Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Why I Believe in Unicorns (A Christian Manifesto)

The greatest thing about my name is that the people you meet and the friends you make seldom know more than one "Justine," so you immediately achieve that Cher-like status of being referred to solely by your first name.  The second great thing about "Justine" is that it means "just one; seeker of the just."  My father will tell you that they named me well.  I hate true injustice more than just about anything.  The third great thing about being named "Justine" is that I get to share this appellation with the great saint pictured at your left.  Yeah, that's right, the chick with the unicorn.  I love her for her purity and chastity -- two undervalued traits in modern society -- and, yes, I love her for the unicorn with whom she is often portrayed.  Because I believe in unicorns.  Does that surprise you?

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy. Shakespeare wrote it; MacDonald believed it; Chesterton explained and justified it; Lewis and Tolkein invited us into its world. It is the sense of mystery and delight -- the sheer unboundedness of an infinitely creative God -- that cries out that yes, yes, of course there is more that is than is seen. More than we can even begin to believe could be. From this wellspring of a complete and utter trust in my unfathomable Creator, I have found the courage to believe in magic.

If you think about it, there is no better way to explain the Creation story than magic. Good and orthodox souls may be reaching for the smelling salts right now, but I think that is more from our modern distance from and misunderstanding of deep, ancient magic. When we hear magic, we think of one of two things usually: either the dark forces of magic -- the demonic -- or the fake illusions of showmen -- the dishonest. But, I ask you to look at the Creation story with fresh, unprejudiced eyes. God, from Nothing, creates Everything, except Himself, for He is, was, and always will be. It comes from Him, but it is not of Him; God is separate from His creation that exists from His words and breath. What could that be other than primary, true magic? You could call it the Almighty Power of God -- which it is. You could call it Unlimited Creative Mind of God -- which it is. Whatever you call it, it functions like magic. God is magical, not because magic created Him, but because He created magic.

And so, when I was a little girl, I believed in magic, and I believed in God. Then, as a jaded young adult, I believed in neither magic nor God. Now, as a grown woman, I have become, as C.S. Lewis advised in his dedication of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, "old enough to start reading fairy tales again," and have found to my wonderment that I believe in a mystical, magical, biblical, orthodox God. In other words, I believe everything in the Bible and then some. I like using the letters from "Bible" as an acronym for Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth -- this is the least you need to know to get where you want to go. But, to have fun along the way, I highly recommend digging deeper into the mysteries of God and His creation and letting go of your preconceived notions of myth and reality.  I guess that I am today where the Irish have been since St. Patrick -- alive to every possibility of an eternal Creator.

How different life is when you stop seeing "everyday." There is no such thing as everyday, because every second of every minute of every hour of every day is an utterly unique and unrepeatable moment in time wherein God is moving. The rosebush in your front garden blooms vivid pink every summer? Be surprised and delighted in it, because a whisper of God could turn those roses white. You're distressed to see silver threads infiltrating your tawny mane as the calendar months fly by? Remember that a chuckle echoing from Heaven could turn them fuschia. And yet, the Most High does not dabble in these eccentricities often. I think in part this is because He treasures His children too much to keep them constantly off-balance (as parents know that their own children are most happy and secure in a routine), and, in part, because He Himself is so harmonious that He delights in the harmony of His creation and only disrupts it for an emergency.

It could also be, as Chesterton wrote about the perceived inexorability of sunrise, that "perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, 'Do it again' to the sun; and every evening, 'Do it again' to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. . . . The repetition in Nature may not be a mere recurrence; it may be a theatrical encore." (Orthodoxy, Chap. 4, "The Ethics of Elfland") Whatever His reasons, remembering that He can alter this lifescape with the ease of a painter flicking his paintbrush on a canvas ought to be a constant source of wonder.

And so, the magical world may not be fantasy after all. The older I get, the more I read and think upon it, the more I become convinced that Narnia is much closer to reality than The Origin of Species. No one has ever seen the unbroken record of human evolution; but, thousands have seen faeries. No one has ever seen inantimate matter spring to life in a petrie dish; but, painters and poets remember that St. George slew a dragon. No one has ever seen the Big Bang; but, millions have felt the rush of the Holy Spirit within their breasts.

One of my favorite essays by G.K. Chesterton is "The Dragon's Grandmother" from the collection Tremendous Trifles. This is a short manifesto on the importance of fairy stories as illustrated by Chesterton's encounter with a man who, amazingly, not only believes that fairy tales cannot have happened (which Chesterton dismisses in and of itself as a "crazy" but "common" notion), but also believes that fairy tales ought not to be told to children. The land of folk-lore, Chesterton says, rests on the premise that "the soul is sane, but that the universe is wild and full of marvels." To take this glorious realm of possibility out of the hands of children is to bind them and handicap them -- if not bodily, then mentally and spiritually. The wisdom of Chesterton in making this bold assertion is borne out in studies that have shown that children exposed to magical kingdoms and faerie hollows are more likely to come to embrace the Creator of all. Opening their minds to the idea that what is seen is not all of what is real first starts in the nursery with Anderson and Grimm.

There is a wonderful audio series for children called Classical Kids. It presents some of the greatest music that Western civilization has conceived in a story format that entertains and enchants children of any age. One in the series is a selection of medieval tunes called Song of the Unicorn. On this disc, a priest says, "Not believe in unicorns, my child? It is a small mind, indeed, that does not have room for a unicorn or two."

My prayer for Christians everywhere is that we find in our faith in the Risen Lord the opportunity to find also room for a unicorn or two -- that is, for every blessing and mystery God has prepared.  It is a richer world when the "single-horned prince of purity" enters in, when a circle of mushrooms becomes the faeries' playground, and when there is a pot of gold at the end of every rainbow.

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