Assistant Director of Theology Programs, Theological Institute for the New Evangelization
St. John’s Seminary, Boston, MA
Other columns in series:
The Beacons Are Lit
Of Myths and Maps
Inside the Song
A Word on Wonder
A Word on Tooks
Secondary Worlds and Primary Truths
Escape and the Good Catastrophe
Treebeard and the Language of Reality
The Valor of Bilbo
Laughter and the Logos
Our Lady and the Elves
“Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one…But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the play-world. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia.” – The Silver Chair (C.S. Lewis)
Here is the scene: miles and miles below the earth’s surface, a curious little company (consisting of a Marsh-wiggle, a Narnian prince and two English children) are confronted by the evil Queen –or, more appropriately, Witch – of the Underland. With her soothing voice and strange logic, she very nearly convinces her unwelcome guests of the futility of their mission to save Narnia from her terrible schemes. I say very nearly, because Puddleglum, that loyal and curmudgeonly Marsh-wiggle, declares that he will fight for Narnia and Aslan, even if it seems as though a veil has been cast on both of them, and can hardly be perceived through the wicked enchantments of the Witch. With the darkness pressing in on him, and doubts assailing him at every angle, Puddleglum responds like a bolt of lightning in the storm. His words are like a flash of light which illuminate, even for just a moment, the reality of his homeland, and assures him that it is still there, despite reports to the contrary.
Puddleglum has quite literally been walking in the dark. He and his friends have been travelling in the Underland, far away from the sun, for so many days that he’s lost count. They’ve nearly forgotten what a breeze feels like, or the sweetness which hangs in the air at the edge of day, as evening approaches and the shadows lengthen. The hours, days, seasons…all unchangeable, here in the Underland. The Witch knows this, and uses it to advance her own cruel designs. She seeks to undermine every good memory that Puddleglum and his friends have of home. She uses their experience of the long trip through the darkness against them, to make them forget their true country.
“There never was any world but mine.” said the Witch.
“There never was any world but yours.” said they.
It was probably the most difficult thing that Puddleglum would ever do: resist the power of her words and expose them as lies. But even with the consoling memory of his beloved home fading, his faith in Aslan remains unwavering. And armed with that faith, he can pierce through the feeble lies of the Witch and dismiss her claims that Narnia was never real. And he is ready to defend the name of Aslan, even if Aslan feels as remote as a half-remembered dream. He will live as a Narnian, even if Narnia itself has become obscured.
Now, to be sure, the dark night of the soul is not necessarily wrapped up with the deceits that might be proposed to us via this or that worldly offering. There is a certain desolation which comes with unhappy detours into a life of sin. But then there is the kind of night which falls on even the holiest of hearts, for reasons that God alone knows. He allows this darkness, which is an invitation to fall into His arms ever more confidently, and follow His ways ever more faithfully. Through such mysterious consolations, He brings us closer to His heart, which shines with such radiance that our eyes must be shielded, as the seraphim cover their eyes with their wings. And so it may seem that darkness envelopes us, when, in fact, we are closer to our Heavenly Father than ever before.
Perhaps you, who have stumbled on this column, have not felt close to our Lord in these recent days. Perhaps you feel like Puddleglum and his friends, who have trudged through the lonely land beneath the surface of the earth, where the slightest flickering light is enough to make one’s heart leap for joy. Perhaps you have felt abandoned, and find it difficult to remember, and thus meditate on, the glorious destiny written on each human heart. Perhaps your songs of praise – which, until recently, flowed freely – have dried up a bit, and your life feels like a chapter out of the Book of Job. The narrator of The Silver Chair might give us some refreshment, then, when he tells us about the “Really Deep Land”, which is located even further down than the Underland. We might be tempted to think that the deeper into the earth they went, the darker and less splendid it would be. But far from it: that region of the world is actually very beautiful, and full of light. Could it be, then, that the deep “underground” places of our spiritual life, where it seems darker and quieter, are not, in fact, necessarily opposed to our happiness? After all, is not Aslan still Lord over the deep crevices of creation? He is not merely Lord of that land which happens to enjoy the daily dance of the sun and stars. And we cannot forget (indeed, it is easier to remember during the dark night) that at the very center of the Christian faith stands the Cross. If we didn’t believe that Christ reigned in even the blackest hour and in the deepest fractures in our souls, then we could have never called that certain Friday “Good”.
To the mind of God, there is a great chasm between hope and despair, between faith and unbelief. He is the Author of every good thing, and if anyone can tell the difference, He can. To our minds, however, it would appear that the one only just nudges ahead of the other. Day by day, week by week, we might oscillate between trust and suspicion, hopefulness and hesitation, as though they were neck and neck in a tense race. This might be why Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane moves us so. He undergoes that internal battle which storms our hearts perhaps every day: “Take this cup away from me.” “Thy will be done!” “Wait! This is too hard…if it be Your will, spare me from this…” Back and forth, and back and forth…that is what so many of us experience in this life of faith. And then there are the break-away moments, as in a race, when a runner pulls ahead: one moment, we may be as the Beloved Disciple at the foot of the Cross, and the next, we may be St. Peter, weeping over his denial of the Lord, or St. Thomas, who doubts that Christ is truly risen.
The race might seem close, and the road might appear to be dimly lit and winding unpredictably. But you can usually count on crossroads, even when the path is uncertain. And it was at one of these crossroads that Puddleglum stepped up and spoke the truth. It wasn’t loud and it didn’t use much flowery language. He was neither despairing nor terribly optimistic. But he was faithful to the last. And it was that statement of faith, spoken miles away from everything he knew and loved, which rattled a sleeping world awake and shook down the throne of an unjust ruler. May we pray for the strength and faith to topple those usurpers who are trying to govern our own hearts. Even in our most parched and silent moments of darkness, those feigned rulers can offer no more than the most artificial of lights.