Fame in this country and fame on Earth are two quite different things.
~ C. S. Lewis
High tea is a long-established Sunday evening tradition at L’Abri. The thinking is that after a large Sunday lunch following church, dinner is not needed. So we enjoy light refreshments, drink tea, and have some kind of communal event. Some weeks we did open mic nights, as L’Abri attracted no shortage of artists. On another night, we sat around the living room of the main house as Jock McGregor, one of the workers, read P. G. Wodehouse aloud to us.
But of all the high teas, the one that has lingered the longest in my mind was the night Nancy Snyder read The Tale of Despereaux to us. Despereaux is, if you are unfamiliar, the story of a mouse named Despereaux who rescues a princess from a dungeon. The narrative is good. But what makes the book is the whimsy of it, the simple delight that author Kate DiCamillo takes in the story, as well as the innocence of her characters, even as they confront real darkness and evil. We often speak of innocence as if it means that one is unacquainted with evil, though we ought not. Christ was innocent of evil, even as he encountered it to its fullest extent. So it is, to a far lesser degree, in DiCamillo’s story, as her remarkably innocent characters confront and triumph over evil.
Nancy, with her remarkable energy, playfulness, and generous humor was a natural at reading it. She attempted a French accent while reading the part of Despereaux’s mother, a French mouse who had arrived in the castle in the suitcase of a French diplomat years before. And she knew how to let the simple profundities that all the best children’s books offer land and linger in the air a bit. Amongst the best lines in Despereaux is this: “Stories are light. Light is precious in a world so dark.” Years later, my wife and I would include that line on our wedding program.
This was not all that made the evening memorable. Near me, also lying on the floor, was Larry, Nancy’s husband. One mark of a longtime L’Abri family is that they are able to be utterly comfortable, utterly themselves even as they have a home full of guests. And so it was that night—Larry laid down on the floor and at one point I noticed him resting his head on a pillow, eyes closed, with a slight smile on his lips as Nancy read. They had likely been married for 40 years by then, but he still had the simple happiness of being in her presence, even after all that time. I did not see them nearly so often after leaving L’Abri, but even the final time I saw them together, at a recent L’Abri conference in Rochester, I still saw the same spirit in Nancy’s eyes, even as she was confined to a wheelchair. And I saw the same simple delight to be near her in Larry, even as he cared for his once so energetic wife.
There’s something else to say about Nancy: One afternoon a group of students, of which I was apart, needed some work to do. For reasons I no longer remember, Jock did not have us attacking the buckthorn. The main house was already cleaned and ready for that evening’s lecture. Other students were hard at work in the kitchen preparing dinner for the students and workers as well as desserts to serve after the lecture that evening. And that is how several of us made our way down the hill to the Snyders home to see if Nancy could put us to work. She did. She had boxes and boxes of old photographs in the basement that she’d been meaning to organize for awhile, she said. So we went down to their basement, she opened the boxes, showed us the work to be done, and set us to work.
That is when we found it. It was a large canvas print, perhaps 12×16, tucked behind one of the boxes of photos. It was of Larry and Nancy and was from the 1980s. Nancy’s hair was shorter, though the smile was the same. Larry stood next to her, looking younger but otherwise unchanged, though the glasses he was wearing in the print were larger, with heavier frames. What made the picture was that they were both in dark blue sweats and Nancy had tossed a volleyball into the air with both hands and now had her hands out waiting to catch it. Apparently they had once been featured on ads for the local sporting goods store.
This knowledge, of course, had to be shared with everyone else at L’Abri that summer. So we made our plan. When we could tell that Nancy was not in the kitchen—which was near the top of the stairs going down to the basement—one of us would take the canvas print, smuggle it up to the L’Abri house, and set it on the mantle so that it would be there when Larry and Nancy came up for dinner that evening. We half-hoped that it could stay up long enough for some of the lecture guests to see it but, after a long, loud laugh in which she pretended to be horrified, Nancy took the print down and returned it to their house.
After a short time had passed and the smuggler had left with our contraband photo, Nancy came downstairs to check on us and see how we were coming. We had made some progress, but also gotten distracted—partly by the sporting goods ad photo, of course, but then also by the photos in the albums themselves. So we started asking her about them.
They were from Switzerland in the 70s, from when the Snyders worked at the Swiss branch of L’Abri alongside Francis and Edith Schaeffer. Many of the photos were almost obnoxiously idyllic—the children of the various L’Abri workers running in flower-strewn Swiss meadows outside the village where L’Abri was located. Others included people that some of us recognized. They had shots of other L’Abri workers from that time, like Ranald Macaulay, who married one of the Schaeffers’ daughters and went on to do other work outside of L’Abri in England. There were also photos of a much younger Jerram Barrs, now known primarily as a much-loved apologetics professor at Covenant Seminary but then a young man, newly converted.
As we looked at the photos, what I most remember was the simple contentment Nancy had, reviewing the events of her life with us as we sat there, asking her questions about where a picture was taken or who was in the photo. Sitting there with her I felt a deep desire to one day be able to look back on my life with the same obvious fondness and contentment that we could all sense in her.
In his book, The Great Divorce, C. S. Lewis imagines what would happen if souls condemned to hell could wander on the edges of heaven and speak with the redeemed.
In one scene near the end, Lewis, who imagines himself, Dante-like, as an observer of all these encounters, sees a woman who he first supposes must be Eve, for she is surrounded by people and animals, all of whom seem drawn to her. He asks his guide, George MacDonald, who the woman is. MacDonald replies with the words I have quoted as the epigraph to this tribute:
It’s someone ye’ll never have heard of. Her name on Earth was Sarah Smith and she lived at Golders Green.
She seems to be… well, a person of particular importance?
Aye. She is one of the great ones. Ye have heard that fame in this country and fame on Earth are two quite different things.
Lewis then asks about the long line of people and animals following her. MacDonald is a bit baffled by the question and replies, “Haven’t you read your Milton? A thousand liveried angels lackey her.”
So it was with Sarah Smith in the imagined heaven of C. S. Lewis’s imagination. So it is today, I have no doubt, with Nancy Snyder, teller of stories, maker of light, beloved daughter of the King.