Quotations from 15 of my favourite authors, selected to share at my 40th birthday party.
J R R Tolkien
C S Lewis
M Scott Peck
Robert Farrar Capon
Henry David Thoreau
Tan Twan Eng
I am in fact a Hobbit (in all but size). I like gardens, trees, and unmechanized farmlands; I smoke a pipe, and like good plain food (unrefrigerated), but detest French cooking; I like, and even dare to wear in these dull days, ornamental waistcoats. I am fond of mushrooms (out of a field); have a very simple sense of humor (which even my appreciative critics find tiresome); I go to bed late and get up late (when possible). I do not travel much.
I desired dragons with a profound desire…. the world that contained even the imagination of Fafnir was richer and more beautiful, at whatever cost of peril.
The realm of fairy-story is wide and deep and high and filled with many things: all manner of beasts and birds are found there; shoreless seas and stars uncounted; beauty that is an enchantment, and an ever-present peril; both joy and sorrow as sharp as swords.
It is the mark of a good fairy-story, of the higher or more complete kind, that however wild its events, however fantastic or terrible the adventures, it can give to child or man that hears it, when the “turn” comes, a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears.
The consolation of fairy stories… is a sudden and miraculous grace… giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.
The Gospels contain a fairy-story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories…
The Evangelium has not abrogated legends; it has hallowed them, especially the “happy ending.”
Nothing you have not given away will ever really be yours.
We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea.
No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find.
It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare.
No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally – and often far more – worth reading at the age of fifty and beyond.
As the dry bones shook and came together in that dreadful valley of Ezekiel’s, so now a philosophical theorem, cerebrally entertained, began to stir and heave and throw off its gravecloths, and stood upright and became a living presence. I was to be allowed to play at philosophy no longer.
In Christianity God is not an impersonal thing or a static thing but a dynamic pulsating activity, a life, a kind of drama, almost a kind of dance … the pattern of this three-Personal life is the great fountain of energy and beauty spurting up at the very center of reality.
The instrument through which you see God is your whole self. And if your self is not kept clean and bright, your glimpse of God will be blurred — like the Moon seen through a dirty telescope.
Truth is truth, whether from the lips of Jesus or Balaam.
That no keeping but a perfect one will satisfy God, I hold with all my heart and strength; but that there is none else He cares for, is one of the lies of the enemy. What father is not pleased with the first tottering attempt of his little one to walk? What father would be satisfied with anything but the manly step of the full-grown son?
And why should the good of anyone depend on the prayer of another? I can only answer with the return question, ‘Why should my love be powerless to help another?’
All that is not God is death.
Instead of asking yourself whether you believe or not, ask yourself whether you have this day done one thing because He said, Do it, or once abstained because He said, Do not do it. It is simply absurd to say you believe, or even want to believe, in Him, if you do not anything He tells you.
Such is the mercy of God that He will hold His children in the consuming fire of His distance until they pay the uttermost farthing, until they drop the purse of selfishness with all the dross that is in it, and rush home to the Father and the Son and the many brethren – rush inside the centre of the life-giving fire whose outer circles burn.
The truth will set you free – but first it will make you damn mad.
At the root of things, virtually all truth is paradoxical.
I define love thus: The will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.
Laziness is love’s opposite. If we overcome laziness, all the other impediments to spiritual growth will be overcome.
Freedom and discipline are indeed handmaidens; without the discipline of genuine love, freedom is invariably nonloving and destructive.
Without silence there is no music; there is only noise.
Everything that happens to us has been designed for our spiritual growth.
Problems call forth our courage and our wisdom; indeed, they create our courage and wisdom.
The absence of fear is not courage; the absence of fear is some kind of brain damage.
Our religion [or world view] must be a wholly personal one, forged entirely through the fire of our questioning and doubting in the crucible of our own experience of reality.
This is the central message of all the great religions: Learn how to die.
God has graciously allowed me to catch a glimpse into his heart, and I want to share with you what I have seen. Today the heart of God is an open wound of love. He aches over our distance and preoccupation. He mourns that we do not draw near to him. He grieves that we have forgotten him. He weeps over our obsession with muchness and manyness. He longs for our presence.
And he is inviting you — and me — to come home, to come home to where we belong, to come home to that for which we were created. His arms are stretched out wide to receive us. His heart is enlarged to take us in.
For too long we have been in a far country: a country of noise and hurry and crowds, a country of climb and push and shove, a country of frustration and fear and intimidation. And he welcomes us home: home to serenity and peace and joy, home to friendship and fellowship and openness, home to intimacy and acceptance and affirmation.
We do not need to be shy. He invites us into the living-room of his heart where we can put on old slippers and share freely. He invites us into the kitchen of his friendship where chatter and batter mix in good fun. He invites us into the dining-room of his strength, where we can feast to our heart’s delight. He invites us into the study of his wisdom where we can learn and grow and stretch … and ask all the questions we want. He invites us into the workshop of his creativity, where we can be co-labourers with him, working together to determine the outcomes of events. He invites us into the bedroom of his rest where new peace is found, and where we can be naked and vulnerable and free. It is also the place of deepest intimacy, where we know and are known to the fullest.
The key to this home, this heart of God, is prayer… the door is Jesus Christ.
From Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home, 1992.
O Lord, refresh our sensibilities. Give us this day our daily taste. Restore to us soups that spoons will not sink in, and sauces which are never the same twice. Raise up among us stews with more gravy than we have bread to blot it with, and casseroles that put starch and substance in our limp modernity. Take away our fear of fat and make us glad of the oil which ran upon Aaron’s beard. Give us pasta with a hundred fillings, and rice in a thousand variations. Above all, give us grace to live as true men – to fast till we come to a refreshed sense of what we have and then to dine gratefully on all that comes to hand. Drive far from us, O Most Bountiful, all creatures of air and darkness; cast out the demons that possess us; deliver us from the fear of calories and the bondage of nutrition; and set us free once more in our own land, where we shall serve Thee as Thou hast blessed us – with the dew of heaven, the fatness of the earth, and plenty of corn and wine. Amen.
To the question “Why do you have a beard?” there are seventeen possible answers:
(Simple): I like it.
(Taciturn): I just do.
(Sheepish): Lots of men have beards.
(Rude): None of your business.
(Cowardly): Oh? Don’t you like it?
(Confident): It is manly.
(Overconfident): It keeps women away.
(Practical, in respectu causae efficientis): Because I don’t shave.
(Agnostic): I don’t know; I stopped shaving and it grew.
(Theological, but cautious): You will have to ask God.
(Practical, propter incommoditatem rasurarum): I was tired of cutting myself every morning.
(Devout): It is a gift of God.
(Practical, pro bono prolis): I look more paternal with one.
(Meditative): It would be ungrateful to die without having seen it.
(Practical, sed propter vanitatem): It hides my weak chin.
(Theological, propter causam finalem): God meant man to have one.
(Practical, ad placendam uxorem): It tickles my wife.
The old baloney about heaven being for good guys and hell for bad guys is dead wrong… In Jesus’ death and resurrection, the whole test-passing, brownie-point-earning rigmarole of the human race has been canceled.
Christianity is not a religion; it is the announcement of the end of religion.
Grace has to be drunk neat: no water, no ice, and certainly no ginger ale.
The dance of the Mystery of Christ is always going on: the band playing the music of forgiveness never takes a break.
Trust him. And when you have done that, you are living the life of grace. No matter what happens to you in the course of that trusting – no matter how many waverings you may have, no matter how many suspicions that you have bought a poke with no pig in it, no matter how much heaviness and sadness your lapses, vices, indispositions, and bratty whining may cause you – you believe simply that Somebody Else, by his death and resurrection, has made it all right, and you just say thank you and shut up. The whole slop-closet full of mildewed performances (which is all you have to offer) is simply your death; it is Jesus who is your life. If he refused to condemn you because your works were rotten, he certainly isn’t going to flunk you because your faith isn’t so hot. You can fail utterly, therefore, and still live the life of grace. You can fold up spiritually, morally, or intellectually and still be safe. Because at the very worst, all you can be is dead – and for him who is the Resurrection and the Life, that just makes you his cup of tea.
Live not in fear of mistakes but in the knowledge that no mistake can hold a candle to the love that draws us home.
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived… I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life…
Read not the Times. Read the Eternities.
How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book!
To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates.
That man is richest whose pleasures are the cheapest.
If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.
Be a Columbus to whole new continents and worlds within you, opening new channels, not of trade, but of thought. Every man is the lord of a realm beside which the earthly empire of the Czar is but a petty state, a hummock left by the ice.
The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.
I am sure there is greater anxiety, commonly, to have fashionable, or at least clean and unpatched clothes, than to have a sound conscience… Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes, and not rather a new wearer of clothes.
Our life is frittered away by detail. . . Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb nail. . .
There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root, and it may be that he who bestows the largest amount of time and money on the needy is doing the most by his mode of life to produce that misery which he strives in vain to relieve. It is the pious slave-breeder devoting the proceeds of every tenth slave to buy a Sunday’s liberty for the rest.
Our whole life is startlingly moral. There is never an instant’s truce between virtue and vice. Goodness is the only investment that never fails.
A lake is the landscape’s most beautiful and expressive feature. It is earth’s eye; looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature. The fluviatile trees next the shore are the slender eyelashes which fringe it, and the wooded hills and cliffs around are its overhanging brows.
Once it chanced that I stood in the very abutment of a rainbow’s arch, which filled the lower stratum of the atmosphere, tinging the grass and leaves around, and dazzling me as if I looked through colored crystal. It was a lake of rainbow light, in which, for a short while, I lived like a dolphin.
Our village life would stagnate if it were not for the unexplored forests and meadows which surround it. We need the tonic of wildness… We must be refreshed by the sight of inexhaustible vigor, vast and titanic features, the sea-coast with its wrecks, the wilderness with its living and its decaying trees, the thunder-cloud, and the rain which lasts three weeks and produces freshets. We need to witness our own limits transgressed, and some life pasturing freely where we never wander.
From Walden; or, Life in the Woods, 1854
To be born again, first you have to die.
You can’t judge an internal injury by the size of the hole.
How does newness come into the world? How is it born? Of what fusions, translations, conjoinings is it made? How does it survive, extreme and dangerous as it is? What compromises, what deals, what betrayals of its secret nature must it make to stave off the wrecking crew, the exterminating angel, the guillotine?
The Satanic Verses celebrates hybridity, impurity, intermingling, the transformation that comes of new and unexpected combinations of human beings, cultures, ideas, politics, movies, songs. It rejoices in mongrelization and fears the absolutism of the Pure. Melange, hotchpotch, a bit of this and a bit of that is how newness enters the world.
Throughout human history, the apostles of purity, those who have claimed to possess a total explanation, have wrought havoc among mere mixed-up human beings.
A poet’s work is to name the unnamable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world and stop it from going to sleep.
When a reader falls in love with a book, it leaves its essence inside him, like radioactive fallout in an arable field, and after that there are certain crops that will no longer grow in him, while other, stranger, more fantastic growths may occasionally be produced.
The universe was a place of wonders, and only habituation, the anaesthesia of the everyday, dulled our sight.
When you have stepped through the looking glass you step back at your peril. The mirror may cut you to shreds.
The only people who see the whole picture are the ones who step outside the frame.
The past is a country from which we have all emigrated… its loss is part of our common humanity.
Most of what matters in our lives takes place in our absence.
The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.
Fearlessness is the first requisite of spirituality. Cowards can never be moral.
My life is one indivisible whole, and all my activities run into one another… My life is my message.
The true text-book for the pupil is his teacher.
Seven Deadly Sins:
wealth without work,
pleasure without conscience,
knowledge without character,
business without morality,
science without humanity,
worship without sacrifice,
politics without principle.
Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.
Prayer is the key of the morning and the bolt of the evening.
Truth is like a vast tree, which yields more and more fruit, the more you nurture it. The deeper the search in the mine of Truth the richer the discovery of the gems buried there, in the shape of openings for an ever greater variety of service.
Truth is hard as adamant and tender as a blossom.
Reporter: “What do you think of Western civilization?”
Gandhi: “I think it would be a good idea.”
I believe in equality for everyone, except reporters and photographers.
One perfect civil resistor is enough to win the battle of Right against Wrong.
You can wake a man only if he is really asleep. No effort that you make will produce any effect upon him if he is merely pretending sleep.
Speak only if it improves upon the silence.
Should you shield the canyons from the windstorms you would never see the true beauty of their carvings.
People are like stained-glass windows. They sparkle and shine when the sun is out, but when the darkness sets in, their true beauty is revealed only if there is a light from within.
The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.
Watching a peaceful death of a human being reminds us of a falling star; one of a million lights in a vast sky that flares up for a brief moment only to disappear into the endless night forever.
It is the denial of death that is partially responsible for people living empty, purposeless lives; for when you live as if you’ll live forever, it becomes too easy to postpone the things you know that you must do.
My patients taught me not how to die, but how to live.
The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.
The world is full of dark shadows, to be sure both the world without and the world within … But praise and trust him too for the knowledge that what’s lost is nothing to what’s found, and that all the dark there ever was, set next to light, would scarcely fill a cup.
With its message that, without God, all mankind labours and is heavy laden, the Gospel must be heard as tragedy first before it can be heard as a comedy in which all are given rest if they will only come unto him, and as a fairy tale last of all in which impossible things happen to impossible people, the beautiful queen is exposed in all her wickedness at last and the ugly duckling is transformed into a swan.
It’s only when you hear the Gospel as a wild and marvellous joke that you really hear it at all.
Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery that it is. In the boredom and pain of it no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.
There is a fragrance in the air, a certain passage of a song, an old photograph falling out from the pages of a book, the sound of somebody’s voice in the hall that makes your heart leap and fills your eyes with tears. Who can say when or how it will be that something easters up out of the dimness to remind us of a time before we were born and after we will die?
Lord, catch us off guard today. Surprise us with some moment of beauty or pain so that for at least a moment we may be startled into seeing that you are here with us in all your splendour, always and everywhere, barely hidden, beneath, beyond, within this life we breathe.
The Bible’s Psalms correspond to three seasons of human life:
Satisfied seasons of well-being that evoke gratitude for the constancy of blessing… ‘Psalms of orientation’ articulate the joy, delight, goodness, coherence, and reliability of God and God’s creation…
Anguished seasons of hurt, alienation, suffering, and death. These evoke rage, resentment, self-pity, and hatred… ‘Psalms of disorientation’ match that season in its ragged, painful disarray…
Turns of surprise when we are overwhelmed with the new gifts of God, when joy breaks through the despair. Where there has been only darkness, there is light… ‘Psalms of new orientation’ speak boldly about new gift from God, a fresh intrusion that makes all things new…
The moves of orientation – disorientation – new orientation are for Christians most clearly played out in the life of Jesus… deep loss and amazing gift are held together in powerful tension.
From Spirituality of the Psalms, 2001
Something that is yours forever is never precious.
Truth has to be given in riddles. People can’t take truth if it comes charging at them like a bull. The bull is always killed. You have to give people the truth in a riddle, hide it so they go looking for it and find it piece by piece; that way they learn to live with it.
Art begins . . . when someone interprets, when someone sees the world through his own eyes. Art happens when what is seen becomes mixed with the inside of the person who is seeing it.
An artist needs a broken world in order to have pieces to shape into art.
I go wherever the truth leads me . . . if the Torah cannot go into your world of scholarship and return stronger, then we are all fools and charlatans.
In our time… a man whose enemies are faceless bureaucrats almost never wins. It is our equivalent to the anger of the gods in ancient times. But those gods you must understand were far more imaginative than our tiny bureaucrats. They spoke from mountaintops not from tiny airless offices. They rode clouds. They were possessed of passion. They had voices and names. Six thousand years of civilization have brought us to this.
The fact is that we live only in communion — not only with our present, but with the past and future as well. We are haunted by a whole poetry of living, by lullabies half-remembered and sounds of train whistles in the night and the scent of lavender in a summer garden. We are haunted by grief, too, and fear, and images of childhood terror and the macabre dissolution of age.
This is how the gift is given which we call grace: the sudden illumination, the sharp regret that leads to penitence or forgiveness, the opening of the heart to the risk of love.
We have to admit, first to ourselves, and then, very humbly, to one another, that we live at the heart of a dark mystery, which we can still only describe by allegory and legend or the sterile and incomplete formulae of physical science.
It costs so much to be a full human being that there are very few who have the enlightenment, or the courage, to pay the price… One has to abandon altogether the search for security, and reach out to the risk of living with both arms. One has to embrace the world like a lover, and yet demand no easy return of love. One has to accept pain as a condition of existence. One has to court doubt and darkness as the cost of knowing.
I am still a questioner, because I regard the Christian life as a search and not an arrival.
You gave me life. I didn’t ask for it. But, bitter and sweet, you gave it. The gift looks a little bedraggled and defaced now. But while I had it, I loved it. Now, if you want it back, I surrender it, with thanks.
If you spend your whole life waiting for the storm, you’ll never enjoy the sunshine.
On a mountain above the clouds once lived a man who had been the gardener of the emperor of Japan.
The garden has to reach inside you. It should change your heart, sadden it, uplift it. It has to make you appreciate the impermanence of everything in life. That point in time just as the last leaf is about to drop, as the remaining petal is about to fall; that moment captures everything beautiful and sorrowful about life.
Memory is like patches of sunlight in an overcast valley, shifting with the movement of the clouds. Now and then the light will fall on a particular point in time, illuminating it for a moment before the wind seals up the gap, and the world is in shadows again.
It is getting dark. In the low mists over the hills, an orange glow broods, as if the trees are on fire. Bats are flooding out from the hundreds of caves that perforate these mountainsides. I watch them plunge into the mists without any hesitation, trusting in the echoes and silences in which they fly.
Are all of us the same, I wonder, navigating our lives by interpreting the silences between words spoken, analyzing the returning echoes of our memory in order to chart the terrain, in order to make sense of the world around us?
mountains tonsured in clouds… the first light of the morning melting down their flanks
the kitchen chimney scribbling smoke over the rooftops
oak leaves scattered on the lawn like pieces of an uncompleted jigsaw puzzle
a grey heron… one leg poised in the air, like the hand of a pianist who’d forgotten the notes in his music
a moth… staggered around the veranda’s light bulb, searching for a way into the heart of the sun
water continued to drip from the eaves, drops of congealed light falling to earth
in the leaves, an unseen bird whistled, deepening the emptiness of the air between each note
From The Garden of Evening Mists, 2011
All 40 Birthday Books Posts
- A Reading Life: a 40-year journey through 40 top books – Part 1 - 40 years. 40 books. An enhanced version of my recent birthday speech. Part One chronicles the birth of a young geek: synthesizers and computer games, crime and travel, good news and bad tunes, along with wild things like Aslan, hobbits, and … Continue reading
- A Reading Life: a 40-year journey through 40 top books – Part 2 - Flirting with Dewey and torturing titanium, Platonic lions and Scottish divines, Martian ransom and Florentine epic, Pickwickian perambulations and the road less travelled, a plurality of prayer and contemplative kitchens. All that and more in Part Two of my 40th … Continue reading
- A Reading Life: a 40-year journey through 40 top books – Part 3 - Kiwi bush cartoons, wisdom in lakeside cabins, reflective mountain solitudes; miserable redemption in Paris, mystical research in the East, monastic romance in Kyoto. Part three of my 40th birthday 40 books extravaganza. This follows Part One: Books 1-10 (from toddler … Continue reading
- A Reading Life: a 40-year journey through 40 top books – Part 4 - Magical children, the great soul, and the genius bard of India; dialogues with death and listening to your life; seasonal psalms and a horizon of hope. From India to the afterlife, here are titles 27-33 from my 40th Birthday 40 … Continue reading
- A Reading Life: a 40-year journey through 40 top books – Part 5 - Jewish wisdom and the story of art; novels by a painter-Rabbi, a Vatican correspondent, and a Malaysian lawyer; a world history of language and those who wield it best. From Torah scrolls to Picasso, the Pope to Zen, hieroglyphics to … Continue reading
- Quotes – 15 Top Authors - Quotations from 15 of my favourite authors, selected to share at my 40th birthday party. J R R Tolkien C S Lewis George Macdonald M Scott Peck Richard Foster Robert Farrar Capon Henry David Thoreau Salman Rushdie Mahatma Gandhi Elisabeth Kübler-Ross … Continue reading