The French town of St Malo in Brittany is a place we have passed through several times but we’ve never stopped to have a good look around. Whether arriving in France by ferry on our way to a French campsite, or heading back home, we always seemed to be in a rush to move on.
I was made aware of this when I recently read All the Light we Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. St Malo is central to the story of this wonderful book and the author clearly fell in love with the city when he visited it:
“I felt as though I was walking through an imaginary city, a place that was part fairy-tale fortress, part MC Esher drawing, part mist and ocean wind and lamplight.”
And yet as he writes about the city I find I can conjure up visual memories of the old city walls (which were rebuilt after huge destruction in the war) and the ocean – or perhaps it’s just that he evokes them powerfully by his description.
The title of the book reflects the author’s focus on radio waves which he thinks of as ‘the light we cannot see’. He says we take for granted the “strangeness and sorcery” of hearing a voice from far away on our phones, and wants to remind of what an extraordinary thing that is. In the story he takes us back to 1934-1944, when radio broadcasting was in its prime and it is radio broadcasting which draws together the two main characters, a blind French girl and a German boy, in the context of the Second World War.
When Janet and I were in Sudan in the 1980s, radios were a lifeline. Mobile phones were almost unheard of. The connections now possible, even to South Sudan, are mind-boggling as we communicate via billions of radio waves we cannot see which are forwarded from radio mast to radio mast around the world.
Imagine if we could see the radio waves. Imagine looking at the earth from space with every radio wave lit up. A world wide web… How connected we are.
The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted just how connected we all are. How dependent on one another. And the invisible forces that bind us together are not just radio waves. More importantly we are connected by our shared humanity, transcending all boundaries.
As a parent looks at their children and see one family, so God looks at all of his children from every race and nation, sharing his image, hard-wired to connect with each other and with him. And he longs for us to see the light we cannot see – the Light of the World who binds us together through his Spirit into one renewed humanity.
The book is about the threads of goodness, the waves of goodness, that continue to exist in the darkest of times and even in the darkest of hearts. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness can never put it out.
I am disappointed with myself that I’ve never stopped and had a good look around St Malo. I’m determined to make the most of my next opportunity! But there are so many places I will have passed through without really looking or noticing. I suppose it’s inevitable.
As we travel through life, every day we have countless opportunities to pause and look around. Opportunities to stop and see. To notice. Doubtless we miss many or most of them. Other people can help us see what we miss. Help us look differently. Help us value something we took for granted.
But we can also return to past times and places with a mixture of imagination and memory. I guess that happens more and more as we grow older, though the memories obviously do begin to fade! And even at that distance we can see beauty and truth and gain new perspective on past events but also on our current way of life as we look back and see how different things now are.
Perhaps the biggest lesson we learn from St Malo, is the extraordinary resilience and ability of people to rebuild their lives, and their city, after the trauma and destruction of the Second World War. And when you factor God into that, it gives us hope in every situation.