Wednesday, October 24, 2012

A New Anglican Reads Old Things: "The smallest details of this world"

The first story in Susan Cooper's series
Emily Garcia was raised in the Evangelical Free Church. In her freshman year at Princeton she was baptized at the Easter Vigil, and joined the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion four weeks later when she was confirmed on Good Shepherd Sunday. She is in the discernment process for the Episcopal priesthood, is a published poet, and is this year’s Kellogg Fellow at the Chaplaincy. In this column she will take a piece of “old” (or older) literature as a starting point for an informal reflection on the religious life.

“Whoever possesses strongly this sense [of the divine] comes naturally to think that the smallest details of this world derive infinite significance from their relation to an unseen divine order.”
 -William James, from The Varieties of Religions Experience, in Lectures XIV and XV: “The Value of Saintliness." 

            Last year on Halloween, I was bundled up in the warm and welcoming Guiliano house for a party, chatting with Zack (our previous Kellogg Fellow) about Susan Cooper’s series, The Dark is Rising. Since I work with kids in kindergarten through twelfth grade, I have an excuse to bury myself in drama, comedy, and everything in between: talking animals, cooties, notes in the hallway, thieves, and curses.
But even without that excuse, I would very happily find time to read my favorite type of children’s novel: the adventure story. Even saying the word “adventure” gives me goose-bumps. My first experience of adventure was surely the tale of Pooh and Piglet hunting a heffalump—I hid under the covers as Mom read it to me. Later, I skipped my homework to see what Cimorene would do in Patricia C. Wrede’s Enchanted Forest, or what trouble Terence and Sir Gawain would get into in The Squire’s Tale.
These stories held my attention and imagination, but once I read The Chronicles of Narnia, everything changed. This was a different sort of story—the stakes were higher, the circumstances more strange, the emotions and tension at a different pitch. Later, I read The Hobbit, and far later, The Ring Trilogy. And in junior high, I found Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass and its companions. Just last year, one of my fifth-grade students was reading Over Sea, Under Stone, the first of Susan Cooper’s series. I was captivated, and found my mind returning to Will and the children at all points of the day.
            So at that Halloween party last year, I was so happy to find that Zack (a fellow book nerd and a serious academic) was also a fan of adventure. Both of us had felt their impact on our early lives and on our current imaginative lives, and through this, they had certainly impacted our lives as Christians. Zack said something then which has stuck with me: that these stories are especially exciting and valuable for kids, because they stage the drama of the Christian life. Every small choice the protagonist makes could be part of the action on a grand scale.
Even if the characters are unaware of it, the young reader knows that there is a larger mechanism—magnificent and terrifying—operating behind the most banal moments. Bilbo Baggins picks something up in a cave; Will Stanton can’t decide whether or not to put on his belt; Terence chooses a cup to drink out of; Lyra sneaks into a cupboard instead of sneaking out of the room—each of these little turning points holds the weight of the whole story. This is what set those novels apart from my earlier books: a sense of urgency, real and serious.
I was happy to see that William James knows what this is like! The quote above is from his analysis of “the saintly type of character,” a sensitive and attentive person who come “naturally to think that the smallest details of this world derive infinite significance from their relation to an unseen divine order.” 
For many of us, this is easy to forget. We forget that there is an urgency to every decision, because the magnificent presence behind every banal moment is God himself. God cares how we speak to people, how we spend our time, which relationships we pursue, and what we want to do with our lives. Our smallest decisions are part of the grand order, and the Christian life is, in fact, a grand adventure.

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