“God wants to show us that nothing is great or small to Him.” 26 March 1924
I have a recurring fantasy of a quiet place akin to Yeats’ cloistered tower perhaps, or Ann Morrow Lindbergh’s spare writing shed. Here, protected from the distractions of daily life, I could retreat at will, quiet my mind, shape my thoughts, and pen them.
The life of reflection vs. the life of action. It is an ongoing struggle amidst the clutter and clamor of everyday living to secure time for writing. During the early years of child-rearing, it was a sheer physical feat to separate myself from my young – a daring game of hide-and-seek – seizing the precious minutes until I was discovered or pulled into action. Later, the writing hours were legislated by the School Schedule. Now the house is empty of the Challengers. Still, my writing time is sabotaged by other challengers, trivial and significant. Sometimes it is abandoned for weeks on end. And I wonder: What would my writing be if my life could be given over completely to that craft?
My musings are checked by two lives, represented by two “icons.” One is the photograph of a writing desk set in a bay window. The place is the Kilns, the home of C.S.Lewis for more than 30 years. I devoted my free time during a family vacation some years ago to reading his correspondence at The Wade Center in Wheaton, Illinois. This bachelor don at Oxford University epitomized to me, a minister’s wife and mother of three, a life free from domestic duty, devoted to the pursuit of knowledge.
What emerged from his letters both stunned and challenged me. Weekends and holidays, Lewis voluntarily left his cloistered rooms at Magdalen College for a life of domestic complexity at the Kilns. Through the decades, a personal drama unfolds: his brother Warnie’s intensifying difficulties with alcoholism; his substitute “mother” Mrs. Moore’s increasing demands. “It is terrible to find how little progress one’s philosophy and charity have made,” Lewis writes to a close friend “when they are brought to the test of domestic life.”
Moreover, a man emerges from the collective biographies of friends and scholars, who was indiscriminate with whom he spent his time and talents. The same man who met weekly with the literary likes of Tolkien, reading aloud their respective writings, devoted first hours of his working day responding to the correspondence of readers, mostly strangers, with no particular status to commend them. Books have been filled with these letters, now collected and prized, one solely to children. Stories abound of kindness extended that are only now revealed in recollection. Most recently, for me, was the account of a women who stayed at the Kilns, an evacuee from London, during wartime. She recalls another guest, a young man somewhat mentally challenged, to whom Lewis devoted two evenings a week, teaching him to read.
The other “icon” is a watercolor of a bee hovering over a spray of blackberry blossoms – the artist, of course, Lilias Trotter. I think of her similar efforts to instruct young Arab women and children to read and write. Little matter their backgrounds or their prospects – great or small. They mattered. I think how she poured out her life and lavished her considerable gifts on a place and a people in relative obscurity.
I consider her options and choices, having captured the eye and heart of John Ruskin, foremost art critic of his day who was convinced that she could become “England’s greatest living painter” if she would “give herself up to art.” Neither she nor the world will ever know the measure of her potential. The great halls of the Ashmolean Museum are lined with gold-framed paintings of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, championed by Ruskin, whereas Lilias’s unframed miniatures lie hidden in the basement of the Print Room below.
Two lives – one famous, the other virtually unknown – both embodying the same truth that nothing – or no one – is great or small in God’s eyes. Both lives were marked, profoundly, by their personal encounter with a transforming God. Their relationship with God resulted, for each of them, in a singleness of heart: to do God’s will; to be God’s person.
Their lives provide a challenge to a measurement of worth, prevalent then as today: bigger is better; more matters, value is determined by recognition or remuneration. But is it? “God wants to show us that nothing is great or small to Him.”
Most of our lives are comprised of the small: the tiny details that determine the countless exactions of survival – eating, working, sleeping, waking, dressing, over and over again – and keeping in touch with those who people our lives. Even the most magnificent moments of the so-called greatest people are few and far between. Most are forgotten or matter mostly to one’s self alone.
Lewis’ life will be recognized, on November 22, 2013 – 50 years to the day after his death – with a stone in Poet’s Corner of Westminster Abbey. (He believed that his works would be forgotten 5 years after his death!) Lilias’ “marker” is in a graveyard in Algiers where a handful of Arab friends and workers laid her body to rest within the soil of the land she loved so dearly. Her journals filled with exquisite watercolors were, by her instruction, divided amongst her friends. Her diaries were bequeathed to the Band of co-workers as a record of “what God was doing in the hearts of the people.” Her books, for the most part, are out-of-print.
We don’t know how our lives will be “marked” outwardly or in the hearts of others. Does it really matter? What does matter is how we attend to whatever God has given us to do or to be. Here and now. Great or small. The measure of one’s worth, ultimately, is not productivity, recognition, or even intrinsic merit. The only true gauge is obedience to God’s gentle guiding – in life and in art. Great or small.
Only one life,
T’will soon be past;
Only what’s done
For Christ will last.
Watercolor: Algerian Sketchbook, 1888