Thursday, February 28, 2013

The Faith of M.F.K. Fisher

I've read thousands of pages of MFK Fisher's writings. She is almost like a friend.
As a Christian, I've grieved a little inside, over the years, in my assumption that she was probably not a believer. One should not make assumptions, especially on that topic. But immersed in her words and thoughts as I was, I felt that I knew her. And anything as permeating as faith, I thought, would surely be evident in her books somehow. She seemed to me a spiritual person. But a Christian?

I'm reading a compilation of excerpts from her journals, 828 pages worth. What a revelation! In chronological order, her growth as a human, a lover of food, a student of her fellow men, and a writer is laid bare.  Her final years' writings are taken from her last book, Last House. I'd read that book, or thought I had. I'm at the end now, of these journals, reading her thoughts in the last few years of her life. And I found these words from "My Grown-Up Ears":

"It was in August 1945, and I was sitting in the North Reading Room of the New York Public Library. There was heavy dark rain falling, and the enormous hall was full of the scratchy rustlings and the smell of unaired clothes inevitable when many research workers congregate. I was grubbing in a concordance, looking up some such word as gluttony and thumbing here and there in a very neat practical copy of the King James Version.
And then I was reading:
'In the beginning ...'
"The words came out clear and strong and in a most beautiful order. They were the most straightforward words I had ever read, and although they were familiar to me from my youngest day, I knew that I had never really heard them before. I read for many hours without any knowledge of time or weariness ...."
Fisher tells of her childhood rearing in the church by her stern, dispassionate grandmother, of her own rejection of Christianity and eventual mockery of it, and finally of a drift into agnosticism. But the event in 1945 in the NYC library was pivotal. It shifted permanently her attitude toward faith. She was 37 years old.
"It was not the fault of my grandmother or boredom or my own stupidity that it took so long. I was simply incapable of it, until the summer of 1945. Since then, oh rich fortunate me, I can go almost anywhere in [the Bible]. The violence and the plottings and the blood and tenderness are more exciting than in any book I have ever read, I think, and they are told in a better simpler stle. And the mystery of man and his faith, if no clearer to me, shows itself like a thread of water, forever flowing round and round the world.
"For when Israel sang a little song to the well -- 'Spring up, O well; sing ye unto it' -- and the well did spring up to slake his people's thirst, and when I remember that wandering Arabian tribes still sing thus to their wells, I know more about faith than I ever thought I would, and I am glad of it." ~1989 (p. 795)

I don't presume to know another's soul, and I don't attempt to plumb the depths of Fisher's elegant prose. But it seems to me that God's Word (for such it is) was the tool God chose to change her, to crack open her heart to the wonders of what He had to say. And as a writer, she could not resist such a book, such a Tale-teller. Some may poo-poo her praise of the Bible as the finest of literature, but from a wordsmith like Fisher, there is no higher acclaim. Beyond that, she is transfixed by faith, the faith of humans throughout history, round the world and from ancient Israelite to the modern shepherd on his Middle Eastern hill.

The passage she quotes from Numbers 21:17 is telling. Buried deep in the Pentateuch, Fisher must have been an avid and frequent reader of Scripture to fix on such a verse to commit to her mind. God's people were tired, disobedient, punished, and wandering from place to place. In the span of ten verses, the nation moved nine times. Millions of desert nomads, packing tents and a huge tabernacle. And they were thirsty.

In the midst of this weary, chaotic life, God gives water. Fisher led, in my mind, a weary, wandering life as well. It's a reasonable parallel. But what she seems to love about this verse is its connection to today. Shepherds still sing to wells. The actions of Numbers 21 are still performed. It's a shining evidence to her of how the tiniest piece of the Bible is so very true. The faith rang true to her ear, her heart.

That's why I have hope I will have many years conversing with MFK Fisher on God's New Earth. I believe such a love for God's Word can come from only one source, God Himself. I was thrilled to read this brief account of her joy in the faith of those who trust in God to satisfy their thirst. To the one-time agnostic, the twin spiritual mysteries of Jesus's life and death and the believer's faith in them became things of beauty and wonder, not fairy tales to be reviled. For a woman with Fisher's intellect and worldliness, that is a large leap indeed.


  1. Interesting!
    My two M.F.K. Fisher books: Two Towns in Provence (I know, you said it was a bit dull) and As They Were.

    Thank you for introducing me!

  2. Lovely piece of writing, MK. I hope that you are right and that you will have many conversations with one of your favorite authors.

  3. So glad your heroine found the Faith; this has been on your mind.

  4. Obviously deep was calling to deep in Mary Frances' life. You have said it very well. I haven't got to Last House yet, but it's waiting on my shelf....


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