asks nothing for itself, as this couple slowly, painfully learns. Even in the unlikely form of a Hollywood musical, witnessing such a truth can be both profound and moving.

What have you been reading, or viewing, or pondering this month that speaks to your spirit? If you wish, join us at Blogging the Spirit hosted by Laurie of Relevant Obscurity, to share your thoughts or link up your posts.

#BloggingtheSpirit: A new monthly event

Laurie of Relevant Obscurity has started a new ongoing event: #BloggingtheSpirit, Adventures in Spirituality on the Last Sunday of the Month. Laurie says, “I am proposing that we connect on the last Sunday of this month, August 27th with any kind of post you chose: on a book, a piece of art or music, a photograph, a poem that inspires you, a word or a relationship…anything that speaks to your Spirit.”

Like Laurie, I usually feel a little shy about posting this kind of content on my blog. I don’t want to put off anyone who thinks I’m trying to impose a world view on them — I’m not. But it’s nice to have a chance to share some of my spiritually-oriented reading with others who might be interested, and anyone who isn’t can easily skip it. So here we go!

Lately I’ve been reading a little book called Everyone Belongs to God: Discovering the Hidden Christ (Plough, 2015). I received it via the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program an embarrassingly long time ago, but I’ve finally picked it up and been pondering small chunks each morning.

It’s composed in a somewhat unusual way, as it is based on letters that a famous contrarian pastor in Germany wrote to his missionary son-in-law in China during the late nineteenth to early twentieth centuries. Extracts from the letters have been compiled into thematically organized chapters, with titles drawn from imperatives in the text: “See How Christ Is Already at Work,” for example, or “Always Hope.” The result hangs together fairly well, although one must bear in mind that the author didn’t know his words would be disseminated in this way, and that the editor has added bridging material which is not identified as such.

Christoph Friedrich Blumhardt (1842-1919) sounds like a fascinating figure; the publisher describes him as “a pastor who hated religiosity, an evangelist who rejected proselytism.” His father was a faith healer, but he turned from this path toward an active and engaged role in society, thus also becoming “a politician who lost faith in politics”; after a six-year term in the legislature he returned to his pastorate until his death. He continued to maintain that a genuine attempt to follow Christ demands that we engage in a loving, compassionate, and open-hearted way with our fellow human beings, including those who are very different from us. His thoughts influenced better-known theologians like Dietriech Bonhoeffer and Karl Barth, and in many ways seem ahead of his time.

Here are some quotations that give a taste of his ideas:

“God’s love tears down walls. No longer religion against religion, Christians against non-Christians, but justice against sin, life against death.”

“As soon as you think of yourself as the moral and righteous one and others as immoral and unrighteous, you ruin what God wants to do. The power of the Spirit will flee. Never despise other people, no matter who they are or how far they have strayed. Have and show a deep respect for everyone you meet. How can others find the love of God, who is the Father of all and who is love, if we his representatives look down on them?”

“The world needs people of life, not pious hypocrites…We must advance the gospel only through our presence, which should be as simple and clear as possible, containing a life hidden in Christ.”

“Did the Savior concern himself only with some heavenly realm? No! He came to us and dwelt among us…Through Christ a hole has been broken through from above down to us, not the other way around. So be on your guard. Today’s Christianity has made all kinds of holes out of this world, falsely teaching that we can simply fly out of it, like pigeons, and be saved.”

“Take heart, and may God give his spirit to all you meet! Remember, they don’t need to become ‘Christians’ like us. This designation need not come up at all. Whoever does the will of God is a child of the kingdom of heaven, whether he takes his cue from Confucius, Buddha, Mohammad, or the Church Fathers.”

“There is something in each person that will never be lost, something that can always be resurrected. This is the gospel.”

This remarkably ecumenical viewpoint has become a strong stream today, but in his time Blumhardt was certainly swimming against the current of the established church. His deeply felt convictions shine through every word, and can become an inspiration for those trying to follow a Christian path based in humility and reverence, rather than spiritual arrogance and closed-mindedness.

Here’s one more quotation which seems especially poignant in light of recent events:

“It breaks my heart that there is so much nationalism and violence in the name of Christ. European Christians have brought a curse upon their own head by killing so many other peoples. Judgment has come upon Christianity because it lacks the strength to love its enemies. The salt has lost its savor and is of no use.”

Where do you find the salt that gives savor to life? How does the spirit move you? I would love to hear about your sources of inspiration, whatever they may be.

Thank you, Laurie, for hosting this event! I’m excited to see what other bloggers come up with.

Words and Pictures: Pruned Oak

Landscape with an Old Oak Tree, Adriaen van Ostaede – 1650 (source)

Pruned Oak

Oh oak tree, how they have pruned you.
Now you stand odd and strangely shaped!
You were hacked a hundred times
until you had nothing left but spite and will!

I am like you, so many insults and humiliations
could not shatter my link with life.
And every day I raise my head
beyond countless insults toward new light.
What in me was once gentle, sweet, and tender
this world has ridiculed to death.
But my true self cannot be murdered.
I am at peace and reconciled.
I grow new leaves with patience
from branches hacked a hundred times.
In spite of all the pain and sorrow
I’m still in love with this mad, mad world.

— Hermann Hesse

From The Seasons of the Soul: The Poetic Guidance and Spiritual Wisdom of Hermann Hesse, translated and with commentary by Ludwig Max Fischer, published by North Atlantic Books, original work in German copyright © 2011 Surhkamp Verlag Berlin. Reprinted by permission of North Atlantic Books; please do not copy without permission.