Is Gratitude Real If We Don’t Express It?

Photo by Tima Miroshnichenko on

“I’m not a thank-you note writer,” he said. Nods all around the room. A brief conversation ensues, where everyone agrees that note-writing is something they don’t do.

“So, I gave her a shower gift, and I didn’t get a thank-you note until 6 months later!” General outrage at such a late note flutters around the room, along with some embarrassment.

Which is right? Are notes of thanks outdated, so it’s fine to not send them? Or are they so necessary that they even have “best by” dates intrinsically associated with them?

A little definition to start: a thank-you note need not be long, written in calligraphy, or paid for in postage. Depending on the situation and the person, the right thing to do might be a text, an email, a sticky-note, whatever. Maybe it’s actually in the form of flowers and a brief message the flower shop wrote for you. But it shouldn’t be nothing—even if it DOES take you six months. If I may offer…


1: Acting upon your gratitude increases both your gratitude and your enjoyment of the gift. It’s not that you aren’t grateful for the microwave they gave you for your wedding. You use it every day! It’s just that 15 people pooled together for it and that’s 15 whole notes, and ooof. But sitting down and writing those, one by one, will cement in your mind WHO gave it. You’ll remember them later, and the gift becomes associated with the giver. If you don’t happen to like the gift, this deliberate act of gratitude may be even more important in regard to the person. Active gratitude, cemented by the act of writing out your thoughts, makes the gift more meaningful in a way that passive gratitude–or straight-up ingratitude–can not do.

2: It is such a kindness to receive thanks. Aside from people who are waiting to be thanked (that’s perhaps another discussion), everyone recognizes that it takes effort and time to sit down and make yourself write that note. But to the people who never expected thanks, you really don’t know how encouraging it is to receive such a note—maybe not for a gift given, but a service rendered, or time spent. Acting on your gratitude can change someone’s entire attitude, day, or even their choices. Letting someone know that their actions or words were meaningful to you is more powerful that you can imagine. Maybe they were thinking people just aren’t worth the effort. Perhaps they weren’t feeling useful. Then you slipped a note onto their desk or under their door and it changed their day.

3. Gratitude is invisible unless it’s expressed, and invisible gratitude shares many features with…ingratitude. You’re not just FEELING thankful; you’re putting it into words. This has NOTHING to do with your personality or skill with words. This has everything to do with humility. It’s vulnerable to say something meaningful, sometimes. To stop and say thanks is really an exercise in putting someone else before yourself. It’s usually very inexpensive, but it’s never cheap.

Of course, the point is not to be anxious over missing someone or forgetting something important. You will likely need to remind yourself to write notes on a list, and if you’re like me, you’ll probably forget one you intended to send. (To be frank, I’ve only just remembered a note I need to send as I was writing this.) If you’ve just graduated or had a house-warming and have a stack of them, do two a day. Hand-deliver some; write them on paint-sample cards from Home Depot for a fun twist; record a video thank-you with your kids; make a phone call. But by all means, let’s remember to express our gratitude. Because if we don’t express it, was our gratitude really real?


All the Clouds are His

In high summer, it is time to put up hay. Haying season must be hot and dry. It is dusty, thirsty, sunburned work. But it must be so. After the hay is cut, nothing will destroy the crop like a rain, and it cannot be baled wet. It would grow mold and shifting 200 wet square bales would break your back. So when your eye catches that one little dark cloud on the horizon and you felt that wisp of cool air, you started to pray hard for it to pass you by.

But never once do you stand at the edge of the field in a panic, merely hoping or even praying that rain doesn’t spoil the hay. Quite the opposite, in fact: you go faster. You bump the tractor into higher gear than you would normally dare; you have the energy to hurl bales further than you thought. You pray hard while you work hard. The urgency of that cloud in the corner of your eye clarifies the needs of the moment. This is one image that comes to mind when I read Hebrews 10: 23-25.

Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

The “Day of the Lord” will be an awesome, terrifying, world-upending day. Revelation gives us all kinds of signs to help us know when it is close. But I don’t think we’re meant to read these “signs” as if we were standing on the edge of that hay field, observing the dark cloud nervously and guessing which minute it would arrive. I suspect the gifting of them was not to give us something just to speculate on or talk over for their own sake, but to spur us to work even harder doing good as we see it coming.

So instead of despairing as we read the news, we hold unswervingly to the hope we profess. We have a faithful God in the heavens, who does whatever He will, and living outside of time as he does, justice has already been served, evil has already been defeated. We rehearse the stories of the faith to ourselves—of Hagar’s salvation in the desert, of Jonah’s redemption in the middle of the sea, and of Hannah’s answered prayer in the middle of a painful polygamous marriage. He rescued or condemned whole nations for their actions and He is not just an ancient idea but a living, acting God who is still filling book after book with stories of His faithful deeds. He is the hope we profess.

But as we work, we don’t just work for our own selves. We consider how to spur each other to love and good deeds. We get together to talk deeply and often of our good God, to meet needs of comfort, of food, of health or safety. We apologize, we forgive, we live in such as way as to teach others how to live. And this will never be easy. We will feel overwhelmed, sometimes. But Christ came to be spent; perhaps the more we save ourselves from pain, the less able we will be to give. What good are we doing anyone–even ourselves–if all we know to do is stand helplessly on the edge of field, talking about how scared we are, how we can’t watch the news these days, how angry we are, if that’s ALL we do? Maybe some of the best work we will do is to turn a conversation to a discussion of God’s character. His person is always the right solution. Always.

Don’t you feel the urgency of that cloud on the horizon? It’s coming fast. If you and I are busy but the grief of our hearts threatens to overwhelm us, I often find that my problem is back at the beginning, in my confidence in Christ. I have forgotten the God I serve; I have forgotten that my God is in the heavens. There are lots of clouds on the edge of our fields, these days. A good many friends and brothers and sisters are in the thick of it. Their work looks different from ours, but we cannot become weary of doing what we can, right now. Neither should we despair.

Our God IS in the heavens–and right here, too. And all the clouds are his.

Liturgy for Acting

This the third of a short series of liturgies. If we are to “do all the glory of God” which includes the most basic of tasks–like eating and drinking–it stands to reason we must pray often and specifically.

Here is one from A.A. Scheps. He’s a songwriter, theatre storyteller, and film aficionado.

Photo by Daria Shevtsova on

Dear sovereign God, 

The director of the universe; who orders and oversees every molecule,

Every event,

Every person,

Every day,

Every night,

Every birth,

Every death.

You’ve created us as humans to reflect your image. To display your likeness, and to reflect your glory.

And you’ve made me. You have decided to put me on this globe to glorify your holy name.

I ask you, my saviour, to help me bear your image well.

I know beyond a doubt that I am broken and blinded, sinful and stupid, conceited and confused. And you know all of my failings even better than I do. 

Yet you, in your grace, have reached down to me and given me your righteousness; redemption in the blood of Jesus.

So help me, your child, as I walk across the stage, to display your glory. Let this broken mirror that you have lovingly restored and saved reflect your grace, your love, and your truth.

And as an actor I now pray to you, dear Father, that with your strength…

I would know my lines,

I would inhabit my character,

I would share my scenes,

I would hit my cues,

I would energize my emotions,

I would follow my director,

I would reflect your truth.

Prayer of the Photographer

This the second of a short series of liturgies. If we are to “do all the glory of God” which includes the most basic of tasks–like eating and drinking–it stands to reason we must pray often and specifically. Here is one from my friend Elise Koning. She’s a storyteller, farmer, shepherd, teacher, and photographer. Check out more of her work at the Kiwi Hoosier!

Dear Lord,

Thank you for the gift of


the wonders of your Creation

through my lens.

I pray I will always be open to showing

that which You guide me to.

Though I know my prints will never match the true nature of the colors you paint,

may the scenes still reveal Your Majesty and Goodness.

Be my strength as Golden Hour fades.

When the dark comes, show me the Light.

When the shadows grow long, give me a way to work through them.

Always, may my pictures bring Glory and Honor to Your Name.

This I pray

as a photographer.


Prayer of the Writer

This the first of a short series of liturgies. If we are to “do all the glory of God” which includes the most basic of tasks–like eating and drinking–it stands to reason we must pray often and specifically. I’ve asked a number of artist friends to contribute as well. Here, to begin, is one of my own.

Photo by Min An on

Dear Father of the Original Word,

You expressed your creative Mind in Words

And the world came to be from a swirl of nothing.

Your very words have substance and form. 

No one understands better than You the power of one word after another.

The Word became flesh like us.

The Word healed flesh like ours.

The Word repaired souls broken like ours.

And this Word I can only imitate.

May my words be full of joy, grace, and vision,

Humble and bold, tentative even in their courage.

May my words be more of You

and less of me.

May the words I cover these pages with

Reach the eyes, minds, and hearts of the people who need them.

Stop me from using unwise, unwieldy, evil words,

And propel me forward into the Eternal Word for my inspiration.

Release me from the fear of never finding the elusive perfect phrase,

And from chasing fame instead of faithfulness,

And give me freedom in your Words

So that when I rest tonight,

I regret nothing that I have written.


Drawing In Church

I am forever grateful for parents who let me draw in church.

I see parents like that around me in our church now; there are kids who use just a pencil or a pen and a notebook; kids with a box of crayons and a coloring book. Like these kids, the artistic occupation was, at first, a way to help me engage with the relatively “still” task of listening. It’s hard for a kid—especially fidgety ones like I was (and still am.) Drawing, I discovered, actually helped me listen. It doesn’t for everyone, but there are a lot of kids like me.

Gradually, expectations were added to my doodles. I was encouraged to write down one or two things I remembered our pastor saying; as I got older, I learned from both school and church that there were verbal signals to help me catch the main points being presented. No one ever told me to stop doodling, but I gradually came to understand there were appropriate times to doodle and times when words were more appropriate. (Later I had this conversation with my own students when I found them drawing in their borrowed textbooks. Huge no-no. If they owned the book, fine. But borrowed??) Yet somehow, I also caught from general culture that doodles and pictures as notes were sort of childish. You know the feeling; if you saw a full-grown adult drawing pictures during the sermon, it would be…atypical.

Sometime in college, while copying down a table of information, the professor called it an “illustration.” I knew what he meant, but it made me look at it again; it wasn’t REMOTELY my idea of an illustration. It was a series of cubes and rectangles stacked and labelled—like a really sterile political cartoon. And it was at that moment that I decided it was time for me to take notes my way. I knew how to doodle—had never really stopped—and I knew how to take academic notes. I gave myself permission to combine them. I gave myself permission to draw in school and church.

Only a few years ago, I discovered an artist and college professor who does this very thing. John Hendrix goes to church with his art bag, spreads it all out on the pew, listens, and draws. He eventually began to sell those as books, encouraging people to listen and think through images. (His books on the Holy Spirit are…wow…ouch.)

I’m no John Hendrix, and I don’t always come out of a service with a fully realized illustration of what I have heard. But this has become a huge part of not just how I hear, but how I learn, and how I remember. Does the average person return to their sermon notes and read them throughout the week? I suspect not. But when I have started an idea in illustration while in church, I have to complete that thought process later—and I think that’s closer to the point. So I make a sketch above and around and inside the more traditional note-taking words.

I was writing in pink and blue that day.

Then I take it home and on Monday, I redraw it on a piece of watercolor paper—lately, a piece I have torn down to around 4×5 inches. It takes time. Perhaps on Tuesday, I ink it. Then on Wednesday, I apply the watercolor.

You know what I’m doing? I’m meditating.

Is that what you think of when you think of meditating? Do you know how YOU meditate clearly and deliberately? I didn’t realize that’s what I was doing for a long time. But when you’re refining the idea behind a sketch and drawing in pencil, then ink, then watercolor, you’re meditating on it three times beyond the original note-taking. Spending all that time on it doesn’t allow you to forget it quickly, and on Thursday and Friday, I’m still thinking about the passage and its application.    

I’ve started sharing my drawings from church, not because they are amazing, but because I hope that if it helps me to return to the same idea, it will help other people. An illustration that isn’t just labelled cubes and columns, but colors and movement.

Have you ever drawn in church? You should try it. It might be the piece you’ve been missing.

Communion Should Taste Good

Making pie dough; Photo by Elly Fairytale

I suspect many children have the same experiences of communion sacrament in church that I did. First, I was in awe of the somber tone in which it was explained, full of seriousness and warning, grace and blessing. At an early age, I heard it so often that I could have given the preparatory remarks myself, and often did in reenactments with my stuffed animals. But that awe was quickly overshadowed by my senses: the bread tasted so good; the grape juice was sweet and sharp, and there was too little of it to satisfy my desire, but just enough to wash down that flakey quarter-inch of flat bread.

I discovered that many adults didn’t know what I knew—the bread was often pie dough, homemade or from the store, rolled out flat, scored, baked, and broken along the scores. Pie dough has no leaven. But I knew because I had haunted my grandma, the pastor’s wife, when she cleaned the silver communion dishes afterwards. With Grandpa’s solemn words still echoing in my ears, I would follow her to the church kitchens where she would let me taste a few more pieces and drink the leftover juice. She would tell me how she made the bread, and even then, I understood that neither the bread nor juice were in themselves sacred, but the remembering was, and the state of my heart was. To complete the sacrament in pretense was sin—but to snack on the leftovers in the kitchen was just pie dough, grape juice, and Grandma. Still, I wasn’t going to tell anyone, rather suspecting that they wouldn’t approve. (Also, there was more for me.)

As I got older, I spent more time on my heart and less on the delight of the tastes of communion—a healthy re-emphasis, I think. Communion is, after all, about remembrance and the state of our own hearts. We are so quick to forget what great things have been done for us. But it was, I think, a neglect to relegate the delight of my senses to the foolish ordering of a childish heart.

I am reminded of Jesus’ first miracle: the water into wine. In communion, the wine (or juice) is a symbol of the glorious and divine blood spilled cruelly, willingly, and lovingly on our behalf. This blood is like no other; this blood is the only blood that can save. God the Father will only accept this perfect and innocent blood of His Son as payment for our sins. It is no wonder then, that the first miracle was water into wine, and not just any wine: the BEST. No one had tasted such wine.

So it is, then, that all of our senses play a part in our understanding of grace. Isn’t this what the beauty of art does? My childhood tastebuds were delighted by small morsels of communion goodness—not mere dry cracker and diluted juice—so that I sought out more. Those tiny bites were not enough. A moving song, excellent craftsmanship, a word fitly written all drive me to want more of the same. Should not my tastes of the Savior drive me to want Him more?

Jesus could have made the water into a mediocre, passable or even identical-to-the-previous wine, but I wonder if we would be talking about that event today if He had. Part of its very miracle was that it was delightful; better; good. The very taste buds of those guests told them that what they were experiencing was a goodness they had not previously known; the bodies that God had created informed them, in even a minute way, of the touch of the Creator. Every time we experience the loveliness of an artistic expression, we are experiencing the touch of the One Who First Created.  

We do not worship the art; the wine, the bread. Isn’t it utter foolishness to worship the gifts more the Giver? Isn’t it a type of idolatry? We are easily distracted, easily confused. But as we hear beautiful music, we hear the distant chords of Heaven, the call of grace. As we smell pine in the winter and lilacs in the spring, we marvel that even in cursed earth, God can make such beauty; in sinful souls, he grows roses. As we hold hands, sculpt clay, write, marvel at rainbows and combine all our senses in a good meal or a walk on a sunny day, we are exercising the grace that doesn’t just give us life, but gives it in full measures of delight. When we confess our sinful hearts and taste sweet communion bread and juice, we discover that our God is not just great and holy, but good. Unhindered communion with Him is sweet. So, I suspect that the beauty of art, no matter who the artist is, serves to remind us of this good God.

In an effort to be a little more pandemic-conscious, a friend’s church tried an individual pre-packaged communion. They remarked that the bread was stale and the juice was sour—and they went back to pie crust and grape juice. Taste mattered. Though we might not say it aloud, we often act as though the bread and juice should taste of bitter herbs; as if we are not quite allowed to enjoy the taste, aroma, and texture. But may I suggest that communion bread and wine should taste good? It should be an unexpectedly flakey bite; the juice should be sweet, yet tangy. Every child, upon first tasting, should innocently say, “This is good! Can I have more?” Because that’s the point. There IS more—so much more! Our senses are the first place we experience common grace—the goodness of God. In fact, we will never know a day without it. It should never be dry, tasteless, or diluted. Such grace leads us to more—to the Giver and Creator.

On the first of every month, our church takes communion together. It is somber and silent, and may include tears, but oh, it tastes good.

Photo by Luiz M. Santos on

Paradise Lost: a book review series (Book 8/12: Adam is Formed)

Photo by Tayla Walsh on

Book eight opens with Raphael still being hosted and questioned by Adam. Adam is delighted and astonished by all he has heard, and after Raphael is done speaking, is silent awhile, meditating on his new knowledge. As the conversation continues, Eve wanders out of their little bower to tend some of her special flowers. Raphael speaks of creation, and the order of the celestial bodies. He says that ultimately, it doesn’t matter where Heaven is, or if the Earth or the Sun is the center of the universe; Adam (and by extension, his offspring) should leave these things to God alone, since they can do nothing to change them, and focus instead on serving the Maker Himself. He tells Adam to “joy thou in what he gives to thee; this Paradise/ And thy fair Eve…” (169-70).

Twice in book eight already, Milton has referred to Adam’s questions as “doubts.” It is unclear if what he means is truly a troubled questioning of God and His ways or a curiosity of origin and the world before his creation. In either case, Adam is described as being “cleared of doubt” (179) by all of the angel’s explanations. He agrees that he should not be too curious about things “too high” for him, lest he be tempted or “intoxicated” by things he should not have. One might be hearing echoes here of Proverbs 5:18 and the command to “rejoice in the wife of your youth”, but also be getting a bit of a history lesson into common church teachings at the time, where Galileo’s idea of heliocentrism was seen as pagan and contrary to scripture. In any case, Adam immediately recognizes—even having never yet sinned nor known what sin was—that a roving imagination is bound to get into trouble.

Raphael then returns the favor and asks his own question. It seems that he was sent on a mission to Hell to make sure no one got out on the day that Adam was created, and wants to know the particulars. Adam complies, telling simply of waking up on a bed of flowers. “But who I was, or where, or from what cause,/ Knew not; to speak I tried, and forthwith spake,/ My tongue obeyed and readily could name/ Whate’er I saw” (270-3). He knows immediately that some “great maker” made him, but he doesn’t know who. Milton’s description reminds me vaguely of the children’s book Are You My Mother? where a small robin asks everyone around if they are his mother until he finds her. That’s rather what Milton describes Adam as doing, first asking the sun, then the earth, the rivers to tell him how he came to be there. He wanders for a time, and then lies down for a nap. At this point, God comes for him, and takes him to a perfect garden that is so beautiful, Adam can’t help but worship. Yet God picks him up and tells him, “Whom thou sought’st I am…This Paradise I give thee, count it thine” (316,9).

Then comes the famous command to not eat of a particular tree. If Adam will “shun to taste” he will “shun the bitter consequence” of disobedience. Milton paints God as fearful for Adam to look on as he gives this warning, then becoming kindly again. Then two by two, the animals are brought to him to name. In this process, Adam begins to see an empty space. With the heightened language of royalty, Adam asks his question. “Hast thou not made me here thy substitute, / And these inferior far beneath me set? / Among unequals what society/ Can sort, what harmony or true delight?” 381-4). Animals coming two by two has made it clear that he is only one, and one far above all the rest of creation.

The following conversation gives me pause; there’s a lot to unpack.

God answers that He is alone, and has no one save those which He creates. Milton has already used words that seem to indicate that this is his position on the Godhead—that God the Father actually begot God the Son (or created Him) with so far no mention of God the Spirit anywhere. So there’s that. Adam’s response is that is God is so much higher and perfect and in need of nothing; man is imperfect and defective, and therefore needs “collateral love”. This points up the problem of a poet who knows his own imperfections and broken world trying to put words in the mouth of one who isn’t and doesn’t. Further, it seems very odd that the newly created Adam would refer to himself as “defective” to His perfect Creator, in essence a sort of criticism. Further, if God is truly perfect, why would he initially create something broken? As I said, problematic. But the result of the conversation is, of course, leading up to…another nap for Adam.

The sleep is a strange one, for Adam describes it as both being asleep but allowed to see what is going on, almost as if in a dream. He sees his own surgery take place, both blood and healing, as God removes a rib from his side. He sees God take the rib and mold it in a woman that is so beautiful, he wakes up to look for her. He finds her being filled in by God on “nuptial sanctity and marriage rites” and here, Milton inserts Adam’s short speech from Genesis 22. The whole garden seems to rejoice at their marriage, and Adam describes himself as complete in mind, soul, and body. There is, then, a moment of comedy after Adam describes his own marriage and relationship with Eve. He asks if angels have similar relationships or intimate love. Raphael “glowed Celestial rosy red” and answers that it’s different and they don’t have to deal with the annoyance of bodies. (It’s worth noting that Milton has already sort of dealt with this as the Satan more or less raped the daughter he birthed out of his own head named Sin–very like Greek mythology). Milton has some interesting ideas.

At this point, the sun is setting and Raphael must leave, so he gives one final warning and reminder to love God and obey His great command. “So parted they, the angel up to heaven/ From the thick shade, and Adam to his bower” (652-3).

Paradise Lost: A Book Review Series (Book VII: Creation)

Book 7 of Milton’s Paradise Lost begins with the author intruding upon the story (as was customary at the time). He calls on Urania, one of the nine Greek muses, and then immediately makes it clear that he is after the wisdom—not Greek goddesses. He is after wisdom that is “…heavenly born…In presence of almighty Father…” (7, 9). He compares himself to Bellerophon, who once rode Pegasus bareback to kill the Chimera, having flown so very high in the literary skies. He seems to be a little exhausted at this point, which I mildly understand, having a certain amount of exhaustion just trying to digest books 1-6. But he even says, “Half yet remains unsung…” (21) and seems to be remarking even on his own physical and mental health as he continues,“On evil days though fallen, and evil tongues; In darkness, and with dangers compassed round, And solitude; yet not alone…” (26-8). He has the heavenly born Urania.

Raphael is still with Adam and Eve, having told them the great fall of Satan, the war in Heaven, and warned them again not to disobey God.

Adam asks to know more—this time about creation itself. How did the stars form? How did the air come to wrap around the earth? (I am interested that Milton chose to have Adam and Eve ask an angel their questions, instead of God. In Genesis, God walked and talked in the garden with Adam and Eve. Why use an angel? Perhaps Milton drew a line at conversations between God and man…we’ll see.) Raphael agrees, telling Adam that he has been given license to tell all that has been revealed to him.

As soon as God pronounced in Heaven that there would be a new creation, all of Heaven rejoiced. “…heaven opened wide/ Her ever during gates, harmonious sound/ On golden hinges moving, to let forth / The king of glory in his powerful word/ And spirit coming to create new worlds” (205-9). With golden compasses, God prescribed the boundaries of the new world; the orb of earth was spun out of sheer air. Genesis states Creation as fact; Milton rhapsodizes.

Let there be light, said God, and forthwith light

Ethereal, first of things, quintessence pure

Sprung from the deep, and from her native east

To journey through the airy gloom began,

Sphere in a radiant cloud, for yet the sun

Was not; she in a cloudy tabernacle

Sojourned the while. God saw the light was good… (243-249).

The creation account reads like a ballet; no word is less important than another, each necessary to paint a picture. In Milton’s description of Creation, “…the grey Dawn, and the Pleiades…danced…” (373) and the moon, still unnamed, is a mirror for the sun. He describes the ocean floor coming to life with “fins and shining scales” (401), while birds already begin to nest. He describes animals coming to life out of the dust: “The grassy clods now calved, now half appeared/ The tawny lion pawing to get free/ His hinder parts, then springs as broke from bonds/ And rampant shakes his brindled mane” (463-5). He briefly describes (still in Raphael’s voice, of course) the serpent, who has a “hairy mane” but isn’t yet to be feared.

Finally, it is the sixth day of creation, and God determines to make the masterwork, a creature in His own image. Here, Milton pulls directly from the King James scripture. Raphael tells Adam that he was made of the dust of the ground, and Eve after (though he doesn’t go into how). They should know the rest. But Raphael reminds them for the fourth time of God’s one rule: don’t eat of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Can they possibly miss it after so many warnings? He speaks to them of Sin, a dreaded enemy, as is Death.

Then he describes the Creator, rising above the earth to survey it. Now Raphael is speaking of things Adam and Eve remember: The Heavenly music accompanying this finale. And the gates that had opened when the Creator left Heaven open again to receive Him. He will send messengers back and forth to His creation—still no mention of God Himself going to and from.

So God rested, while the angels sing wonderingly of how this magnificent King turned war into glorious creation, loss into a new domain, and Raphael ends his creation account.

Paradise Lost: a book review series (Book 6/12–The War)

Book six picks up where five left off; Raphael is in Eden with Adam and Eve, telling them the story of war in Heaven. Abdiel is flying fast back to the throne of Heaven, to inform the Father and the Son of the rebellion brewing. He arrives to war preparations: “Already known what he for news had thought/ To have reported…(20-21). Though Abdiel had left with the legions of the rebels, he is warmly welcomed back; he alone has returned. Michael and Gabriel are preparing for war that will toss the rebels into Hell. Smoke rolls; a sea of spears spreads into the distance; Satan and his hosts are already approaching fast, hoping that they will catch Heaven unawares, or at least, confident that they will win.

Here Raphael remarks, …strange to us it seemed/ At first, that angel should with angel war,/ And in fierce hosting meet, who wont to meet/ So oft in festivals and love/ Unanimous, as sons of one great sire… (91-5). Here, Milton gives the angels a kind of “sonship” that Biblically is only given to Christ and the descendants of Adam and Eve. Merely poetic or Milton’s theology? But there is a brief picture of what life in Heaven might have been like, which is totally poetic; a picture of traditions and daily life amongst angels, which goes on to include singing hymns. But it seems much more like what the New Testament describes ideal Christian fellowship to be like rather than angels, and by extension, the rending of those fellowships. In any case, Raphael seems to be fairly blasé about it as he moves on with his description.

At the advance of the armies, Abdiel meets Satan and they exchange pleasantries. Satan tells Abdiel that once, he had deemed Heaven and freedom the same; now he sees it otherwise. Abdiel objects: Satan is enslaved to himself, and is further, not blessed, or can he bless himself. Before Satan can raise his shield, Abdiel has dealt the first blow of the war, and Satan is sent reeling backwards; his followers are both shocked and infuriated and retaliate. Michael sounds the trumpet and the first days’ battle begins.  

“…all heaven

Resounded, and had earth been then, all earth

Had to her centre shook. What wonder? when

Millions of fierce encountering angel fought…” (218-20).

The battle field suddenly parts as Michael and Satan meet, and Michael deals him a blow that nearly splits him in half and spills his “nectarous humour” (332) (ew). But here, Milton (he’s earned it) waxes eloquent on how angels are made, the nature of their eternality, and how they had never felt pain until this battle; how Satan will heal overnight, though carried off the battle-field today by his compatriots. The day ends; Michael and his numbers set up camp on the battlefield. But in spite of his wounds, Satan is encouraged. His strength was met with strength; they were an actual match. “…fallible, it seems, /Of future we may deem him, thought till now/ Omnicscient thought” (428-30). In Satan’s mind, this means they really could win. He just needs bigger weapons…

So Satan’s minions dig…until they have the elements to make gunpowder “…whereof to found their engines and their balls/ Of missive ruin…with one touch to fire…” (518-9). Milton has set up a clear day and night even in these battlefields of Heaven, and all this building and alchemy only takes one night for the army of rebels. In the morning, a lookout from the army of Heaven sees them coming and flies back to warn the previous day’s victors. They soon see the weapon of war that Satan as constructed—something not unlike modern weapons of mass destruction, and what Milton might have called a cannon.

It is clear that Satan now has the upper hand; he laughs and mocks his enemies, and he and Belial are in a “gamesome mood” (620)…until the hosts of Heaven respond to the carnage the cannon has wrecked by throwing the very mountains back at them. The (literally) Satanic engines are crushed, and all they can do in response (once they dig themselves out of the upturned mountains) is to tear up their own hills. But here Milton returns to the mind of God, who has foreseen all of this, and has waited until this prime moment to act so that the Son may get the most glory.

Note: Philip Pullman remarks (as do other literary figures of history) that this is, to his mind, the very thing that puts him on the side of Satan. Pullman notes that “…it’s difficult to warm to a God who watches complacently while his forces suffer terrible punishment, deliberately waiting before letting his Son rout the enemy so as to make his triumph seem more splendid…” But is this not the limitations of literature? We can only talk about the Heavenly in terms of the Earthly; so we only talk about God in terms of Man. If a man or woman allowed a war so that their child could win and look good, we should rightly condemn them—we who are condemned ourselves. Milton can only talk about Heaven itself in terms of Earth because that’s all he knows: mountains, mining, day and night. We can only talk about God in terms of our experience and our physical selves: for instance, we refer to His hands, Who has none. Likewise, Satan struggles in a very…human way. So we empathize. But I digress.

They throw mountains at each other for a second full heavenly day until Heaven is in danger of being destroyed. Then God grants the Son all power to end the war—which only the Son can do. So on the third morning, the Son rides into battle with twenty thousand Chariots of God. As He comes, he commands the mountains back into place. He is so terrible that that the previously fearless Satan and armies lose all courage, and even drop their weapons. “Yet half his strength he put not forth, but checked/ His thunder in mid-volley, for he meant/ Not to destroy, but root them out of heaven…” And He does: for nine days they fall down toward Hell; truly rooted out.

Here, Milton imagines that the Son had a triumphal march like that of the entry into Jerusalem before the crucifixion, palm branches and all: the conquering General of Armies. So Raphael ends his story to Adam and Eve, and further warns them of the enemy which stalks them—a third warning, mind you: “…remember, and fear to transgress” (912).