Saturday, August 7, 2021

The Thing

 Two years ago the twentieth-century English author Elizabeth Goudge came to my attention in several different places in a short span of time. When this happens (and not because of current events or the topics trending on social media), I have learned to pay attention. Many years ago I had read her children’s classic The Little White Horse, but she had written many more novels for adults of which I was unaware.

On our last vacation, to a family friend’s wedding in 2019, we stopped in the small town of Staunton, Virginia, to stretch our legs and eat lunch. Walking the streets of the town and taking in the character of the old buildings, we came upon a quirky used bookstore and had to stop in.


In the bookshop window

To my surprise, the shelves held a whole row of Goudge hardbacks in the fiction section. I restrained myself and purchased only two. Last year I finished the first of those, one of a series about the extended Eliot family of Dameroshay. The Heart of the Family surprised me with its quiet introspection. The majority of the action seemed to occur in hearts and minds and conversations. If Evelyn Underhill, the Anglican writer on mysticism, wrote fiction, I suspect she would have written something akin to this. It also reminded me a bit of Marilynne Robinson's Gilead books.

One of the Eliot grandsons, David, had apparently attained a degree of celebrity as an actor after the second World War. The book began when he brought his new assistant, Sebastian Weber, home with him to work but also to take his place in the life of the larger Eliot clan. Sebastian, himself an artist who formerly played piano in packed concert halls, was dying of a heart condition and embittered by the loss of his family in a wartime bombing.

In conversation with this same Sebastian, the parish priest Hilary (one of the Eliot sons) introduced a motif that has continued to percolate in my thoughts in the months since I finished the book. He called it “the Thing.” It seemed similar to one’s besetting sin or “thorn in the flesh,” but not exactly the same as either of those. Hilary tells Sebastian this:

“For there is always the Thing, you know, the hidden Thing, some fear or pain or shame, temptation or bit of self-knowledge that you can never explain to another…. And even in those very few healthy insensitives[1] who do not seem to suffer, a love of something, of their work perhaps, that they would not want to talk about and could not if they would. For it is the essence of it that it is, humanly speaking, a lonely thing. . . .  Returning to the sensitives, if you just endure it simply because you must, like a boil on the neck, or fret yourself to pieces trying to get rid of it, or cadge sympathy for it, then it can break you. But if you accept it as a secret burden borne secretly for the love of Christ, it can become your hidden treasure. For it is your point of contact with Him, your point of contact with that fountain of refreshment down at the roots of things. ‘O Lord thou fountain of living waters.’ That fountain of life is what Christians mean by grace. That is all. Nothing new, for it brings us back to where we were before. In those deep green pastures where cool waters are there is no separation. Our point of contact with the suffering Christ is our point of contact with every other suffering man and woman and is the source of our life.”

“You could put it another way,” said Sebastian. “We are all the branches of the vine and the wine runs red for the cleansing of the world” ((Elisabeth Goudge, The Heart of the Family, 128-129).


Farther on in the book Sebastian mentioned the Thing to the family matriarch, Lucilla, and told her that worry for her children was her Thing. She asked her son Hilary for more explanation and learned that Hilary’s Thing was all the dailiness and busyness of parish life, all the meetings and fundraisers and church repairs that kept him from uninterrupted, focused prayer, which he saw as his true work. Even in childhood he found his prayers interrupted by imaginations of a multi-headed hyena “who lived in the night-nursery cupboard behind the cistern. It came out at night and sat on the foot of my bed and made the most distracting noises when I was trying to say my prayers” (266). After that the chief obstacle to praying as he longed to do was the physical suffering caused by his service in World War I. It was in that distress that he discovered the heart of the matter regarding one’s Thing:

“When you are burned, and can’t get your breath, and are afraid you are going blind, it is impossible to pray. And then one day, with great difficulty, I suddenly put into practice and knew as truth what of course I had always known theoretically, that if pain is offered to God as prayer then pain and prayer are synonymous. A sort of substitution takes place that is like the old story of Beauty and the Beast. The utterly abominable Thing that prevents your prayer becomes your prayer. And you know what prayer is, Mother. It’s all of a piece, the prayer of a mystic or of a child, adoration or intercession, it’s all the same thing: whether you feel it or not it is union with God in the deep places where the fountains are. Once you have managed the wrenching effort of substitution the abominable Thing, while remaining utterly detestable for yourself, becomes the channel of grace for others and so the dearest treasure that you have. And if it happens to be a secret treasure, something that you need not speak about to another, then that’s all the better. Somehow the secrecy of it increases its value.”

“You put it better than I could do,” said Lucilla gently. “I did feel after that way of prayer in the war, but I did not try hard enough, and when the war was over I fell away. But I recognize what you say as a truth that I know.”

“Of course,” said Hilary, “I do not think that anyone who has experienced disaster is not in some way aware of one of the fundamental paradoxes of our existence. Only we don’t live in a perpetual state of disaster, and it doesn’t occur to us to apply the paradox to the worries and frustrations and irritations among which we do perpetually live. We lack the humility.”

“Well, really,” said Lucilla, “if I couldn’t put up with my everyday worries and aches and pains without having to regard them as prayer I should feel myself a poor sort of coward.”


“As I said,” remarked Hilary dryly, “we lack the humility. One feels ridiculous, as you don’t feel ridiculous when it is some disaster. But it’s not just the way you look at it, it’s a deliberate and costly action of the will. It can be a real wrenching of the soul. Yet the more you practice it the fresher and greener grows your life. And it’s the same with joy as with disaster and Things, lifted up with that same hard effort even the earthly joys are points of contact and have the freshness of eternity in them” (266-267).


For months I have been pondering this mystery of Things and how they could be a point of contact with Christ and the suffering world; how the offering up, the oblation, of what prevents my prayer becomes itself a kind of prayer; how the Thing that seems to keep me from the life I want, the life I feel called to, can become like the wilderness rock split open to pour forth a wellspring of living water for the Israelites of old.

The Bible teacher Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth is wont to say, “Anything that makes us desperate for God is a blessing.” As Hilary notes, in pleasant times of no great crises, we often lack the humility to pray continually, offering every little thing to the Lord. In that way, the disability and chronic pain that brought this blog to life 11 years ago today are a blessing. Opportunities to lack urgency and dependence on God in prayer have been few and far between. What I then thought was a temporary time of being laid flat on the sofa because of intense ribcage and sternum pain has become my new normal (except it’s not normal, even now).

My autoimmune disease and other diagnoses affect every aspect of my life and much of Amore’s. From what I wear to whether/how/how much I exercise to how I read and pray to how I sleep, my life is full of adaptations in order to do what I need to do with the limitations the Lord has placed upon me. I miss the old ways of ballet flats, pretty dresses that required ironing, being able to travel without the humiliation of asking for half a dozen extra pillows (or taking our own) and packing an extra suitcase of just the assistance devices and medicines I need (instead of an extra suitcase full of books, as was previously my habit).

I miss kneeling in prayer with my face to the floor. I miss curling up in the corner of a big overstuffed arm chair to read for hours at a time. I miss running, a thing I never thought I’d say. I miss dance. I miss the normalcy of medical appointments being occasional instead of 2 or 3 per week most weeks. I miss serving in missions, my husband’s and my shared calling at the time of our wedding. My health brought us home with our tails between our legs, and it has dictated many of his job decisions since then.

Perhaps the reason the question of Things resonated so much with me is that it offers a possibility of transformation. It means that all those limitations, especially the frailty that to all outward appearances keeps me from prayer and serving the Lord, might themselves be prayer and service when surrendered to Him (and myself with them). It means that the thorn in my flesh that drives me to desperate prayers and dependence on God for the ordinary tasks of daily life opens me up to experiencing more continuously His glorious grace. It means the difference between the inherent isolation of chronic illness and the fellowship of Christ’s sufferings.


What is your Thing, beloved Crumble? What is that one big Thing you think keeps you from following God fully, keeps you from prayer, keeps you from freedom? For some of you, like me, it may be chronic illness. For others, it may be shattered dreams, a tragic loss like Sebastian suffered, or worry for prodigal loved ones as Lucilla knew. Or perhaps it is a stressful, draining job. Or the lack of one. Or the longing for children or spouse you do not have. Or the exhaustion of caregiving. Or something else entirely.

If you aren’t overburdened by some painful trial like those, perhaps your Thing is the forgetfulness that so often comes from not having one, from being in a time of joy and peace that does not drive you to desperate prayer at the foot of the cross. Or loving God’s good gifts just a little too much, more than their Giver. (Haven't we all experienced that?)

Dear one, what would change if you offered it all to the Lord as Hilary suggests? If I did? If we undertook the hard, costly wrenching of soul to offer our joys, sorrows, disasters, and delights to the Lord, and ourselves with them, is it possible we might more deeply experience His companionship in whatever our days hold just now?

It occurs to me that this has been one objective of my scribbled thoughts in this place for the last 11 years, as if the invisible, inward oblation or surrender were poured out through my fingers and words. I pray constantly that you who come will find refreshment and comfort in Christ here. Thank you for walking this journey with me. Thank you for lightening the burdens with your kindness and attention and encouragement.

May the Lord open the heart’s eyes of each one of us to our unsurrendered Things. May He open our hands, oh, so gently, to offer them up to Him. May He transform them with His grace that makes green the wilderness and produce from them His abundant, eternal fruit. May they become our treasure as we yield them into His gracious hands. May He use them to open us more fully to the life of Jesus the true Vine, in whose name I ask these things. Amen.

[1] In this passage “sensitives” refers to what we might call those of artistic temperament or the more recent phrase “highly sensitive people.” “Insensitives” would be those gifted with relative stoicism and emotional toughness.

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  1. wonderful post, Tinuviel! i've never read any Elisabeth Goudge, but the above made me want to. one thing that i thought rang particularly true was the idea that, when we offer 'Things' up in prayer to God, the subsequent greening of our lives does not replace the awfulness of the Thing with something purely positive (as it would in a Hollywood version of prayer life). if we somehow manage "the wrenching effort of substitution", then even after we've managed it, "the abominable Thing" remains "utterly detestable" for us, even though it's (paradoxically) "our dearest treasure".

    your gratitude towards and prayers for your readers are touching and humbling. i think i first came across this blog ten years ago or more. in that time, i have learned more from it, and am more thankful for it, than I can say.


    1. Thank you, Dr. Chris! I agree with you. Bad can still be bad even though God causes it to accomplish good in His children. Joseph's brothers really did mean evil toward him in throwing him in the pit and selling him into slavery, even though God transformed that for good, to preserve His covenant people and the line of Messiah. I heard a talk this weekend by R. C. Sproul in which he said one of his seminary professors even used to parse out "good-good, good-bad, bad-good, and bad-bad." That takes some concentrated thought to understand, though!

      Thank you for reading and for always encouraging with your comments and notes. I'm ashamed at how long it's taken me to answer your last email. Please forgive me. We are still here and still mostly quarantined because of my immune system, but, thanks be to God, we are both fully vaccinated and I can see my parents in person again.

      I hope your clan is reunited, and I ask God's blessing on your work. Thanks again for the encouragement.

    2. With everything you've had on your plate recently (i've been reading more of your posts), not answering my e-mail is the last thing you have to be ashamed of! i'm so sorry to hear of the passing of your mother in law, and i hope that the lament is less raw than it was in July. sorry, too that for you and those in your "bubble" (as they call it england (don't know whether they call it that in the states)), the distance between you and the non-immunocompromised has in some ways increased since the lifting of various restrictions. your poignant post on that opened my eyes, and i pray that it will open my heart (and other hearts, too).

      v. briefly, happily, all of us are thankfully back in Blighty, and we are well.

      a big hug--



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