My first introduction to Elizabeth Goudge's writings was a modest, shall we say *very loved* copy of The Castle On The Hill. I had heard of her often through another writer's recommendation but hadn't gotten around to looking her up (a bookish person produces a to-read list that always exceeds ability to consume!). Thankfully a serendipitous pop into a local charity shop yielded this little gem up to me. How many of my reading friends know there's no such thing as an innocent trip to the used book section of a charity shop! EG's words swept me up into a new landscape of imagination, her characters were relatable, gritty and flawed, yet in pursuit of all that is good and lovely. I saw myself in them. The prophet Jeremiah said upon finding God's word, "Your words were found, and I ate them; and your words were to me a joy and the rejoicing of my heart". I sense God's fingerprints on EG's words also.
I am usually a highlighter and underliner as I like to have a good conversation with a book; asking it questions, querying it's statements, treasuring thoughts, but not this one, it was too weary already and so I went to the sticky tabs. I wondered if I'd run out! I am also a sucker for inscriptions, do you feel me? They add charm and make me imagine the gift giver and the receiver, what was their relationship I wonder? I also think of Andy's toys in Toy Story and can't help feeling a little sad at these once held treasures being given away. This has a date of 1949, just a few years after WWII and the backdrop for this story, I got the chills. How 'alive' this story would have been to someone at that time and yet it was still speaking in the here and now. Circumstances and the world around us change but the inner landscape of our hearts does not, we feel the same, we are human.
I won't say too much about the story itself but I heartily encourage you to search it out, you're in for a treat. I've revisited this title many times over the past six weeks, much of it's language has spoken to me afresh in the current situation. After the initial novelty (for want of a better word) of confinement we soon entered the Wednesday (hump day) of the process and now find ourselves in an eternal Thursday; we're longing for the weekend, a break from all this constraints but don't quite have that Friday feeling
yet. Our routines and rhythms have been taken, shaken and reimagined, how do we respond to life's pattern when we find ourselves thrown out of it? EG shares some words of wisdom, may I share them with you?
Here we're invited into a conversation between Miss Brown and a stranger she has met in a train carriage, a historian unbeknownst to her. Up until this point Miss brown has been 'happy and useful and perpetually needed' but now all she knew and held dear has been taken by the war. She is at a total loss 'though in the agonised confusion of the times no one would notice it'. Yet someone does notice and the kindness of the stranger draws her into the train carriage, offers her a cup of tea (tea soothes all life's ills) and gently leads into conversation.
“I think it is not so much poverty in itself that frightens people as what poverty so often stands for; loss of work seems like a loss of one’s place in the world.”
Miss Brown gave it up. She supposed he had noticed her shabby handbag and her darned gloves. She supposed those terrible piercing eyes of his saw most things. But yet they were kind eyes. As he sat there opposite her, leaning back so easily with one long leg crossed over the other, so relaxed, yet so observant, his kindness radiated from him like a warmth from a fire.
“Yes,” she said looking unseeingly out of the window. “To lose one’s niche. To feel, so to speak, thrown away out of the pattern of things.”
“It is not possible to be thrown out of the pattern of things,” he said quietly. “Not even,” asked Miss Brown, “when, as now the pattern itself is lost, sane living just blown away into fragments?“
“The pattern is never lost,” said the historian. “Nor the place of individuals in it.”
Miss Brown smiled at him tolerantly.
This does make me chuckle, the smile of a realist's tolerance in the face of 'absurd optimism'.
He goes on.
“Personal experience and the study of history have both taught me to believe in a pattern,” he said. “And in spite of all that has befallen the world I still believe that the threads of it, ourselves, are held securely in the scheme of things by some great unconquerable spiritual power. Call it what you will – destiny, fate, the first cause, the lifestream, God – it does not lose hold of a single thread. In wanton wickedness we may tangle the pattern into what looks like hopeless confusion but in unwearied patience that power unravels the tangle, re-forms the pattern, keeps it moving along to some great goal of order whose nature we cannot even guess at yet. If the threads are not lost there can be no lasting chaos.”
Miss Brown smiled.
'If the threads are not lost there can be no lasting chaos'. I am holding threads daily right now how about you? A forward stretching pattern of tapestry is being reworked and I rework it each new day, sometimes moment by moment. Sometimes I look to my household and wonder if there is any method in the madness. I hold and gather the hearts around me, stepping and dancing to a new unknown warp and woof. But I come full circle and encourage my soul, drawing from past experience that in the midst of hopeless confusion there are patient, unwearied hands untangling the chaos. I take great comfort in this; that though I don't know the overall pattern I trust Him who holds the threads ahead of me and I can rest assured that His design will hold, all I have to do is yield.
Eugene Peterson's translation of the bible, The Message writes about the threads so beautifully in Psalm 18, "God made my life complete when I placed all the pieces before Him."
Her thoughts seemed gathering together, weaving into a pattern, catching her in the mesh, imprisoning her. For a moment she fought against it, then yielded. The pattern had reformed again... What an utter fool she had been ever to fear that life could cast one away. Yield yourself to it and it will use you to the end.
(Elizabeth Goudge, photograph by Bassano Ltd, 1934; London, National Portrait Gallery)
The threads may be loose right now but they are not entirely lost, patient unwearied hands are working the pattern anew and though it might seem chaotic, there will be no lasting chaos. Those loving hands are working all things for good and one day we might just look back and see more of the beauty in the design.
If you welcome a lighter laugh on the issue of confusion:
The Castle on The Hill by Elizabeth Goudge
The Message Translation by Eugene Peterson