I don’t write book reviews often, and when I do, they’re usually of fiction titles. The review that follows is an exception, and it’s an exception for two reasons. First, because Between Midnight and Dawn is an imaginative collection of poetry and prose that reveals what great literature is at its core: a psalm, a cry against the darkness, a prayer. And second, because I am privileged to know the talented compiler of this collection, Sarah Arthur, and the story of how I came to know her is too crazy not to share. It’s the kind of story that makes a person (a.k.a. me) believe “coincidence” is just a word we humans use to describe bigger realities we do not fully understand. But I’ll get to that in a moment.
First, the book.
Between Midnight and Dawn is a “literary guide to prayer for Lent, Holy Week, and Eastertide.” So to be clear, this work is meant to lead readers who celebrate these liturgical seasons through a collection of great literature that explores themes of darkness and light—themes many of us experience deeply in the dead of winter, when spring is on the horizon, but still feels so far away.
Let’s start with the title. As soon as I realized it was a line from a T.S. Eliot poem, I knew this was my kind of devotional (by which I mean, a devotional for someone who has difficulty connecting with most devotionals).
…Between midnight and dawn, when the past is all deception,
The future futureless, before the morning watch
When time stops and time is never ending;
And the grounds swell, that is and was from the beginning,
(From “The Dry Salvages” in Four Quartets)
I love T.S. Eliot’s poetry because I have no idea what he’s trying to say. And yet I know exactly what he’s trying to say. His words evoke paradoxes that resonate, mysteries that are as true and clear as the clang of a bell, but oh so hard to explain. That pretty much sums up what I often feel during the season of Lent and even Easter—a time of ancient traditions and mysteries that go deep and ring true, but can be difficult to articulate in a world of abrupt soundbites and short status updates.
In contrast to the fast, cursory internet reading of everyday life, Sarah Arthur has compiled a collection of words meant to be savored. As she poignantly states in the introduction, these are words for those who have “lain awake during moonless hours between midnight and dawn,” and who often feel that “the darkness is final. It owns the earth utterly. It takes hold in the tick of the clock and the stillness of the woods and the shallow breath of your own mute body…It is the last and definitive night.” Yet as every insomniac knows, “by some magic that cannot be quantified, it is not. The earth stirs, inhales, stretches…Light, where there was no light, makes visible: first the outline of a window, then the edge of the bed, your own hand, a book open on the covers. There’s no saying precisely when the turn happens. But it does. Every morning. From the beginning of the world.”
This book is a literary treasure trove all about the turns. It is also about the long nights in between them—the still points that are not always peaceful. Between Midnight and Dawn contains excerpts from beloved classic writers and poets such as George MacDonald, Emily Bronte, Charles Dickens, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Christina Rossetti, yet there are many selections from contemporary authors, too: Luci Shaw, Scott Cairns, and Wendell Berry, to name just a few. If any of these names are familiar, then you will surely appreciate the encounter with old friends, but be prepared to make new ones as well.
Now for the insane story of how I discovered both a new and old friend in Sarah.
I suppose I am from Michigan (that’s where all my family is from), but for the first thirty years of my life, I never lived there once (two words: military brat). That all changed in 2012 when my husband and I moved to Michigan so I could pursue a writing fellowship at the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal. We were there for only a year, but it was an eventful year that exposed a series of intriguing connections (or in more dramatic Anne Shirley-type language, “circles of destiny”). One such “circle” was revealed during a visit to the annual C.S. Lewis Literature Festival in Petoskey. C.S. Lewis is one of my favorite authors, so when my husband and I heard about this event, we decided to make the drive north, given that we could stay overnight in the farmhouse my parents own, located in a small town about 40 minutes from the quaint little city of Petoskey on Lake Michigan (see, that’s a sign there’s some Michigan in me—I know the distance in minutes, not in miles). The first festival event we attended was a panel discussion that Sarah happened to be a part of. As soon as I saw her, I turned to my husband and whispered, “I know her from somewhere.” When the panel moderator introduced the speakers, I quickly figured out where that “somewhere” was—Sarah was also a graduate of Duke Divinity School in
Durham, North Carolina, where I had recently pursued a master’s degree, and I was pretty sure she looked familiar because we had been at Duke at the same time. After the talk, I introduced myself to Sarah and we discovered that we had, in fact, overlapped at Duke.
“What brought you all the way up here for the festival?” Sarah asked.
(I’m paraphrasing here. You should also know that while the speakers at the C.S. Lewis Festival are always outstanding, Petoskey—a small city located at the very top of Michigan’s “mitten,” the lower peninsula—is not the easiest place to get to, so this festival is a rather regional event. That’s what makes this “it’s a small world” story even stranger).
In response to Sarah’s question, I explained that my dad was originally from a tiny town not too far from Petoskey, so we’d decided to drive up for the weekend to attend the festival and visit family, too.
“Oh, what town is that?”
“Onaway,” I replied (population 880). “You probably don’t know it; it’s pretty small.”
“Oh, I know Onaway. I have family there, too,” Sarah replied. “Who are some of your relatives?”
“The Chowen family.”
Sarah’s face broke into a knowing smile. “I’m related to the Chowens.”
That’s right, folks—it turns out Sarah and I are distant cousins. My great-grandmother and her grandmother were sisters. We had never met before this moment, and yet we both attended a fairly large seminary at the same time, in another state a thousand miles away, where we sat in the same lecture halls, never knowing we were related. We both love C.S. Lewis and literature in general, we are both fascinated by the power of the imagination, and we both write for a young adult audience (Sarah has published several wonderful books for teens).
To reference my beloved literary heroine once more, I had discovered “a kindred spirit”—one of shared DNA as well as soul. After the festival, I told my grandmother about Sarah; she dug up a box of old family photographs and produced pictures of Sarah and her mother in minutes. In one of these images, Sarah is riding with my great-grandfather Cecil on his tractor across the property my dad inherited—a once-working farm pictured here, land that has been in the Chowen family since the late 1800s (the old barn finally collapsed two decades ago).
Perhaps some of you who are reading this will regard the encounter as one big coincidence. Yet for me, this little story has become a source of light during dark times between midnight and dawn—times when it feels like the Narnian winter will never end, days when all the magic has been sucked out of life. Like all the best stories, it reminds me that “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Such a lived story—which is what liturgy is, too: lived story—helps me remember the Mystery behind everything, gracing me with hope that when we encounter this Mystery face to face, “what we’ll see then”—as Sarah puts it in her rich literary guide—“won’t be simply light at the end of a tunnel, but light at the end of all things, the final and permanent morning.”