As I walked onto the grounds of the cathedral, I have to admit, I was not as “in awe” as the moment warranted. Having been to Europe before, I had seen my share of old churches. Now, I am not saying they all weren’t absolutely, breathtakingly gorgeous in their own unique ways, but after touring so many of them, the grandeur was starting to fade. On this particular European excursion, I was acting as a chaperone for a school/community trip in connection with the high school where I was, at the time, teaching sophomore English.
On this specific day of the trip, we were touring the Winchester Cathedral in Hampshire, England. Another beautiful cathedral, another solemn, reverent amble around and within the building, when something happened that dramatically changed my day and my mindset. Walking around inside the church, I stumbled upon a beautiful golden plaque on which these words were inscribed: “Jane Austen: known to many by her writings, endeared to her family by the varied charms of her character and ennobled by Christian faith and piety…buried in this cathedral…”
I could not believe it! My English-major heart was bursting! Literature has always been one of my greatest passions, and Jane Austen has always ranked as one of my favorite writers. But, even with my deep admiration for her writing, I never in my studies learned where her final resting place was, and it just so happened that I had unintentionally stumbled upon it as a chaperone on a school trip of all things! This literary great was buried here, right at the church where I was standing, and I am not ashamed to say I was stunned into silence for a few moments, just staring at the placard while others on the trip made their ways around me to continue the tour.
My whole life I have defended my love of reading, specifically classical reading, to those in my life who do not share my passion for the written word. While an Austen novel is not everyone’s choice for a beach read, I believe there is much that can be learned, especially for a Christian woman in 2021, from classic literature and the women who are responsible for some of the greatest stories in history.
Austen’s short life, one of faith, is one I have admired for years. Like many writers, she did not get the recognition she deserved for her work in her lifetime, but she did spend her years on earth devoted to her family and passionate about pursuing the talents God had blessed her with. In a time when women were not seen as equal, she fervently continued to pen her stories showcasing women in their imperfect forms, but with good ultimately prevailing over evil in each of her plots.
When I think of Austen’s novels, there is humanity: love, loss, contempt, forgiveness, and reconciliation. She was not in the business of writing salacious works to shock the masses. She is even quoted as saying, “Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery. I quit such odious subjects as soon as I can, impatient to restore everyone to comfort and a happy ending.” Some may argue that this is not indicative of real life, in which happy endings do not always occur. But, is it not indicative of how we should live our lives as Christians?
As we walk through the daily struggles, yes, we experience guilt, misery, sadness, hurt, sickness – in short, all of the terribleness that comes from living in a sin-filled world. Undoubtedly, Austen experienced these as well: losing her father at a young age, never marrying the man she loved, being poor for portions of her adult life; the specific hardships she endured that she could have dwelt upon are numerous. But as Christ-followers, like Austen, we have the hope to believe that one day we will all be restored to the “happy ending” waiting for us when we are reunited with Christ.
In a time when it is so easy to dwell on the negatives, when the news floods our hearts and minds with what is wrong with the world, I think we could all learn from the wisdom of Austen. We can choose to not dwell on the misery, but rather impatiently work to restore ourselves, and those around us, to a more uplifting life, one where we work together to share the Good News of Christ with as many as we can before meeting Him again!
If we can do this, if we can live our lives, not in denial of the hurt and sadness surrounding us, but in choosing to walk with Christ through it to the happy ending, then we can wake up each morning with a renewed sense of purpose and joy for life. If I can do this, then I hope one day, others will be able to quote the same Proverb about me that was written for Jane Austen on her memorial in Winchester Cathedral: “She openeth her mouth with wisdom and in her tongue is the law of kindness” (Proverbs 31:26 KJV).