Thursday, 19 July 2012

The Silver Chair: Chapters 7-8

Of Signs: On the Mountain Top and in the Low Country
    “Remember, remember, remember the signs. Say them to yourself when you wake in the morning and when you lie down at night, and when you wake in the middle of the night … Here on the mountain I have spoken to you clearly: I will not often do so down in Narnia. Here on the mountain, the air is clear and your mind is clear; as you drop down into Narnia, the air will thicken. Take care it does not confuse your mind. And the signs which you have learned here will not look at all as you expect them to look when you meet them there. That is why it is important to know them by heart and pay no attention to appearances. Remember the signs and believe the signs. Nothing else matters.” - Chapter 2 
I wanted to say something about this passage back on the first day, but didn’t get around to it. But now seems an opportune time. Many of you will be familiar with the metaphor of “a mountain top experience.” This refers to a point in time where everything is going well and we feel like we’re “on top of the world.” In the Christian life, we use it to describe times when we feel as though God has spoken to us clearly (not audibly, but in a manner which is unmistakeable). It’s something that often happens when we have spent a lot of time with other Christians focused very much on God and bible teachings (such as a church camp, conference, retreat etc.) The sense of purpose, God’s purpose in our lives is strong, and we feel like we could never doubt. We recommit our whole lives to God and vow to change.

Then the camp or conference ends, and the “spiritual high” fades. I’ve experienced it enough times to know this is inevitable. Someone wise once pointed out to me that this is normal. We would not be able to function in everyday life if we were continually on a spiritual high.

In many ways these “mountain top experiences” are reflected in Jill’s literal adventure on the top of the mountains of Aslan’s Country. And the warning Aslan gives her is true for us too.

”Here on the mountain I have spoken to you clearly: I will not often do so down in Narnia.”

Aslan’s warnings to Jill were prophetic. Though he gave her every warning he could, when she got to Narnia she allowed the thick air to confuse her mind. The message and warnings of Aslan were not clear anymore, and she allowed the cares of the road and their travel to distract her from “the only thing that mattered”.

In Chapters 7 and 8 it reaches a climax. Starting with the promise of steaming baths, soft beds, bright hearths and warm food offered by the Lady of the Green Kirtle, Jill, and the others, let their physical desires interfere with remembering why they were there.

On the one hand, considering the circumstances, one could hardly blame the travellers for forgetting their purpose. The elements were against them in every way imaginable: cold, snow, wind, poor visibility and hunger. In contrast to this was the hope and promise of a warm safe place to spend the night. No wonder that was all they could think of.

And yet in the clear light of the next day, as the children looked out of Jill’s window in the Giant’s Castle, they knew they could not blame the circumstances on their missing the signs. As Jill says, “If I’d been thinking about [the signs] I could have seen it was the city, even in all that snow.”

If only they’d been thinking about their mission and the signs as they travelled rather than hot baths, beds, fires and food, things would have turned out so differently. If “You must journey out of Narnia to the north till you come to the ruined city of the ancientt giants” had been going around in Jill’s head as she walked, she would have been looking for signs of a ruined giant city. As her imagination saw piles of stones that looked like giants (and turned out to be giants) at the beginning of the journey, would not her imagination have seen the ruins of walls as they travelled among the dykes and trenches?

Once they realised that it was the city and had begun looking for the writing, they would likely have changed their minds about going to Harfang, knowing the next clue was so near. I’ve always thought the writing was the hardest clue for them, as it would have been difficult for them to see it while they were in it. But if “You shall find writing on a stone in that ruined city” was going around in their heads when they reached the strange trenches - trenches which had no logic to them in the way they turned at right angles and then stopped, they may have worked out that it was lettering. And even if they had given up that day, due to the snow storm, because they knew they were at the ruins, if they had only waited till the next day, in the clear sun, they would almost certainly have figured it out then.

And then, as Puddleglum said, “No doubt if we’d had our minds on the job when we were at the ruinous city, we’d have been shown how - found a little door or a cave or a tunnel, met someone to help us. Might have been…Aslan himself. We’d have got down under those paving-stones somehow or other. Aslan’s instructions always work: there are no exceptions.”

But their minds weren’t on the signs. The cares of the world had made Jill forget about repeating them and in the end, even forget how to recite them at a moment’s notice. When Puddleglum starts to suspect something about the hill they are on and asks her which sign is next, instead of taking time to remember, she lashes out at him (in part because she felt guilty for not having been paying enough attention to them):

“Oh bother the signs,” said Pole. “Something about someone mentioning Aslan’s name, I think…”

As you see, she had gotten the order wrong. That was because she had given up saying the signs over every night. She still really knew them, if she troubled to think; but she was no longer so “pat” in her lesson as to be sure of reeling them off in the right order at a moment’s notice without thinking. Puddleglum’s question annoyed her because…she was already annoyed at herself for not knowing the lion’s lesson quite so well as she felt she ought to have known it.

It is at this moment, that the seriousness of Aslan’s warning to her on the mountain top is revealed. She has succumbed to forgetfulness and it costs them dearly (in time and almost their lives).

And so these chapters serve as a warning to us. Humans are forgetful creatures. We need only read the Old Testament to see how often the Israelites forgot the blessings and instructions of God. And we are no better.

This is why we need mountain top experiences; times when God speaks clearly to us. But he does not do that all the time. The rest of the time it is our responsibility to make habits of spending time in God’s word, talking and praying to him, and reminding ourselves of his promises and commands. Or else the thickness of the air in the “low country” will confuse our minds and we will forget.

Thank God that in his grace, even when we are forgetful, he is still faithful and will nudge us back in the right direction. Aslan says to Jill, “Here on the mountain I have spoken to you clearly: I will not often do so down in Narnia, ” and he keeps his word. Just when all hope is lost and the children have completely “muffed” the signs, Aslan appears to Jill in a dream to nudge her back in the right direction. In the same way, God does not always speak to us clearly as he does in “mountain top experiences”, but he will still speak to us in subtler ways, reminding us of what we have forgotten.

And so the lesson we can learn is this: God gives us moments of clarity when he speaks to us in an unmistakeable way. But for most of life, we live by faith and it is, in part our responsibility, to remember what he revealed on those mountaintops by reminding ourselves daily. At the same time, God, in his grace, also speaks to us subtly. As a gentle father, he gives us hints to put us back on track when we have strayed.

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