Keys to the Interior Kingdom
By Stephanie Paulsell
In a Harvard Divinity School seminar on children’s literature and religious education last spring, 20 students and I read C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia and Philip Pullman’s trilogy His Dark Materials. I had planned the course around these two series of novels because of the differences between them. Pullman’s series is, in part, a critique of the Narnia books, an answer to the disdain for embodied life to which he believes the theology undergirding Lewis’s books gives rise.
The theological differences between the two series are fascinating, and exploring those differences helped us think seriously about the relationship of story and theology in religious education for children. But my students and I learned as much from the similarities among the books as the differences. Like countless other readers of both Lewis and Pullman, we were drawn to the notion of other worlds, hidden yet as close as our breath. And we found that the interior worlds of the young characters were as mysterious and compelling as the wood between the worlds or Lyra’s Oxford. C. S. Lewis once wrote that “to construct plausible and moving ‘other worlds’ you must draw on the only real ‘other world’ we know, [the world] of the spirit.”1
It is concern with the cultivation of this world, the interior world of the spirit, that we found shining out of both Lewis’s and Pullman’s books. In our classroom, we were mainline and evangelical, Roman Catholic and Jewish, Unitarian Universalist and Buddhist, but we held in common the desire to invite children into practices that cultivate the capacity for interiority that we all need to be fully present to ourselves, to others, to the world, and to God. In both Lewis and Pullman, we found help in making this invitation.
In The Magician’s Nephew, the start of Lewis’s series as he wished the novels placed, he tells the story of the creation of Narnia, a world sung into being by the great lion Aslan. Two children from our world—Polly and Digory—discover a way between the worlds on a day when the weather prevents them from playing outside: “Their adventures began chiefly because it was one of the wettest and coldest summers there had been for years. That drove them to do indoor things; you might say, indoor exploration. . . . Polly had discovered long ago that if you opened a certain little door in the box-room attic of her house you would find the cistern and a dark place behind it which you could get into by a little careful climbing. . . . Polly had used the bit of the tunnel just beside the cistern as a smugglers’ cave. She had brought up bits of old packing cases and the seats of broken kitchen chairs, and things of that sort, and spread them across from rafter to rafter so as to make a bit of floor. Here she kept a cash-box containing various treasures, and a story she was writing and usually a few apples. She had often drunk a quiet bottle of ginger-beer in there: the old bottles made it look more like a smugglers’ cave.”
Images of “indoor exploration” appear throughout every book in Lewis’s series, scenes of children developing and learning to sustain their inner lives. Lewis tries to draw on children’s everyday embodied experience of the world to point to moments of interiority that children might recognize: a smugglers’ cave in the attic, the quietness that comes after you’ve cried and cried and can’t cry anymore, or “that deep shiver of gladness which you
only get if you are being solemn and still.” In Lewis’s scenes of indoor exploration, the more fully developed a child’s inner life, the deeper that child’s connection to the world around her. Lewis shows how Polly’s growing interest in Aslan’s song of creation keeps her focused even in the midst of the frenetic distractions of the witch and the banally evil Uncle Andrew. By gathering her attention, she learns to feel the connection between the changing timbre of Aslan’s voice and the creation unfurling in splendid variety.
Philip Pullman also fills his books with images of the cultivation of interiority, but more didactically than Lewis. Pullman’s descriptions of the disciplines of the inner life offer something close to instruction in the meditative practices that construct the self. My students enjoyed pointing out that these practices seem, in spite of Pullman’s avowed atheism, very much like practices of prayer.
Consider this description in The Golden Compass, the first novel in Pullman’s series, of the main character, Lyra Silvertongue, learning to read the “alethiometer,” a truth-telling instrument inscribed with images that represent thousands and thousands of meanings. The alethiometer is set with clock-hands that swing this way and that, touching lightly on image after image, gathering meaning as they go: “. . . she tried to focus her mind on three symbols taken at random, and clicked the hands round to point at them, and found that if she held the alethiometer just so in her palms and gazed at it in a particular lazy way, as she thought of it, the long needle would begin to move more purposefully. Instead of its wayward divagations around the dial it swung smoothly from one picture to another. Sometimes it would pause at three, sometimes two, sometimes five or more, and although she understood nothing of it, she gained a deep calm enjoyment from it, unlike anything she’d ever known . . . and once or twice [she caught] a glimpse of meaning that felt as if a shaft of sunlight had struck through clouds to light up a majestic line of great hills in the distance—something far beyond, and never suspected.”
To read the alethiometer, Lyra has to be able to relax into a state of profound concentration that allows her to hold several levels of meaning in her mind at once, without anxiety. In The Subtle Knife, Pullman quotes the poet Keats as his source for describing this kind of attention: One must be “capable,” wrote Keats, “of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”
Pullman has many more descriptions of the disciplines of the inner life which open deeper and deeper paths into the mysteries of existence and light up the multiple relations between one’s singular life and the life of the world. Another young character, Will Parry, becomes the bearer of a knife that can slice its way between worlds. The knife will only cut when Will allows his consciousness to flow down to the tip of the blade, in much the same way that Lyra’s mind lowers itself down along the chain of multiple meanings inscribed in the images of the alethiometer until the meaning she seeks comes into focus. With his “consciousness nestled among the atoms [of the knife] . . . Will [can feel] every tiny snag and ripple in the air.”
Near the end of Pullman’s trilogy, in The Amber Spyglass, it becomes clear that learning to read the meanings held within the alethiometer has prepared Lyra to discover deeply hidden places within herself. In response to the distaste for the awakening of adolescent sexuality that Pull-man finds in the Narnia books, he offers a scene where a trusted adult character shares the story of her sexual awakening with Lyra: “As Mary spoke, Lyra felt something strange happen to her body. She felt as if she had been handed the key to a great house she hadn’t known was there, a house that was somehow inside her, and as she turned the key, she felt other doors opening deep in the darkness, and lights coming on. She sat trembling as Mary went on. . . . It was the strangest thing: Lyra knew exactly what [Mary] meant, and half an hour earlier she would have had no idea at all. And inside her, that rich house with all its doors open and all its rooms lit stood waiting, quiet, expectant.”
In this gentle scene, the world of the spirit and the world of the body are inseparable, and Lyra’s exploration of the mystery that is herself will have real consequences for her embodied life in the world.
There is so much in our culture that works against indoor exploration, the slow cultivation of interior life that Lewis and Pullman so clearly prize.
There is so much in our culture that works against indoor exploration, the slow cultivation of interior life that Lewis and Pullman, for all their differences, so clearly prize. The young person holding one of Lewis’s or Pullman’s books between her palms like Lyra with her alethiometer is being invited into indoor exploration—not only by reading about it, but by the practice of reading itself. But what if she is too distracted to hear this invitation, or too tired? What if her day is so relentlessly scheduled that she doesn’t have long dreamy hours in which to lower herself hand over hand down the chain of meanings that make up the story? What if her experience of time is so fragmented that she doesn’t have the patience for the slow accumulation of resonances that might build to a revelation? Slip in a DVD, and, instantly, a story flashes up before our eyes. We are shown what the landscape looks like and what the characters are wearing. The soundtrack urges us to feel what the director wants us to feel, and the camera focuses our gaze where the director wants it focused. Entering a book is a more complex task. It takes imagination, and it takes time—like worship, like prayer, like friendship, like love.
Can religious communities help our young reader? Can her youth group, her minister, or her Sunday school open a space in which she can be held as she makes her first forays into the indoor exploration a book can offer? The critic Sven Birkerts has argued that religious communities are among the only remaining places in our culture (he also includes therapists’ offices) that protect and cherish experiences of resonance, duration, and interiority.2 And, truly, where else can we go in our culture to sit together in silence, or to tell strange and ancient stories over and over again, polishing them in the pebbly river of worship and service, of singing and study, of shared meals and shared prayers until they shine? Religious communities should be places where youth are invited into the practice of reading over and over again.
Children who are immersed in the practice of reading know how subversive a practice it is, of course. Annie Dillard, remembering her own childhood as a reader, writes: “It was clear that adults, including our parents, approved of children who read books, but it was not at all clear why this was so. Our reading was subversive, and we knew it. Did they think we read to improve our vocabularies? Did they want us to read and not pay the least bit of heed to what we read, as they wanted us to go to Sunday school and ignore what we heard? . . . Those of us who read carried around with us like martyrs a secret knowledge, a secret joy, and a secret hope: There is a life worth living where history is still taking place; there are ideas worth dying for, and circumstances where courage is still prized. This life could be found and joined, like the Resistance.”3
Part of the subversive power of reading for children lies in the way a book can be a portable solitude, the “secret hope” about which Annie Dillard writes, a way of sheltering one’s inner life from the pressure to conform to the way things are. Another dimension of the subversive power of this practice lies in the way it can thin the boundaries between ourselves and others. Birkerts examines: “Not until I feel the train decelerating do I close the book and look up . . . I look around at the other passengers . . . and I feel irradiated with a benign detachment. The inner and the outer are, briefly, in balance. [The world of the book] is as present to me as these people. And that specious equivalence brings me closer to them, though I’m not sure why. Their boundaries seem porous; I have the illusion that I could enter and understand their lives.”4
The feeling of connection that Birkerts describes passes, as it should. He doesn’t really know what his fellow passengers’ lives are like, and it would be arrogant for him to assume that he does. What Birkerts describes is a fleeting moment of connection, which, like any ecstatic religious experience, does not last. But the memory of it does last. And sometimes the memory of apprehending the deep connections between strangers—of believing that it is at least possible to understand what others are going through—is what is needed to resist judgment or exclusion or violence.
I teach Sunday school for second, third, and fourth graders, the road that the rubber of these lovely ideas hits each week. A church member endowed our class with a little seed money for a library with which we have built a small collection. Some of these books are explicitly religious, like Brian Wildsmith’s retelling of the story of the Exodus. Others are only implicitly so, like Barbara Cooney’s story about vocation, Miss Rumphius. The first book we bought for our library was Jeanette Winter’s The Librarian of Basra, a true story about Alia Muhammad Baker, a librarian of the Central Library of Basra, who saved tens of thousands of volumes, including a seven-hundred-year-old biography of Muhammad, before the library burned to the ground during the invasion by American and British troops. The epigram to the book is a quote from the librarian herself: “The first word God says to Muhammad in the Koran,” she says, “is: read.”5
I found a little library kit in a stationery store, complete with cards and pockets and a due date stamp. My kids and I filled out the cards and pasted the pockets into the back of the books. Some weeks, nobody checks out a book, and I have to remind myself that reading is not the only practice of indoor exploration we have to offer our children, and it’s not going to be the first door into interior life for every child. But reading is a practice I want to offer to all of them, without exception, every week. I want them to know that no matter which reading group they’ve been sorted into in school, they are on equal footing in church, that we all stand in a long line of readers who have sought a deeper understanding of God and themselves through the practice of reading. I want them to associate their life in church with reading’s subversive power.
Every week, after we’ve greeted one another and talked about the week we’ve had, I read them a book. And every week, I am amazed by what a miracle a good book can work. I confess that I am not the most skilled Sunday school teacher you’re ever likely to meet; I do a lot better with divinity school students, who don’t need to be convinced of the worth of the enterprise in quite the same way. But when I read to my Sunday school kids, they all—even the most restless and resistant—lean forward and fall still. I can see them gathering and focusing their attention like Lyra reading the alethiometer, or Will searching for the way in to a new world with the tip of his knife, or Polly tuning her ears to the nuances of Aslan’s song.
When I see them bringing their whole selves to a story, I rejoice for them, and for us, because this capacity for attention will bear fruit throughout their lives, giving them a key to rooms hidden deep inside them and countless ways to forge paths between those rooms and the world all around.
- Lewis, On Stories and other Essays on Literature (Harvest, 1982), 12.
- Sven Birkerts, The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age (Fawcett Columbine, 1994), 75.
- Annie Dillard, An American Childhood (HarperPerennial, 1987), 182–184.
- Birkerts, 100–101.
- Jeanette Winter, The Librarian of Basra (Harcourt, 2005).
Stephanie Paulsell is Houghton Professor of the Practice of Ministry Studies at Harvard Divinity School. Her most recent book is Honoring the Body: Meditations on a Christian Practice (Jossey-Bass).