The Spirituality of Elizabeth Goudge

The Spirituality of Elizabeth Goudge
By Elspeth Parris, who wrote it as part of a ‘certificate in theology’ course at St Michael’s College, Cardiff. She says of the piece; “my last module was on spirituality. We were asked to write about someone who had inspired our own spirituality – the assumption was that we would choose one of the spiritual ‘greats’ such as Augustine, St John of the Cross or St Julian of Norwich. I chose to write about Elizabeth Goudge because she has been such a strong influence in my own life.    Summer2012

The principal of embedding spiritual guidance within fiction is a very old one: the books of Job and Ruth for instance appear not to be recounting facts but telling stories which suggest to us how we should be relating to God. We tend however to look for our spiritual guidance to the great writers of the church, and they tend to embed their spirituality into their theology or into accounts of their lives which were usually monastic. The spirituality of Augustine, St John of the Cross, Julian of Norwich or Brother Lawrence can all be hard to read to many people today, with language which is archaic, embedded within lifestyles far from our own or utilising theological concepts which many don’t understand.

We have modern examples of authors who express their Christian understanding in fiction: recently, the Shack expressed a particular understanding of the Trinity and the Atonement and, being fiction, was able to reach an enormous audience which a theological tome would have missed; C.S. Lewis wrote many books of Christian apologetics but he also wrote the Narnia stories which are still popular with children today, and in those stories he embeds concepts of Christianity which, written as a textbook, would be rejected by many of the same children. One of the great authors who expressed her spirituality in fiction was Elizabeth Goudge and her writing was one of the factors which led me, eventually, to become Christian, and still has an influence on the style of my Christianity today.

Elizabeth Goudge was born in 1900 in Wells, Somerset. Her father was an Anglican priest and principal of the Theological College and they lived in the “liberty” of the Cathedral. In 1911, Elizabeth’s family moved to Ely where her father became principal of the Theological college there and a canon of the Cathedral. When she was 23, they moved again, to Oxford where her father became Regius Professor of Divinity and they were provided with a house in the University. Because her mother found Oxford too busy and noisy they found a bungalow at Barton in Hampshire where her mother could live for most of the year. She had an education suited to the life of a gentlewoman but the world was changing and she was going to need to earn her living.

When Elizabeth finished school it was unclear what she was going to do, there was a deficit of young men after the war and marriage was only an option for those who were outstandingly attractive, which Elizabeth wasn’t, either in looks or social graces. She would have liked to be an actress but she had a stammer and was shy and nervous, since she wasn’t sufficiently educated to become a teacher that left only nursing and for that her health was too poor. It was decided that she should go to art college to study crafts and could then find a post teaching disabled children. She seems to have enjoyed the crafts and did set up a studio in the house in Ely where she had a few students but no employment resulted and even the home teaching failed when the family moved to Oxford where the house was too dark for the work and students were sadly lacking.

It was after her mother had gone to live for most of the year in Barton that Elizabeth, on her visits there, started to write. Her first book was published in 1934 and she eventually became a success when, in 1947, Green Dolphin Country was accepted by a film company. By that time her father had died and she was effectively the sole supporter of herself and her mother until her mother’s death. She and her mother had settled in Devon but after her mother’s death she moved to rural Oxfordshire, where she lived with a close companion until her death in 1984.

Elizabeth never kept her faith separate from her writing. Her characters faith (or sometimes lack of it) was always an important part of the workings of the plot. More than that, her own deep spirituality shows through in the many lyrical passages describing the places and people among whom her plot operates. Her characters work their way through often difficult circumstances, always in the end to be redeemed by love, and often by faith. This matches with the faith she describes in her autobiography, where she describes hell as being an experience we have here on earth and redemption as an experience we can know in our daily lives.

The biggest influence on Elizabeth’s spiritual development was clearly her father; luckily he published books so knowledge of the nature of that influence is not limited to her own description. He had rebelled against his own Anglican Evangelical upbringing and appears to have developed a tendency toward the Oxford Movement.

The best picture of her father’s attitudes is given from Elizabeth’s autobiography where she quotes a friend’s description of her father “He was a fast, light walker but he had slowed his steps to match those of the old tramp walking beside him. They were deep in conversation and my father was carrying the tramp’s bundle. They were on their way to our house so that my father might get the old man a meal.” In a domestic setting, her parents had always brought her up to be aware of the needs of the poor, taking toys to poor children when she was young and joining her father on parish visiting during the war when the theological college was closed and he was taking on the work of the various priests who had gone to be army chaplains.

There was a period when Elizabeth’s faith failed her, her mother’s constant ill health had shaken it, when she became ill herself she simply could not believe that a loving God would permit such suffering. As a result, she concluded that God could not really be Almighty; she could “love a God who was weak” and who wanted to prevent suffering but was unable to do so. This led her to the realisation of a God who suffered with us through the life and death of Jesus.

Among authors she mentions who have contributed to her spiritual journey are C.S. Lewis, who was contemporaneous and who she clearly looked up to, Teillard Chardin and Tomas Traherne. There is also evidence from her fiction that she had read Brother Lawrence, St John of the Cross and Julian of Norwich.

Teilhard de Chardin (1881 – 1955) was very aware humanity was being split in two by the need to turn to God and move forward with the world. There was at the time (and still is in some circles) a perceived conflict between science and religion, since science underpins the technology, that even more since his time, we rely on in our everyday lives, this apparent conflict presents our faith with a real dilemma. Do we, in general, believe every word of the Bible to be true, even when it contradicts science? Do we, in particular, believe the Creation story in Genesis, or the evolutionary story from modern Biology? Teillard de Chardin looked for a resolution of the problem producing a theology which enabled religion and science to be reconciled in Christ. For him, “the cross is no longer a sign simply of expiation, but the symbol of growth and progress accomplished in pain and through suffering.” We are to follow Christ, in the World. This seems to fit quite naturally with Brother Lawrence’s depiction of living all our daily activities from within our loving relationship with God.

De Chardin’s influence is very clear in Goudge’s work, her work is very much of the world, her characters are ordinary people, not monks or nuns and their concerns are the ordinary daily concerns that any of us might have, their work, their family, their marriage, their house. She is following Christ in the world by imagining how each of these people can change under the influence of a love which lives in Christ.

Tomas (or Thomas) Traherne (1637 – 1674) was an Anglican priest whose work seems not to have received much attention until 1908 when his Centuries of Meditation was discovered and published. Many of his works were then re-published in the 1960s and it is these that Goudge is likely to have read. Although the Anglican Church was much influenced by Calvinism in his own time he himself is deeply optimistic of man’s redemption. He sees mankind as being in need of restoration to spiritual wholeness. He is clearly influenced by Augustine who perceived sinful humanity as suffering from a “spiritual sickness” which needed to be healed. Goudge’s books all show her characters as suffering from a spiritual sickness which results in disruption to their ability to relate to God and man, the redemption they receive is a healing of that sickness.

What Elizabeth Goudge has in common with C.S. Lewis is her capacity for observation of the quirks and oddities of humanity, an observation seen through a love of man which is inspired by her love of God. C.S.Lewis once observed that next to the Eucharist our neighbour was the most holy thing we should ever encounter. That is precisely how she treats the characters in her books, they are examples of all the ordinary people she has met, all the ordinary people her reader has met  and she loves them all, with all their faults and weaknesses. The difference between these two authors is that, while Lewis’ characters are often redeemed at their death, Goudge’s characters are always redeemed in their lives. Individuals are healed, marriages are renewed, conflicts are resolved, communities are healed and all by a love which is deeply rooted in faith. Such sweetness might seem unlikely, books which always have a happy ending can be facile, and might be expected to be cheap romances, but these happy endings can be bitter. Joy can be found in watching the renewal of a marriage which permanently denies the love of the central heroine of the book, or the re-instatement within the community of a family where the husband will spend years in prison for a fraud just discovered, or a young man wander off into a series of dead-end jobs with no future and no home. And yet the circumstances of each of these people has been so filled with love that their lives are changed. They have found the ability to forgive themselves and others, they have made a new beginning to the relationships which are most important to them and which were, previously damaged. Where Lewis warns us, in Screwtape, of the small evils to which we can so easily fall prey in our ordinary, daily lives; Goudge shows us how to create goodness and fill the lives around us with love.

 

“..her endearing capacity to [empathise] with others and to find the comic in the darkest of situations helped her through. “This is the wonderful light she shed in her books, her characters finding salvation and redemption through living for the greater good, of friends and family, rather than selfishly for themselves.

Themes in her work

Overall, her theme is Redemption, how it can actually work in our lives, change us, heal us. There are a number of themes relating to how people act in her books, not in order to receive redemption since that is in the hands of God, but to align themselves with God so that they can be redeemed by him.

Adherence

In her biography Goudge talks about adherence as a vital Christian quality:

“To love God subtly alters a human being. If the simile is not too homely the lover of God has glue in his veins and tends to be more adherent than other men, The more he loves God the more, for God’s sake, he sticks to his woman, his job or his faith.”

This is a quality she often demonstrates in her books. In Green Dolphin Country a man, long exiled from his home country, writes home to ask if the woman he had loved ten years before would join him in his exile. To his delight she agrees, but when she arrives, he has given the name of the wrong sister. The situation echoes the story of Jacob but there is no option to wait to have the right sister as well. He has to choose, there and then as he meets her from the boat. Overwhelmed by pity, he feels that he can’t send her home shamed and unwanted after her long journey. The marriage which results comes to be filled with hatred: his for her; her for his friends and his lifestyle. She loves him, as she understands love, but her understanding of love is faulty: she thinks that in loving him she is to be ambitious for him, to make him change to become an aristocrat of the new country. He, however, is happy with his life as a working man, he has built a nice cottage with a garden and has a sufficient income to keep himself, his wife and any children there might be. His mistake in asking in marriage the wrong sister is his only regret. He has only a vague belief in God but respect for the parson and it is the parson who convinces him to live his life in the memory of that moment when he met his wife from the boat. He gets his drinking under control by himself, and learns the humility of allowing his wife to think it is her scolding which has achieved it although it is her scolding which makes him want to drink. He lives his life as an act of obedience to his own choice and thus he is able to adhere to his marriage and while love for some time is only a pretence in time, it becomes real. In the end, it is his love for her which rescues her when her false belief structure, based on pride and self-importance collapses around her. Again, love redeems.

Obedience, humility and trust in God.

In her biography, Goudge reveals her nervousness, her lack of social graces, her fear of new people. These qualities she built into the character of Jean Anderson in The Scent of Water. Here she demonstrates how, by giving up her troubles in obedience to, and trust in God she is able to overcome her fear:

 

“She had stopped struggling, her hands sticky with fear and anxiety, and taking her shoes right off had turned back with blind trust to the beginning again, to the beginning of the action of obedience that always had a wholesome sweetness in it, though it was hard, a foretaste of the end with its humble thankfulness. After that the knots had come out of the laces quite easily, she had put on her hat and gone. The fear had gone with her of course, but it had become bearable. And now look how easy it had all been and how he had helped her.”

(my emphasis, it is clear in the context that it is God she means by “he”)

God as seen in nature

This is a very basic element of Goudge’s spirituality, not just every book, but probably every chapter, possibly every page of every book gives examples of the way she sees God in the natural world around her:

“It was in a world of sunshine and birdsong that I had my first conviction of sin. ..It overwhelmed me. I know the exact spot on a field path where I first knew the vileness of sin in myself; and can recapture the misery I felt because it has been repeated so many times since. .A little later I was alone in the garden, at a spot where hyacinths and deep red wallflowers were in bloom against a grey stone wall, and God revealed himself in a shining world.”

When, in Green Dolphin Country, Marguerite’s whole personality seems to be disintegrating in response to the distresses and traumas of her life, she loses everything of herself that matters to her, that provides her sense of identity:

Except one thing. It had only been at the blackest hour of that dark night that she had ceased to believe that God is. When he had given back to her night and morning, birdsong and the scent of the earth, she had believed in Him again; with no joy, no adoration, just a blind reliance upon the fact of Him, that same blind reliance that was hers when she got out of bed in the morning and knew that some solid surface would support her feet. That was all. For the rest, her own life and the universe seemed just a tumbling chaos.”

God as seen in “the other”.

This is discussed in comparison with C.S. Lewis above as is her tendency to see Redemption as an event which can occur during our lives rather than something to await after death.

A presentation for the Mother’s Union in Merthyr Tydfil on the  Spiritual Aspects of the writings of Elizabeth Goudge.

Preparing this presentation, I wanted to demonstrate that this is “easy reading”. Elizabeth Goudge presents her spirituality in a format which does not require the ability to read heavy tomes of theological musings in archaic language. As a result, it is more

accessible to people who think of themselves as being “not academic, or intellectual”.

What the reader is reading about is the story of a man, woman or child as they encounter whatever set of circumstances makes up the plot of the book. The spirituality of Goudge’s Christian faith is absorbed along the way as easily as the vitamin C included in a glass of fruit juice it’s simply an integral part of some very fine fiction writing.

There is a problem with availability of the books themselves, although some of them are in print, they are not usually stocked in bookshops; there may be many of them in the library, but they’re not kept on the shelves. I have suggested to our Rector that we could provide a “parish library” by each of us putting some books out that members of the congregation could borrow. If we do that, then I am happy to put my own books there and could include all my Elizabeth Goudge books at the time of this talk.

A further option is that the local library may be willing to co-operate by getting all their Goudge books out of storage and making a display of them timed with my talk. The library is next door to the church so this could work well. Advertising the talk in the library could draw in people who don’t normally come to the church. Having recently been to a diocesan training session on “parishes and the media”, I realise that such a cooperative event could also make a good newspaper article, which could again draw in people who wouldn’t normally come to church. Offering such a talk in a way which operates as mission as well as an opportunity to enable people to deepen their spirituality appeals to me.

I wanted to give a general “feel” of what her books are like. Why I consider them to be both a “good read” and spiritually uplifting. I notice that this descriptive paragraph which I wrote as part of the presentation is written in a style reminiscent of Goudge herself:

 

There is a sort of “light” in all of Elizabeth Goudge’s books, it’s like the light of a sunny day just before the sun has properly risen. A light that catches on dew drops on the roses or icicles hanging from the gutters; a light that shines into people’s lives, a light that can shine into the dark places of the reader’s life.

I picked out one book in particular to give a flavour of what the writing is like and used “The Scent of Water” for this purpose. I gave a brief summary of the plot, illustrated by some quoted passages demonstrating how her characters come to be redeemed from hatred, fear, and pain by love, faith and obedience to God.

A love which holds the whole community together to rest safe in God’s hands. Along the way, and through Cousin Mary’s diary, Jean’s fear, the humility of the elderly couple, the striving of the blind author, the despair of a young man “up to no good” and the disaster of the squire’s business enterprises the reader is carried within the safety which is achieved by obedience to, and trust in, God to a glory of redemption achieved in their ordinary lives rather than in some hard to imagine heaven.

It was while preparing the presentation that I realised the usefulness of a comparison with C.S.Lewis. They had in many ways a similar attitude which makes the comparison of their differences easy to understand illuminating both authors. An additional advantage is that while modern readers may not have heard of Elizabeth Goudge, most people have heard of C.S.Lewis, even if only as the author of the Narnia stories which are still very popular.

This comparison really helped me to bring out the compassionate interest Goudge has in the little problems of people’s lives. Most of us are unlikely to have to face major ethical issues more than once or twice in our lives, but little ethical problems face us every day. For both authors, how we react to those problems is the stuff of which Christian living is made, but they treat the issue very differently in their books.

The difference between them is that Goudge looks upon those small evils with eyes that know redemption, not just as being saved after our death but as a great power that changes our lives for the better; knew it, because had changed her own life over and over again in her times of despair and her experience of depression.

I considered including prayers which reflect Goudge’s spirituality but decided that if I want this to appeal to members of the general public, not just members of the Church then I might be better to limit this to the prayer from Tomos Traherne with which she finished her autobiography. I am aware that many people are attracted to spirituality without being comfortable with Christian prayer. Goudge’s books include many references to Christianity but, held within the context of the story, and recognising that she emphasis the importance of the love and compassion felt by those characters who are not Christian I feel that her books would be attractive, and have something to offer even to non-Christians. I consider that satisfying the longing among non-Christians for spirituality is an important part of mission so I don’t want to put such people off with a lot of Christian prayer.

I am aware that many people can’t cope with listening to someone talk for 20 minutes which is the length of time this presentation would take. I need to break it up somehow. Our parish has applied for funding for a projector to operate from a lap-top. That would enable me to add some relevant images and music to give breaks in the talking. Appropriate images would be of scenes from nature, scenes of country life and scenes of people in very ordinary situations. If we have obtained the projector by the time the presentation is to be given then that would be very helpful. It would make the presentation longer, but easier for people to remain attentive.

Theological Reflection on Quotes from Goudge

From her autobiography  The Joy of the Snow:

If our own small intuition, upheld by the experience of the saints and the mystics of all religions through all the centuries, persists in murmuring that God exists then there is nothing left for us except the humble acceptance of paradox and mystery. If it is true that God is Almighty, it is also true that he needs us, since he chose that his son should be true man as well as true God, by this choice making Christ and man inseparable. Apart from Christ we have no life; we are merely a dead leaf fallen from the tree. Apart from us he has no body in the world, no hands and no feet and heart and voice to bring God’s mercy to a suffering world.

God and the suffering caused by sin are inseparably united, and will be so until sin ends. The mind boggles but there is enormous comfort here. For one thing it is hard to doubt the love of a God who is ready to suffer and die for us. For another thing, when we suffer we must be as close to God as we are to the pain.” (p 202)

And so having let go of the horror of eternal punishment what do I think about hell now? I believe that in the old sense of the word there is no hell, but that we can use the word in a new way. We can say that all that is contrary to the will of God is dreadful enough to be called hell, in the sense in which most people still use the word. Those who know what it is like to be in such darkness of mind that they feel God has forsaken them think they know what hell is. Those who have been in concentration camps, and have had the whole power of evil concentrated upon them, and those who have endured pain so bad that it is practically beyond human endurance say “it was hell”. And they are right, since these things are contrary to the will of God and their origin is not in his creative love. In Christ though, God allowed himself to experience the hell we live in and thus can redeem us. (P. 264/5)

In the early twentieth century Christian thinking was reacting rather than striking out in new directions. The Enlightenment of the 18th century was still very much an issue, putting God at a distance as if he had done his work and gone. This had arisen from the new scientific way of thinking and the issues of science, as if in conflict with religion was still very much alive too. And then two major wars, and the horrors of the trenches and the concentration camps had a theological effect. How, people were asking, could a loving God allow these horrors to happen? Writers even began to question if God was still alive. At the same time, the divergence between the Evangelicals and the Oxford Movement within Anglicanism was producing big questions about the Atonement, and the nature of hell. Does the penal substitution theory favoured by the Evangelicals deny God’s love for all mankind that the Oxford Movement priests were enthusiastically preaching to the people of the slums? The quotes I have chosen from Goudge’s biography show where she stands on these issues.

Goudge had come to the point of deciding that hell, as she had previously understood it, did not exist after pondering the possibility that if God existed at all, then he could not be Almighty. While her father quashed that idea she was in fact toying with ideas which many had considered. She resolved that by concluding, as others had before her, that the problem of suffering is resolved by free will, permitting him only to persuade us rather than over-ride our will as suggested by Whitehead. The issue of God’s attitude to our suffering becomes vastly importance when considering the concept of hell. There are still arguments against the penal substitution theory because it implies a willingness of God to permit, indeed, engineer, human suffering. Although these are modern arguments, the concept develops naturally for someone who has almost discarded God himself in her unwillingness to accept his apparent tolerance of our pain. And so, rather than discarding God, or the concept of his power, she came to the conclusion of a God who suffers with us, and in particular, who suffers with us through the life and death of Jesus. Here she seems to be following Barth:

 

For Barth, the notion of the omnipotence of God must always be understood in the light of Gods self-revelation in Christ. [which leads to a] belief in the triumph of Gods grace over unbelief, evil and suffering.

 

So, having discarded Hell, she began to think about what “hell” might be. Again, she seems to have come to the same conclusion as Barth in this, and may indeed have been reading his work. His concept of “nothingness” refers to anything which God did not will in creation, anything which goes against God.

Why Elizabeth Goudge is important to my own spirituality.

I started reading Elizabeth Goudge long before I became a Christian. I read the books simply as stories and although I would have been extremely irritated by anyone preaching at me I didn’t have a problem with the constant reference to God in her books, it was simply the faith of the character concerned, that was OK, no-one was expecting me to agree with that faith, just to understand the character and how they were shaped by their faith. It somehow seemed that I came across one of her books by chance at times when I was in great distress or had a major ethical decision to make. Each time I was able to somehow find relief and clarity in the clear light that she generates in her books. I might find a new determination to stand by what I perceived as right, or comfort for my pain. Whatever I found, it felt good and right.

Having been a Christian for some years now it has been interesting to re-read her books, not in any particular situation requiring her clarity, simply to discover them from a new point of view and to look for the influence they have had upon me.

Thinking about this the last few days a phrase kept coming to mind and I’ve finally identified it, apparently from Macbeth: “But screw your courage to the sticking place,
And we’ll not fail.” This is something I definitely got from Elizabeth Goudge. In all the years when I was struggling with the memories of pain and trauma of my early life there was a quality she was telling me about nowadays we’d simply say “hang in there” but it doesn’t have quite the same impact. It’s a quality she calls in her biography, “stickability” or adherence, the willingness to hold on to what we have committed ourselves to. In all my troubles, it was a quality I was quite incapable of but her requirement of it was embedded in the wonderful sense of light that fills her books. The more I tried and failed to support my commitment, even my commitment to simply being me, the more I felt the need of that light.

I think the next point I saw, was that my commitment to being me could only be supported by obedience to God. I had a vague sense of God at the time, none of Christ. But I desperately needed there to exist something greater than me to which I could be obedient so that I could rest. It seemed that I always had to be in control or my entire world would collapse around me. By giving my obedience to God I could let go, allow him to be in charge. I didn’t understand the concepts I was dealing with, but somehow, Elizabeth Goudge led me to be able to do it, at least some of the time.

And then slowly, the concept of hope began to get through to me. In a time of despair I found one of her books in a charity shop. I don’t remember which one. I can see how the pattern of thinking which allows that people can be redeemed by the healing of their relatedness to the world around them began to become real to me.

This is love expressed in little things, acting to heal relationships. It is this living out of the command to “love one another” which is real to me about Elizabeth Goudge. To me, a “command” to love is a contradiction in terms. Love by definition can only be given freely. God has given us free will and we assume that he does so precisely because, although being Almighty he has the power to command us, if he did then our love would be worthless. In a recent incident in my community, I had to deal with a problem of a girl who was telling others (incorrectly) that I had a dangerous dog. If I had been commanded to love her, I would have felt rebellious and annoyed, arguing that I was in the right and she in the wrong. Instead, being steeped at present in reading for this essay it seemed natural to take an interest in the girl, to care about her fear, to join myself to groups of friends around her if I had previously chatted with at least one of them. My normal fear of being unwelcome among groups of people who don’t know me seemed to have disappeared, I was there for a reason even though I didn’t yet know it. In Green Dolphin Country one of the characters advises, “act as if you love her, even though you hate her”. Once the recipient of that advice tries to live by it, he finds himself having to find qualities in his wife to love and from then on, although their relationship is never easy it does at least function, resulting in a child who he finds easy to love. I found myself acting as if I loved this girl, and as a result I am in fact growing fond of her, she seems a bit bewildered by it why should I, to whom she has addressed some quite unpleasant comments, take an interest in her? If Elizabeth Goudge was writing this story then some angle of the plot would turn upon my refusal to return anger for anger. In the meantime, somewhat to my surprise since it was none of it planned, I am learning how it feels like to live Jesus’ request that we love one another and it feels rather good!

While writing the section (above) on Goudge’s theology, I found the closeness of her thinking to Barth in her consideration of the nature of hell. I also found, in my own college notes on Barth an aside from myself describing my own understanding of hell, simply an absence of God’s presence which I noticed was very close to his thoughts on it. It seems likely that in my pre-Christian reading of Goudge I was working through my own difficulty with accepting the apparent conflict of a loving God who sends people to eternal torment. I certainly wouldn’t have read Barth, but reading Goudge’s novels I seem to have picked up the idea which she only expresses formally in her biography. This is the nature of her influence upon me, an influence which only leaves me saying I love her novels, and they help me when I am distressed or confused,  but which has in fact imparted to me a depth of understanding of some difficult theological points expressed within a spirituality which shows how we can live our lives within God’s love. And so I have learnt to do.

 Bibliography

Elizabeth Goudge – Many of her books are in book club editions which don’t show publication details properly. I rely on the Elizabeth Goudge Society for dates of publication.

The Joy of the Snow (autobiography) Hodder & Stoughton 1974

The Scent of Water

Green Dolphin Country

 

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