My Dear Friends, November 2020
The snowfall has got me to some reminiscing about the halcyon days of my youth. I recall an end-of-November day in my senior year of high school. Our class was preparing to head downtown to visit some museum on a field trip, and the small bus provided for the trip couldn’t carry quite all the students. With a spectacular lapse of judgment, the teacher signed off on the idea for three of my classmates and me to drive separately en route to this rich cultural experience. Did she miss that we were all good friends and that we left the school parking lot without our observation notebooks?
Only to confirm your suspicions do I need to say that we got lost and never made it to the museum. We were in the car listening to loud music, talking, joking; eventually we found ourselves in the lovely neighborhood of Cherry Creek, south of downtown Denver, south of what I still presume was an excellent museum.
On the way to Cherry Creek, snow started to fall. We parked the car on the street, entered the Cherry Creek Mall through the doors at the Sax Fifth Avenue, exited the other side of the mall, crossed a street, and entered our goal, the Tattered Cover bookshop.
Once inside this huge (four levels of books) yet elegant, booklover’s paradise, we split up and set about perusing. In the very very back of our minds a couple of us worked on the problem of explaining ourselves to the teacher when we saw her next. Occasionally during the next couple of hours we’d run into each other and share a laugh. When we glanced through the store’s big windows, we saw the city slowly being buried in white.
If possible, my next story is even less exciting. Home from college over winter break, I was sent on an errand somewhere. As always, Storm the Boxer dog hopped in the truck with me. On the way home from the now forgotten errand, we were in the environs of Boulder, a town about 35 miles northwest of Denver nestled in a valley surrounded by foothills. Snow was falling.
We happened by a pond/lake, perhaps a mile around, and I stopped the car so we could hike the loop around the lake. It was around 4pm and the sun was beginning to set. During the entire trek Storm and I were alone, save for a flock of Canada geese which Storm drove off. Angry honks and then swish swish swish the wings.
Once we’d encircled the pond/lake, back into the car. Storm’s coat was cold, he panted happily, his huge tongue lolled out of his mouth: he was alive. Indulge me as I drop in some Jack London: “He was mastered by the sheer surging of life, the tidal wave of being, the perfect joy of each separate muscle, joint, and sinew in that it was everything that was not death, that it was aglow and rampant…”
We drove home.
I’m almost ashamed at how many times over the years (and now over the miles) in my mind I’ve returned to these two episodes. In fact, up until recently, many of my online passwords were “boulderboxer” plus a few random numbers and letters. Why?
How could a few hours spent with friends in a bookstore dodging a museum, or even more improbably, an hour walking around some water with some dog, mean so much? What exactly were these scenes’ ingredients so I could mix them again? Let’s see: snow, Cherry Creek or Boulder, friends or dog, books or outside… ? Hardly much of a pattern to be discovered there! But to repeat: a) what was there and b) how can I get back to it?
The poet Tennyson feels my frustration:
Tears, idle tears, I know not what they mean,
Tears from the depth of some divine despair
Rise in the heart, and gather to the eyes,
In looking on the happy Autumn-fields,
And thinking of the days that are no more.
As a young man, C.S. “Jack” Lewis began reading a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow entitled “Tegner’s Drapa.” The initial lines of this poem, which were reflecting on a scene from Old Norse mythology, cast a spell over young Jack:
I heard a voice, that cried,
“Balder the Beautiful
Is dead, is dead!”
Years later, in his auto-biography Lewis looked back on what “happened” when he first took in those words: “I knew nothing about Balder; but instantly I was uplifted into huge regions of northern sky, I desired with almost sickening intensity something never to be described (except that it is cold, spacious, severe, pale, and remote) and then… found myself at the very same moment already falling out of that desire and wishing I were back in it”
Indeed, “we read to know we’re not alone.” As he writes of his sense while first reading this poem, Lewis describes to a T my perception as I look back at the Cherry Creek and Boulder affairs. What happened in those moments? A pleasure, tied to an occurrence, yet that is so much more than what the total elements of that occurrence could allow. In fact, the word “pleasure” can’t do the feeling justice. Moreover, the word “feeling” is also insufficient.
Also, these “something[s] never to be described” simply can’t be reconstructed and entered into again. As memory serves, Lewis tried; young Jack read those same lines again and again in order to regain what he had experienced, but to no avail. This sweet longing, coming out of the sense that, in an otherwise ordinary moment, you’ve brushed up against something vast and beautiful and mysterious . . . can’t be grasped for long. It can be remembered but won’t be summoned to your experience again. Call it a precious and fleeting gift.
Brothers and sisters of EBC – I’ve rambled far too long and let me get to my conclusion: I believe that these surprising, unbeckoned, deep longings are more than what Augustine described as “humanity’s innate desire for the infinite.” That doesn’t quite get to what’s going on. I interpret these “Balder/Boulder” moments as instances of common grace, we are given a bit of natural revelation, God is near to us. (The fact that God drew near as I was playing hooky can be chalked up to “God works in mysterious ways his wonders to perform.”)
Let me be clear: encountering God in this way doesn’t bring anyone out of his sin. Even after this gift of pleasure and the subsequent longing, the soul that is in darkness is still in darkness.
But what these encounters do is expand the horizons. After “Balder/Boulder,” with new ears we hear the truth that in the Almighty’s presence is fulness of joy; at thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore. Yes! Please! More! At Cherry Creek we’ve been given a taste of something (Someone!) and now we want the full cup. Now going to God’s heaven means more, much more, than ever before. Saved from hell – yes. But I’d been given a momentary taste of what we’ve been saved to – knowing God.
Verily, after “Balder/Boulder” knowing God isn’t merely a noble phrase: our view of God expands. Now to our former notions of him we need to add on: Vast. Other. Frightening. Old. And even our grasp of the old ideas change: definitions of goodness, holiness, beauty unfurl into something much larger than before.
I want to add a few implications of this, but have already pushed your patience. Later on though…
Most of the time… almost all of the time…perhaps all of the time, we’re given the Scripture, worshiping with the Church, prayer. The means of special grace coming from special revelation. They are sufficient. And glorious. Glorious I say again!
But as the snow falls and I reflect, I’m also grateful for the common grace that Tonia’s kind call Sehnsucht.