Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

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Chapter 4 – Scenes from my childhood

I was three and a half years old the first time my parents moved. In the house we were leaving there was a telephone at the bottom of the stairs near the front door. It was on a party line rural phone system and I believe I had been frightened by this box on the wall that would suddenly make a loud ringing noise and sometimes my parents would feel summoned to go and talk into it and other times they would ignore it. This day I caught on that the box was no  longer a threat. I pulled a chair over to the phone, stood on it, picked up the receiver, turned the crank and began chattering into it. My parents had to drag me away when it was time to leave.

Dad had sold his homestead farm just south of the western end of Old Wives Lake and bought another farm just past the east end of the lake. Memories of early childhood are tricky – it is not easy to separate what I remember from what I have been told so many times that I think I remember it. I believe there is a fuzzy memory of the ride to our new home that is genuine and that I was told later that our family vehicle at that time was a 30’s era Buick sedan, chopped off behind the front seat and converted into a pickup.

One day the next spring, when my mother was planting the garden and I was lying in the shade of a spreading maple tree, the breeze carried a sweet scent such as I had never known before. I searched for its source and found a patch of flowers with delicate petals having rings of pastel colours. I knelt on the ground and leaned close to breathe in the fragrance and the intricate beauty of the flowers. Then I ran to ask my mother what they could be. She called them Sweet Williams.

C. S. Lewis wrote that such memories are given by God to make us homesick for heaven. Certainly my childish wonder at the beauty of the flowers and their perfume has not been repeated in this life.

When I was four our dog Penny would not let me walk to the barn. Whichever way I turned to get around him,he would always be in front of me. I think I cried in frustration and my mother came to my rescue and explained that it wasn’t safe for me to go out among the cattle.

Penny was a black and white land race collie and every farm seemed to have one. He was as big as I was and a gentle protector. Many years later my mother said that whenever she wanted to apply some discipline to me she had to ensure that there was a closed door between us and Penny.

A couple of years later I started school, walking a mile each way along the fence line into the little village of Bishopric to attend a one room school. Bishopric was a company town, all the houses, the school, the store and the railway station were built of brick and owned by the company that operated the Sodium Sulphate plant.

We lived in an area of rolling hills that rise up from the plains a few miles south of Moose Jaw and extend to the US border, known as the Coteau Hills or the Missouri Coteau. The buffalo wintered here years ago, drawing Lakota, Nakota and Cree hunters and later Métis.

Not far from us there was a little town called Ardill located on the side of a steep hill. One of the members of the crew who built the road up this hill was an Englishman who dropped his h’s. He called it an ‘ard ‘ill and the name stuck. One winter day we were trying to get to Mossbank and the hill was icy. We got about two thirds of the way up and lost traction. The truck began to slowly slide backwards, edging ever closer to the ditch, then gently laid over on its side in the snow. Dad helped my mother and me climb out the driver’s door and we walked a mile back to the nearest farm, where our relatives Ed and Julia Ludke lived. Ed and Dad went out with the tractor and righted the pickup and got it turned around.

There were no churches nearby. We once attended a service held in a country school house. My Dad must not have approved of the preacher, for we never went again. I don’t think we had family devotions in those first years. As soon as I could write, my parents enrolled me in Sunday School by correspondence and I dutifully did my lesson every week and sent it in. That was my introduction to the stories and themes of the Bible.

Memories of future bliss

“In speaking of this desire for our own far off country, which we find in ourselves even now, I feel a certain shyness. I am almost committing an indecency. I am trying to rip open the inconsolable secret in each one of you—the secret which hurts so much that you take your revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence; the secret also which pierces with such sweetness that when, in very intimate conversation, the mention of it becomes imminent, we grow awkward and affect to laugh at ourselves; the secret we cannot hide and cannot tell, though we desire to do both. We cannot tell it because it is a desire for something that has never actually appeared in our experience. We cannot hide it because our experience is constantly suggesting it, and we betray ourselves like lovers at the mention of a name. Our commonest expedient is to call it beauty and behave as if that had settled the matter. Wordsworth’s expedient was to identify it with certain moments in his own past. But all this is a cheat. If Wordsworth had gone back to those moments in the past, he would not have found the thing itself, but only the reminder of it; what he remembered would turn out to be itself a remembering. The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.”

– C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory

I was probably about five years old, it was a hot summer’s day with only the slightest breeze. I had found the shade of a spreading maple tree near where my mother was working in the garden. Wafted on that gentle breeze came a scent that I had never noticed before, a scent sweeter than anything I had ever known. I searched for the source of that scent and found it in patch of delicate, exquisitely beautiful flowers. When I asked my mother, she told me they were Sweet Williams. That instant in time, the scent, the beauty, has lingered in the deep recesses of my memory all these years. Sweet Williams still bring back memories of that moment, yet never quite the fullness of the transcendent beauty of that moment.

Isn’t this what C. S. Lewis meant by “images of what we really desire”? These instants when natural beauty and events take on a character beyond their earthly nature are given to remind us that this earth is not really our home. They feed a longing within us for something unknown, something beyond knowing. That something is what the Bible calls heaven.

To paraphrase C. S. Lewis, our physical hunger indicates that there must somewhere be something that we can eat to satisfy that hunger. In the same way, our hunger for paradise indicates that there must somewhere exist a real paradise that we can hope to someday reach. Many will scoff at that, say it is far too simplistic, we must work to make this earth a paradise. To which I will simply ask: when have men ever succeeded in making an earthly paradise that satisfied that inner longing for paradise?

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