Monday, January 26, 2009

A Great Good

I just finished reading again George Eliot's Middlemarch. There are no libraries of English language books in Vietnam and only a handful of bookstores that carry a shelf or two of western literature. A few secondhand shops in the tourist district carry battered copies of bestsellers, but reading a book based on back copy and cover design is too much like a blind date for my taste, especially when the copy is dog-eared and stinks of cigarettes. I'm not a risk taker. For that reason (and a few others), I've spent the past five and a half years reading mostly Victorian literature.

I've read almost everything by Dickens, Austen, Eliot, and the three Brontes, with a couple of more obscure authors thrown in for good measure. I am not a very disciplined reader. I don't read to examine a book. I read for pleasure and escape and sometimes for companionship. I find a lot of common ground with some of the Victorians. Dorothea Brooke of Middlemarch has always been a kindred spirit. Her controlling impulse is to do a great good, but her pursuit of that ambition is impossibly hampered by her own flaws and naivety as well as the foibles and cruelty of others. In the end, Eliot says of Dorothea,
"But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and [the fact] that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs" (from the Wordsworth Classics edition of Middlemarch, page 688).

I find consolation in this notion that a great good can come out of a hidden life, one lived simply and faithfully with an eye toward loving God and loving others. Achieving a great good in one fell swoop is exciting to anticipate, but virtually impossible to accomplish. We are all too flawed, and the world is too messy, to do a complete renovation. Spot cleaning, starting with ourselves, is more in order.

When I am between novels, I empathize with the early pioneers crossing the Forty-Mile Desert--forced to abandon one river with only the assurance of another. During these stretches, I read non-fiction articles or essays or poetry until I get absorbed again in a story. Last night I read a sermon by Henry Drummond who was a Scottish teacher and evangelist during the late 1800s. The sermon, entitled "The City Without a Church," dovetailed nicely with finishing Middlemarch, though I didn't expect this when I picked it up. At one point, Drummond writes:
"There are thousands ready in their humble measure to offer some personal service for the good of men, but they do not know where to begin. Let me tell you where to begin... Begin where you are. Make that one corner, room, house, office as like heaven as you can. Begin? Begin with the paper on the walls, make that beautiful; with the air, keep it fresh; with the very drains, make them sweet; with the furniture, see that it be honest. Abolish whatsoever worketh abomination--in food, in drink, in luxury, in books, in art; whatsoever maketh a lie--in conversation, in social intercourse, in correspondence, in domestic life. This done, you have arranged for a heaven, but you have not got it. Heaven lies within, in kindness, in humbleness, in unselfishness, in faith, in love, in service. To get these in, get Christ in. Teach all in the house about Christ--what He did, and what He said, and how He lived, and how He died, and how He dwells in them, and how He makes all one. Teach it not as a doctrine, but as a discovery, and your own discovery. Live your own discovery" (Henry Drummond, "The City Without a Church," from the anthology The Greatest Thing in the World, pages 42-43).

The only way I know how to respond to this is to pray,

"Father, help me to begin doing good in the world by first bringing beauty and order to my home. Teach me frugality and generosity. Let everyone who enters our home feel loved and welcomed. Help me to be discerning about what I bring into this place whether it be what I watch on television or what I read on the Internet. Help me to speak truth, to avoid gossip, to reprimand the boys in love, and to choose good words that encourage. Most importantly, help me to know Christ better with each passing day. Make the gospels come alive as I read them again in the coming months. Make it my impulse to share each small discovery and to live these discoveries so that my children, and my husband, and my friends are reminded of Christ. Make me kind and humble and unselfish as Christ is all of these things. Teach me to live simply and faithfully, loving you and loving others. I pray all of these things knowing that you are able even while I am deeply flawed. In Christ's name, Amen."


  1. Hi Heather,
    I too have found great things to learn from some of the Victorian authors you mention. Thomas Hardy has also oft provoked a great deal of thought, although it doesn't pay to read his work if you are feeling in danger of a depressive episode. Are you familiar with much of Hardy's ouvre?