The dust of months-long neglect has settled on everything.
The tidy homeowner glances around his forlorn rooms and despairs. But his friend buoys him by running hither and yon, remarking enthusiastically on the charm and amenities of the little dwelling, and the host soon joins him in dusting and preparing the house for a pleasant evening.
Thus begins — though one would hardly suspect it — one of the cheeriest and homeliest Christmas scenes in English literature.
Surfaces begin to gleam like fresh-washed faces; a blazing fire extends warmth from the chimney. But Mole collapses onto a couch as a new realization strikes him: he has no food on the premises to offer his guest.
Nothing daunted, Rat enlists Mole for a thorough hunt through cupboard and kitchen, of which the spoils are “a tin of sardines — a box of captain’s biscuits, nearly full — and a German sausage encased in silver paper.”[i] The cellar furnishes the addition of two bottles of beer. What more could one ask for in a simple but cozy meal? The good Rat succeeds in restoring Mole’s spirits so well that Mole leads him on a grand tour of the house, quite forgetting the cavernous hunger rising in the stomachs of both animals.
Rat eventually and gently turns him toward the table, and starts to open the tin of sardines. Sustenance at last! But now a hushed murmur and scuffling sound drift from the direction of the front door.
“I think it must be the field-mice,” Mole guesses, affectionately remembering past winters when he welcomed the carolers in for hot drinks and supper.
The two friends open the door and behold a group of small field-mice arrayed in a semicircle, wrapped in coats and red scarves. With gusto they deliver an old-fashioned wassailing tune, and are ushered forthwith indoors. And then, alas — double ignominy! Mole plunges into a chair and wails. “We’ve nothing to give them!”
Rat, however, is already at work, and soon a little mouse has scuttled off to the shops with a large basket and a lantern. So Mole rallies once again and takes up his proper office as host, drawing the smaller folk into conversation over mulled ale. One of these mice even did a first-rate job in a play once, no? Can he deliver his lines again?
He cannot; the poor shy fellow is paralyzed with stage fright. Cheer him on, then. Shake it out of him. Pour —
But the messenger returns with a gloriously full basket, and the tongue-tied thespian is promptly forgotten. The evening at Mole End comes into the fullness of its redemption:
Under the generalship of Rat, everybody was set to do something or to fetch something. In a very few minutes supper was ready, and Mole, as he took the head of the table in a sort of dream, saw a lately barren board set thick with savoury comforts; saw his little friends’ faces brighten and beam as they fell to without delay; and then let himself loose — for he was famished indeed — on the provender so magically provided, thinking what a happy home-coming this had turned out, after all.
Of all the words I’ve scribbled and pounded out and scrapped over the fading days of Autumn, these are the first I’ve gotten out with some measure of ease. It’s not that I haven’t written — hastily scribbled notes on hotel notepads will attest to that — but it’s been difficult to commit words to a coherent piece, to a structure that ought to hold some measure of beauty and truth and artistry.
I’m well aware that some of my ideas have outgrown the snippets-and-skeletons stage, and that the rational next step is to flesh them out by giving them shape with real sentences, no matter how clumsy.
But I haven’t been able to bring myself to do it until this week. Each word has somehow been a stumbling block instead, each sentence a bullseye of withering scrutiny.
Frankly, I’ve seen other writers do a more eloquent and lucid job discussing the topics I’ve wished to address. If there’s a downside to keeping company with excellent artists, it’s the speed at which the outward supporter can morph into the inward critic. The currency of praise and approval is a limited resource, according to this present culture, and even when I’m not seeking it, one artist’s laurels can feel like another artist’s failure.
Sometimes it’s easy to believe that there is nothing left or necessary to bring to the world — at least, nothing as good as the books and music and art that have already kindled courage and blown a fresh wind into the close air of our time-bound lives. Many of my own heroes, living and deceased, have left stacks and storerooms of rich things in their wake; when I’m weary, it seems like an exercise in futility to try to follow them, and when I’m seized by a desire to do something and do it tolerably well — usually on a sleepless evening — the self-imposed pressure of that very ambition bottlenecks my efforts.
But on one November morning, in the midst of such a bottleneck, I read aloud from the Book of Philippians to my children over breakfast.
“So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.” (2:1-3, ESV)
Two little forks paused over their plates as I uttered a soft exclamation of surprise and read the passage slowly again. “Any” had struck me like a strong, single mouthful of mulled ale. Over the next few days, it melded with the thought of Mole and Ratty and their blithesome evening, and it’s lingered into these days leading up to the bright season of Christmas. What if writing, like any worthwhile celebration of goodness, is not about keeping a well-stocked pantry from which accomplishments flow effortlessly, but about spreading a feast with friends?
I think of the delightful, humorous, poignant, honest, attentive writers I follow these days. Some tell stories of battling the crippling force of grief. Some simply journal daily happenings with re-enchanted vision. Some discuss literary and musical works with a redemptive worldview. Placed casually side by side, they seem vastly different, but they connect to one taproot: a reverberating note of hope, a long view of the glory and the solace and the faithfulness of our Father. I am not drawn to them because their work is impeccably polished. I read them because they find ways to steward the truths they experience, using their daily bread to build up the body of Christ.
Each one of them provides me with something vital, and each one reminds me today that what we contribute to His kingdom has much less to do with what we have than about what we choose to do with it.
What Philippians states plainly is that if we have been given anything — a single piece of encouragement, or comfort, or participation, or affection — we have enough to pass on down the table. To love. To drown out “motives of rivalry or personal vanity” (Phil. 2:3, Phillips). When we release our imperfect contributions and own up to the periodic barrenness of our store-rooms of energy and inspiration, we begin to see the faces around us in the lamplight: both the ones already seated beside us at the family table, and the ones that are at the door hoping for a way in. The feast of the Highest of Kings, on this side of eternity, starts with the offering of our pieces.
But it must also be a wholehearted offering; in this house we cannot bring the fragmented fruits of our hospitality, our labor, or our creativity with the motive of receiving the mead of praise. We must give it, if we intend to give at all, for the sake of another. True exchange and true merriment only happen in the valuing of others over self; as C. S. Lewis observed, “[O]ur merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously — no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption. . . . Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbour is the holiest object presented to your senses.”[ii] At Mole End, it is Rat’s determination to hearten Mole and Mole’s willing welcome to the field-mice that make the scene what it is: joviality at its finest, with humble souls forgetting themselves and reveling in each other’s company. I love that Mole only recovers a sense of being home after he welcomes others into it.
Meanwhile, I’ve been returning to my writing desk, chastened. In my anxious perfectionism to “get it right” and “hit the mark” I have forgotten, once again, that I have never worked independently.
My most fruitful offerings in words and in life are only thus because they are really part of a festal meal in a very great hall — and because Someone else has had a hand in making something of my bits of fish and bread. Or sardines and captain’s biscuits, as it were.
It makes me thank God for the Water Rats in our lives: the ones who get us up out of our doldrums and despair when we would rather mire ourselves in the inches-thick dust and heap ashes on our heads. Those who exclaim over the excerpts and ideas found in our old thought-chambers as if they were long-hidden treasures in the ruins of a golden-age castle. Those who open the door, literally or otherwise, to remind us that there are others in the world to take delight in, and to serve. Sometimes these dear Rats, if you’ll pardon the expression, are our family members; sometimes they are our friends, or kindred spirits, or colleagues in our field.
And sometimes it is the Spirit Himself, speaking through the solid invitation of His Word, inviting us to bring our lack.
“Now if your experience of Christ’s encouragement and love means anything to you, if you have known something of the fellowship of his Spirit, and all that it means in kindness and deep sympathy, do make my best hope for you come true! Live together in harmony, live together in love, as though you had only one mind and spirit between you.” (Phil. 2:1-2, Phillips).
Here at His table we will find a place to give of ourselves, and to receive with glad hearts from our own brothers and sisters. Here we will discover that — out of what seemed only dust and abandonment and isolation — there is a table in the house of Christ with illuminated faces brought there to be family. Together these members dine and drink, sharing their gifts, their presence, and their service, and partake of a supper that holds the place of a greater banquet to come.
And together — only together — they shine like stars in a darkened generation.
This is how the kingdom comes.
If it is true then, friends — if we have each known the grace of passing through seasons of new life, of flourishing, and of glad relinquishment: let us ransack the larder, down to the last tin of sardines and the last recollection of His faithfulness in our lives. On the darkest days we may well feel the smallness of our contributions, which we bring only because the Master of the house has requested them. But it is obedience — and love — that tip the scales.
In these days that are lent to us, may we polish and tend our skills in community. May we clear a space for the songs of our neighbors, offer what fragments we have — and find, in the giving, that we have come home to feast.
[i] All quotes from Ch. 5: “Dulce Domum,” The Wind in the Willows.
[ii] “The Weight of Glory,” The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses (New York: HarperCollins, 2001)
The featured image is (c) of Lancia E. Smith and used with glad permission for Cultivating and The Cultivating Project. It is a photograph of the Folio Society edition cover of Wind in the Willows with exquisite illustrations by Charles van Sandwyk. I have never seen a more beautiful edition of this beloved and enduring story. (Lancia)
Amy Baik Lee writes from a desk looking out on a cottage garden, usually surrounded by children’s drawings, teacups, and stacks of patient books. She is a former scholar of medieval and Renaissance literature at the University of Virginia, a sometime author of devotional short stories, and a current member artist of the Anselm Society. Ever seeking to “press on to [her] true country and to help others to do the same” (C.S. Lewis), she posts essays and stories about Homeward longing at Amy Baik Lee.