Monthly Archives: September 2008



‘Good images of what we really desire’ — or, hints of redemption within beautiful things

The things — the beauty, the memory of our own past — are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself, they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited. -C.S. Lewis, in “The Weight of Glory”

Following Lewis’s formulation and speaking for myself, my heart has been broken many, many times.

Relating a line by Longfellow to a line by Lewis

At the beginning of my Major American Writers class on Tuesdays and Thursdays, I open with a quote that I hope will help the students understand why we bother with literature and why literature matters.

I usually tap an American literary figure, but last week, a line by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow had me thinking about something C.S. Lewis wrote.

Tell me if I’m off-base here.

In “A Psalm of Life,” Longfellow wrote, “Art is long, but life is fleeting”.

In “On Stories,” Lewis wrote, “In life and art both, as it seems to me, we are always trying to capture in our net of successive moments something that is not successive.”

I think I was fairly responsible with the comparison and contrast. I made it clear that I did not think there was a perfect critical fit between the two quotes. Even so, I wanted to use the quotes to draw attention to a couple of thoughts. One, while life moves along, in its chronological sequence, we still value certain things that seem eternal, that stand outside of ourselves and our time. Two, that art can sometimes open us up to a sense, feeling, or impression of something eternal, something beyond us.

A powerful example of that sense or impression was related by the poet (and Lewis friend) Ruth Pitter in one of her BBC broadcasts, entitled “Hunting the Unicorn,” which was aired decades ago now. Pitter said:

I was sitting in front of a cottage door one day in spring long ago, a few bushes and flowers round me, bird gathering nesting material, trees of the forest at a little distance. A poor place, nothing glamorous about it. And suddenly, everything assumed a different aspect, its true aspect. For a moment it seemed to me that truth appeared in its overwhelming splendor. The secret was out, the explanation given, something that had seemed like total freedom, total power, total bliss – good with no bad as its opposite, an absolute that had no opposite. This thing, so unlike our feeble nature, had suddenly cut across one’s life and vanished. What is this thing? Is it, could it be, after all, a hint of something more real than this life? A message from reality, perhaps a particle of reality itself? If so, no wonder we hunt it so unceasingly, and never stop desiring it and pining for it.

I did not include the above Pitter quote in our class discussion. While I was trying to explain the Lewis quote, however, I noticed some of the students were moved and surprised by what I was saying. My explanation probably had more in common with Platonism than Christianity, and yet just expressing the possibility of an impression from something beyond our material framework was stirring for me, and it felt counter-cultural to talk about such things.

-Colin Foote Burch

A thought about David Foster Wallace’s suicide

This reminds me of the time I found an older, solid, slightly worn hardcover collection of John Berryman’s poems (minus “The Dream Songs”), still sharp-looking in its dustcover, in a used bookstore in Asheville. I took it back to a small rented cabin in Black Mountain and started reading the biographical info on Berryman, and found out that he had jumped from a bridge. At the time, I was in a clinical depression, and upon reading that Berryman was a suicide, I felt cursed — even the writers I liked couldn’t make it. The way out wasn’t apparent at the time, but eventually, it was easy to see — recognize the work for what it is, and the person for who he was, and his last horrible decision for what it was.

Can secularism positively reinforce religious freedom? (We certainly hope so!)

From the New York Times article about the Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to France and his meeting with President Nicolas Sarkozy:

In an interview in fluent French with reporters traveling with him on an Alitalia airplane from Rome, the pope was asked what his message was and replied that it “seemed evident to me that secularism in itself is not in contradiction with faith.”

Religion and politics, he said, “should be open to each other.”

Speaking before the pope at the Élysée palace, Mr. Sarkozy renewed his appeal for a “positive secularism” saying it was “legitimate for democracy and respectful of secularism to have a dialogue with religions.”

Earlier in the article, reporters Rachel Donadio and Alan Cowell also wrote:

In a private meeting with French Jews on Friday, the pope spoke vehemently about the church’s opposition to “every form of anti-Semitism, which can never be theologically justified,” according to a text of his remarks.

In reaching out to the community he also discussed the holocaust, saying, “God does not forget.”

NPR reported that France has the highest number of European Jews, as well as a growing number of Muslims.

Gratitude for the givenness of the world

Following the recent death of the great Nobel Laureate Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, I have been listening to David Aikman’s essay “One Word of Truth: A Portrait of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn” on a special MP3 edition of Mars Hill Audio.

Mars Hill Audio also has a 74-minute download entitled The Christian Humanism of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (also available for purchase on CD) featuring scholar Edward E. Ericson, Jr. Here’s a fantastic quote from Ericson’s 2006 book, The Solzhenitsyn Reader: New and Essential Writings, 1947-2005:

“Solzhenitsyn’s work and witness teach us that the true alternative to revolutionary utopianism is not postmodern nihilism but gratitude for the givenness of the world and a determined but patient effort to correct injustices within it.”

The Epistle to the Colossians, Chapter 2, Verse 13, expressed pictorially

“And although you were dead because of your sins and because you were morally uncircumcised, he has made you alive with Christ.”

This image and many more images from historical anatomical atlases are available at