A Cathedral of Words

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A_Bronwyn

There is a pile of books next to my bed that bears a frightening resemblance to the leaning tower of Pisa. I have worried my way through more than one daydream that I will die one night under a pile of fabulous, and as-yet-unread, books.

I read voraciously and quickly, and yet the pile just seems to grow. I have books on spiritual formation, memoirs, commentaries, and a few titles digging into some hot-button theological topics. But nestled between all those good-for-you non-fiction covers, are my true loves: novels pressed into my hands by fellow story-junkies. I have been sighing over Marilynne Robinson, weeping my way through John Green, and struggling to turn the pages fast enough to find out what happened to the Count of Monte Cristo. And that’s just in the past few weeks.

Why did I recoil, then, when a writing mentor told me I should write fiction?

My first reaction was, “I don’t know how to write fiction.” But something in my protest didn’t quite ring true. The twist in my gut wasn’t just about a fear of not knowing how, it was a fear of not knowing why. Why would it be worth it to write stories? What good could that do? Why would one spend time writing stories rather than investing in writing which really mattered?

No sooner had my visceral objections snaked up into my consciousness than their hypocrisy glowered at me. Since when was propositional truth more true than narrative truth? Is God not the great Storyteller? Did Jesus not speak in parables? Were the great stories of the faithful Ancients not written to teach us?(Romans 15:4) Chastened, I stared into my lap.

Pardon me, ma’am, your worldview is showing.

Moments before my ride to the airport was scheduled to leave the writer’s retreat, I realized I hadn’t had a chance to peek into the Cathedral at the retreat center I had called home for the weekend. Dropping my bags onto the alabaster steps, I ran back inside. The atmosphere shifted as I entered the narthex. I slowed to a walk. My soul commanded my lungs to breathe slower, deeper. I paused before a martyred saint with uplifted eyes and distinctly etched fingernails. I was stilled.

Stepping into the cathedral’s shade, my eyes adjusted and swept up as the architecture demanded they do. For just a moment, I imagined the cathedral made out of tiny, tiny words: marble columns crafted of green-pink italics, wrought iron gates in a bolder font, etchings and statues shaped from minute glyphs under an artist’s painstaking hand. I imagined the sculptors themselves, bent in the worshipful dedication of a lifetime’s work. Each curlicue, each station, each beam etched in detail, in love, in reverence. Every square inch both an expression of their worship, and their call to me to join them. Vaults like colossal tusks stretched towards the ceiling, ivory fingers pointing towards the Most High and calling forth praise. Up, up, up, they called. Towards the light, they gestured, where stained glass saints told tales of faithfulness.

The cathedral of words spoke to the objections that had choked me earlier that day. Far more than being a functional place to worship, the cathedral was an expression of worship.

Perhaps, a voice whispered, there is as much value in fiction as there is in crafted architecture. Perhaps worship goes beyond usefulness. Perhaps God, the Creator himself, has made it such that beauty speaks, too.

Perhaps my love of story reflects something about being made in the image of the God who told stories. Perhaps my love of words reflects something of the one who is the Word. Perhaps all things beautiful point to the Beautiful One.

There is a reason we post pictures of sunsets, and cry over beautiful music. The breathtaking intricacy of babies’ toes, the intimacy of unfurling rosebuds, the majesty of flames—these things resonate in our souls like sonorous cello strings. They all resonate in the Creator too.

All truth is God’s truth, a wise friend once told me, and when we see beauty, it is God’s Beauty too. Even in the beauty of stories. And sometimes, especially there.

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Bronwyn Lea
Bronwyn Lea is a South-African born writer-mama, raising little people in California and raising eyebrows at bronlea.com. Fueled by grace, caffeine and laughter, she writes about the holy and hilarious in life, faith and family. Connect with her on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.
Bronwyn Lea
Bronwyn Lea

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Bronwyn Lea
  • Amy Hunt

    Your writing is your act of worship. And you remind us that to name the things of beauty is living out our worship. Amen.

    • Thank you, Amy. Indeed: all of our lives are acts of worship. It’s something I need frequent reminders of.

  • Bev Murrill

    Interesting what you have to say about fiction. I also never considered fiction, and only wrote non-fiction… but in the last few years I have become aware that many people who would never read deep theological tomes, really love fiction and lives are changed by it… how awesome is that. I love what you’ve said and I truly agree… but… I struggle in the imagination department…
    So maybe God is challenging lots of His writers to tell some stories that dont’ have to be ‘Christian’ but written from a Christian world view, as Tolkien did, could be life changing.

    Plus… if your wordsmithery is anything to go by, Bronwyn, you’ll have no trouble! xx

    • Thanks, Bev. The challenge to write fiction his a huge one, especially since I read fiction for fun and non-fiction for “work”. It is a stretch to think of fiction-as-ministry coming from this worldview… but God is showing me things! Thanks for the encouragement. You are unfailingly upbuilding in your comments: I appreciate you!

      • Bev Murrill

        Ahhh Thanks mate.

        But really, think of Peretti and how he woke the Church to pray with This Present Darkness, and how he helped us understand the creeping sickness of sin with The Oath. And Ted Dekker’s amazing (but complicated) expose on being created in perfection, falling into sin and being redeemed with Black Red White trilogy. And Narnia!

        I LOVE fiction, but have always written non-fiction and am trying to reload my brain toward imagination because people who won’t read what they consider to be our dull religious stuff will be captivated by stories… Jesus was an amazing story teller and the Bible is full of stories.

        I think the very fact that you/we are drawn to them, signifies that God wants us to go there ourselves!!!

        You will be awesome at it! Go, girl!

        • I remember feeling like a curtain had been pulled back reading This Present Darkness! Still get chills thinking about it!

          I’m writing. I’m writing. And you know what? I’m having so much more fun than I imagined I would 🙂

  • Often, I find that truth which comes to me through story has already implanted itself as true in my heart before my brain can resist, make excuses, or rationalize.

    • That is so true, Michele. It just took me a while to acknowledge it!

  • I love the image of a cathedral made of words. And I love the idea of worship going beyond usefulness. Thanks for opening my eyes a bit wider to better see the power of story.

    • That moment in the cathedral was transformative for me: it is making me see EVERYTHING a little differently! So glad I could share it here.

  • Nicole A. Joshua

    I think so many of us underestimate the power of a good story. Fiction has the same potential as Jesus’ parables – to convey truth in a way that catches people unaware, in ways that enter into the back door of their minds to challenge their worldviews. Writing fiction is possibly more powerful than non-fiction; CS Lewis and Tolkien comes to mind 🙂
    May you find courage and joy as you seek to live into the image of the Great Storyteller.

    • Thank you, Nicole. Admittedly, CS Lewis is the first person who came to mind as someone whose fiction has been greatly transformative to me – but having him as “the bar” is a very intimidating place to start! Praying that God will find us faithful as we try 🙂

  • Donna-Jean Brown

    Oh, do write fiction, Bronwyn, please. Writers are near the top of my gratitude list. Can you imagine being without Madeleine L’Engle and yes, Marilynne Robinson? I meet God again and again through novels. The latest surprise was Canadian Gayle Friesen’s book, “The Valley”. An anxious soul visits her Mennonite past in the Fraser Valley, B.C. – great twisting plot underlaid with whispers from the Holy One via some sticky music memories.

    • Thanks, Donna-Jean. I haven’t heard of “The Valley”: I’ll have to add that to my reading list, especially with as titillating a teaser as “sticky music memories” 🙂

  • Amy

    This resonates so much with me. I ignored my desire to write fiction for a long time because it just didn’t seem useful enough or impactful enough. But God has been freeing me to embrace my writer identity and stirring up this passion more and more. Your words give me strength and encouragement on this journey!

  • Bronwyn, one of my favourite quotes is a haiku written by the father of Canadian architect Raymond Moriyama, presented to him on his graduation day: “Into God’s temple of eternity, drive a nail of gold.” We all have our own unique golden nails — perhaps fiction is (one of) yours! I write fiction and I don’t know if I’ll ever have any success with it, outwardly speaking, but I do believe it glorifies God when we tell stories, especially ones of hope and transformation. So if you have a spark inside that’s telling you to write stories, I hope you will!

    • I started writing fiction two weeks ago, Jeannie: it is strange and new and really fun. I’m excited to see where this goes!

  • Sandy Hay

    So often fiction is disregarded. Yet I learn so much. Fiction helps put “feet” on the nonfiction I read. I learned this years ago through reading all of the books by Madeleine L’Engle in one summer. Farrar and Strauss took her seriously beginning with “Wrinkle in Time” and the rest is history.

    • I just read a Wrinkle in Time for the first time last year, and now have A Circle of Quiet in that leaning tower of Pisa on my nightstand. Can’t wait to discover Farrar and Strauss too!

  • Just make sure you do the research thoroughly so that your story is true in that dimension, too. You will have no trouble whatever with the purple patches!

  • Beth Pandy Bruno

    Such an encouragement. Thanks!

  • I’ve been guilty of giving more weight to non-fiction … thinking it may be more “worthy.” And yet, I owe some of my own liberation to fiction. Your post is poking at a crumbly worldview right here too. Thank you!

    Your words are beautiful.

    • I think of SheLoves as a kind of word-cathedral of sorts, Idelette. So much truth here, but so beautifully and bravely and worshipfully done. Thank you for creating this breathtaking space.

  • Sometimes the “made up tales” are more true than all the facts in the world. Malcolm Guite says that while investigation is the natural organ of truth, imagination is the natural organ of meaning. Tell your stories, Bronwyn, and I’ll tell mine and perhaps one day we will shake our heads over the meaning God has woven through both of our lives and our stories.

    • Thank you, Carryl. Strangely enough, just hours after being in the cathedral, my travel buddy asked me if I had read ‘The Shack’, since she hadn’t and a friend had asked her about it. I started talking about it – explaining how I understood the objections to the way God is depicted, but also adding that I thought it was among the best theologies of God with us in suffering that I had ever come across, and how in the character of Mack he was able to articulate the rawest of grief and lament and rage over suffering in a way that would never be appropriate in an academic treatment of the topic… and even as I spoke, I became aware of myself talking, and thinking: “this. this is one reason to write fiction. Because you can write the RAW meaning of the human soul.” Keep writing Carryl, I’d love to swap stories one day.

  • Rana Soliman

    Beautiful