And it’s not always apparent on the first page. Having read most of Dickens, I now know that it will take about 25 pages to understand enough to keep reading; he paints with a broad brush before he begins with the details– the people, the places, and the drama of life.
That was true as I began reading “Death of an Expert Witness” by P.D. James, which now has kept my attention for most of a week. Taking her place in the British mystery genre, a generation after Dorothy Sayers and Agatha Christie, James is a remarkably gifted writer, setting forth the complex heartaches of human life with a literary skill that makes me smile. I love it when I read a good sentence, but even more I long to see more clearly into the human heart, following the deepening intrigue into the perennial questions of who and how and why.
James honors the truest truths of the universe, and that draws me to her work; she sees us as we are, understanding the most difficult of all realities—that we are glorious ruins, each one of us. Somehow we are people of great dignity, almost unimaginable dignity, and yet at the same time disposed to the most horrific horrors.
Deep into the story, she describes a scene this way:
“On the wall shelf to the right of the door was a small woodcarving of an armless Madonna with the laughing Child perched on her shoulder. A night light in a saucer was burning at her feet, casting a soft glow over the tender drooping head and the sightless eye. Dalgliesh thought it was probably a copy, and a good one, of a medieval museum piece. Its gentle beauty emphasized the tawdriness of the room, yet dignified it, seeming to say that there was more than one kind of human loneliness, human pain, and that the same mercy embraced them all.”
This morning as we worshiped we sang the Agnes Dei, as Christian people have for centuries and centuries. It is one of the songs I most love to sing. Heartfelt, yearning, hopeful, my whole being is laid out, longing for mercy.
Lamb of God, you who take away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us.Lamb of God, you who take away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us.Lamb of God, you who take away the sins of the world, grant us peace.
As I sang, I thought of P.D. James and her story, twining together as she does the glory and the ruin of the human condition, writing as she does about people in the fens of England whose lives are far from mine—and yet at the same time, strangely, mysteriously, writing about me.
(The last light of our winter day, looking to the west.)