Evelyn Underhill’s letter to a friend

In our devotional reading this morning from Lent With Evelyn Underhill: Selections from her writings, the following bits of advice from a letter to a friend are rather arresting and honest, telling it like it is, letting the chips fall where they may:

All this preoccupation with your own imperfection is not humility, but an insidious form of spiritual pride. What do you expect to be? A saint? There are desperately few of them: and even they found their faults, which are the raw material of sanctity remember, take a desperate lot of working up. The object of your salvation is God’s Glory, not your happiness. Remember it is all one to the angels whether you or another give Him the holiness He demands.

So, be content to help on His kingdom, remaining yourself in the lowest place. You have tied yourself up so tight in that accursed individualism of yours—the source of all your difficulties—that it is a marvel you can breathe at all.

As to the last crime on your list, however, ‘dislike of pain’….Even the martyrs, it has been said, had ‘less joy of their triumph because of the pain they endured.’ They did not want the lions: but they knew how to ‘endure the Cross’ when it came. Do not worry your head about such things as this: but trust God and live your life bit by bit as it comes. There. God bless you.

I find Underhill’s words to be rather more like accusatory law than grace-filled gospel. She seems to me so “in your face,” yet there is perhaps a bit of humour and tongue-in-cheek here, is there not? What do you think? If you were Evelyn’s friend and received such a letter, how would you respond?

Advertisements

Brief Book Review

The Book of Lights by Chaim Potok

This summer I had the opportunity to read one of my favourite novelists, Chaim Potok. I read, by now an old novel, The Book of Lights, which like his other novels is autobiographical—Dr. Potok was, in addition to being a novelist, a rabbi and professor and U.S. army chaplain in Korea. As with his other novels, Potok touches on similar motifs: Biblical, theological and philosophical scholarship, the tension between Western secularism and traditional Judaism, the quest for communion with God, survivor guilt, suffering and grief, darkness and light, good and evil, prayer and mysticism to list a few.

In The Book of Lights, protagonist Gershon Loran, a seminarian, is a budding Kabbalist scholar inspired by his Kabbalah teacher Jakob Keter. Another seminary professor, Nathan Malkuson, scorns Gershon’s interest in Kabbalah, and tries to persuade him to pursue Talmudic studies. Gershon gets lost in the ancient and medieval Kabbalist texts, dreams dreams and sees visions. Yet, as gifted a young scholar he is, his life is full of uncertainty and doubts. His parents, on a trip to purchase real estate in Israel, were killed in the crossfire between Arabs and Jews while sitting in a café, leaving Gershon with his poverty-stricken uncle and aunt. His seminary roommate is Arthur Leiden. Arthur is not a very ambitious seminarian, and does minimal work in his courses. However, again there is irony here, since he comes from a distinguished Boston secular Jewish family. His father is the famous or infamous—depending on your worldview—theoretical physicist, Charles Leiden, who worked with scientists like Einstein to invent the atomic bomb. His mother, Elizabeth Leiden, is a distinguished professor of art history. Arthur did his undergraduate work in physics at Harvard. However, he finds darkness rather than light in physics. The legacy of his father creates much survivor’s guilt within Arthur as a consequence of dropping the atomic bombs on Japan. So in a quest toward the light, Arthur agrees to attend seminary.

At the end of their seminary studies, both Gershon and Arthur serve as U.S. army chaplains overseas in Korea. Gershon seems to find his way quite well within the military milieu, gaining the trust and respect of his C.O. and the rank-and-file troops, while Arthur complains about the frugal conditions and continues to seek ways to atone for his father’s sin. I won’t indulge you in further details of the novel, except to say that there are a couple of surprising turns at the outcome—which inspire readers to reflect on the destiny of the characters as well as their own. For anyone interested in Chaim Potok and Judaism’s encounter with the contemporary world, The Book of Lights is a worthwhile read.

 

October Sky

October Sky

The time was the 1950s, the place, a coal-mining town in West Virginia. After learning of the Russians successfully launching Sputnik, a high school student, Homer Hickham becomes determined to build a successful rocket. With the inspiration and encouragement of a high school teacher, Miss Riley, and the friendship of three other classmates, they build one unsuccessful rocket after another. After overcoming much taunting by most of their high school peers; the resistance of Homer’s father, who discourages his son at every turn and insists that Homer should focus on following in his dad’s footsteps and work in the mine; and the principal of the high school’s narrow-mindedness and stereotyping of his students; the four students continue with their experiments and chase their dream. Eventually a rocket is built that wins at a local science fair; then wins first prize at a national science fair. The win was Homer’s and his fellow students’ ticket to college. After this success and numerous confrontations with his father, the latter finally shows up to support his son by witnessing a rocket launch.

There is no question that the movie is sentimental. However, I think it goes deeper than the usual stereotypes of traditional parenting; and working class, hillbilly American values and lifestyle. The movie is full of moral lessons like: the importance of living with hopes and dreams and following where they lead; the importance of friendship and mentoring and cooperation to accomplish life’s goals; the discerning of one’s life-calling and vocation, which brings with it meaning and purpose for one’s life. All four students left their mining community to attend college. Homer was employed by NASA. Theologically, this movie reminds me a little of the sceptics who say of Jesus: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” God calls and chooses people whom others would write off and overlook. Oh yes, I think I’ll try to find the soundtrack of this movie too.