From fearful shame and sorrow to freedom on the heights.
Here’s a tale that gives me hope when I feel down.
In my first year at university, I joined a lunchtime Christian reading group where someone introduced a favourite book each week. We met works on finding God’s will, contemplative prayer, and other topics. One week someone recommended the Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis. I had loved his Narnia Chronicles as a child, but not realised he’d written much more. By the end of the year I’d also read The Great Divorce, and Lewis had conquered my imagination.
The second author I remember from that group also depicted moral testing and spiritual depths through fiction. Hannah Hurnard (1905-1990) was raised in an English Quaker home and spent 50 years as a hospital housekeeper in Palestine. From her back garden she’d watch gazelles springing up the slopes of Mount Gerizim, inspiring her most popular work, Hinds’ Feet on High Places (1955). Like Pilgrim’s Progress, it’s an allegorical tale of a soul’s journey to salvation. The title comes from Habakkuk 3:19 (in the King James translation):
The Lord God is my strength, and he will make my feet like hinds’ feet, and he will make me to walk upon mine high places.
In her journal on a trip to Switzerland, Hurnard described how joyfully a waterfall hurled itself down the cliffs, and observed that a chairlift resembles God’s promises. Its cable may look frail, but if by faith she overcame her fear of heights and got on, she was carried up the mountain by grace. Such insights give wings to Hinds’ Feet.
Little Much-Afraid lives in the village of Much-Trembling with her aunt, Mrs Dismal Foreboding, and her cousins Gloomy and Spiteful, who are pressing her to marry the bully Craven Fear. Furthermore, she is crippled, with crooked stumbling feet and a crooked ugly mouth. Chapter 1 begins:
This is the story of how Much-Afraid escaped from her Fearing relatives and went with the Shepherd to the High Places where “perfect love casteth out fear”.
The Chief Shepherd promises to give Much-Afraid hinds’ feet that can skip from the Valley of Humiliation up to the High Places, where her blemishes will be washed away and she’ll receive a new name. To enter his Kingdom, however, the seed of Love must first be planted in her heart. The seed is a long sharp thorn shaped like the scars on the Shepherds’ hands – he warns her that “Love and Pain go together, for a time at least. If you would know Love, you must know pain too.”
This bittersweet gift soon sharpens her perception, awakening her to the melodies and charms of creation. As they set out from the trysting-place, the grass sparkles with jewel-like wild anemones and Much-Afraid laments that no one sees their beauty. The Shepherd replies:
All the fairest beauties in the human soul, its greatest victories, and its most splendid achievements are always those which no one else knows anything about, or can only dimly guess at… Many a quiet, ordinary, and hidden life, unknown to the world, is a veritable garden in which Love’s flowers and fruits have come to such perfection that it is a place of delight where the King of Love Himself walks and rejoices with His friends.
She notices that all running water bubbles the same glad song about the joy of self-giving as it leaps and splashes downhill. Much later, high in the mountains, she hears the Falls of Love “playing the original of the theme song which all the little streamlets had sung far below”.
Once over the edge, the waters were like winged things, alive with joy, so utterly abandoned to the ecstasy of giving themselves that she could almost have supposed that she was looking at a host of angels floating down on rainbow wings, singing with rapture as they went.
As they reach the foot of the mountains, Much-Afraid meets her first big challenge. She must accept the two guides the Shepherd has chosen to help her ascent, Sorrow and Suffering. She is dismayed, but soon needs their help on the steep climb, and to escape her relations who hate the Shepherd and try to lure her back: Pride, Resentment, Bitterness, and Self-Pity.
Her next lesson in trust comes when the trail leads not up to the heights, but down to a desert – not contradicting his promise, the Shepherd tells her, but only a “postponement for the best to become possible.” Much-Afraid learns the secret of Acceptance-with-Joy and starts to understand that “self-sacrifice is the ecstasy of giving the best we have to the one we love the most.” Here she builds the first of many altars to sacrifice her will for his, finding in the ashes the first of 12 memorial stones.
Her path leads on beside the Sea of Loneliness, where there are only gulls wheeling above, crabs scuttling across the sand, and a lonely little cove like an empty heart. Nevertheless,
She had the feeling that somehow, in the very far-off places, perhaps even in far-off ages, there would be a meaning found to all sorrow and an answer too fair and wonderful to be as yet understood.
Perhaps my favourite lines come as Much-Afraid faces a sheer precipice that only a deer could scale. She sobs in despair until the Shepherd appears, and then bursts into laughter – for her to climb up there is so preposterously absurd!
The Shepherd laughed too. “I love doing preposterous things,” He replied. “Why, I don’t know anything more exhilarating and delightful than turning weakness into strength, and fear into faith, and that which has been marred into perfection. If there is one thing more than another which I should enjoy doing at this moment it is turning a jellyfish into a mountain goat. That is My special work,” he added with the light of a great joy in His face. “Transforming things.”
The Shepherd has chosen the steepest route for her, because “the only way to develop hinds’ feet is to go by the paths which the hinds use”. And her character indeed begins to change. As she trudges through an endless misty forest,
She began to realize that, cowardly though she was, there was something in her which responded with a surge of excitement to the tests and difficulties of the way better than to easier and duller circumstances… even the dizzy precipice had been more to her liking that this dreary plodding on and on.
Although she slips and stumbles through the mud, the Shepherd says he never regards her as weak and crooked and cowardly, but as the gracious, fleet-footed queen he promised she will become:
I never think of you as you are now but as you will be when I have brought you to the Kingdom of Love and washed you from all the stains and defilements of the journey…. “Thou art all fair, My love; there is no spot in thee.” (Song of Songs 4:7)
Her journey ends in a cloud-filled canyon at a final altar, the grave of her hopes, where all longing for human love will be burned away and every desire crucified but one: to simply do His will.
Love is beautiful, but it is also terrible – terrible in its determination to allow nothing blemished or unworthy to remain in the beloved… Love is a consuming fire.
This wraps up part one, “Weeping May Endure for a Night”. In the brief part two, “Joy Cometh in the Morning” (Psalm 30:5), Much-Afraid finds the seed of love has blossomed in her heart and receives her new name. The book concludes with the last of many lyrics inspired by Solomon’s Song of Songs.
Make haste, Beloved, be Thou like a hart
On mountains spicy sweet;
And I, on those High Places where Thou art,
Will follow on hinds’ feet;
As close behind the hart, there leaps the roe,
So where thou goest, I will surely go.
Much-Afraid has learnt to trust and obey the Shepherd even in the darkest valleys, to be confident that in the end he always keeps his promises. Two decades later Hurnard wrote a sequel, named from the last words of Song of Songs, Mountains of Spices (1977). For me, it’s maybe less memorable, but still moving. Here Much-Afraid – now renamed and crowned with the King’s glory – returns to the Valley of Humiliation to help rescue her former neighbours from their self-made dungeons.
Mrs Dismal Forebodings, cowering alone in her cottage like the “thin, furtive-looking spiral of smoke which crept up into the air as unostentatiously as possible” from her chimney, meets the Shepherd, replaces her widow’s weeds with his glittering shawl of praise, and strides forth to aid others, for “love turned outward is true life”.
Old Lord Fearing struggles on his deathbed, torn between defiance and terror, with a flickering of regret and longing for the Shepherd that he’ll hardly admit. He asks how the Shepherd can judge him when they’ve never met, and Much-Afraid replies,
It is all written in you, by you, yourself, Lord Fearing – written plainly for him to see, just as when an old tree is cut down, the whole history of its life is found written plainly in its heart and the rings formed during each separate year of its life. One who knows how to read it can understand at a glance about years when it was buffeted by the great storms and could scarcely make any growth, and those years when it was diseased, and those when it went forward and became strong. Or, if the heart has been eaten away little by little by worms and grubs, it all becomes plain when the tree falls and is found to be hollow and dead.
In the odd-numbered chapters, valley-dwellers like these choose to embrace or reject both the truth about themselves, and the law on which the universe is founded: “Everything that loves, lives for ever. Everything else perishes.” In alternate chapters, the Shepherd instructs Much-Afraid in the laws of love atop the nine peaks that encircle the valley. On every summit grows one of nine spices (from Song of Songs 4:13-14), each corresponding to a fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23), yielding, for example, the saffron of long-suffering, the frankincense of faith, and the pomegranates of love.
Hurnard has a rich botanical vocabulary and a painterly delight in colours. We cross fields starred with gentians, sprinkled with buttercups and cowslips and crocuses bobbing beneath a sky of sapphire, walled by snowy ramparts that glow at dusk with flame and rose. Her wilderness vignettes remind me of New Zealand tramping trips: ambling through sunny valleys with bubbling creeks and bellbirds feeding on flax; or trudging along ridge tops in freezing mist, longing for the cosy hut.
And, as did Christ, Hurnard found the natural world an endless source of parables. The pliable humility of reeds makes them unbreakable. Camphor bushes transform bitter manure into perfume – “Joy is sorrow inside out, Grief remade again.” Myrrh trees bleeding out their fragrant resin once again play Hurnard’s favourite theme, how happy it is to love and give.
Like Much-Afraid, I’ve often been oppressed by insecurity and anxiety, low self-esteem and fear. I’m so glad the Shepherd knew her through and through – as he does me – “in all the intricate labyrinth of her lonely heart”; and that he is “of very tender compassion to them that are afraid”. Hurnard herself was handicapped by stuttering and fear, but learnt that this very fear is the greatest way to grow in faith:
One must either succumb to the fearing nature altogether and become a “Craven Coward” for the rest of one’s life; or… be made at last into a radiant “Fearless Witness” to his love and power.
Hurnard said she aimed to show that by surrendering to the Saviour what seem to be our greatest hindrances, such as fear or loneliness, aggressiveness or pride,
The very characteristics and weaknesses of temperament with which we were born… can be transformed into their exact opposites and can therefore produce in us the loveliest of all qualities… Love takes our defects and deformities, and out of them… fashions princes and princesses of God.
This gives me great hope. At times my path has meandered along the shores of loneliness, or down through the desert of defeat. The story of Much-Afraid helps me to trust the Shepherd’s wisdom and follow his way, even when I see only my weaknesses, and can’t understand why that way is so steep. Perhaps it is the Shepherd’s means to also transform this quivering jellyfish into a noble alpine stag!
For my 40th birthday party this year, I decided to introduce 40 favourite books and immediately thought of Hinds’ Feet on High Places. Few books have given me more comfort in times of depression and dread, and I’ve twice taken it when travelling overseas and I feared the Fearings could attack. As I whittled down a longer list to a paltry two score, however, Hurnard was forced into the ring with C. S. Lewis (who has many similar themes and scenes) and, inevitably, knocked out. This is my first rehabilitation post, giving an unjustly rejected work its rightful praise. (You can meet my favourite Christian fiction that survived the knockout rounds here.)
For a sermon on the Good Shepherd’s character and hearing his voice, see my previous post.
See music and art set to the audio book of Hinds’ Feet on YouTube, the illustrated children’s edition, or an online synopsis with Scripture references. For just a few dollars you can buy a printed or a downloadable version of Hinds’ Feet on Amazon.