Light from Heaven (Magill's Literary Annual 2006)
Light from Heaven is the seventh in Jan Karon’s series of books featuring Father Tim. In the earlier books, Father Tim came to live and work in Mitford, a fictional town that might be located in the author’s home state of North Carolina. Karon’s strength as a writer has been to give a sympathetic portrait of life in a small town. People who have read any of the earlier books in this series will fondly recall Uncle Billy, the joke teller, Emma, the overly efficient church secretary, the men who gather at the Main Street Grill for food and conversation, and Father Tim’s lengthy romance with his neighbor Cynthia that eventually leads to his marriage at age sixty-three.
In the current book, Karon introduces her readers to a large cast of new characters whose joys and tragedies are skillfully woven together. Each chapter may have a dozen or more short anecdotes that move the individual life stories forward. Karon’s writing is like a large wall mural that contains many people drawn by the artist, each one distinctively different. An elderly woman sitting in a rocking chair, a young couple walking together, a farmer busy with chores, a grandmother reading to a young child, an angry, drunken man pointing a gun at his frightened son, a construction worker building a chimney, a priest visiting a hospital roomthese are a few of the vignettes to be found in Light from Heaven.
Father Tim has retired from his church work in Mitford. He and Cynthia are living on a nearby farm that is owned by some friends who will be away for a year. A hired man takes care of the sheep and chickens and other farm work. Cynthia is happily at work writing and drawing pictures for a new children’s book. Father Tim finds himself at loose ends, with no defined duties. One day he receives a call from his bishop, who is also his close friend since seminary days, asking if he would be willing to take on a new responsibility. Not far from where he lives there is a church called Holy Trinity that has stood empty for more than thirty years. Would he consider trying to bring that church back into operation? Some money is available to help repair the building, but for everything else he would be on his own.
How does one start a new congregation? Where will the people come from? Father Tim, almost seventy years old, wonders if he has the energy to handle such an assignment. All of his previous work has been with established congregations. He has a strong need, however, to feel useful, to do something meaningful with his time. With the encouragement of his wife and the bishop, he finally agrees to accept the job, but with a time limit of one year. In his personal collection of quotations, he finds one by Will Rogers that seems appropriate to his current situation: “Go out on a limbthat’s where the fruit is.”
Father Tim makes his first trip out to the abandoned church to see what is left after many years of disuse. He drives along rural roads into the hill country, looking for the building. When he arrives, he is completely amazed. The grass has been mowed, the church pews have been dusted, the woodwork gleams with fresh polish, and the floor has been swept clean. Has someone been expecting him? Who has been doing all this maintenance work? No one is around. He notes that the pulpit is missing and that there is no cross above the altar. There are no hymnals or prayer books, so some work needs to be done.
On his second visit he meets Agnes Merton, a woman in her eighties who has been caring for the church since it was closed. Her story emerges slowly. Agnes and another young woman had been sent to Holy Trinity by the Missionary Society of the Episcopal Church. They came to teach school in this poverty-stricken region of Appalachia and to be the deaconesses for the church, which was too small to have a regular priest. Agnes says that her faith grew slowly, as a child’s foot grows into a shoe that is too large.
Some years later, the church was closed, and both women left for other places. When Agnes’s father died, she received a small inheritance. Agnes had a son, Clarence, who was born deaf. She decided to move back to Appalachia to raise her son. She felt a calling to maintain Holy Trinity...
(The entire section is 1735 words.)
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