In the Steps of Those Who've Gone Before: A New Year's Miscellany

Literary Lights

Lyme_Regis_cliffsSo often, the start of a new year brings a welcome time of reflection. Many recall moments that prompt thoughts of gratitude, and I’m one of them.

As a reader, and an author, I try to remember way stations of good things that have graced my journey. They remind me that while there are many challenges that arise in following a writer’s calling, there are moments that make it all new again, and deepen one’s commitment to that call.

At the start of this new year, while a winter storm blanketed the land around our home in white, I had a chance to revisit one set of memories for which I’m particularly grateful. They are rich in ties to history and literature. For me, they carry a wealth of blessings too.

Some years ago, my wife and I were privileged to take a day trip with our friends Sam and Sarah Wilberforce to the beautiful port town of Lyme Regis in Dorset, England.

It was a storied afternoon. Along with the Wilberforces (Sam is a third great-grandson of the reformer William Wilberforce), we visited the town’s historic Cobb and harbor. As we walked, snacking on fish and chips, we pushed our then one-and-a-half-year-old son Sam along in his pram. He chattered most of the time, in the wonderfully incomprehensible language of toddlers. “Big Sam” took great delight in the pronouncements of “little Sam,” and we laughed over them.

At other times, off in the distance, we could see the beautiful blue cliffs for which Lyme Regis is famous. Every once in a while, we stopped just to look at them. It really was stunning.

Lyme Regis is also Jane Austen country, and she wrote about it in her novel, “Persuasion.” Said she: “A very strange stranger it must be, who does not see charms in the immediate environs of Lyme, to make him wish to know it better.” As we went along, Sam and Sarah told us about Austen’s connections to Dorset, along with those of her fellow novelist Thomas Hardy.

One might have thought that all these things, had our visit ended just then, would have been a great gift in themselves. Indeed they were, but there was to be one more time of discovery that brought a further set of cherished memories.

At one point, Sam Wilberforce and I set out in pursuit of an antiquarian book shop. In short order, we found a fine one, and we both set ourselves to the happy task of prospecting among its tall and thickly clustered shelves.

* * *

Two treasures came my way that day. The first was a beautiful Penguin paperback edition of John Bunyan’s classic “The Pilgrim’s Progress,” edited by Roger Sharrock. This was a special find, as C. S. Lewis had spoken so highly of Bunyan’s “admirable editor, Mr. Sharrock” in his BBC audio lecture about The Pilgrim’s Progress, first broadcast in October 1962. I was just beginning work on my literary biography of Bunyan. Now, Lewis’s commendation had led me to book that could (and did) help me greatly in that task.

The second book was also one for which I owe Lewis a particular debt of gratitude. In my reading, I’d learned of Lewis’s deep appreciation for the writings of Jeremy Taylor. How deep that appreciation ran can be gauged from a letter written on November 8, 1931, when Lewis wrote to his friend Arthur Greeves, saying that he’d “bought the complete works of Jeremy Taylor in 15 volumes”!

Taylor was a 17th-century Englishman who served as Bishop of Down and Connor in Ireland. Down through the centuries, his devotional works have earned him the title “the Shakespeare of divines,” so it was a gift indeed to find a beautiful half-leatherbound copy of “Holy Living and Dying,” perhaps his most famous work. It had been published long years ago, in 1899.

This book is studded with gems of insight and reverent wisdom. Reading its pages, one can easily see why Lewis spent a tidy sum in acquiring a complete set of Taylor’s writings. How fine a thing to keep company with a fellow pilgrim who wrote lines like “know that faith never rides single, but it carries hope before it.” And I don’t know that a sunrise has ever been more memorably described than when Taylor wrote: “When the sun approaches towards the gates of the morning, he sends away the spirits of darkness, calls up the lark to matins, and by and by gilds the fringes of a cloud. . . ”

One last passage from Taylor seems particularly meaningful for the days of Christmas, and the start of a new year. It celebrates the first things of the season, and hallows them in prose that blurs the line into poetry—

For in old times, God was known by names of power, of nature, of majesty; but His name of mercy was reserved till now, when God did purpose to pour out the whole treasure of His mercy by the mediation and ministry of His holy Son.

There is little one might wish to add to that. Happy New Year, and bless the Lord who gave Christmas its name.

Image copyright Geograph.

Kevin Belmonte, an award-winning writer and historian, is the author of several books, including the forthcoming biography “D. L. Moody: A Life” (May 2014).

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