Saturday, December 31, 2011

Lights Will Guide You Home

Tomorrow, I start the sixth year of my ten-year reading plan. A few days later, Nancy and I leave for Arezzo, Italy, where I will teach for a semester. Before I know it, I’ll be reading the Aeneid in Tuscany, close to the site of Virgil’s Italian battles. I know it sounds weird, but I love my reading schedule. Every New Year, I look at the list and get excited about what’s coming up. There’s always a good dose of my favorite authors: Plato, Aristotle, Dickens, Trollope, Shakespeare, Aquinas, Plutarch, Durant, Augustine, Lewis, Chesterton, Boswell, James, and O’Brian. Year 6 also has me eager to read Byron, Sun Tzu, Chrysostom, Dionysius, Jonathan Edwards, and Alvin Plantinga, all of whom are basically new to me (except for a couple of poems by Byron and one sermon by Chrysostom), as well as a biography of Rutherford B. Hayes and a history of Black regiments in the Civil War. I get to read more in Boccaccio, Euclid, and Orlando Furioso, and I get to reread a novel by Charles Williams and Goldsmith’s hilarious Vicar of Wakefield. Yes, I love my reading plan.

Five or six years ago at this magical season between semesters, when time is suspended and the air is hushed, I had a dream. In my dream, I stood on a footbridge over a river, facing west-by-northwest. The sky was dark, but the details of the scene were made visible by the glow of scores of tiny blue lights floating in the air above the river and all around me. I saw no human figure other than myself, but on the western bank stood a large, imposing building complex made of dull stone. It looked a bit like a castle with several stern keeps behind a high, windowless wall that zigzagged irregularly around the inner towers like a strip of perforated postcards laid on its side. I don’t know what I thought the castle was or what lay behind me, but I remember I was headed toward the west and didn’t want to move any farther toward the castle, so I just lingered on the bridge. As much as I opposed the idea of moving forward, though, I didn’t feel fear or disgust or any negative emotion about the castle; I simply noted its undesirability cognitively. All I felt at the moment was the most joyful peace I ever remember, a peace that seemed sustained by soft, wordless voices emanating from the blue lights.

I puzzled over this dream for a long time and asked several friends for their help in understanding it. I recognized some of the features of the tableau: the bridge probably came from my memories of the footbridge leading to the music building at the University of Iowa, and the floating lights vaguely reminded me of the icicle lights that hang across the front window in our house each December, and hang there now casting their numinous glow on the room. But the peace surpassed all adult memory; it seemed to me it could only come from childhood or directly from Heaven. Ironically, this dream of utter peace agitated me for weeks as I sought an explanation. What was I headed toward? What fearsome future awaited me? What were the lights, and whose were the voices? The memory of the peace remained sweet to me, but it seemed I could feel it only indirectly as long as these answers eluded me.

A huge part of the unmediated enjoyment returned when I remembered that the windowless wall had no doors, either, and that the path from the bridge turned right on the shore and led past the castle. Whatever the buildings represented, they now seemed both more severe, since they would not allow me entrance, and less ominous, since I had discovered that the worst the castle could do to me was to cast its shadow on my way for a while.

With that discovery, a lot of things clicked. The path represented the journey of my life; I had no thought of turning around and heading east because I could no more reverse the direction of my walk than I can reverse the course of time. The lights floating around the bridge reminded me of Christmas lights because the bridge stood for the days before and after Christmas. What imposing institution lay in wait for me, ready to darken my path after the Christmas break but unwilling to fully accept me into its community? Too easy.

But how did the voices in the lights fit into this scenario? They clearly meant something more than a Christmas decoration; Christmas lights don’t talk. These lights had personalities, they had comforting messages. Surely they include my family and my best friends. But because there were so many and because their words were indistinct, I believe they also include the authors on my reading list. Maybe their words are indistinct because they were the Spirits of Reading Yet to Come.

Yes, it sounds strange even to me, but I love my reading plan. Thanks for sharing part of the journey with me. At this point, some of the lights represent you and your encouragement. What are your lights? May they lead you across your bridge and through the shadows on your path.

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