Chapter 3b: In Search of Grace

Vincent van Gogh’s expression of his ecstatic encounter with “something on high” in The Starry Night

In C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, we learn that Aslan is not a tame lion. It is no surprise we cannot control grace and make it appear when we want, to give us what we want. The author of grace is not tame.

In Mystical Landscapes: From Vincent van Gogh to Emily Carr, art historian Bogomila Welsh-Ovcharov tells of the axis mundi, “the central pillar of the world and the sacred connecting point where the sky and the earth touch.” She states many poets and artists from the late nineteenth century searched for “the vital point where the human spirit could achieve mystical union with the beyond.” In The Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh, Welsh-Ovcharov believes he uses the cypress tree as his spiritual axis mundi.

Is grace our axis mundi, bridging what happens in the here and now with what is happening at the same time spiritually? In Lewis’s The Horse and His Boy, Shasta was the recipient of an explanation of this coming together of circumstance and grace. Aslan explains it to him one night:

I was the lion who forced you to join with Aravis. I was the cat who comforted you among the houses of the dead. I was the lion who drove the jackals from you while you slept. I was the lion who gave the Horses the new strength of fear for the last miles so that you should reach King Lune in time. And I was the lion you do not remember who pushed the boat in which you lay, a child near death, so that it came to shore where a man sat, wakeful at midnight, to receive you.

If he did not have Aslan’s word for it, it would be easy for Shasta to say these experiences of grace were luck, or random happenings, or a storm coming up, or simply a man who couldn’t sleep. When something out of the ordinary happens, the temptation to explain it away tempts even though we don’t have the full picture. Conversely, it can seem presumptuous to assume it is grace at work.

There is the grace from God and the grace we extend to each other, a gift from God that moves through us to others. A novel and two movies can help in showing what this looks like.

In Les Miserables Jean Valjean is released after many years for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s children. When he asks for lodging at the home of Monseigneur Bienvenu he is welcomed. “You need not tell me who you are. This is not my house; it is the house of Christ. It does not ask any comer whether he has a name, but whether he has an affliction. You are suffering; you are hungry and thirsty; be welcome. And do not thank me; do not tell me that I take you into my house. This is the home of no man, except him who needs an asylum. I tell you, who are a traveller, that you are more at home here than I; whatever is here is yours.” When he steals the silver, the Monseigneur tells the police it was a gift and Valjean has done nothing wrong. The gift of grace enables him to start his life over again.

Far from Les Miserables on the tone scale, Lars and the Real Girl tells the story of Lars Lindstrom, a young man who reveals his mental illness involuntarily to the people who care about him. Isolated and alone, often asked to participate in social events he is unable to navigate, Lars copes by sending away for a life-sized blow-up replica of a woman. He tells his brother and sister-in-law she is his girlfriend, Bianca. Gradually the whole town gets involved in welcoming Bianca, extending tender grace to Lars in so doing. The family doctor assures his brother when Lars is ready, he will show the way forward and he does.

In Hunt for the Wilderpeople a juvenile delinquent no one wants is dropped off with foster parents at a remote farm. The foster mother reaches out to him because she also did not have a family growing up. The foster dad, begrudging the child’s intrusion, draws closer to him after the death of his wife. Funny and unsentimental, this is a classic film about grace.

Perhaps the axis mundi, searched for by artists and poets, swirls around us.


Your soul is a chosen landscape.

Paul Verlaine in his poem Clair de lune


Off the Beaten Path:

Vincent van Gogh’s The Starry Night:

C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe novel from The Chronicles of Narnia series

Mystical Landscapes: From Vincent van Gogh to Emily Carr. Art Gallery of Ontario. DelMonico Books. Undated: (The book is out of print, but this video explores the exhibition the book is based upon.)

C. S. Lewis’s A Horse and His Boy novel from The Chronicles of Narnia series

A Horse and His Boy by C. S. Lewis read aloud:

Les Miserables by Victor Hugo is available as a novel, musical and movie: 

Lars and the Real Girl clip:

Hunt for the Wilderpeople birthday scene:

Paul Verlaine’s Clair de lune: