I love the gothic, shadowed depths of a medieval dungeon or ruin. In fact, I was delighted to find a tea shop in the Christ Church Cathedral crypt, Dublin, down darkened stairs and wrapped in the muffled silence of stone and history and the tombs of saints. I pulled out my journal, and soaked in the delicious solitude. At least, that is, until the barista thought I would enjoy some American country music. The twangy lilt caused those same saints to turn over in their graves. Make it stop.
It didn’t. So I downed my tea and smiled pleasantly at the barista, leaving the depths to go to evening song upstairs. What I expected to be a simple service turned out to be a trip highlight. Two be-robed older divines prayed us through the psalms in rich baritones and lovely Oxford accents. They smiled and seemed to take joy at this sparsely attended service–just three of us tourists. After the benediction, I expected them to disappear quickly, but the priests turned and greeted us with warm smiles and handshakes, and genuine joy at our presence. The crypt had been an nice escape, but the prayer service warmed my heart.
A number of years ago a professor of mine asked her students to list the most influential people in our lives. I struggled to write names, focusing on ideas and concepts and their authors more easily. When I shared the list with the class, my professor made an observation I had completely missed: they were all writers, theologians or mystics who had been dead for a few centuries. I knew them and their ideas only through books.
Today, if I were to make the same list it would be completely different. My close friends. My parents. Pastors and mentors who have impacted me. Professors who have shared their passion for learning and faith. And now, even for the authors on the list, I’m more interested in how they lived out their ideas in their lives.
Pursuing a PhD has had an unforeseen result. For most of my life, books promised a world in their pages where I could live, in relative solitude. The intensive study of the past 7 years burned that promise out of me–there are still books into which I can disappear, but not with the same abandon. And theology books simply don’t thrill me as they once did (I used to literally drool over them.) The magic of the printed word comes now through its ability to engage life–beautifully, visually, poetically.
I have feared this new way of life. Prayed before my wall of books to love them again with the same passion and joy. Wondered where I failed somewhere along the way to becoming a scholar.
But I think something else has happened, maybe more wonderful and amazing than I can yet see. Before, books were my idol. Now, the ones that matter, have become icons, pushing me through their pages to engage with life directly. I have kept going to them, on some days, demanding to experience God, on other days, to escape, and the incarnated Emmanuel has wooed me to life and love, to living people, with all the risk, speechless pain and beauty.
Thirteen years ago, I had a brief glimpse of this and recorded it in my journal:
“But, turn to Me in life, in the world, with all it’s confusion and chaos and stark beauty and tragic pain, and love Me there. Love Me where it will hurt you, love Me where the beauty will break your heart, love Me in the confusion, love Me with your life, love Me as a living sacrifice, not as a dead one, love Me as a failure and see My glorious redemption.”
The challenge of the dissertation may be, at the very last, a call to commit and engage life deeply, and rather than look to a wall of books for experience, simply live and write about it.
I’ve gravitated to reading books in crypts and pondering life in cemeteries, alone with my journal. On the other hand, this practice–no, discipline–of writing for others, be it a blog or a dissertation, cannot be a solitary act. It requires more than putting on the trappings of depth, but a willingness to till the loamy soil of living, plant myself deep into relationships, and bring the fruit to the page.
Reading has often been my escape. Writing is calling me to grow.
(photos from my recent trip to Ireland: Quin Abbey, Inishmore cemetary, Ballyhannon Castle, and the Seven Churches, Inishmore.)