1981, my first trip to London.
I saw the 8 ½ hour stage production, “The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby.”
This was an experience of great theater that changed my life.
One of the most compelling characters in the play is Smike – a beaten down young man, abandoned from childhood at a horrible, hellish school for boys in an isolated part of Yorkshire. He is literally bent and shrunken from the physical and emotional burdens of his life circumstances. The schoolmaster and his family have loudly called out to him the constant message of Smike being wrong, a waste, a burden. One of the phrases they teach Smike to recite is “O-u-t-c-a-s-t, outcast. Non-substantive. Me.” All this while they force him to work constantly in servitude to them.
Each day, when the mail comes, Smike asks hopefully, expectantly – “Is there anyone asking about me?”
No letter comes.
Then, not in the way Smike expected, someone does come.
Nicholas is hired as a teacher. He is appalled at the conditions there.
His words to Smike are not as loud in volume as those of the schoolmaster, but he is kind and caring. Smike hears this message calling out to him. He sees there is more to his life than one of crushing servitude, starved of hope and love.
Nicholas and Smike help each other escape. They seek life in new and unexpected places, finding hope and direction on paths that are theirs alone.
And messengers show up in surprising ways. They bring tidings of good news in the midst of despair.
One is the leader of a theater company. He hires Nicholas and Smike to join the company. Smike’s first part is as the apothecary in Romeo and Juliet. Smike tries desperately to learn his line, “Who calls so loud”, while Nicholas works hard to learn the part of Romeo, and to rewrite the play ending so that all who were thought dead are actually found to be alive (except Tybalt. Poor Tybalt). In the new ending, all the characters are resurrected and reconciled in a heavenly version of happy family life.
Nicholas and Smike continue their adventures and travels, and Smike continues to listen for the voices that call so loud. At one point, enemies of Nicholas seek to wound him by forging legal documents that would force Smike to return to the abusive control of the schoolmaster. These enemies paid a man to falsely claim to be Smike’s long lost father, now returned and insisting that Smike come with him so he can return Smike to his hellish past in Yorkshire.
This man says to Smike, “Come along, son.”
As Smike looks at him, he recalls his earlier recitation, “O-u-t-c-a-s-t.” He knows this is not his father’s voice.
And all the voices that once called this message to him no longer reach him. He is now listening to a different message.
He calls out, “NO! I won’t go!” and he turns to take shelter and refuge with Nicholas and his family.
He learned to listen for what calls him forward, for hope, for wholeness, for love, for the God in him.
Soon after, Smike’s body is dying of physical disease. Nicholas holds him in his final moments. Smike recalls with clarity his line, “Who calls so loud?” Then he tells Nicholas he does not fear death.
Smike assures him, “I’m going home. Who calls? Who calls so loud?”
And he responds to a voice that invites him to new life.
It is Advent now.
A time of seeing that something important, something hopeful is coming.
Do I wait passively?
Or do I watch and listen actively?
In the Story, Mary hears from the messenger.
She is invited to bring the life of God into the world.
Like Mary, we can listen for how we are a part of the story. A story of divine grace coming among us.
Mary calls out – “My soul magnifies God. The growing presence of God is within me.”
She foreshadows the words of her child. He will call out, “The kingdom is within you. Heaven is here. Eternal life is now.”
Mary does not wait passively.
She moves forward.
And when Elizabeth sees her, she calls out.
“The God in me sees the God in you.”
There are others in the world calling loudly. “Not you. Not this way. This is not what should be. You are not what should be. You are outcast. You can’t have God in you.”
But Mary only listens for what calls her forward, to new life.
She creates her path to God, as she creates God within her.
It is Advent.
I hear many loud voices saying, “No. Not you”.
And… I hear other voices, inviting, calling.
I watch for hope.
I listen for love.
I move into new life.
I see God growing, grace by grace.
We are all trying to find our way home.
Who calls so loud?