It’s an honor to share this guest post, written by Emily Cottrill, with you. Emily is an oil painter, avid reader, and daily cow-milker. She teaches art and is the author of the Simply Charlotte Mason Picture Study Portfolios (of which I’m a big fan). Emily and her mother run Living Books Library, a private lending library with thousands of out-of-print living books on their fledgling farm in southwest Virginia.
In today’s culture, we have easy access to all kinds of images, information, words, music. In what seems like a constant bombardment of media we can lose sight of an objective criteria to help us sift through the bad and mediocre to find the worthy. Have you ever seen a stunning piece of art, read a wonderful story, heard an exquisite piece of music, had a flash of insight while listening to a gifted teacher, and said, that is Good? Genesis 1 GOOD?
A favorite encounter with this kind of Good work in my life, at least in the world of literature, was one I met with in the pages of a children’s book. Perhaps the best I’ve ever read. When I picked up a fairly thin, unassuming beige volume with a green fir tree embossed on the cover, I had no clue what I was in for. I started reading it one night, knowing absolutely nothing about it beforehand, and I couldn’t stop until I had finished the last page. A Tree for Peter by Kate Seredy stopped me in my tracks.
I’m not being overly dramatic to say I cried myself to sleep that night. The story did have some sad elements, but it was hopeful, it was beautiful, it was GOOD. That ache of joy I felt encountering such sorrowful beauty caused me not only to weep but to consider, to mull over, to remember, to share, and to act. The idea of the book, working on me through the right words crafted together and accompanied by hand-drawn sepia-toned illustrations changed me—compelled me to respond.
But what is it that makes a piece of work good? Dorothy Sayers has given us a model of understanding creativity in that it reflects the Holy Trinity with three distinct, yet unified parts—the Idea (the Father), the Material Form (the Son), the Power of Response (the Holy Ghost). When a creative work seems good these three elements are in harmony, perfect balance.
Unfortunately, the state of our fallen world is off-kilter, imbalanced, or, as Sayers says, scalene. The old image of a three legged stool wobbles if one of the legs in the creative trinity is longer than the others. This is not, usually, an insurmountable problem. Slight imbalances still yield good work. But when the three are in complete balance, then something Good results.
A Tree for Peter not only demonstrates to me how an artistic work in itself can exhibit a balanced creative trinity, but the theme of the book itself is illustrative of balanced Idea-Form-Power.
Peter, a small, lame boy, lives in a slum. Spending every day alone as his widowed mother goes out to work—toiling longer than the sun—in a laundry, Peter’s world is full of fear and despair. The buildings decaying around him reflect the hopeless lives of those who seek shelter within their drafty walls. The meager interiors shrink from the light dimmed by broken and grimy glass just as their occupants slink away and return under darkness to hide their shame. Fearful Peter is a lonely shell just like the dilapidated houses around him. Rough boys, a noisy policeman, and wild dogs add to the chaos.
But one day…one day hope finds him in the form of a cheerful tune whistled by a new friend.
With this hope an idea is planted in Peter’s heart, one he doesn’t even know how to name, living as he has for so long in brokenness and ugliness. Hope…that one day this slum could be…beautiful. But Peter knows he needs tools, materials to work with. His ephemeral friend supplies all that is necessary—one small spade.
A toy really, a red spade. And that one tool changed the world.
Working diligently, yet in secret, as a surprise for his mother, Peter clears away debris and begins to prepare a place for a garden. Saying his hope out loud—that he longs for a tree to bring beauty to this barren patch of earth—Peter’s friend promises to bring him one, but he must do the work, get his hands dirty, prepare the soil, and dig the hole. He must work with the materials around him, working in faith, and then his idea will be brought into existence. So he does. Hard as it is for him with his lame leg, his frail frame, Peter toils for months.
And then…a cheerful tune carried through the chinks in the walls by the whistling wind draws Peter and his mother out on a snowy night. There, in the place prepared by the small boy stands a tree, its evergreen branches lit with candles, beckoning not just the lonely pair, but slowly, one by one, all the inhabitants of Shantytown.
For Beauty must be shared.
This work, born as an Idea, manifested in the earthy Material wrought by a small creator, called a community out of their loneliness and shame. They began to have Ideas of their own; through honest, patient work men and women brought beauty back to a place everyone tried to ignore. The work begun by a small boy with one small spade was powerful, evoking response first from those nearest, growing in Power until an entire city was impacted.
This is Good work.
But Peter did not accomplish this work alone. His redemption began when one man spoke Truth into his fearful soul. Hope for a better life blossomed the moment he learned to trust his new friend, someone other men overlooked. This friend taught Peter to see with new eyes, with his new vision our hero was able to embrace the broken, fallen, mess of material reality around him, to see through it, to re-create it into beauty.
We are not perfect Creators yet. Human creators are necessarily skewed to one aspect or another of the trinity, weaker in one and stronger in another. But we are still creators, capable of good work. And we are not left alone without hope. We too have a Friend, one who is constantly interceding for us before the Throne. As Sayers reminds us,
“The son works simultaneously in heaven and on earth, this needs to be unceasingly reaffirmed, artistically as well as theologically. He is in perpetual communion both with the Father-Idea and with all matter. Not just with some particular sort of etherealized and refined matter—with things enskied and sainted—but with all matter; with flesh and blood and lath-and-plaster, as well as with words and thoughts.” (pg. 166)
So we must go about our own lives—our daily work, whatever it may be—rooted in the Idea that we are creating, every single day, building a kingdom here on earth that speaks of and brings glory to our Creator. As we craft beauty and order from our earthly Materials we must have faith that the Spirit will work in Power. And the results will be Good.
For more from The Mind of the Maker reading group: