Songs from the Silent Passage is a new collection of essays by various members of the Chrysostom Society (Eugene Peterson, Matthew Dickerson, Luci Shaw, and more) which explores the breadth and depth of Walt Wangerin Jr, a writer who has wandered through a passage and returned with news of a far country. In celebration of release day, we’re excited to share with you an excerpt from Luci Shaw’s essay as well as an interview between Luci and fellow contributor Matthew Dickerson.
Matthew Dickerson: When did you first meet Walt? What was your impression?
Luci Shaw: I first met Walter Wangerin during a visit to my alma mater, Wheaton College. It was Spiritual Emphasis Week and Walt had been invited as the featured speaker. The place was packed with students and visitors but I managed to get in to the standing-room-only space at the back of the chapel. What impressed me about Walt’s preaching that day was the intensity and the flow of his language. At the time I thought “He’s overdoing it. Too many adjectives, too many words.” But as I listened, overwhelmed by his enthusiasm as story after story rolled from his tongue, I sensed an expansiveness in his understanding of divine grace. He was tall and his face reminded me of a hawk or an eagle, fierce, intense.
His first book, The Book of the Dun Cow was followed by a score of other unique, imaginative, powerful books.
Matthew: Did your impression change over the years as you got to know him better?
Luci: Years later he was invited to join the Chrysostom Society of Christian writers as we had gathered at Laity Lodge in the Texas hill country. At that point he’d been diagnosed with lung cancer, had been through courses of chemotherapy and was now hooked up to an oxygen tank on wheels. It followed him like a puppy as he strode around the place. His wife Ruthanne (Thanne) was with him, her quiet spirit a contrast to his almost fierce intensity. He told stories of his father, the original Walter Wangerin, a Lutheran pastor, and his children.
Matthew: Are there any stories about interactions with Walt that stand out as particularly meaningful? Or funny? Or insightful?
Luci: More years later, a group of our Chrysostom Society friends were present in the field house of Calvin College to hear him give a keynote speech at the annual Festival of Faith and Writing. His cancer was quite advanced at that point. We’d found a block of seats near the front of the auditorium and before he went up to the platform to speak he approached us and blessed each of us, individually, telling us it might be our final meeting with him.
But he survived, pushing back against the disease with a kind of intense power that felt like the hand of God protecting and preserving him, urging him.
Matthew: Did you engage with Walt as a fellow writer? Do you think the Chrysostom Society had an impact on Walt’s writings? Or did you see Walt or his writings having an impact on your own poetry?
Luci: Walt proved himself to be a prolific wordsmith. Books and sermons flowed out of him in torrents, as well as wild and wonderful poetry. He once sent me a large, untidy manuscript of poems for my response, the same sort of thing Madeleine L’Engle had presented me with for editing and printing. The poems varied widely in skill and scope. Many were quite lovely and powerful, but the collection didn’t hang together as a whole. I gave him some feedback and he took it manfully!
Excerpt from Luci Shaw’s Essay, “Letters from the Land of Cancer”
Letters from the Land of Cancer is a brief book about a large concern. It is about time—the time we have left to live on this planet, each and all of us who are mortal. “Terminal” is the appropriate term, when, in the midst of a full and flourishing life, we are jerked to a halt by something that is bigger than we are, that takes over our lives, our thinking, our plans for the future. The book is about the aggressive shock we feel at the announcement that something over which we have little control is invading our bodies and seeping into our minds and souls.
For many years I have known and admired Walt Wangerin, the friend who wrote these letters out of the extremity of his cancer, describing his progress through the entire dis-easy process of early symptoms, diagnosis, treatment, and resolution. In one letter, he describes his discoveries as “dispatches,” as if he has gone ahead of us, to some distant front, and must send back detailed descriptions of what is going on out there, what must be prepared for. Though the themes of cancer and dying may seem unduly morbid to the young and healthy, they can, in this small book, offer an understanding of what matters in life and faith. These themes engaged Wangerin’s keen and perceptive mind and, once published as Letters from the Land of Cancer, became a source of insight into how we might view the reason for our life, and our life in God, as well as how we can learn to deal with these mysteries.
Having had my own brush with the threat of cancer, I have a personal appreciation of Walt’s predicament, a visceral response to the threat of an illness unto death. We, who started our lives as utterly helpless infants, may find ourselves infantile again, giving our very existence over to our caretakers. And, as Wangerin says, we may need to allow ourselves to be comforted, as a baby is comforted: lifted, carried, sung to, rocked in the consoling arms of our parents. And of our Parent. Fed, clothed, blessed by love in the midst of pain and the questions that accompany it. Wangerin’s illustration of this dependency, given at the end of a sermon at his Grace Church, is memorable. He puts his thumb in his mouth and sucks it, as a baby will!
This is the practice of mortality.
When Walt first received a diagnosis of cancer, which his physician told him had metastasized to his lymph nodes from somewhere else, he began to document his inner and outer life in the form of letters to his family and friends. He had noticed a swelling in his neck, and after examinations and PET scans, and after becoming acquainted with all the varied arcane devices that penetrate human flesh for discovery, he was informed of his disease. His immediate response, voiced in early letters, was, “This is a new adventure.” But we secretly wondered, “Walt, are you and your doctors setting up a new business—Doctors & Dying, Incorporated?”
The letters came to us at intervals, as personal, almost chatty stories, informal, as if he were in the room with us. And now, in these printed pages, he speaks to us again with a similar intimacy, but speaks to a wider audience. His reflections may mirror our own, but they extend them and fill them with flesh and spirit. He writes with such disarming spontaneity—sometimes from the chair in his doctor’s office as he waits for an appointment—that we feel we are face to face with him. We sense the brush of breath against the cheek as we read his words.
This is how true friendship works: Walt was examining what was happening by way of his self-consciousness and his own pastoral wisdom, and passing on his findings to us, his buddies, his community, in a continuing reportage. At the time, we could not know how long the letters would keep coming.
Walt tends, in his fiction, to a certain idiosyncratic style, almost as if he were writing prophetic messages similar to the proclamations of biblical prophets. These letters are far more informal, more candid and straightforward, and often decorated with snatches of conversation and imagery. Initially, he did not seem to intend these letters to be published. But now, here they are, for our benefit and understanding.
In a sense, he has kept these letters as a journal for himself and us so that his experience wouldn’t get lost in a haze of forgetfulness. He expected bodily fatigue, pain, and weakness, but could not know, between each interval of writing, what the disease or the therapies would do to his mind. Or for how long he would be able to express himself coherently. His powers of description have always been invigorating, imaginative, and are spoken into the air and our minds with magisterial authority and insight. His epistles to the community of friendship retain that power. But at the time he was writing them, we all wondered, “For how long?”
Luci Shaw is a poet and essayist, and since 1988 she has been Writer in Residence at Regent College, Vancouver. Author of over thirty-nine books of poetry and creative non-fiction, her writing has appeared in numerous literary and religious journals. In 2013 she received the 10th annual Denise Levertov Award for Creative Writing from Seattle Pacific University. Her recent collection, The Generosity, was released in August 2020, by Paraclete Press, and a new collection, Angels Everywhere, is scheduled for publication this year.
Matthew Dickerson (co-editor and contributor to Songs from the Silent Passage) is the author of the three-volume fantasy novel The Gifted, The Betrayed, and Illengond (collectively titled The Daegmon War) and the medieval historical novels The Finnsburg Encounter and The Rood and the Torc. He has also written several books about J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, and fantasy literature. He first wrote about the literature of Walterin Wangerin Jr as a chapter in his co-authored book From Homer to Harry Potter: A Handbook of Myth and Fantasy.