24 August 2008

A Far Foreign Land

My most recent solo travel experience was to Norway in 2005. I had made a concerted effort for three years beforehand to learn Norwegian after having a wonderful time on my first trip there in 2000. While I was in Norway I made a concerted effort to speak only Norwegian. Luckily I had supportive cousins to practice on for the first week I was there. They were all very patient with me and even tried to explain Norwegian jokes to me. I remember following the explanation (just barely) but now all I can remember is the feeling of almost getting it.

After the first week in Oslo, I traveled to Bergen on my own and spent a week wandering around on my own. It was strange and wonderful. I entertained not a few shopkeepers with my basic language skills. One of the most comment comments I got from them was that it was nice to take a break from speaking English all day. I can't say how wonderful it was to have so many strangers be willing to play along with my somewhat odd attempts to communicate. I know I sounded funny (I still mix up the words for 'it' and 'they' when speaking) but no one gave up on me.

Upon returning to Oslo, I had even more time to myself and I went into downtown nearly every day. I think I went to church more times while in Norway than the entire year beforehand. There was something about experiencing the Eucharistic service in a foreign language that made the Mysterious feel very near indeed. For while I had a basic grasp of the language, my skills were nowhere near keeping up with liturgical-poetical language.

I thought a lot while I was on my trip. I had never traveled alone to such an extent and so had plenty of time for my thoughts to wander as my feet did. During one of my ramblings around the city I thought about death, and how it is sometimes compared to sleep or a long journey. I don't now remember the complete chain of thought that got me there, but one of the things that struck me was how much work goes into getting ready for a long trip or vacation.

Before I left the United States, I had get get my work to a place where my absence wouldn't cause a major problem, book tickets, pack, weigh suitcases, repack, shop for essentials, pack more, pay bills, get finances to a place where someone else could pay the bills while I was gone, etc... The list of chores just kept growing as the date kept getting closer, and then suddenly, like magic the day came. Whatever I had packed was what I was taking with me. The time for repacking and regrets was past.

I don't have a lot of experience with death, but for what little I do have, this image resonates for me. In particular I think of my maternal grandmother. She took a turn for the worse and the whole family came to see her off. It turned out she wasn't quite ready to go. She got better for a time and was very busy 'settling' things for a time. She had a long awaited visit from friends, dealt with her finances, kept an eye on the brother she felt responsible for and generally kept people busy around her-- and then, one day, she died. Just like that.

She had everything arranged and suddenly it was time to go. No regrets, no excuses, with whatever she had with her at the time.

We come to our end sooner than we would hope and all we can do is have our suitcase ready.

08 August 2008

Faith formation through fiction

Rev Gal Blog Pals had a question come into their "Ask the Matriarch" column asking what children's books would be good for a pastor's bookshelf.  

In thinking about the books that most strongly made me think about my concept of god and my relationship to faith, I realized that most of them are Science Fiction or Fantasy.  Not only that, but they are books that made me think.  I don't know that a priest would want to have these books on their bookshelf (I suspect they might offend some sensibilities) but they were instrumental in my faith journey.

The following are books that spoke to me when I was a kid-to-teen reader and newer books that I wish I had had back then.

Madeline L'Engle's "Wrinkle in Time" trilogy (Wrinkle in Time, A Wind in the Door, and A Swiftly Tilting Planet).

C.S. Lewis's  Narnia series (read in publication order, please!) :).

His  Perlanda series is also good, but a little weird, and I found the last book too scary to read initially (the cover scared me). I remember reading several of his other works (The Screwtape Letters is the only specific title I can remember) and finding them interesting as a teen.

Anything by Ursula Le Guin-- though her "Earthsea Cycle" (now up to about 5 books) is probably the most accessible for younger readers. She is someone who is fun to read because I 'got' more and more of the layers of her writing the older I became.  My favorite book of hers is "The Dispossessed."  Every time I read it, it changes the way I think about the world.

Frank Herbert and poet Bill Ransom had a series of science fiction books that I liked as a teenager-- not sure how they hold up now: "Destination: Void," "The Jesus Incident," "The Lazarus Effect," and "The Ascension Factor." (I have not read the fourth book-- I just found out about while looking up the titles of the first three).

As an adult I discovered the Terry Prachett Discworld series-- those are excellent for thinking about human relationships, and relationships to the divine while being entertained. "Feet of Clay" and "Small Gods" are particularly interesting from a religious standpoint. (Though "Small Gods" might be too grim for younger readers). The thing about Terry Prachett's work is that if you were one of the characters experiencing the events it wouldn't be the least bit funny, but the way he frames the setting his word choice makes his books easy to read, fun, and yet a bit spiky. He has a series that is more specifically aimed at younger readers (starting with "Wee Free Men") that features a young girl as the protagonist. I don't know that they have particularly religious themes in them, but really any fiction contains the seeds of theological reflection.

One book I was giving away to everyone I knew for a while was "Beauty" by Sherri Tepper. It is also better suited for older readers (includes scenes of violence and rape) but explores the human need for beauty and mystery and what might happen to us if we lose both our real and mythological 'wild' places.

I include the "Thomas Covenant" books in the interest in completeness.  It was the first book I read with a (vile) anti-hero as the protagonist and several things about it creeped me out, however it did have an interesting concept of god and free will-- something I reflected on often while in my teens.

Another series that came out when I was an adult is Lois McMaster Bujold's fantasy series that begins with "The Curse of Chailon." My favorite in the series is second book: "The Paladin of Souls." In this universe, gods clearly exist, but can only move in the world if a person opens their soul to the divine. A lovely, gritty, exploration of what it means to ask for a miracle.

I'm sure there are more-- but these are the ones I could clearly remember having an impact on how I viewed the world.  Looking back over this list, one of the things it brings to mind is the fact that my parents, while very happy to censor my TV and film viewing, never put any limits on which books I read.  That freedom to choose was a wonderful gift and led me to discover many wild imaginary lands.