Story, Value, and Becoming More Real
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A Pattern of Homely Letters

April 18, 2024

Amy Lee

Cultivating the Kingdom in Our Midst is a column that invites readers to look for “eye-level” signposts of God at work: shots of beauty that accost us during ordinary hours, scenes of “low art” that unexpectedly make us cry, details right in front of our faces that awaken us to the mercy that bears us up day after day. We’ll explore the underlying truths that are often first signaled by our tender silence or our wondering tears, the better to see the evidence of Christ’s present and approaching reign all around us.

“The gradual reading of one’s own life,
seeing the pattern emerge,
is a great illumination at our age.” 

– C. S. Lewis[1]

Year by year, more patterns seem to emerge in the story I am living. Some stand out so clearly that I believe I could—if only I had the right sort of pen!—mark the themes that ring out more richly every time they appear, footnote my early experience with annotations from my older self, and underline certain passages that undeniably foreshadow later chapters. 

One such pattern surfaced not too long ago when I looked back and saw that I was given an illustration to help me understand grace years before I was introduced to Christ. 

The illustration came tucked within the plot of a book that my third-grade class listened to on a cassette tape. Each of us followed along with the reading in a brightly bound Apple Classics paperback while the narrator’s voice, flowing and switching effortlessly between a standard American accent and a captivating Yorkshire one, drew us further into the story. The restless bodies in the room stilled in their chairs during that half hour, and even the class clowns forgot themselves; my imagination disappeared wholly into the hallways and moors of Misselthwaite Manor. I looked forward to exploring more of The Secret Garden every day.  

Frances Hodgson Burnett’s tale begins by accompanying a bitter, lonesome little girl on her journey from India to England, but my foreshadowing of grace doesn’t appear until the last chapter of the book. Even then, we witness it through a character whose gloomy presence has hitherto been relegated to the background. 

 While little Mary Lennox makes friends, blossoms into softness in parallel with her treasured hidden garden, and grows “a bit fatter” and “not quite so yeller” (much to the satisfaction of housemaid Martha), her uncle Archibald Craven roams the fjords and mountains of Europe with a fitful energy.

He is a man who has caved to defeat and inner darkness under the tidal wash of ten years’ grief after the untimely death of his wife. Unable to cope with her fatal fall from a tree branch in their favorite garden, he has locked the garden up and fled his post as master of the manor and father to his son, visiting his home only occasionally. 

Natural scenes of peerless beauty leave his brooding soul untouched—until, one day, he throws himself down by a stream in the Austrian Tyrol. Between the low but lively chuckle of the water and the exquisite blueness of forget-me-nots crowded at its edge, his mind and body grow quiet; a sense of being unfettered wraps him in its mantle. 

Mr. Craven wavers back and forth between this new calmness and the old gloom for the rest of the summer and into the autumn. He feels stronger, though he still shrinks from the thought of returning home to his old memories and his neglected son. But in a nighttime reflection of his earlier encounter with peace, he pauses after a moonlit walk and falls asleep by a lake. In a dream he hears his deceased wife’s sweet and familiar voice calling his name—and when he calls back, “Lilias! where are you?”—the same musical tones reply, “In the garden!”

The next day, a letter comes. 

Dear Sir:  

I am Susan Sowerby that made bold to speak to you once on the moor. It was about Miss Mary I spoke. I will make bold to speak again. Please, sir, I would come home if I was you. I think you would be glad to come and—if you will excuse me, sir—I think your lady would ask you to come if she was here.  

Your obedient servant, 

Susan Sowerby. 

This letter from Martha’s mother, coupled with the echo of the dream, has its intended effect; Archibald Craven finally makes his way home to Misselthwaite, there to discover a healthy, happy son and niece flourishing in the garden he thought he had forfeited forever. 

So runs the story as I would have recounted it in the third grade. Not a word of the text has changed since then, but thirty years of living have imbued this portion of the book with significance for me. 

Craven (likely derived from the Welsh craf, which means “garlic”)[1] and Sowerby (from Old Norse saurr for “mud, sour ground” and by for “farmstead, village”)[2] are English surnames, both rooted solidly in the earthy features of their country. Yet the name Craven, in this context, also gestures toward its common adjective counterpart: “defeated, vanquished, overcome, conquered.”[3] Eyeing the sorrow-bent man in The Secret Garden, I remember well what it is like to try to navigate the world with a craven posture, overrun by my own folly or by internal and external forces too great for me to counter. This kind of defeat feels like a decimation, a stripping away of capability and vitality, until a spent silence is all that is left. 

Into that quiet comes a literal missive of grace—of “God’s unmerited favor, love, or help”[5]—for Mr. Craven, marked with his name and address. I think I have struggled to read Mrs. Sowerby’s letter aloud in a steady voice to my daughters because I am struck to the heart by the kindness of its sheer existence and the plain speech of its language. Throughout all the marvelous developments that happen in the book, Archibald Craven has not been forgotten. And his reinstatement to the world of joy and his own home begins with the gentlest of invitations, phrased in a familiar and homely dialect—a hint of hope scattered by a Sower-woman upon an arid heart. 

It is a story we know well, being our own. Susan Sowerby’s letter reveals that a goodness unfathomable to Mr. Craven has been at work during his weary wanderings, even after he has left his estate and responsibilities. Likewise, “while we were sinners,” the Apostle Paul writes, “Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8 ESV). But the redemption doesn’t stop there. “Behold, the dwelling place of God [will be] with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God” (Rev. 21:3b ESV). Before any of us who are alive today recognized our need for a Savior, He had already come, died, risen, gone ahead to prepare a place for us, and sent His Spirit to counsel and help us Home—each action more wondrous “than tongue or pen could ever tell.”[6] 

Grace always stoops further than we think it will. It breaks the bounds of expectation like a father running down the road to meet his lost son, a shepherd leaving ninety-nine sheep to retrieve the hundredth—or a note sent by a mere acquaintance who, unbeknownst to us, has been cheering for our healing from afar. If grace is a letter, it wings its way to us no matter how far we roam, bearing bold mention of the particular wounds we have obtained and tidings of the specific healings for which we hunger. 

So resilient is this pattern, through Scripture and personal history, that I wish I could jot a note to both my past, doubt-riddled selves and to other sojourners who feel beyond the reach of grace: 

You do not wait in vain, friends. May beauty surprise you in the quiet, may sleep restore your body, and in all your wanderings may you always leave an address where you can be reached. The Word Himself will come to find you. 

For find us He does, over and over again, bringing us from periods of forgetfulness into seasons of renewed freshness like the arrival of spring every year. Upon this solid faithfulness we “go from strength to strength” (Ps. 84:7a, ESV), with “grace upon grace” (Jn. 1:16b), until we shall come into an unending time of newness and flourishing. Indeed, perhaps what I love best about Burnett’s illustration is the way it gives color and fullness to the progress of the pilgrim soul: after the quiet of the weaned child, after the revival of wonder wrought by beauty, it highlights the pivotal grace of the moment when a glad notice will come to us plainly from an eternal city of leaves and trees and fruit, welcoming us to come find Him—

“In the garden.” 

[1] C. S. Lewis to Dom Bede Griffiths, February 8, 1956, in Letters of C. S. Lewis, rev. ed. (Orlando, FL: Harcourt Brace & Co., 1993), 453.

[2] Dictionary of American Family Names, 2nd ed., s.v. “Craven,” accessed 16 Feb 2024,

[3] Dictionary of American Family Names, 2nd ed., s.v. “Sowerby,” accessed 16 Feb 2024,

[4] Online Etymology Dictionary, s.v. “craven,” accessed 16 Feb 2024,

[5] Online Etymology Dictionary, s.v. “grace,” accessed 16 Feb 2024,

[6] Frederick M. Lehman, “The Love of God,” 1917.

The featured image is courtesy of Sam Keyes and is used with his kind permission for Cultivating.


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