Compline: After Christian Wiman

Man is what he is and he is everything that he is in the decision of faith

Karl Barth
And faith, or belief, is more
direction than assent
to a thought or a fact; it is
movement towards
the thing from which others turn,
and from which you may have turned,
will have turned,
for hole-hearted love is never whole-hearted,

and yet
you correct, in daily
micromovements, to turn
back, again, again, and dwell -
for faith also is dwelling,
an end-of-day settling,
body and soul, weary and fighting,
ending your fighting,
and drooping, falling
into infinite arms.

Vespers: After Louise Glück

Once I believed in You,
still do,
though belief is often evasive, often abstract,
like air, which itself defies grasp
yet needy lungs clutch at it with the certainty
that this, this alone they must have.

And I believe like
the fig tree believes in the soil,
sometimes wilted, sometimes refusing fruit,
always held, always known to the roots.

And at the vesper light, I
believe, not with
the confident certainty of the apologist in debate,
the smug politician turning
divine name to unholy cause,
but like
the bed beneath me believes in the ground,
believes in the frame that holds it.

Pruning

Against expectation, this
Spartan clipping makes spring flourish more,
this cutting back to bones,
to bare knobbly knuckles makes
growth more abundant when it comes.

And so we bear
the naked cruelty of these bare days,
knowing
against all experience,
trusting against
barren winter feeling,
enduring against
the buckling in our bones that wants to fall.

Advent 11: Nunc Dimittis

My eyes have seen
yet my heart forgets,
eager to assume the worst.
I would be Simeon and yet
dismiss the word
still unfulfilled.

Only let me see, I pray,
yet choke to hear the words.
Sight is not faith; I must hold on
to all my hope deferred and keep
vigil with what mercy shows.

Do not dismiss me yet.

Unexpected Grace: Ten conversion novels you should read

Sadly, literature that brings faith authentically to bear on the world is a rare thing. But here are ten novels that use the narrative of conversion to show faith and grace colliding with the ordinary, the sordid and the plain broken. Not all are by professing believers. Not all are orthodox. But all are compelling in their own way, and all make faith feel very real.

9 & 10: A Pure Clear Light and The Essence of the Thing – Madeleine St John

Sydney girl turned wry and urbane Londoner, St John was most famous for her first novel, a witty depiction of a lady’s department store, The Women in Black. But she also wrote three other novels, a kind of loose trilogy, sharing some characters, the same inner London cultured set and a darker and more cynical tone. Yet St John, a late convert, managed to take her characters just to the threshold of faith in utterly unexpected ways. Characters cheat on each other, lie, doubt, and then approach belief without even noticing themselves get there. The last novel in the trilogy, Stairway to Paradise, was the weakest but also hit the faith note with greatest subtlety. Had she lived longer, who knows how deft her touch might have grown.

8: Life After God – Douglas Coupland

A series of vignettes of post-religion North America, this early Coupland slowly arrests you with its quiet ache of longing until you cry out with its narrator, “I need God.”

7: The Death of Ivan Ilyich – Leo Tolstoy

The only Tolstoy I have finished (and amongst his shortest), Ivan Ilyich packs a punch. Mostly the death-bed resentment of a sick and bitter man who trusts no-one, including his family, this novella takes you right into the psyche of an embittered soul and leads you imperceptibly to redemption.

6: The Moviegoer – Walker Percy

Percy is a curious figure in Catholic literature. Equal parts Kierkegaardian philosopher and satirist of American culture, he sometimes seems strangely lacking in faith. Many readers may find some of his treatments of women to be uncomfortable. But his first novel is a tour-de-force examination of the modern quest for physical sensation and the discovery of grace in the sacrament of everyday life.

5: Barabbas – Pär Lagerkvist

It might be a bit much to call this a conversion novel, but this story of the man who Jesus replaced on the cross has some of the most intriguing discussions of faith that I’ve encountered in 20th century literature. A Swedish Nobel laureate, Lagerkvist explored characters touched by the cross twice in his work, via mythology in The Death of Ahaseuras and more directly in Barabbas. He wasn’t, to my knowledge, a believer, and some theological details here are dubious, but Barabbas’ life after his unexpected exchange with Christ is a fascinating reflection on what it means to be a believer and a reprobate.

4: Saint Maybe – Anne Tyler

Also not a Christian herself, Anne Tyler makes raw and unvarnished Christian faith and redemption the central force of change in this touching family drama by one of the greatest living novelists working in English.

3: Lila – Marilynne Robinson

The third in her Gilead novels, Lila is in my opinion the best. Both a delicate love story and an unpretentious, warts-and-all tale of grace at work in a wounded life, Lila tells the story of Reverend Wilmot’s much younger wife and how she came to experience and trust the love of God expressed in an unexpected person.

2: Viper’s Tangle – François Mauriac

Almost any of Mauriac’s novels could be here but I’ve picked my favourite. Mauriac’s characters are almost always ugly, mean or pathetic, and yet he always portrays them with a tenderness approaching love. The marvel of this one lies in watching the vipers’ nest within its protagonist untangle with God’s hand. Few other Christian writers have explored the depths of humanity with as much grace and honesty as Mauriac.

1: Brideshead Revisited – Evelyn Waugh

When Andrew Davies adapted this book for film he said he was getting rid of the “God stuff”, which is rather like taking the running out of Chariots of Fire. He failed, because God is central to this novel. All he managed to get rid of was the conversion, which was like taking out Eric Liddell’s gold medal. Don’t watch the film. Read the book instead.

Unless I See: After Caravaggio’s “Incredulity of Saint Thomas”

No need to touch the scars;
Caravaggio got that detail wrong.
The sheer force of His presence made Thomas crumple,
doubt ceasing where belief gained life,
the parched taste, hesitant like salt, exultant like wine,
as loosened lips croaked,
My Lord and my God.

Yet I am comforted to see
both the outstretched hand and
the companions’ fingers lifting his.
I cannot tell if, like Thomas,
I could simply stop doubting and believe at such a sight,
but, held up by the weathered,
briny hands of those who’ve seen with me,
I, like him, can lift a wrinkled brow in faith.