The Healing of That Old Ache

The Pinery at the Hill; photo by Teressa Mahoney

“Anyhow, there’ll be plenty of jam in heaven, that’s one comfort,” [Davy] said complacently.

Anne nipped a smile in the bud.

“Perhaps there will . . . if we want it,” she said, “But what makes you think so?”

“Why, it’s in the catechism,” said Davy.

“Oh, no, there is nothing like THAT in the catechism, Davy.”

“But I tell you there is,” persisted Davy. “It was in that question Marilla taught me last Sunday. ‘Why should we love God?’ It says, ‘Because He makes preserves, and redeems us.’ Preserves is just a holy way of saying jam.”

“I must get a drink of water,” said Anne hastily. When she came back it cost her some time and trouble to explain to Davy that a certain comma in the said catechism question made a great deal of difference in the meaning.

“Well, I thought it was too good to be true,” he said at last, with a sigh of disappointed conviction. “And besides, I didn’t see when He’d find time to make jam if it’s one endless Sabbath day, as the hymn says. I don’t believe I want to go to heaven.”

– Anne of Avonlea, XIV

Something made me think of this scene a few weeks ago, and the girls and I had a good laugh over that dispiriting comma. Poor Davy! In his eight-year-old mind, the hope of jam is the solitary spark of goodness in the “endless Sabbath day” that he’ll have to spend walking about in a white dress and playing on a harp. I’m quite a bit firmer in my convictions that I wouldn’t want to go there either.

I do, however, think I had a glimpse last weekend of something that spoke more truly of Home.

Y gave me the first peek on Friday evening, when he texted me from the Your Imagination Redeemed conference: “It’s beautiful here.” On Saturday we walked through the doors of the Pinery together, and from the very beginning of the morning keynote, when Martyn Minns led the room in song and prayer, a sense of fullness pervaded the day.

“There’s so much to take in!” was a phrase I heard several times throughout the morning and afternoon, and each time one or all of us in the conversation reflected comfortingly that video/audio recordings would — hopefully — be available later. (You can find them all here.)

There really was so much. I actually gave up taking notes. Instead, I laughed until I almost cried at S.D. Smith’s opening poem — preceded by a very self-effacing introduction — which was titled “I Am the Greatest Living Poet in the World,” and listened intently to the difference between holding a posture and a gesture of criticism. In the afternoon Y and I sipped tea that Terri Moon and other hostesses so unobtrusively and graciously served during Lanier Ivester’s beautiful Rivendell session.

At lunch, echoes of Brian Brown’s talk reverberated around our table. Y and I introduced ourselves to friendly faces who turned out to be author Justin Parker, Ryan and Patty McCarthy of The Sparrow & The Fall, and Greg Brown of Crystal Creek Music. A little later I met Rebecca (whose last name I didn’t catch!), who is doing the astounding work of writing and creating art while studying physics and electrical engineering.

I loved making acquaintances and striking up conversations that day. In contrast to last year’s quiet soaking-in of every detail I could handle, this year I found myself looking around at faces. Somehow there was a feeling of belonging — one that I’ve known in other places, but which held a particular sweetness in this context of Christ-claimed imaginations. Lancia Smith called the atmosphere a “second-year garden.” I love that description, and couldn’t agree more.

I know firsthand the difference it makes to have one person ask a thoughtful question about your work, or urge you to complete a project you’ve let languish for fear it would serve no one. This generosity of spirit from others — including the friends and kind folk I have met through Sun Steeped Days — has made such an impact in my life that I was delighted to follow their example and meet some wonderful artists as a result. It was a gift to deepen friendships, trade umpteen book recommendations, and see the flourishing of trees that are bearing sweet fruit out of the good soil of the truth, beauty, and goodness of Christ — even in arid and challenging seasons.

The day closed with an evensong service, and every component reflected the hope and resolve that gleamed through the earlier lectures and panels and sessions.

Last weekend was a taste, I believe, of what Frederick Buechner hopes for the Church:

Could anyone guess by looking at us that joy is at the heart of what goes on in church Sunday after Sunday? . . . I hope so. I pray so. Maybe in the freshness and fragrance of the flowers on the altar we catch some flicker of it, and in the candles’ burning. Maybe we can feel some reverberation of it in just all of us being together as human beings longing for and reaching out for we are not quite sure what. . . . To come together as people who believe that just maybe this gospel is actually true should be to come together like people who have just won the Irish Sweepstakes. . . . This is the joy that is so apt to be missing, and missing not just from church but from our own lives — the joy of not just managing to believe at least part of the time that it is true that life is holy but of actually running into that holiness head-on. (The Longing for Home, 128-129)

*

Right before lunch, I slipped into the room set aside for speakers, off to the side of the sanctuary stage. The room holds a lovely little sitting area and has an exit to the common balcony outside, but from the sanctuary itself it doesn’t look very large. In fact, the door simply looks like it would lead to a windowless storage space.

The thought makes me peal with laughter now, friends, because this means that last year I believed Andrew Peterson confidently exited the stage into that “closet” and stayed there as the crowd dispersed and the evening ended.

At any rate, I went to the room to see if I could flesh out part of my talk on inconsolable longing. I wanted to see if I could give an illustration for a certain passage by C.S. Lewis:

[O]ur lifelong nostalgia, our longing to be reunited with something in the universe from which we now feel cut off, to be on the inside of some door which we have always seen from the outside, is no mere neurotic fancy, but the truest index of our real situation. And to be at last summoned inside would be both glory and honour beyond all our merits and also the healing of that old ache. (“The Weight of Glory”)

“The healing of that old ache” caught and held my attention. I couldn’t think up a concrete image in the few minutes I had — but today, I think I can.

I believe that that healing may well look like a gathering of people who, being “summoned inside,” are drenched in the aforementioned sense of belonging. And each face reflects the delight and exhilaration of knowing what it has been called to tell of God.

I think it might sound like a wide roomful of saints rising to their feet and singing a new but familiar song in four-part harmony — music to make your heart break with the depth and the swell of the truth it carries, and the voices that rise out of myriad stories of endurance and suffering to affirm that truth.

And if the healing can be likened to a feast, it will be the kind where those who break bread together linger over conversation and food and drink. For though the old ache will ebb away like a wound, our appetite for Joy will remain.

Your Imagination Redeemed 2018 wasn’t heaven on earth, of course. I made a blunder leading up to it that I wish I’d had the presence of mind to avoid, and Y missed a large chunk of the program because of phone calls he had to take. I wonder also if all my interactions with others were beneficial for them.

But the conference was a foretaste, and that has meant a great deal to me this week.

Someday the redeemed will come into the holy presence of God and receive the fullness of Joy, the answer to this persistent yearning.

Until then, that old ache is still good for something yet: it bids us look at the lives that brush against our own, the beauty that stings us awake, and the joy “at the heart of what goes on” as we gather in our pews (or in our case, metal folding chairs) tomorrow morning. The healing is coming, and a part of it has already begun.

And that, I say, transforms a certain comma regarding the One who “makes, preserves, and redeems us” into an exultant point of praise.

I took a total of three blurry phone snapshots at the conference, but you can find photographs at these two stunning galleries by Lancia Smith and Teressa Mahoney. (All the photos in this post except for the last are Teressa’s.) And do read Matt Mellema’s “Kids Need Imagination. And So Does the Church. And So Do I” post for fantastic, brief takeaways from the conference keynotes.

 

7 comments

  1. Dear Amy,

    “The healing is coming, and a part of it has already begun.”

    I agree! It was a sweet time, a feasting time, and I brought home the memory as an ember to warm the cold days ahead.

    There were some things related to your talk on that “old ache” that I wanted to ask you about at the conference, but I needed the plane trip home to process them. Maybe I will send you an email. But one of the things I came away thinking about, was the interesting juxtaposition of your topic (on beauty and longing, displacement) with Lanier Ivester’s (on beauty and belonging, home).

    It seems that beauty may do both things: provide consolation, nourishment, and a sense of home in the here and now; and at the same time, remind us of our loss and homelessness and draw us to the transcendent Other (Lewis’s stabs of joy). I guess it requires the Christian Imagination to allow room for these two paradoxical purposes to coexist! But reading your piece above, you seem to be suggesting that the same paradox also exists within healthy community, and within worship. So much to think about here. Thank you!

    Liz

    1. Liz — yes! Though our emphases were different, my talk and Lanier’s were two sides of the same coin. I do believe that beauty does both the things you mentioned, and that, as a reflection of the reality in which we live, it can’t help doing both.

      One way to look at it is the passage quoted on my landing page (“If that is so…”). The earthly blessings that give us some taste of the character and reality of God (and Home) are to be neither despised nor idolized; they comfort and nourish us now, and remind us of our loss and call us to Him.

      Another way to put it might be this: If God is the source of beauty, as I believe He is, then it makes sense that the beauty that is scattered throughout our world, by its very nature, calls and points back to Him. But none of the refractions are wholly Him, and we feel their insufficiency. The Light of the World has not come to dwell with us yet, and so we rejoice, but we also long.

      If a woman’s husband were called away unexpectedly, we wouldn’t think it strange if she felt both a deep delight and a pang upon seeing the flowers he planted for her. The sites they visited together and the myriad memories around the house that spoke to her of him — even when she wasn’t directly thinking of him — would be an altogether precious thing, worth every minute of her time and tending. At the same time, those remembrances and cherished places, and the sensation she got upon being in them, still wouldn’t be *him.* Her yearning for him would naturally be intertwined with her yearning for both the restoration of their time together before he was called away, and the future joy to come upon his return.

      I am far better at poking holes in analogies than in offering them, and I’m aware of the imperfections in this one (Christ not wholly absent but present with us, the value and “function” of beauty goes far beyond its linkage to nostalgia, etc.) but I think it’s adequate to convey how I see beauty’s role in our present removal from the fullness of His presence and His creation.

      (And I haven’t even touched on how we can cultivate beauty in His name as an act of defiance against grief, brokenness, and darkness, which is something Lanier describes and does surpassingly well.)

      But to sum it up: beauty, joy, grief, longing, merriment, courage — as you said, the Christian Imagination (and the reality it perceives) can hold these in the same space.

      In this context, then, healthy community — especially the church — becomes a place to celebrate beauty and the One who is the source of it… the old ache is made into worship.

      Thank you for your thoughtful comment! It’s given me a lot to ponder.

      1. Amy,

        Your analogy is helpful to me, exactly because it is so imperfect. Even the husband’s absence is a full kind of absence, overflowing with bright physical reminders of his love and presence. How much more with God, who is not absent but present–Immanuel; and yet we are not with him as we will be.

        I have heard so much (mainly in college and grad school, but also in my childhood church) about beauty in terms of “absence,” inadequacy. The post-structuralist literary theorists: Our words, symbols, art, can’t capture any reality outside themselves, but they generate bits of meaning by trying. In fact, any meaning we find is only a simulacrum, built upon an absence we cannot name. I had a Christian professor in college who embraced all of this and tried to tie it into our faith: We live in the space of absence, waiting for Christ’s return and vigorously pursuing, multiplying, and enjoying our simulacra for now…

        That’s my terribly reductive paraphrase of Derrida. I’m curious if you did much grappling with him or other post-structuralists in your graduate program? Honestly, I enjoyed them for a while. “Difference” reminded me a little bit of C.S. Lewis’s bittersweet longing. But then I found that I couldn’t handle it, that these philosophies were disenchanting the world for me; and I fled (i.e. quit grad school).

        I have spent the years since then trying to re-enchant the world, re-inhabit it, and find nourishment in its beauties and in human relationships. I’ve been trying to defy the post-structuralists and the dour Calvinists.

        I suppose your talk on Sehnsucht stirred up some memories for me of a time when I feared absence; doubted the reality of beauty and the success of any meaning-making attempts. Of course it’s ridiculous, now that I say it, to associate Lewis and Derrida. Saying it helps dispel the ghosts. 🙂 But your talk struck me with the fact that I (and all of us wanderers in Post-modern times) really need an intellectual framework that allows me to live, love, worship, and create in light of both “sides of the coin.” I find your analogy really helpful toward that end, and healing. Thank you again!

        Liz

        1. Less Derrida, more Hegel and Kant in my graduate program (though I would need a very, very strong refresher to actually discuss any of the three).

          I love what you said about trying to re-enchant the world and being nourished as you live in it. (And I would even venture to suggest there are a class of Calvinists who are centered in Joy! Depending on how you define the label, you’re looking at one.)

          There is one thing I would add to this thread — namely, that the beauty that we are “vigorously pursuing, multiplying, and enjoying” is not merely a simulacrum but a part of the essence we await in full. I believe that Christ’s assertions that the Kingdom of God is “at hand” and “has come upon you” indicate that an actual reality has come into our lives. That’s why our pursuit and multiplication and enjoyment of beauty, among other things, now matter so very much for our holiness and the holiness of others. Beauty is both a shadow of the Joy to come and part of His handiwork in and through us now.

          I agree heartily that we need an intellectual framework for these things, and I’m grateful for those who have gone before (and are living now) who have sought one, including you, Liz.

  2. I love the pictures captured of you and Y. Sounds like a beautiful time and place. When I can read and retain info after I’m out of this newborn fog, I will read your post again with (hopefully) better understanding…

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