By Christine Sunderland
A church bell tolls over the lake. A white gull soars and dives, catching the wind current over the waters. We follow a path along the water’s edge to the local village, feeling the pebbly uneven cobblestones, careful not to trip and fall. Entering the village, the exhaust and gunning of motorbikes propel us to the town center where the local church waits patiently. The sun is bright upon the white facade, nearly blinding, and we climb steps to cross the threshold, entering the sacred space, so cool and dark at first.
Our eyes adjust and soon through the shadows we see candles flaming on an altar. The bell no longer tolls, and in the silence our feet pad the stone floor as though strangers in a foreign land, hesitant, halting. We find a pew, our tender knees kneeling on hard wooden slats, our fingers templed in prayer. The quiet deepens. We listen to the silence, then speak hesitantly, the words breathed toward the altar, toward God. Our Father, we whisper, who art in Heaven…
Christians, and even more so Christian writers of fiction, can make sacred sense of our senses. We have long used images and objects, symbols and sounds, to remind us who we are and who we are meant to be. As writers we can ring bells, flame candles, follow paths uneven and smooth, winding and straight. We meet cross-roads, roads with crosses and roads to cross. We turn, or turn around, returning. We follow a light in the dark as we search for meaning in the mists of time and eternity.
Bells in their stone steeples originally tolled the time for workers in fields and towns – time to rise, to work, to dine, to pray, to sleep. The Church organized man’s time, and just so, the Church organized eternity and eternal salvation through prayer, sacraments, and worship. Christianity fed the Western tradition with the sensory sounds and sights and smells that explained the truths of God and man. Western civilization came to be what it was and is through the activity of monks and priests, of sisters and abbesses, of the many lay persons who lit candles and cared for one another. For we are commanded to love one another. We are told to listen to the bell tolling for the dead, for it tolls for us. As John Donne, sixteenth-century Anglican priest, Dean of St. Paul’s London, wrote in 1624:
We are involved with one another. Every man’s death is our loss. We are not islands, but parts of a continent.
Those called to write Christian fiction are called to remind the world that we are not islands but continents, that every person, the unborn and the aged, the infirm and the crippled, the ugly and the unwanted, are loved by God and thus to be loved by us. How do we remind the world? We remind out world through our love for one another, and through the interweaving of sacred senses, if only in the background, with bells tolling and candles flaming.
In many traditional churches, banks of votive candles flame, lighting the dark. If one is lit, that is sufficient, for it can light another. Just so we light the dark for others, allowing them to read our words, to light their candles with our single flame. As authors we connect with those who read our words. We are called to touch them, to light their candles, to inflame them with the burning love of Christ.
Some of my stories are bursting with churches and candles and talk of the love of God. This is particularly true of my early work, Pilgrimage, Offerings, and Inheritance, in which Madeleine and Jack travel through Italy, France, and England in search of healing of both body and soul, seeking spiritual answers to their suffering.
But my fourth novel, Hana-lani, is not overtly religious. Rather it is set against a background of family and religious sensory images. The story opens when a small plane crashes in a rainstorm in Lent. It ends with a child baptized by sacred waters at Easter. Hope washes away despair.
The Magdalene Mystery examines the historicity of the Resurrection and the claims of the Apostles’ Creed, so making sacred sense with sensory images finds a natural home in Roman basilicas and Provencal grotto-chapels.
The Fire Trail, recently released, reminds readers of those tolling bells from a removed distance. When Jessica hears a girl’s scream on the Fire Trail in the Berkeley hills , her natural fear is silenced by the words recalled, No man is an island, words written by the sixteenth-century Dean of St. Paul’s London, John Donne.
Throughout The Fire Trail unbelievers are drawn to the sacred sense and belief in God through beauty in music and poetry, truth in words and deeds, transcendence in song and prayer. For indeed, these sensory reflections of God remind us that we are linked in our humanity. We are brothers and sisters forming a civilized community, one that must guard against the barbaric community that threatens peace and freedom.
And so making sense of sacred sense is its own form of apologetics, as C.S. Lewis knew intuitively in his profound short novel, The Great Divorce. I read this work as a young Christian in my early twenties. I still carry with me the image of that green grass too real for the wraiths from Hell to walk on, blades that cut those feet not solid enough, not real enough. From that moment I wanted to be more real, to fully experience the life given me. I wanted all of my senses made sacred, sanctified. Only then, I knew, would I know Heaven, both in time and in eternity.
Christine Sunderland has authored five award-winning novels: Pilgrimage, set in Italy, Offerings, set in France, Inheritance, set England, Hana-lani, set in Hawaii, and The Magdalene Mystery, a quest for the true Mary Magdalene and the historicity of the resurrection, set in Rome and Provence. Her sixth novel, The Fire Trail, about the collapse of Western culture, is set at UC Berkeley. She serves as Managing Editor for the American Church Union (www.AmericanChurchUnion.com) and Project Manager for the Berkeley Center for Western Civilization (www.WesternCivCenter.org). Visit Christine at www.ChristineSunderland.com (website and blog).