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Rachel Bomberger is the copywriter at Eerdmans. She loves reading, writing, and “silver white winters that melt into springs.”
Sigh. “I wish there were Lutheran nuns.”
It wasn’t the first time Sara, my best friend since fourth grade, had said it, only half tongue-in-cheek. It wouldn’t be the last.
We knew almost nothing about nuns beyond their trademark black and white habits — just a few tidbits we’d pieced together from movies like Sister Act, Nunsense, The Sound of Music, and The Bells of St. Mary’s. At fourteen, though, we were already somewhat weary of the world and scared to death (though we might never have admitted it) of the perilous mid-90’s dating landscape looming before us. We both felt a mildly wistful longing for a cloister to hide away in, set apart and safe from the temptations and profanities of modern life. We yearned for a more peaceful, consecrated existence where we could be free, really free, to devote ourselves whole-heartedly to seeking God and serving others. And since almost all of the people closest to us at the time were girls — friends, sisters, cousins — the idea of a perpetual, sacred community of sisters held a powerful allure.
Sara’s comment was, of course, pure pipe dream. There were no Lutheran nuns (at least not in the Missouri Synod), and we had no real desire to convert to Catholicism simply for the privilege of living in a convent. Before too many years had passed, I came to find that God had prepared a very different (very joy-filled) vocation for me: that of wife and mother. Sara, too, is now happily married.
Yet I have never lost my fascination with the Catholic religious orders — so you can imagine my excitement when I discovered Elizabeth Rapley’s book, The Lord as Their Portion: The Story of the Religious Orders and How They Shaped Our World on Eerdmans’s Spring 2011 list. At last I’d have a chance to get some real answers about the life I that had so piqued my interest as a teenager. At last I’d know more about monks and nuns than I could learn from Hollywood.
Of course, I really had no idea what I was diving into.
The history of the Catholic religious orders is massive. It reaches back to the Egyptian deserts in the third century and stretches through the Middle Ages, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution — all the way to the twentieth century and beyond. Moreover, the religious orders have been so intricately intertwined with Western culture and civilization that reading Rapley’s book at times feels like reading the story of the whole world, or at least all of Europe, rather than just one relatively minor portion of a larger narrative.
What’s more, it’s complex. In my Protestant ignorance I always just figured that boys become monks and girls became nuns — end of story. I never before would have thought to notice the obvious difference between the contemplative orders (think The Sound of Music) and the active orders (think Sister Act II), or even between the monastics (monks) and the mendicants (friars). I would never have guessed at the dizzying array of orders available to Catholics interested in the religious life: Benedictine, Augustinian, Dominican, Franciscan, Cistercian, Jesuit, Carmelite, Salesian, Vincentian, and many, many more, each with its own unique history and its own unique approach to piety, austerity, and service.
In almost any other volume, this would all be too much to absorb — a sheer overload of information. Seventeen centuries of history. Dozens of orders. Scores of individual personalities. Yet Elizabeth Rapley manages it stunningly.
It helps that she’s a gifted writer with a flair for words and sentences that makes her work a joy to read. Her writing is at times dramatic — but then, so is the subject matter. Rapley’s lively writing brings all the many characters to life. She’s quite right to call her book the story of the religious orders. (Here’s an excerpt, if you’d like to see for yourself.)
As I close the book on The Lord as Their Portion, it’s pretty obvious to “grown-up me” (as it kind of always was to my teenage self) that I will never take holy vows. But I also will never lose my respect and admiration for the men and women that do. Though Rapley doesn’t gloss over the ignoble moments (or even the ignoble eras) of their history, I am in no way deterred in my awe of this sanctified and increasingly rare way of life: a life single-mindedly devoted to God, to the church, and to fellow humanity.
And although, in her epilogue, Rapley expresses uncertainty about whether the religious orders, now so often dwindling, will endure indefinitely into the future, I cannot foresee them ever vanishing completely. Indeed, one of the many patterns I see lacing itself through Rapley’s broad history is this: in every age, human beings hunger for the divine — and always, there are many who long, sometimes with very private sighs, for the opportunity to make a more radical commitment to God.
In fact, I’ll play prophet here and predict that our culture is now ripe for a new blossoming of consecrated religious life. As I witness the emphasis being placed on organized piety by my fellow Missouri-Synod Lutherans this Lenten tide, as I hear rumors of a new monasticism springing up among young Evangelicals — even as I listen to NPR on my evening commute — I see the old spirit of the religious orders not only surviving but gaining ground.
In an age of jaded hyper-sexuality, the religious orders offer chastity. In an age of rampant consumerism, they offer voluntary poverty. In an age of spiritual apathy and relativism, they offer steadfast faith and moral certainty. In an age of unbridled license, they offer structure and discipline. In an age of isolation and loneliness, they offer community.
No, I don’t think the story of those who take “the Lord as their portion” will be ending any time soon. Now, about those Lutheran convents . . .
For a note from Elizabeth Rapley on the countercultural men and women we call monks and nuns, read her blog entry From Maternity Ward to Death Row.
Sandra De Groot is an acquisitions editor and project developer at Eerdmans. She and her two granddaughters share a love for reading, and Sandra enjoys listening to the girls suggest their favorite picks to Grandma. Surrounded at work with pictures of flowers and other reminders of spring, Sandra eagerly waits for winter to end and the season of gardening to begin!
“We should read to give our souls a chance to luxuriate.”
~ Henry Miller
Welcome! Come on in, grab a cup of coffee. My soul is on a roll. You must like to read or you wouldn’t be here. I love to read because words are powerful. Just imagine, then, what it is like to read for a living, as I do.
Today, I want to take you on an author journey with me. I have had many, but this is a special one, because it began during a wake-up time for women.
Think back with me. It is 1998, and author Joan Chittister has written a book on feminism (remember that word?) called Heart of Flesh: A Feminist Spirituality for Women and Men. Reading her manuscript at this time in my life is so uplifting, so positive; I want to share it with all. I grow profusely from her words. (Even in 2011, women still write to tell me how this book is changing their lives too.)
Now it is 2000, and Chittister is finishing The Story of Ruth: Twelve Moments in Every Woman’s Life, illustrated with art by John August Swanson. In this profound biblical story Chittister takes me back to times in my life when the guidance and support from older women changed me as Naomi’s guidance changed Ruth. The book does more than remind me of my life journey. With Chittister as my guide I come to view the stories of all immigrants in a fresh, new way, because of the colorful journey of Ruth.
It is 2003 already. This journey is a fast one, and I’m developing extensively on the inside when I read Chittister’s Scarred By Struggle, Transformed By Hope. Oh my, how does one look beyond the struggle to hope? Chittister talks about a suffering of the soul. I see all the horrors of the world — and she reminds me that the world is in God’s hands and that hope is in the struggle.
Here we are near the end of my journey. It is 2007. Chittister has completed Welcome to the Wisdom of the World and Its Meaning for You. Reading WWW (what we called the book while we worked on it) was like indulging myself luxuriously! Wow (another “w” word), Chittister led and guided me through five religious traditions: Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
Thanks for taking this journey with me. Have I changed? Come back later in 2011 and I’ll tell you about Joan Chittister’s new book on Happiness — and the next stage in my journey with this uplifting spiritual thinker and writer. I’ll put on the coffee. We can laugh and learn together. It makes me smile to think of it!
“Books can be dangerous. The best ones should be labeled, ‘This could change your life.’ ”
~ Helen Exley
Michael Hoffman, son of editor Jenny Hoffman, is in fourth grade. He loves to read and play soccer. He doesn’t know any superheroes — or sheep.
Do you know any kids who like to read? Have they ever read this book: Extraordinary Ernie & Marvelous Maud? If they haven’t, I suggest they read it!
Ernie is just a regular kid, until he runs into Amazing Desmond (from the local superhero office), who gives him the chance to become a super hero.
Maud is just a regular sheep, the middle sheep in her family, until Amazing Desmond tells her to come with him. When Ernie and Maud meet, Ernie is surprised to know that his sidekick is a sheep! A sheep was not what Ernie had in mind at all!
As they train to be superheroes, Ernie and Maud have exciting adventures! They patrol the area and rescue a girl from bullies.
This book is a fun book to read, and it has funny pictures. It is one of the funniest books I ever read!
You can read more about Ernie and Maud in two other books: The Middle Sheep and The Greatest Sheep in History. Ernie and Maud have incredible adventures in all three books, and they work as a team to stop evil.
Rachel Bomberger is the copywriter at Eerdmans. She likes reading, writing, fairy stories, and chocolate covered caramel corn.
I’m ashamed to say that I never encountered George MacDonald until graduate school. Yet it was there, waist-deep in biographical research on C. S. Lewis, that I not only brushed up against him but also kept on bumping into him. Lewis had a high regard for this forefather of modern fantasy and, what’s more, he credited one of MacDonald’s books, Phantastes, as a major factor in his eventual religious conversion. In Lewis’s 1946 preface to George MacDonald: An Anthology, he wrote:
It must be more than thirty years ago that I bought—almost unwillingly, for I had looked at the volume on that bookstall and rejected it on a dozen previous occasions—the Everyman edition of Phantastes. A few hours later I knew that I had crossed a great frontier. . . . The whole book had about it a sort of cool, morning innocence, and also, quite unmistakably, a certain quality of Death, good Death. What it actually did to me was to convert, even to baptize (that was where the death came in) my imagination. It did nothing to my intellect nor (at that time) to my conscience. Their turn came far later and with the help of many other books and men. But when the process was complete—by which, of course, I mean “when it had really begun”—I found that I was still with MacDonald and that he had accompanied me all the way and that I was now at last ready to hear from him much that he could not have told me at that first meeting.
Bits and pieces of this tantalizing quote kept popping up again and again as I worked my way through a stack of secondary sources on Lewis. Before long, I began to conclude that I really owed it to myself and my research to dip into George MacDonald’s “holy fantasy” and see what all the fuss was about. (I don’t need much prodding to break away from scholarly research and read fairy tales.)
Over the next couple of years, I nibbled my way delightedly through the Princess and Curdie books, “The Light Princess,” and many of MacDonald’s other stories as if they were chocolate covered caramel corn.
Still, I never managed to get my hands on Phantastes.
Then, after a break of several years, I joined Eerdmans. When I first started working here, I was already well aware that we shared a lot of the same taste in books. Like Eerdmans, I enjoy intellectually rigorous biblical studies, “honest, wise, and hopeful” children’s books, and, of course, all things Inklings. I did not expect, however, that this same kindred-spiritedness would extend to the works of George MacDonald. Still, there they were, smiling sweetly at me from the Eerdmans backlist: The Light Princess and Other Stories, The Gray Wolf and Other Stories, The Golden Key and Other Stories, The Wise Woman and Other Stories, Lilith — and, yes, Phantastes.
It was time, I decided. Time — finally — to read the full text of Lewis’s personal tribute to MacDonald (conveniently reprinted as an introduction to the Eerdmans edition). Time to follow imaginatively in Lewis’s footsteps through what was for him a life-changing novel.
Phantastes isn’t quite a literary masterpiece. Even Lewis admits that: “If we define Literature as an art whose medium is words, then certainly MacDonald has no place in its first rank — perhaps not even in its second. . . . The texture of his writing as a whole is undistinguished, at times fumbling.”
The storyline of Phantastes almost defies summary. In it, a young man on the verge of adulthood (we eventually find out he is called Anodos) is spirited away to fairyland. He wanders aimlessly (yet with an unexplained sense of purpose) through it — ever eastward — encountering an array of fairytale characters: flower fairies and tree spirits, an enchanted white lady, a knight errant, peasants, children, goblins, an ogress, a wise old woman, his own evil shadow. Numerous adventures, escapades, and moral dilemmas ensue, until, at the end, he wakes up on a hillside next to his home.
We never really find out why (or by whom) Anodos is sent to fairyland, what (exactly) he is supposed to get out of the experience, or why he is eventually brought back to ordinary life. In fact, readers who are sticklers for things like plot, theme, and character development may find the book a little frustrating, since it defies many of the conventions we’ve come to take for granted in a novel.
Even so, this is a lovely book, gorgeous in its imaginativeness. MacDonald’s Fairyland may not hold together in the same way that Tolkien’s Middle Earth and even Lewis’s own Narnia do. Yet traveling through it is a strangely liberating experience, inspiring one to defy all normal constraints on creativity and — like Anodos in his wanderings — let the whims of fantasy blow the mind where they will. MacDonald’s “faerie realm” — with its stunning vistas, dark forests, dewy meadows, winding rivers, and stormy seas — is strikingly beautiful, and, what’s more, it is good. Or, more accurately, perhaps, it is good and evil.
I’ll explain. MacDonald’s books are not “religious” fiction in the sense that we think of it today. There is no mention here of God, Jesus, paradise, or hell. The characters do not pray or go to church. Readers generally don’t spend much time dwelling on “right” and “wrong.”
Yet MacDonald is nonetheless a profoundly moral writer. Lewis calls what he does “myth-making”: “It gets under our skin, hits us at a level deeper than our thoughts or even our passions, troubles oldest certainties till all questions are reopened, and in general shocks us more fully awake than we are for most of our lives.”
There are some subtle religious motifs — I found hints of baptism, penance, absolution, mother church, the Lord’s Supper, and others — peeping through here and there throughout Phantastes. Yet more remarkable, more powerful than these is the certainty with which MacDonald depicts the essential goodness or badness of a thing, from which right or wrong action inevitably proceeds.
This is virtuous writing. It is holy writing. It was refreshing for Lewis, who reflected, “The quality which had enchanted me in his imaginative works turned out to be the quality of the real universe, the divine, magical, terrifying, and ecstatic reality in which we all live. . . . What I learned to love in Phantastes was goodness.”
It’s refreshing for me, too, fatigued as I am by the unrelenting ambiguity of postmodern relativism in which everything’s good, and nothing is.
Fifteen years after Lewis’s discovery of Phantastes and the “baptism” of his then-atheist imagination, “the process was complete” (by which, of course, I mean, “it had really begun”). Beginning in 1929 C. S. Lewis became first a theist, then a Christian, then one of Christianity’s most able apologists, and finally, like George MacDonald, one of the world’s most potent writers of holy fantasy.
Even years after his conversion, Lewis continued to express his love and gratitude for the works of George MacDonald. In The Great Divorce, he imagined in fiction his own encounter with George MacDonald in heaven. It reminds me a little of how I imagine myself (and how many of you imagine yourselves, I shouldn’t wonder) first greeting Lewis himself in the glorious hereafter:
I tried, trembling, to tell this man all that his writings had done for me. I tried to tell how a certain frosty afternoon at Leatherhead Station when I had first bought a copy of Phantastes (being then about sixteen years old) had been to me what the first sight of Beatrice had been to Dante: Here begins the new life. I started to confess how long that Life had delayed in the region of imagination merely: how slowly and reluctantly I had come to admit that his Christendom had more than an accidental connexion with it, how hard I had tried not to see the true name of the quality which first met me in his books is Holiness.
Over the next months and years, I will recall fondly my travels through George MacDonald’s Phantastes. It has been a very pleasant and edifying journey.
Even if I thought the book was complete rubbish, though, I would always be grateful for Phantastes, not because it changed my life (it didn’t), but because it forever altered the life of a man who has forever changed mine.
Buy George MacDonald’s books: