Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Where Love Is There God Is Also

This is meant to follow a couple of posts by John W. May on the work of Christina Rossetti.

Christina Rossetti's attitude toward the religion that was the very center of her life and her art was highly meditative, one could even say that it was mystical. In this she was emphatically out of step with the Anglican Church of which she was a part, and indeed with all of Western culture in the nineteenth century. It was a time when "progress," "science," and "conquest" were quickly becoming the religion both in and out of the Church. The humble introspective spirit she displayed shines all the more brightly for its being so rare in her day as it is in ours.

"Interuptions are vexations.

Granted. But what is an interuption?

An interuption is something, is anything, which breaks in upon our occupation of the moment. For instance: a frivolous remark when we are absorbed, a selfish call when we are busy, an idle noise out of time, an intrusive sight out of place.

Now our occupations spring? . . . from within: for they are the outcome of our own will.

And interuptions arrive? . . . from without. Obviously from without, otherwise we could and would ward them off.

Our occupation, then, is that which we select. Our interuption is that which is sent us.

But hence it would appear that the occupation may be wilful, while the interuption must be Providential.

A startling view of occupations and interuptions!

. . .

Ah but, that which is frivolous, selfish, idle, intrusive, is clearly not Providential.

As regards the doer, no: as regards the sufferer, yes.

I think we quite often misconceive the genuine appointed occupation of a given moment, perhaps even of our whole lives. We take for granted that we ought to enjoy a pleasure, or complete a task, or execute a work, or serve someone we love: while what we are really then and there called to is to forego a pleasure or break off a task, or leave a cherished work incomplete, or serve someone we find it difficult to love.

Interuptions seem well nigh to form the occupation of some lives.

Not an occupation one would chose; yet none the less profitable on that account . . ."

Christina Rossetti, from Time Flies, A Reading Diary (quoted in Poems and Prose)

She seems to combine the compactly formulated argument style of Augustine with the mystical vision of the Christian life of Leo Tolstoy. Compare the sentiments she expresses here with Tolstoy's Martin the Cobbler. Or compare it to Jesus' words on which Tolstoy's story is based: "I was hungry and you fed me. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was naked and you clothed me."

Where Love Is There God Is Also
(Martin the Cobbler, by Leo Tolstoy)

In a certain town there lived a very honest cobbler called Martin. He lived in a tiny basement room. Its only window looked out onto the street. Of the passers-by all he could see was their feet. But since there was hardly a pair of boots or shoes that had not passed through is hands at one time or another for repair, Martin was able to identify the passers-by by looking at their shoes.

But life had been hard on Martin. His wife died, leaving him with a young son. However, no sooner had the son reached the age when he could be of help to his father than he fell ill and died. Martin buried him and gave way to despair, taking to the bottle at the same time. He gave up the practice of his religion. But one day an old friend of his dropped in. Martin poured out his soul to him. At the end of it his friend advised him to do a little reading from the Gospels each day, promising that if he did so, light and hope would come back into his life.

Where Love is, there God is also. Where Love is not, we are called to make the appropriate sacrifices, to go out of our way, to put it there. Martin took his friend's advice. At the end of each day he would take down the gospels from the shelf and read a little. At first he meant only to read on Sundays, but he found it so interesting that he soon read everyday. Slowly his life changed. He gave up drink. The words of Christ created new hope for him and the deeds of Christ were like lights that drove out his darkness.

One night as Martin sat reading he thought he heard someone calling him. He listened and heard clearly: "Martin, Martin, look out into the street tomorrow for I will come to visit you." He looked around the tiny room, and since there was no one to be seen he reckoned it must be the Lord Himself who had spoken to him.

So it was with a great sense of excitement that he sat down to his work the next day. As he worked he kept a close eye on the window. He was looking for something or someone special. But nothing exciting happened. Just the usual people passed by going about their everyday business.

The day wore on and nobody special passed by. In the early afternoon he saw a pair of old boots that were very familiar to him. They belonged to an old soldier called Stephen. Going to the window he looked up and saw the old man hitting his hands together for it was bitterly cold outside. Martin wished that he would move on, for he was afraid he might obstruct his view and that he would not see the Lord when he passed. But old Stephen just stood there by the railing. Finally it occurred to Martin that maybe Stephen had nothing to eat all day. So he tapped on the window and beckoned him to come in. He sat him by the fire and gave him tea and bread. Stephen was most grateful He said he hadn't eaten for two whole days. As he left Martin gave him his second overcoat as a shield against the biting cold.

But all the time Martin was entertaining Stephen he had not forgotten the window. Every time a shadow fell on it he looked up but nobody extraordinary passed . Night fell, Martin finished his work and very reluctantly closed the window shutters. After supper he took down the Gospels and as was his custom he opened the Gospels and read at random. After reading for some time Martin put down the book and reflected. The words of the Lord came to him: "I was hungry and you fed me. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was naked and you clothed me." He understood then that Christ had indeed come to him that day in the person of Stephen, and that he had made him welcome. And his heart was filled with a peace he had never before experienced.
(borrowed from

The similarity between her argument and his parable is extensive. Both are highly meditative; both spring from a deeply religious soul; both are whimsical and playful in how they work themselves out. Both express very similar sentiments, a similar way of understanding the Christian life. And to cap it off, they were both written in the same year, 1885.



John W. May said...

Both stories remind me of what Clive Lewis at one time wrote: "The great thing, if one can, is to stop regarding all the unpleasant things as interruptions of one’s “own,” or “real” life. The truth is of course that what one calls the interruptions are precisely one’s real life—the life God is sending one day by day; what one calls one’s “real life” is a phantom of one’s own imagination. This at least is what I see at moments of insight: but it’s hard to remember it all the time.”

Great second half! However, I need more practice at this.

Doug P. Baker said...

Don't we all need more practice at it! I love that phrase, "phantom of one's own imagination!"

That is an excellent quote, John! Where did CSL write this?

More and more I find that you and I have similar taste in literature, which is to say that you have great taste in literature!