Reading The Season: Lila by Marilynne Robinson

Every year before Christmas, I read something that can draw me closer to the meaning of the Season. Amidst the busyness of the festivities, I try to carve out a piece of quiet. I name these annual posts Reading The Season. You can click on the links at the bottom for previous entries, dating back to 2008. This year, the publication of Marilynne Robinson’s third Gilead book, Lila, is a most timely read.

GileadGilead (2004) – Marilynne Robinson’s Pulitzer Prize and National Book Critic Circle Award winning novel introduces us to the fictional town of Gilead, Iowa. We hear the gentle voice of the narrator, the ageing Rev. John Ames, as he writes a letter to his seven-year-old son Robby, leaving a legacy of family heritage, love, forgiveness, and serenity.

HomeHome (2008) – Based on the same Gilead characters, but from a different point of view allowing us privy to the household of the Rev. Robert Boughton, John Ames’s life long-friend. Glory, Boughton’s daughter, comes home to take care of her ailing father. She is there when her brother Jack returns after an absence of twenty years. The black sheep of the family, Jack’s estranged self yearns for reconciliation like a prodigal. The book, in all its complexities and depiction of alienation, escape, return and lost yet again, suggests home may not be a solace as sweet as one hopes.


Lila (2014) – Robinson’s newest, and 2014 National Book Award finalist. It is the third novel based on the characters in the town of Gilead, offering yet another point of view. But one can just read it on its own, albeit best to have read Gilead first, then the kind face of John Ames can be conjured up more readily. In this book, the perspective is from Ames’s much younger wife Lila, at first lonely and desolate, slowly drifting into place.


Lila Dahl

At the outset, we see Lila as an unwanted child, “cold”, ‘all cried out’. She is rescued by Doll, a destitute woman herself yet still has room in her heart for an abandoned little girl. Doll wraps Lila into her shawl and decides to bring her up. “Lila was the loneliest child, and there they were, the two of them together, keeping each other warm in the rain.” Lila later takes up Doll’s name as Dahl.

The two joins a small group of itinerant field workers led by Doane, living in camps out in the open. But the Depression breaks up the cohesive work party. Lila is later left on her own and for a little while, works in a brothel in St. Louis. Knowing she can’t stay there for long, she slips out one night, escaping from a blackhole of hopelessness.

After that she finds herself a cleaning job at a hotel, from which she has to escape again after seeing her nemesis whom she first encounters while in the brothel. She packs her bag and leaves town, taking rides from strangers going to wherever they drop her. Ultimately, Lila drifts to the outskirt of Gilead, finds an abandoned shack and takes shelter there. She cleans up the shack for a place to sleep, having no plans except to find odd jobs in the town yonder, earn enough money, then moves on, maybe to Sioux City.

Lila lives a life of poverty, loneliness and fear, mistrusting everyone. Doll may have been like a mother to her but she too has her own rough life and struggles. Doll knifes and kills a man who might be Lila’s own father, could well be out of protecting Lila. She is later jailed, leaving the knife in Lila’s possession. Lila keeps it with her all the years as a memento, a murder weapon, yes, but also a symbol of Doll’s loving protection and Lila’s own desolate past.

One day walking into Gilead Lila stumbles into a church to escape the rain, that is the turning point of her life. She sees the old man at the pulpit, the Rev. John Ames, and, he sees her.

John Ames

We know a lot about Ames from Robinson’s first book of Gilead, set in the 1950’s. A Congregationalist pastor in the town, Ames is sixty-seven years old when he first meets Lila, “a big, silvery old man”. Coming from a family tradition of ministers, John Ames is a man with a pastor’s heart.

Ames has had his share of personal grief. He had to bear the death of his beloved wife of his youth and his newborn son as she died in childbirth. Such unspeakable pain he had shared with his best friend Robert Boughton, pastor of the Presbyterian church in Gilead.

Ames and Boughton have been life long friends. They share pastoring advice, discuss foreign policies, debate theological problems, and bear the burden of each other’s family woes. Boughton has his in his son Jack, who takes John Ames’s namesake.

After seeing Lila at the church as she comes in from the rain, Ames keeps her in his heart. Residents of Gilead befriend Lila, giving her jobs, welcoming her in their midst, but Lila is aloof and skeptical, an outsider still. Ames personally engages her to talk and to know her more. One day, he goes to seek her out at the shack. She sees him coming as she walks towards Gilead. There on the path he reaches out to her and promises marriage. An inexplicable love story takes shape.


Ames and Lila

“… the old man kept on courting her, like a boy, when she was hard and wary…”

After they are married, however incompatible it looks in Ames’s home, Lila still keeps Doll’s knife with her as a memento and as a symbol of her own tumultuous past, a part of herself. Ames is unperturbed. He lets her keep it, and he even uses it, taking it as a normal tool around the house. Total acceptance.

If condescension is present in the relationship, it is Ames who wants to learn from Lila. His utter humility is what moves her. Barely literate, Lila yearns to know about the Bible, study it and grasp its richness and meaning. They talk about the difficult books of Ezekiel and Job. Ames shares his thoughts about this elusive notion called existence, and listens attentively Lila’s perspective and experiences. Total respect.

Lila has questions rooted in her bitter past, the why’s of misfortunes, cruelty, and the hardships in life. She asks Ames with an inquiring heart. Ames, a pastor of many years, can find no easy answers. He ponders Lila’s queries, and readily and honestly admits his own limitations in knowing, while loving her all the more. Total humility.

Even after they are married, Lila sometimes still conjures up thoughts of leaving. Ames  knows this and gives her the freedom:

… if you ever change your mind, I want you to leave by daylight. I want you to have a train ticket in your hand that will take you right where you want to go, and I want you to take your ring and anything else I have given you. You might want to sell it. That would be all right. It’s yours, not mine… ” He cleared this throat. “You’re my wife,” he said. “I want to take care of you, even if that means someday seeing you to the train.” He leaned forward and looked into her face, almost sternly, so she would know he meant want he said.

She chooses to stay, a genuine response to his love.

When I read the book, I see a tender love story between two utterly incompatible beings, like an allegory and a parallel of the Christmas story, how the Creator God reaches out to take our hand, initiating an unfathomable relationship. Love for the reason of pure love. An unlikely and inexplicable union.

The Christmas Story

I first felt a little uncomfortable about the obvious incongruous pairing of Ames and Lila, yet, their love relation comes to fruition, albeit looking tentative at first. The gap between Ames and Lila is just a crack in the pavement when compared to the abyss separating Creator God and His creation. I see Ames and Lila’s story as an allegory, if you will, a parallel, however meagre, illustrating the joining of two utterly disparate sides.

The essence of the Season is in the reaching out to bridge that huge chasm. As Ames and Lila’s newborn son at the end of the book is an evidence of their love, we too receives a child, born in a manger that day in Bethlehem, a sign of ultimate mending. Total reconciliation.


Other Reading the Season Posts:

2020: Jack by Marilynne Robinson

2019: A Hidden Life, a film by Terrence Malick

2018: Madeleine L’Engle’s Poem The Irrational Season

2017: A Wrinkle In Time by Madeleine L’Engle

2016:  Silence by Shusaku Endo

2015: The Book of Ruth

2014: Lila by Marilynne Robinson

2013 Poetry by Madeleine L’Engle

2012: Surprised by Joy, C. S. Lewis

2011: Walking on Water, Madeleine L’Engle 

2010: A Widening Light, Poetry by Luci Shaw

2009: The Irrational Season, Madeleine L’Engle 

2008: The Bible and the New York Times, Fleming Rutledge 

2008: A Grief Observed, C. S. Lewis


And The Word Was Made Homeless

Awesome Sky

The House of Christmas

by G. K. Chesterton (1874–1936)

There fared a mother driven forth
Out of an inn to roam;
In the place where she was homeless
All men are at home.
The crazy stable close at hand,
With shaking timber and shifting sand,
Grew a stronger thing to abide and stand
Than the square stones of Rome.

For men are homesick in their homes,
And strangers under the sun,
And they lay on their heads in a foreign land
Whenever the day is done.
Here we have battle and blazing eyes,
And chance and honour and high surprise,
But our homes are under miraculous skies
Where the yule tale was begun.

A Child in a foul stable,
Where the beasts feed and foam;
Only where He was homeless
Are you and I at home;
We have hands that fashion and heads that know,
But our hearts we lost – how long ago!
In a place no chart nor ship can show
Under the sky’s dome.

This world is wild as an old wives’ tale,
And strange the plain things are,
The earth is enough and the air is enough
For our wonder and our war;
But our rest is as far as the fire-drake swings
And our peace is put in impossible things
Where clashed and thundered unthinkable wings
Round an incredible star.

To an open house in the evening
Home shall men come,
To an older place than Eden
And a taller town than Rome.
To the end of the way of the wandering star,
To the things that cannot be and that are,
To the place where God was homeless
And all men are at home.


“And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.” John 1:14


(Photo taken by Arti of Ripple Effects, Sept. 2010. All Rights Reserved.)




Reading the Season: Poetry by Madeleine L’Engle

The brilliance of A Wrinkle in Time is that its author Madeleine L’Engle can convey scientific and spiritual concepts at the same time and in a way that young readers can enjoy. There’s no conflict between the cerebral and the spiritual; they co-exist comfortably in L’Engle’s work. Not only that, they fuse together and from that alchemy rises a whole new, inexplicable entity: Faith.

It’s that time of the year when I try to tune out distractions to dwell on the meaning of the Season, the reason why we have Christmas in the first place. I call these posts ‘Reading the Season’.

This time, I’ve selected four of Madeleine L’Engle’s poetry. ‘After Annunciation’ I have posted before. But I’d like to share it again here because the deceptively simple lines carry much depth and wisdom. Same with ‘The Risk of Birth, Christmas, 1973’. These two remain my favourite thoughts during Advent. 1973 or now? Ever timely. The poems are taken from The Ordering of Love: The New & Collected Poems of Madeleine L’Engle, published by Shaw Books, 2008.

The Ordering of Love


After Annunciation

This is the irrational season
When love blooms bright and wild.
Had Mary been filled with reason
There’d have been no room for the child.


Sonnet, Trinity 18

Peace is the centre of the atom, the core
Of quiet within the storm. It is not
A cessation, a nothingness; more
The lightning in reverse is what
Reveals the light. It is the law that binds
The atom’s structure, ordering the dance
Of proton and electron, and that finds
Within the midst of flame and wind, the glance
In the still eye of the vast hurricane.
Peace is not placidity: peace is
The power to endure the megatron of pain
With joy, the silent thunder of release,
The ordering of Love. Peace is the atom’s start,
The primal image: God within the heart.


Instruments (I)

The sky is strung with glory.
Light threads from star to star
from sun to sun
a liv­ing harp.
I rejoice, I sing, I leap upwards to play.
The music is in light.
My fin­gers pluck the vibrant strings;
the notes pulse, throb, in exul­tant harmony;
I beat my wings against the strands
that reach across the galaxies
I play


It is not I who play
it is the music
the music plays itself
is played
plays me
small part of an innumerable
I am flung from note to note
impaled on melody
my wings are caught on throb­bing fil­a­ments of light
the wild cords cut my pinions
my arms are outstretched
are bound by ropes of counterpoint
I am cross-eagled on the singing that is strung
from puls­ing star
to flam­ing sun

I burn in a blaze of song.


The Risk of Birth, Christmas, 1973

This is no time for a child to be born,
With the earth betrayed by war & hate
And a comet slashing the sky to warn
That time runs out & the sun burns late.
That was no time for a child to be born,
In a land in the crushing grip of Rome;
Honour & truth were trampled by scorn–
Yet here did the Saviour make his home.
When is the time for love to be born?
The inn is full on the planet earth,
And by a comet the sky is torn–
Yet Love still takes the risk of birth.


‘Reading The Season’ Posts over a Decade:

2020: Jack by Marilynne Robinson

2019: ‘A Hidden Life’ – A Film for the Season

2018: A Verse from Madeleine L’Engle’s The Irrational Season

2017: A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle

2016: Silence by Shusaku Endo

2015: The Book of Ruth

2014: Lila by Marilynne Robinson

2012: Surprised by Joy by C. S. Lewis

2011: Walking on Water by Madeleine L’Engle 

2010: A Widening Light by Luci Shaw

2009: The Irrational Season by Madeleine L’Engle

2008: The Bible and the New York Times by Fleming Rutledge 

2008: A Grief Observed by C. S. Lewis


Les Miserables (2012)

These last months of 2012 see a bumper crop of film adaptations from literary sources. We have an eclectic array from the minimalist rendition of Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, to this long awaited maximalist Les Misérables, adapted from Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg’s 1980 stage musical based on Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel. From Ang Lee to Tom Hooper, we are gratified on both ends of the spectrum.

It is a shift too for Hooper, fresh from his much smaller scale, Oscar winning The King’s Speech (2010), to turn and adapt a successful stage musical into a huge cinematic production. Yes, maximalist could well be the word to describe Tom Hooper’s Les Misérables.

Les Miserables Movie Poster

I sat in a Cineplex theatre that offered Ultra AVX, Audio Visual Experience: wall to wall screen, big sound, huge images. Now of course, I would have seen it on a regular screen and with smaller head shots. For me, the AVX extravagance might even be a distraction. For as I watched the movie, it was in the small moments of torn sentiments, the minute scale of personal transformation, and the internal moral dilemmas so well acted out that I found Hugo a brilliant writer of the human soul. I don’t need big boom sound and maximized frames to sensitize me.

The epic scale is effective, and the cast is admirable in delivering a heartfelt performance. I can fully imagine the difficulty of casting, finding good film actors who can sing well. But overall, they are well chosen.

Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean is impressive. No stranger to musicals, Jackman is a Tony Award winner himself, and here he is perfect for the role in every aspects, physiques, singing and acting. I’m glad to see he get a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor (Comedy or Musical) in the coming Award Season.

Colm Wilkenson, a Broadway star dating back to Jesus Christ, Superstar and as Jean Valjean in the original musical of Les Miserables has a brief appearance as the Bishop, whose forgiveness of Valjean’s theft when he put him up for the night transforms the bitter soul of the hardened ex-con. His singing of course is impeccable.

Also glad to find out Eddie Redmayne can sing so well too. Like Jackman, he is a Tony Award winner, more recent and a much younger one. He plays Marius, among a group of young revolutionaries who set up the Barricade to defy the French militia. He is the young man who falls in love with Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) at first sight. Compared to his A Week With Marilyn, his performance here could well catapult him into more prominent roles in the future.

While many of the other main cast are not Broadway singers, their skills are laudable. Anne Hathaway singing ‘I Dreamed A Dream’ is probably one of the most successful trailers made. And here in the film, her affective appearance as Fantine only makes me wish she can stay a while longer. Good to see she gets a Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actress (Comedy or Musical).

Anne Hathaway

Russell Crowe’s singing experience could have come mainly from his rock band, but his voice is fine here as Javert, the prison guard and later policeman on the trail looking for Valjean through the years. Yet it is not the singing, but the acting that I expected more. I know he is supposed to be cold and harsh, yet it is the internal fervor and depth that I find lacking. I think Geoffrey Rush is a more convincing Javert in the 1998 film adaptation… and I suppose he can sing too.

A marvellous duo that serve as a much needed comic relief is Sacha Baron Cohen’s Thénardier, ‘Master of the House’ and his Madame played by and Helena Bonham Carter. What a contrast with her role as Queen Elizabeth in The King’s Speech. The Thénardiers make one apt comic duo with their lively screen presence, great comic timing, and wonderful singing from both.

I must mention the two young actors. Daniel Huttlestone shines in his role as Gavroche, the boy at the Barricade. He has delivered a mature and poignant performance. I hope to see him appear in more films in the future.

The other is in the movie poster, an icon taken from the Musical. It is the image of little Cosette, here in the film movingly played by Isabelle Allen. The look-alike of the two images leads me to this thought:

I’m surprised to find the film adaptation follow the musical to the dot in terms of the song sequence. I think every one of them is performed, plus one more, ‘Suddenly’, written by Schönberg for the film. I was expecting a bit more creative cinematic treatment on screen. Further, the whole movie is connected by one song after another with almost no dialogues. For the film medium, editing could be better used here for pacing and avoiding redundancy. I feel the 157 minute production could be much tighter. With Schönberg directly involved in the adaptation, I’m sure he must have wanted every song preserved. Cutting the length must have been a delicate matter.

Overall, Hooper’s bold attempt to have the actors sing live instead of record the songs in a studio pays off. A first in recent decades, singing while they are acting creates and captures the emotions of the moment. With the title Les Misérables, we see a lot of heartfelt tears, and pathos of the human condition laid bare and raw. But Hugo’s universal theme also flows out as ready as the tears, that the power of forgiveness surpasses all wrongs, and grace triumphs over law. An apt offering for the Christmas season.

~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples


Reading the Season: Surprised by Joy

If Shakespeare and Hamlet could ever meet, it must be Shakespeare’s doing. Shakespeare could, in principle, make himself appear as Author within the play, and write a dialogue between Hamlet and himself. The ‘Shakespeare’ within the play would of course be at once Shakespeare and one of Shakespeare’s creatures. It would bear some analogy to Incarnation. — C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy (p. 227)

What an apt analogy for Christmas. surprised_by_joy_the_shape_of_my_early_life_frontcover_large_1thqlUR3XQVIcV2 Chronicle of Joy Surprised by Joy is C. S. Lewis’s (1898-1963) autobiographical account of his experience with Joy in his younger days, that elusive something of which he had a hard time grasping. Subtitled The Shape of my Early Life, it is an honest chronicle of an intellectual journey. As a young teenager going to the junior school of Wyvern, Lewis had shed the veneer of Christianity from home and declared himself an atheist. But his quest for Joy remained. It was to him an ‘inconsolable longing’ for ‘the real Desirable’. As a child, a form of Joy came to him through solitary reading, writing and drawing. In his youth, Joy channelled through Wagner’s Ring Cycle and Norse mythology, or Northernness. As he grew, he began to realize that pleasure did not equate with Joy, neither physical nor aesthetic, neither Nature nor Wagnerian music, neither books nor poetry, nor the intellectual gratification from reading, nor the excitement of Northernness.

You might as well offer a mutton chop to a man who is dying of thirst as offer sexual pleasure to the desire I am speaking of. .. Joy is not a substitue for sex; sex is very often a substitute for Joy. I sometimes wonder whether all pleasures are not substitutes for Joy. (p. 170)

Reading and Studying Surprised by Joy is Lewis’s chronicle of his encounters with books and countless authors. As a young boy he was first taught Latin by his mother, who sadly died of illness when he was only nine years old. He went through all forms of education, home, public, boarding school, and the most gratifying to him was after his father pulled him out of Wyvern and directed him to a private teacher in preparation for Oxford. While his father was uncertain about the move, Lewis secretly relished the idea and thrived in the experience. His teacher was Mr. Kirkpatrick, or ‘Bookman’. He was an atheist, a rationalist, a logician. He had acutely sharpened Lewis’s critical thinking with logic and Dialectics, and well prepared him to enter Oxford. He assigned to Lewis readings from classical literature: Homer, Demosthenes, Cicero, Lucretius, Catullus, Tacitus, Herodotus, Virgil, Euripides, Sophocles, and Aeschylus. On his own, Lewis immersed in Norse myths and the Wagner’s Ring Cycle. His reading expanded to Goethe and Voltaire. It was only later upon a friend Arthur’s influence that he began to devour literature in the English language. “I read … all the best Waverleys, all the Brontes, and all the Jane Austens.” There were of course others, Donne, Milton, Spenser, Malory, Thomas Browne, George Herbert, the Romantics, Yeats, William Morris, G. K. Chesterton, and George MacDonald.

I was by now a sufficiently experienced reader to distinguish liking from agreement. I did not need to accept what Chesterton said in order to enjoy it. (P. 190)

Yet he could not help but began to revise some of his world views. Yeats, Maeterlinck, and ultimately, George MacDonald informed him of alternative glimpses other than the material world. Unde hoc mihi I admit I had to look this Latin phrase up. And this I found: Unde hoc mihi … translated as “And whence is this to me” (KJV), or “And why is this granted to me” (ESV) A phrase that moved me so. As I was reading, two-third into his autobiography these words leapt out:

Unde hoc mihi? In the depth of my disgraces, in the then invincible ignorance of my intellect, all this was given me without asking, even without consent. (p. 181)

Lewis describes the epiphany, utterly inexplicable, the moment which came to him when all things seemed so clear, and the presence of something not mythical or magical which he had craved in his mind, but ‘Holiness’. It was then that his Atheism was transformed into Theism (In a moment of divine enlightenment not unlike Levin’s conversion at the end of Anna Karenina.) This humble exclamation unde hoc mihi is used by Lewis as he alludes to Luke 1:43 when Mary, pregnant with the Christ Child, went to see her cousin Elizabeth, who also by miraculous means in her barren state, pregnant with John, the forerunner before Christ. Upon hearing Mary’s salutation to her, Elizabeth felt the babe leap in her womb, and she exclaimed: “And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” Why, a learned scholar, specialist of the Classics, logical thinker skilled in Dialectics, claimed no credits of his own in this enlightenment. But it is only the beginning, he had not met the Person yet. Further, he realized that whatever that had given him Joy before, like Nature,

that those mountains and gardens had never been what I wanted but only symbols which professed themselves to be no more, and that every effort to treat them as the real Desirable soon honestly proved itself to be a failure. (p. 204)

As he began to teach at Oxford, Lewis was surprised to find two fellow professors he respected were, alas, Christians. One of them was J. R. R. Tolkien. But Lewis was an unlikely candidate for Christianity, with his ‘deep-seated hatred of authority, monstrous individualism, lawlessness’ and his abhorrence of a ‘transcendental Interferer’ (p. 172). Yet that unquenchable longing for Joy was ever present. Friendship with Tolkien began to break down some long held biases. He admitted that “I was by now too experienced in literary criticism to regard the Gospels as myths… To accept the Incarnation was a further step… It brings God nearer, or near in a new way.” It was another year before Lewis finally “gave in and admitted that God was God… Perhaps the most reluctant convert in all England.” Ironically, as he humbly exclaimed unde hoc mihi, ‘why is this granted to me’, he was submitting to ‘Divine humility’, the Incarnation. Hamlet finally met his Author. And what of Joy? I can’t give out too many spoilers, can I?


I read Surprised By Joy along with Bellezza. Do click here to read her thoughts on the book.

Surprised by Joy: The Shape of my Early Life by C. S. Lewis, Harcourt Publishing, Orlando, Florida, 1955, 238 pages. This is the edition I read with the image posted.


Reading the Season Posts in Previous Years:

2020: Jack by Marilynne Robinson

2019: ‘A Hidden Life’ by Terrence Malick: a film for the Season

2018: Madeleine L’Engle’s Poem The Irrational Season

2017: A Wrinkle In Time by Madeleine L’Engle

2016:  Silence by Shusaku Endo

2015: The Book of Ruth

2014: Lila by Marilynne Robinson

2013: Poetry by Madeleine L’Engle

2012: Surprised by Joy by C. S. Lewis

2011: Walking on Water by Madeleine L’Engle

2010: A Widening Light, Luci Shaw

2009: The Irrational Season by Madeleine L’Engle 

2008: The Bible and the New York Times by Fleming Rutledge

2008: A Grief Observed by C. S. Lewis


What If… A Northern Nativity

The late Canadian artist William Kurelek embraced a nativity that’s beyond time and culture. In his children book A Northern Nativity, he envisioned through a little Prairie boy’s dreams the various scenarios: what if Christ was born in the land of deep snow in an Inuit community, or what if Mary and Joseph, homeless on our streets, had to take shelter in a soup kitchen, what if… Would we have noticed? Would we even care?

This is a moving video clip on the paintings in Kurelek’s children book A Northern Nativity, accompanied by Chris de Burgh’s touching piano music “When Winter Comes”.


And to All, A Merry Christmas!


Reading The Season: Walking On Water by Madeleine L’Engle

It’s that time of the year when a quiet respite is probably the most precious gift. For the past four years since I started blogging, amidst the cacophony of December festivities, I would pick something to read that anchors me to the spiritual meaning of the occasion.  I call these attempts “Reading The Season”. This year, I took down from the shelf a long-time TBR, Walking On Water: Reflection On Faith And Art by Madeleine L’Engle.

After reading it, I went straight to her Newbery Award novel A Wrinkle In Time (another long time TBR for me). Amazed at its wisdom and depth, once I finished it I went back to reread Walking On Water, appreciated all the more L’Engle’s intricate weaving of intellect and spiritual insights.

At the very beginning of the book, these words jumped right out at me:

I sit on my favourite rock, looking over the brook, to take time away from busyness, time to be. I’ve long since stopped feeling guilty about taking being time; it’s something we all need for our spiritual health, and often we don’t take enough of it.

And just a few pages after that, I found this gem:

Leonard Bernstein tells me … for him music is cosmos in chaos. That has the ring of truth in my ears and sparks my creative imagination. And it is true not only of music; all art is cosmos, cosmos found within chaos.

Bernstein might have echoed a Jungian concept of the power of memory and the subconscious self, but there’s a spiritual reality in the thought.

It all began with the calling forth of light from darkness, splendor from void, life from nothingness, the Creation. Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life comes to mind… the cosmic light and galaxy clouds, the molten lava that spews out of the earth, the roaring breakers of the ocean deep, and my heart resounds: ‘day to day pours forth speech, night to night declares knowledge.’

But what’s most awesome is not just the forming of the cosmos, but the Creator incarnated, the infinite confined, the invincible made vulnerable in order to live the hurts, to share the pains. L’Engle writes:

To be alive is to be vulnerable. To be born is to start the journey towards death… We might paraphrase Descartes to read, ‘I hurt; therefore I am.’

The Creator demonstrated that behind the majesty, there’s the power of love, that driving force behind the willingness to stoop, to be made vulnerable, to be stripped naked, be born a babe. Utterly unfathomable. At one point in human history,  Cosmos entered and lived among Chaos.

And artists, those who write, who paint, who sing, who dance, who act… they are birth-givers. “An act of art is an incarnational activity,” L’Engle writes. Artists partake in the continuation of creation, bringing wholeness to a fragmented world, hope in the slough of despair.

As well, true artists live the vulnerability as the One who first took that cosmic plunge, taking the risk of birth because of love.

Here, take a 3:44 minute respite to enjoy some Seasonal reflections. Click on the video to listen to the music as you read Madeleine L’Engle’s poem:

The Risk of Birth 

This is no time for a child to be born,
With the earth betrayed by war & hate
And a nova lighting the sky to warn
That time runs out & the sun burns late.

That was no time for a child to be born,
In a land in the crushing grip of Rome;
Honour & truth were trampled by scorn–
Yet here did the Saviour make his home.

When is the time for love to be born?
The inn is full on the planet earth,
And by greed & pride the sky is torn–
Yet Love still takes the risk of birth.

Madeleine L’Engle


Walking On Water: Reflections On Faith And Art by Madeleine L’Engle, Commemorative Edition, published by Shaw, 1998, 227 pages.

CLICK HERE to Reading the Season 2012: Surprised by Joy

‘Reading The Season’ posts in previous years:

Reading The Season: C. S. Lewis

Reading The Season: Fleming Rutledge

Reading The Season: Madeleine L’Engle’s The Irrational Season

Reading The Season: Luci Shaw

Winter Wonderland

I caught this lone cross-country skier on a frozen creek in snow country.  Let this be my Christmas card to all:

May your Christmas be as serene and exhilarating as this magical moment.


And, thanks to a reader’s suggestion, may the following carol warm the winter chills and quiet the holiday frenzy.

‘In The Bleak Midwinter’



A Merry Christmas To All!


Photo taken by Arti of Ripple Effects, December 2010, All Rights Reserved.

Reading Snow Country in Snow Country

The first ‘Snow Country’ in the title refers to the 1968 Japanese Nobel Laureate Yasunari Kawabata’s (川端 康成 1899-1972) seminal novel Snow Country (雪鄉); the second refers to Arti’s neck of the woods here north of the 49th parallel in mid December.

Written in the 1930’s through to the 1940’s, Snow Country was later translated into English and published in 1956.  It is probably Kawabata’s most well-known work.  Translator Edward G. Seidensticker had been credited for leading Kawabata’s work to the ultimate accolade, the Nobel Prize of Literature in 1968, a first for a Japanese writer.

The haiku-like simplicity so pervasive in the book is most apt for the Season. Firstly, its meditative descriptions and imagery offer a respite in the midst of our frantic pace.  And secondly, it points to certain relevance during this Christmas time, which I find surprising.

Translator Seidensticker writes in the introduction that the haiku is a juxtaposition of incongruous terms, such as motion and stillness. Within such contradictions sparks “a sudden awareness of beauty.”  Relax in the following poetic imageries:

They came out of the cedar grove, where the quiet seemed to fall in chilly drops.

or this:

[Her voice] seemed to come back like an echo of distilled love.

or this:

The field of white flowers on red stems was quietness itself.

Or savor the interplay of light and shadow, which evokes the poignancy of decayed beauty. This could well be the summing up of the human condition in Kawabata’s novel.

The sky was clouding over.  Mountains still in the sunlight stood out against shadowed mountains.  The play of light and shade changed from moment to moment, sketching a chilly landscape.  Presently the ski grounds too were in shadow.  Below the window Shimamura could see little needles of frost like ising-glass among the withered chrysanthemums, though water was still dripping from the snow on the roof.

The protagonist Shimamura, ‘who lived a life of idleness’ from inherited wealth, would leave his wife and children in Tokyo and go alone to the snow country every year, the mountain region of central Japan, to meet Komako, a young geisha at a hot spring village.  The love affair between the two is starkly off-balanced.  Despite her work in the pleasure quarters, entertaining parties of men, Komako is deeply devoted to Shimamura. Like her meager dwelling in the shabbiness of all, her room is spotlessly clean: “I want to be as clean and neat as the place will let me…”

Sadly, Komako realizes it is but a doomed unrequited love that she has invested in.  Shimamura too is aware of his own coldness.  Even though he is drawn back to Komako by making these trips to the snow country, he feels no obligation at all:

All of Komako came to him, but it seemed that nothing went out from him to her.

Of course, it could well be guilt and a sense of moral ground, albeit his loyalty to his wife and children rarely comes to mind.

Shimamura does not understand the purity Komako seeks in her love for him, and her desire not to be treated as a geisha.  And that is why his nonchalant statement hits Komako so hard. In the climatic scene of the story, he utters, though not without affection: “You are a good woman.”

Instead of taking his words as an endearment, Komako is deeply hurt. Despite having to work as a geisha due to her circumstance, thus selling herself as an outcast, she longs to be removed from her predicament and be transported to a new life. Shimamura’s repeated words “You are a good woman” fall upon her like the gavel of final judgement laden with biting sarcasm.

Kawabata’s characters cry out for redemption, to be delivered from their precarious state. Komako is seeking saving grace in Shimamura, and desperately hoping for a way out of the “indefinable air of loneliness” shrouding her.  But her search is in vain for the man is incapable of love:

He was conscious of an emptiness that made him see Komako’s life as beautiful but wasted, even though he himself was the object of her love; and yet the woman’s existence, her straining to live, came touching him like naked skin.  He pitied her, and he pitied himself.

Shimamura knows deep down that he needs cleansing as much as or even more than Komako.

The snow country of Japan is also the land of the Chijimi.  It is an old folk art of weaving where a certain kind of long grass is cut and treated, finally transformed into pure white thread.  The whole process of spinning, weaving, washing and bleaching is done in the snow.  As the saying goes, “There is Chijimi linen because there is snow.”  After the linen is made into kimonos, people still send them back to the mountain regions to have the maidens who made them rebleach them each year.  And this is where the universal appeal of snow as a metaphor for purity and cleansing so powerfully depicted by Kawabata, as Shimamura ponders:

The thought of the white linen, spread out on the deep snow, the cloth and the snow glowing scarlet in the rising sun, was enough to make him feel that the dirt of the summer had been washed away, even that he himself had been bleached clean.

When I came to this description towards the end of the book, a starkly similar image conjured up in my mind:

Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.”              —- Isaiah 1:18

And like the doomed ending of their love affair, death comes as a certainty to all, insects or humans alike.  Shimamura has observed how a moth “fell like a leaf from a tree… dragonflies bobbing about in countless swarms, like dandelion floss in the wind.”  The poetic descriptions do not make death any more appealing.  Kawabata uses insects as a metaphor for the frailty of life and the chilling finality awaiting:

Each day, as the autumn grew colder, insects died on the floor of his room.  Stiff-winged insects fell on their backs and were unable to get to their feet again.  A bee walked a little and collapsed, walked a little and collapsed.  It was a quiet death that came with the change of seasons.  Looking closely, however, Shimamura could see that the legs and feelers were trembling in the struggle to live.

It is pure serendipity that I picked up this book to read at this time of the year.  The Christmas story too has also cast a vivid interplay between darkness and light.  I was reminded of this reference:

The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.”            — Isaiah 9:2

There is reason to rejoice, for the Able Deliverer had come… He too had lived a life of paradoxes and contradictions: born to die, life through death, strength through weakness.  And beneath the surface of jollity of the Season and the superficial exchanges of good will, there lies deep and quiet, the source of joy and inner fulfillment, and Life’s ultimate triumph over death.

I heard a small voice echo as I treaded on the snowy path alone in my snow country.

It said: “For this reason I came.”


Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata, translated by Edward G. Seidensticker. Published by Vintage International, 1996. 175 pages.

This concludes my final entry to meet Dolce Bellezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge 4 before the end of 2010.

My other JLC posts:

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

Rouse Up O Young Men of the New Age! by Kenzaburo Oe

Reading the Season: Luci Shaw

Every year around this time, I try to stay afloat in the sea of chaos and consumerism.  My method of survival has been to seek a quiet haven where I can dwell upon the meaning of the Season.  I entitled my annual December post on this theme ‘Reading the Season’.

This year, watching the daring flash mob singing of Hallelujah Chorus in a shopping mall food court has jump started my quest for a spiritual respite.  In a time where the legitimate word is Jollity over Jesus, where Christ has been declared politically incorrect at Christmas, and where God is denounced together with Bigfoot and the tooth fairy in ads on buses, I want to mull on some subversive counter-reflections.

This time, I’ve steered my search towards poetry and found this collection edited by Luci Shaw.  It is the 1984 Regent College Publication of  A Widening Light: Poems of the Incarnation. (Click on link to read excerpts from Google Books.)

Luci Shaw has partnered with Madeleine L’Engle on her literary journey, including being her publisher, co-author, fellow poet and close writer-friend.  For years, I have enjoyed Luci Shaw’s poetry and her other works, and one time, had sat in her workshop learning the art and craft of journal writing.

A Widening Light is a collection of poetry by some of twentieth century prominent Christian writers and scholars, including C. S. Lewis, Eugene Peterson, Mark Noll, as well as lesser known but just as inspiring contributors.  My favourite in the collection are those from Madeleine L’Engle and Luci Shaw.

As a meager attempt to stoke the flame of faith and keep the Reason in the Season,  I’d like to share some excerpts from this collection here.

Made flesh
After the bright beam of hot annunciation
Fused heaven with dark earth
His searing sharply-focused light
Went out for a while
Eclipsed in amniotic gloom:
His cool immensity of splendor
His universal grace
Small-folded in a warm dim
Female space—
The Word stern-sentenced to be nine months dumb—
Infinity walled in a womb
Until the next enormity—the Mighty,
After submission to a woman’s pains
Helpless on a barn-bare floor
First-tasting bitter earth.

Now, I in him surrender
To the crush and cry of birth.
Because eternity
Was closeted in time
He is my open door
To forever.
From his imprisonment my freedoms grow,
Find wings.
Part of his body, I transcend this flesh.
From his sweet silence my mouth sings.
Out of his dark I glow.
My life, as his,
Slips through death’s mesh,
Time’s bars,
Joins hands with heaven,
Speaks with stars.

Luci Shaw


Some Christmas stars
Blazes the star behind the hill.
Snow stars glint from the wooden sill.
A spider spins her silver still

within Your darkened stable shed:
in asterisks her webs are spread
to ornament your manger bed.

Where does a spider find the skill
to sew a star?  Invisible,
obedient, she works Your will

with her swift silences of thread.
I weave star-poems in my head;
the spider, wordless, spins instead.

Luci Shaw



After annunciation

This is the irrational season
When love blooms bright and wild.
Had Mary been filled with reason
There’d been no room for the child.

Madeleine L’Engle



The risk of birth

This is no time for a child to be born.
With the earth betrayed by war and hate
And a nova lighting the sky to warn
That time runs out and the sun burns late.

That was no time for a child to be born.
In a land in the crushing grip of Rome;
Honour and truth were trampled by scorn—
Yet here did the Saviour make his home.

When is the time for love to be born?
The inn is full on the planet earth,
And by greed and pride the sky is torn—
Yet Love still takes the risk of birth.

Madeleine L’Engle




‘Reading The Season’ Posts over a Decade:

2020: Jack by Marilynne Robinson

2019: ‘A Hidden Life’ – A Film for the Season

2018: A Verse from Madeleine L’Engle’s The Irrational Season

2017: A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle

2016: Silence by Shusaku Endo

2015: The Book of Ruth

2014: Lila by Marilynne Robinson

2012: Surprised by Joy by C. S. Lewis

2011: Walking on Water by Madeleine L’Engle 

2010: A Widening Light by Luci Shaw

2009: The Irrational Season by Madeleine L’Engle

2008: The Bible and the New York Times by Fleming Rutledge 

2008: A Grief Observed by C. S. Lewis


Photos:  All photos in this post except “Water drops on spider web” are taken by Arti of Ripple Effects, All Rights Reserved.

‘Water drops on spider web’ is in the public domain, please refer to Wikimedia Commons for further  details.  CLICK HERE to go there.

Those Magical Numbers: Year-End Musings


Are we coming to the end of a decade?  Or still have another year to go?  Does the new decade start with 2010, or 2011?  No matter, that debate is just academic and immaterial in light of the actual events that had taken place after we entered the new century.  From a wider perspective, it’s been a period that TIME magazine called ‘the Decade from Hell’, ‘the Reckoning’, ‘the Decade of Broken Dreams’.  Now, the new normal is recession, terrorism, climate change, pandemic.

On a personal level, a decade sounds weighty enough to send chills down the spine.  Where have all the years gone?  A decade of our life has already slipped by since the beginning of the millenium, the novelty of Y2K rubs off like the fleeting fragrance of the night-blooming flower.  Above all, how do we put into perspective a life among all the tensions on a wider scale?  Can we sculpt out a little private, inner space where peace can still thrive, and faith, hope, and love indwell despite the overwhelming odds in the outside world?


According to the liturgical calendar, Christmas celebration continues for 12 more days into the new year, until the Epiphany, January 6th.  With the backdrop of mostly negative global affairs, it’ll do us good to stretch the Christmas spirit a bit longer.  Let the joy and peace last for a few more days.  A reader has reminded me that Christmas Day is arbitrarily picked anyway.  True.  But since we’re given one day to ‘legitimately’ celebrate the birth of Christ, might as well make the best use of it… for I really don’t know how long such a tradition will last, or us given the ‘right’ to mention Christ publicly.  So it’s Epiphany then, 12 more days.  But… is that enough?  I mean the peace and joy, not the hustle and bustle.  Shouldn’t we extend the spirit of Christmas to all the days of the year?  Wouldn’t it be a better world if we let the Word dwell among us just a while longer, or in our wildest dream, let Truth and Grace prevail in every single day?


Never mind the decade, just think about the 24 hours I’m endowed with.  How should I spend my next allotment?  Not until I break down the day into 24 units can I find some pressing reality and urgency.  Years back, I used to work in a consulting firm where we had to fill in a time-sheet at the end of the day.  I had to account for my time in 15-minute units, so the firm could charge my time back to the right clients.  My boss would really frown on the category ‘general office’.  That’s what we put down when we were not actually working on a particular project, so our time is charged back to the firm.  I’m afraid it’s ‘general office’ most of the time these days… Is taking care of elderly parents ‘general office’?  umm… what about blogging?  Is it real work?  Who do I charge to?  Can I measure my time in chargeable units?


The most amazing site I’ve come across this year is Nina Sankovitch’s Read All Day.  On October 28, 2008 Nina embarked on the 365 Project.  She was to read one book a day and write a review on her blog for one year.  On October 28, 2009 she completed it.  What an incredible endeavour!

Nina lives in Westport, Connecticut, with a family of four reading boys to raise.  Incredible indeed.  Her first book in the Project?  The Elegance of the Hedgehog, one of my favorite books of the year.  Click Here to read her New York Times interview.

As a book lover, there’s nothing more she’d rather do than just to read all day. But Nina embarked on this project for some other reasons as well.  She read to learn, to find her place in the world, to seek directions on how to conduct her life, raise her children, relate to her fellow humanity. Also, four years after the death of her older sister at age 46,  she had now come to that age herself. She wrote on her site her purpose for reading with the most poignant words.  I would not paraphrase a single line:

“This year I am the age she was when she died: 46.  She was too young to die, she loved to read, I am fulfilling maybe even a fraction of the reading she should have had left to her. But I am not only reading to compensate, I am reading to endure.  Books — especially novels — offer a window into how other people deal with life, its sorrows and joys and monotonies and frustrations.  I can find empathy, guidance, fellowship, and experience through my reading.  I will never be relieved of my sorrow for my sister.  I am not looking for relief: I am looking for resilience.”

This is one of the most moving reasons for reading.  Nina Sankovitch now writes a book column for Huffington Post, and is still keeping her Read All Day site, down to maybe three books a week.  She is also preparing for publication a book on her 365 Project.

My next allotment of 365 is coming up very shortly.  I know I can’t take that for granted.  Who can guarantee 365, or even 24.  A book a day, what an inspiring concept… something I can never imagine myself doing.  What motivates me though isn’t her achieving that 365, but maintaining the momentum every 24.

It’s not so much about reaching that magical number, or completing a task, it’s all about finding a purpose, and the resilience to live it every single day.


Photo:  Footbridge to Bow Lake, Alberta.  Taken by Arti of Ripple Effects, August, 09. All Rights Reserved.