catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 5, Num 23 :: 2006.12.15 — 2006.12.29


Thoughts on "Mythopoeia" and Henri Nouwen

Writing as a way home

Editor's note: Poetry in blockquotes throughout is from J.R.R. Tolkein's "Mythopoeia" and block quote prose is from Henri Nouwen's The Inner Voice of Love.

In my copy of Henri Nouwen’s The Inner Voice of Love, there are few notes to myself in the margins. This is rare for me; I read with a pencil, I underline and circle the important phrases, I scribble like mad in the space outside the print. I keep my thoughts, my words, safe in that space. I usually return to them later to gauge the distance between those writings and my re-readings. I return to them to see if I’ve been able to shake their ghosts. In the Nouwen book, I have underlined a few whole sentences, but I haven’t been able to read the book piecemeal, I haven’t been able to assert myself in the space outside the lines.

He sees no stars who does not see them first
of living silver made that sudden burst
to flame like flowers beneath the ancient song,
whose very echo after-music long
has since pursued. There is no firmament,
only a void, unless a jewelled tent
myth-woven and elf-patterned; and no earth,
unless the mother's womb whence all have birth.

I can remember being six years old and putting on a frilly white dress, on a Sunday morning, my family sleeping the Sabbath away while I clicked down the hallway, in my matching white patent leather shoes, pretending that I was going to church, that I was doing something that other families did, that I was part of a weekly pattern, a ritual, a belonging to something. It sounds cute now, but I remember being six; I remember feeling, behind stretching that dress over me, behind strapping on those shoes and clicking past my parents’ room, that same yearning for a way of living, a rhythm, a truer clicking underneath the surface of things.

A part of you was left behind very early in your life: the part that never felt completely received. It is full of fears. Meanwhile, you grew up with many survival skills. But you want your self to be one. So you have to bring home the part of you that was left behind. That is not easy, because you have become quite a formidable person, and your fearful part does not know if it can dwell safely with you. Your grown-up self has to become very child-like—hospitable, gentle, and caring—so your anxious self can return and feel safe.

This is part of being a disciple: to seek and follow, to conform to a pattern, to draw others into that pattern with you. Our personal histories reflect this desire and expression of belonging, of being formed by something bigger, something richer than we can immediately see, than our yearnings, if we were honest, could really reach for. What we hear in Tolkien’s poem is an attempt to understand that yearning, and to understand the deeper magic behind it. What we hear in "Mythopoeia", in this story about the creation of the world, of minstrels and mariners and the poor carpenters of Noah’s race, is that yearning for belonging to a world that is fused with mystery, a world that we don’t just dissect for meaning and application, but a world that captures us, overturns our ambitions and fears, a world that is bigger than both our good intentions and our crippling weaknesses. A world that we keep recognizing as home.

The heart of man is not compound of lies,
but draws some wisdom from the only Wise,
and still recalls him. Though now long estranged,
man is not wholly lost nor wholly changed.

On the car ride home, Becca asked me how I became a Christian. We were at the intersection of 151st and Central, after a sermon about “living in confession.” I have to admit that I’ve always struggled in trying to figure out how to give my “testimony”—the beginnings of my Christian life were formed by a church that handed every new convert a microphone, a church that expected you to testify to the overwhelming change that God brought about in your life. Salvation as blockbuster hit. I took up the microphone readily—I would talk and wail at youth group about my parents’ divorce, my mother’s abusive boyfriend, I would testify that God had indeed picked me out of a pile of shit. But I remember being excited to grab the microphone, ready to tell my story. I remember being disappointed when the pastor let someone else speak. It wasn’t that I didn’t want anyone else to speak—I just wanted so badly for the crowd to affirm my words, I wanted so badly to belong in their memory as “the girl with the amazing testimony,” I wanted so badly to assert God’s truth over the other voice at the back of my throat, the voice that whispered You really don’t belong. You weren’t made to belong. And I would rock in my seat, I would wait for the microphone, I would say anything to silence that other voice.

You complain that it is hard for you to pray, to experience the love of Jesus. But Jesus dwells in your fearful, never fully received self. When you befriend your true self and discover that it is good and beautiful, you will see Jesus there. Where you are most human, most yourself, weakest, there Jesus lives. Bringing your fearful self home is bringing Jesus home.

When Tolkien claims, maybe whispers, that

I would with the beleaguered fools be told
That keep an inner fastness where their gold,
Impure and scanty, yet they loyally bring
To mint in image blurred of distant King,
Or in fantastic banners weave the sheen
Heraldic emblems of a lord unseen

I find myself whispering with him, I find myself in him, and I want to take up everything I do with more authenticity, more laughter, because I somehow know my own place among the faulty image-makers, the banner weavers who’ve never seen the King they herald, but who keep making the banners.

And, more recently, I find myself taking up a pen.

Try to keep your small, fearful self close to you. This is going to be a struggle, because you have to live for a while with the “not yet.” Your deepest, truest self is not yet home.

After church, I watch them talk to each other, I sit at a table across the foyer and pretend to be attending Zoe, I try to look busy. There is an intimacy between them that I cannot break, that I don’t want to break, and when I go to sleep, the ache in the back of my throat runs straight down me, this happens for a reason, I think to myself, you haven’t fixed something, you have more work on yourself to do in order to really love someone and have them love you back, I curl into myself, I grit my teeth, you have not arrived.

Be patient. When you feel lonely, stay with your loneliness. Avoid the temptation to let your fearful self run off. Let it teach you its wisdom; let it tell you that you can live instead of just surviving. Gradually you will become one, and you will find that Jesus is living in your heart and offering you all you need.

Reppmann comes back to the table, and I point in their direction, “It’s hard to be affirmed in other things and to have this one thing not be affirmed,” I say. It’s the only way I can say it. It’s what I can confess. Reppmann gives me the familiar gaze, which I can never hold, and he says “You’re a good woman, Allison. You’ll be outed for that someday.” I laugh, I hear myself laugh, but I’m not forcing it, I’m just laughing, and there is a spray of juice, a cough, Zoe has swallowed too much juice, and we turn our attention to her, we hold her hands and wait for her to breathe. She does.

Though all the crannies of the world we filled
with elves and goblins, though we dared to build
gods and their houses out of dark and light,
and sow the seed of dragons, 'twas our right
(used or misused). The right has not decayed.
We make still by the law in which we're made.

I believe, wholeheartedly, that our questions and interests and confusions about what it means to “go home” are deeply connected to our yearnings for the deep mystery of the world, and our place in it. The ways in which we tell stories about ourselves, our origins, our experiences, the places we come from and are going towards, are all ways of connecting ourselves to our world and to each other, ways of finding out that we really do belong to each other, to the creation, to God. Reformed folks call this “honoring the creation.” Tolkien calls it “myth,” Nouwen calls it “going home.” To write about it is not only say what we think, or explore new ways of learning, or even to sort our bleary and often-confused selves out. We write in order to cultivate a way of really discovering the world around us, the people next to us, the people we’re becoming—we write to keep ourselves in tune with the great mystery of the creation, to keep our ears open, to be open to how that mystery will change us. We write when the mystery is vibrant in our lives, and we write—we need to write—when it is hidden, elusive, absent. We write, we pray, we speak in hopes of hearing that truer clicking beneath the surface of things, to know that we belong. My hunch is that I don’t just pick up writing myself, but that writing calls me out, that writing and everything else latches onto me without my control, my permission. My copy of Nouwen’s book has two words written in the margins: “story” and “write.“ I take those as commands to myself, to confess my story, and to write. I take it that those commands are intended for me as well as others. I’ll keep writing, we’ll keep writing, and maybe we won’t be able to describe it. Maybe we’ll slowly lose the need to assert ourselves in the blank space, to claim places as our own without asking for them first. Maybe we’ll be brought to many homes and invited in, our exposures covered, our trespasses gone, shoes clicking down the hallway of a house we didn’t know was ours.

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