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Fluff! was my initial reaction to the opening chapters of Helen Simonson’s comedy of manners, The Summer Before the War (2016). It is 1914, set in the coastal village of Rye, East Sussex, England.

Slowly unfolds a view of waning Edwardian society, with its opulent mores defining attitudes and behaviors of its residents. Comic touches abound, exposing their eccentricities and gossip and prejudices. Detailed descriptions of feathered hats and gowns, the annual Hops Festival, the Fete Parade, the society funeral for the only son of the Earl North, trench warfare, the grimy feel of railway stations, and so much more, afford texture of place. Like other comedies of errors, dialogue is precise, stilted, disguised, but at times compelling.

Only when the voices of matron Agatha Kent and the village’s new Latin teacher, Beatrice Nash, lay bare the gamey shenanigans around them was I compelled to read on; and of the later voices of the servant Abigail and the gypsies, as well. And I’m glad I did. Also affording context to this novel is the suffragette movement, the changing role of women in society, and homosexuality. I grew to care for Agatha and Beatrice, both venturing into vital experiences that deepen their sense of woman and quicken the worlds of others.

What follows is the rude interruption of the village’s predictable world with the onset of the Great War—Their summer of balmy channel breezes was not supposed to be like this.

I pray that this is not the summer before the war. Given rains that freshen greening leaves and lawns, I hope such waterings will l dampen fires of global discord and enhance critical changes confronting us—with God’s help. No one needs another war…

 

 

“No! Not that! No way! I’ve no time for this! I’m outa here!”

Most squirm in the face of suffering. Heart racing, breathing labored, shoulders tensed, the escape into palliatives, of whatever kind, is underway, until the distress is dulled. Few explore their setbacks and learn from them.

One of these is Karen Armstrong, British author, world lecturer, and winner of the 2008 TED Prize. Her memoir, The Spiral Staircase – My Climb out of Darkness (2004) weaves thirteen years of daunting reversals within the first verse of T. S. Eliot’s Ash Wednesday: the paradox of turnings that appear to go nowhere.

What seemed like missteps in Karen’s beginnings—leaving the convent, failing her doctoral orals at Oxford, researching and writing scripts on Christianity and Islam and interviewing notables for BBC television in the Holy Land, teaching college and high school students, flipping out with an undiagnosed frontal lobe epilepsy—were, in fact, priming her psyche toward compassion, a discovery that wrought her conversion to the God of her understanding and one that permeates all world religions.

Karen Armstrong’s clipped voice, heard in lecture halls around the world and YouTube, still carries the incisive ring of God’s compassion in our world. The question remains, is anyone listening?

 

“I began to look more closely, not at things but at a world closer to myself, looking from an inner place to one further within, instead of clinging to the movement of sight toward the world outside.” So wrote Jacques Lusseyran, accidently blinded when eight years of age, in his memoir And There Was Light (1963).

Newly sightless, he directed close attention toward the pressure of his surroundings—people, places, things—enveloping his person. Ever so slowly, he felt their impress, even their color that quickened his sensitive mind and allowed the world to come to him for recognition.

Despite bouts of exhaustion at the outset, his new way of seeing served him well—especially later as a teenager when he excelled in his Braille studies and friendships, headed up a youth resistance group in Nazi-occupied Paris, and survived Buchenwald’s hell.

Disciplined attention underscored these engagements, an attention that grounded him in the present moment. With his God, he watched on-going creation, his love and joy deepening with each breath.

Jacques Lusseyran’s practice of attention, from deep inwardness, inspires me to do similarly, despite sporadic efforts in the past. True, I’ve come a long way since signing on to hospice for my terminal illness, but my demise does not seem imminent. There’s still more time to practice, to participate in the wrapping up of a long life, unlike that of Jacques Lusseyran, killed in an auto accident, when forty-seven.

Yet, I’m grateful for Lusseyran’s practice, now informing my discipline of Twelve Step living, honing my spirit for what is to come.

 

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