Christmas Feed


I was working on a post earlier today but didn't have time to finish it, and may not tomorrow, so, briefly:

A remark from a priest seen on Facebook on Thursday: "I thought I was having an epiphany this morning but it was transferred to Sunday."

This evening my wife and I were shamefully late for Mass. We deserved to be escorted to the front pew and mocked, but fortunately that's not done. We sat on a bench in the lobby with a woman and a girl, presumably mother and daughter and presumably also having been quite late to Mass, though not as late as we were. (I know "lobby" is not the right word, but this is a fairly modern building and that's what it feels like. Fortunately, for the kind of architecture it is, the building is not unpleasant.) The doors were closed but there's a speaker in the lobby which is wired to the priest's microphone. That made for a slightly odd effect, since we could hear the priest very well, and during the hymns a few voices from people who were especially close to the priest or especially loud, including one especially loud but not very tune-capable one, and not much else. The choir was audible but muffled.

Feeling that we really ought not to receive, we remained where we were during communion. During that ten minutes or so I couldn't hear anything much except the soft near-whisper of the priest: Body of Christ. Body of Christ. Body of Christ. I could see people leaving and returning to the pews, including a little boy who looked no more than eight and is in a wheel chair and seemed eager. So many people, so many unique little worlds full of unique and yet universal thoughts and cares and hopes and pleasures. 

It was quite beautiful to kneel there while that was going on, to watch the people, to hear Body of Christ. Body of Christ. Body of Christ, on and on, like little waves splashing quietly on a shore. 

The choir sang "What Child Is This?" As you probably know, the tune is an old English folk one called "Greensleeves," and no words of mine can do justice to its beauty, which will last as long as music does. But I had never given any thought to the English words written for it. I had unthinkingly supposed that they were traditional, too, or at any rate anonymous. But they were written in the 19th century by William Chatterton Dix, and they are extremely well-wrought. Since I was old enough to notice and understand them I've loved these two lines:

Good Christian, fear, for sinners here
The silent word is pleading.

I think it's that paradox of the silent word that gives me such a sense of reverence bordering on awe. "Fear"? Isn't that out of place? No, not if we really grasp what's going on. And I always notice that it's "Christian," singular. Not a collective but you, me. 

Last Post of the Year

So Joseph Ratzinger aka Pope Benedict XVI has left us. It's an odd and not really very relevant association, but seeing his obituaries in the press makes me think of a remark by a non-Catholic friend of mine early in the pontificate of Pope Francis. His view was based on the appearance of the two popes, mostly as they were seen on television, and my friend admitted that it was superficial. He thought Benedict looked (I don't remember his exact words) stern and vaguely mean, and all too much like the Emperor Palpatine. That latter resemblance was enjoyed by some of Benedict's detractors, and "superficial" is probably too generous a word for any conclusion drawn from it. (Of course you know that Palpatine is the super-evil Sith Lord in Star Wars.)

Francis, on the other hand, struck my friend as open, generous, etc. I think it's pretty clear now which of the two is more likely to speak maliciously. Well, impressions based on television news are apparently as accurate as one might suppose. As far as I know Benedict was never snide or cruel in his public speech. Nor was his concern for preserving the inheritance of the Church--not just his concern of course but his duty--exercised in a brutal way, though I know that for some any resistance to post-Vatican-II progressivism is intrinsically brutal. I have never read anything by Benedict that was not carefully and generously worded, even when it contained stark criticisms and firm directives.

But I suppose millions of people have my friend's image of Benedict as the closed-in, introverted, cruel authoritarian, and can never be persuaded out of it.

As for his actual thought, one of the first things that comes to my mind is a remark quoted in a book-length collection of interviews with then-Cardinal Ratzinger, published in the 1980s as The Ratzinger Report

It must be clearly stated that a real reform of the Church presupposes an unequivocal turning away from the erroneous paths whose catastrophic consequences are already incontestable.

That's true as an abstract principle: if you're headed in the wrong direction you can only correct yourself by changing direction, not by going faster or pumping up your commitment. And it's as true as a description of the state of the Church as it was almost forty years ago. As I've written more than once here, the internal conflict within the Church between what I will call, tendentiously, the drive toward acceptance of the faith as a species of the therapeutic (see this post) and the determination to preserve it as itself is not going to be resolved in my lifetime, and probably not within yours, no matter how young you are.

I can at least tentatively agree in general with this obituary by Michael Brendan Dougherty, Why Future Generations Will Celebrate Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, and with its conclusion:

Benedict XVI was the greatest mind to reach the papacy in a millennium. I write his obituary now. But centuries hence, he will be recognized as the man who buried the dictatorship of relativism — and the doubts of the 20th century.

I take Dougherty to mean in that last sentence a philosophical, theological, and just plain logical burial. Obviously the thing is still very much alive. Is it, as a cultural force, a dead man walking, mortally wounded and soon to totter and fall? Or is it about to rule the world for a time? I don't know. And I have to admit that I haven't read enough of Benedict's theological writings to judge whether "burial" is too strong a term. But he was a great man of the Church, and I put it that way because I think his importance, influence, and achievement are greater than his papacy alone. 


I long ago lost what little inclination I ever had to make a big celebration of New Year's Eve. I believe it was a New Year's Eve party back when I was in college that played a role in dampening my enthusiasm for the custom. I drank at least an entire bottle of cheap Chianti, and though I don't remember for sure it may have been most of two bottles. It's possible that I smoked something besides tobacco as well; I don't remember that, either. At any rate, the next day was by far the worst hangover I've ever had. I recall waking up with a terrible headache and a dire thirst, going into the kitchen and drinking a big glass of water, and immediately throwing up. I staggered back to bed and slept, not very comfortably, for the rest of the day. Later in life, as a more prudent adult, I just never felt much excitement about marking the stroke of midnight. Ok, well, that's that, here we are, good night. And I'm lucky in that although I very much enjoy a drink and a mild buzz, I have no inclination at all to go much beyond that. Perhaps cheap Chianti was an influence there.


Just when I'm finally ready to enjoy the Christmas lights, most people have taken them down. There were still a few last night when I went to my usual Friday night Adoration hour. And in a development that seems providential I was asked several days ago if I could substitute for someone in the 11-till-midnight hour tonight. This seems a good, maybe the best, way to mark the turn of the year. I hope there will still be some Christmas lights to be seen on my drive home afterwards.

Last night I had an opportunity to explain Eucharistic Adoration to a non-Catholic. I don't think I did very well. It is a really weird thing, isn't it?

Happy New Year to all. 

Merry Christmas

MARCELLUS: It faded on the crowing of the cock.
Some say that ever ’gainst that season comes
Wherein our Savior’s birth is celebrated,
This bird of dawning singeth all night long;
And then, they say, no spirit dare stir abroad,
The nights are wholesome; then no planets strike,
No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm,
So hallowed and so gracious is that time.

So have I heard and do in part believe it.

--Hamlet, Act I Scene 1

"It" of course is the ghost of Hamlet's father. I once saw, or received, or sent, a Christmas card that had Marcellus's speech for text. That was a long time ago and I can't visualize the card very clearly, but I know it was very handsomely produced. The last line was firmly and permanently impressed upon my memory as a part of Christmas. Permanently, yes, but not with 100% accuracy: until I looked it up just now I thought it was "the time." Not a significant divergence, though.

And I had forgotten Horatio's response. That might be taken as a motto to be placed at the entrance of the modern age, or whatever you want to call the period that began a bit before Shakespeare's time, and which now seems to be ending, to be replaced by something which as yet has no agreed-upon name. For a long time that age, like Horatio, couldn't decide whether it was Christian or not. The decision seems to have been made now, culturally speaking, and the new age seems to be a considerably darker time than the capitalized version of that phrase promises. Still, so hallowed and so gracious is this time

Although I grew up on a cattle farm, I never heard the word "manger" in any context other than that of the Nativity scene. I imagined it as it's frequently depicted, a box or basket lined with straw as a makeshift bed, crude but cozy. I did not connect it with the trough from which our cattle ate. I was well into adulthood before I realized that it was exactly the same thing for which we used the term "feed trough" or just "trough,"  a feature of every stall in the barn into which I poured oats and whatever else I was told to give the cattle. There was nothing cozy about it. It was just a dusty wooden niche, a shelf with sides, attached to one wall of the stall, and when the stall's resident was dining somewhat dampened with bovine saliva. In his homily this morning Father Steve, maybe suspecting that many of us failed to appreciate just how mundane, how low, a thing a manger really is, emphasized it, using the word "trough" repeatedly. "And laid him in a trough" has a much different connotation, doesn't it? 

One of my favorite Christmas albums--and there aren't many--is A Tapestry of Carols by Maddy Prior and the Carnival Band. It's a very, very English folk rendition of a number of traditional carols,  also mostly very English (e.g "The Holly and the Ivy") and it's wonderful. But it isn't the only Christmas album they made. There's another, called Carols and Capers, as well as a compilation, A Christmas Caper, that draws from the other two. I listened to it today and was very surprised to hear what seems to be an African-American song, "Poor Little Jesus." It's a striking departure from their usual repertoire, and very beautiful, I think. 


Happy New Year

You'll notice that there's no cheery exclamation mark after that title. I bring you this appropriate counsel from St. Ephrem the Syrian (d. 373):

God has determined the measure of man’s life, and the days divide this appointed measure into parts. Each day imperceptibly takes its part away from your life and each hour unrestrainedly runs along its course with its little share. The days destroy your life, the hours subvert its edifice, and you rush to your end, for you are but a vapor.

The days and hours, like thieves and robbers, rob and steal from you. The thread of your life is gradually torn and shortened. The days deliver your life up to burial, the hours lay it in the grave, and together with the days and the hours does your life on earth disappear.

I hope to make good use of some large part of the days and hours that will make up the coming year. That's as far as I'll go toward a New Year's resolution. And I wish you success in the same endeavor.

This and a good deal more from St. Ephrem was quoted in a weekly email from the editor(s) of Touchstone. You can sign up for it here


Thanksgiving in Christmastide

To thee, O Christ, O Word of the Father, we offer up our lowly praises and unfeigned hearty thanks: Who for love of our fallen race didst most wonderfully and humbly choose to be made man, as never to be unmade more; and to take our nature as never more to lay it off; so that we might be born again by thy Spirit and restored in the image of God; to whom, one blessed Trinity, be ascribed all honour, might, majesty, and dominion, now and for ever. Amen

From St. Gregory's Prayer Book, published jointly by the several Ordinariates--the Chair of St. Peter (U.S. and Canada), Our Lady of Walsingham (England and Wales), Our Lady of the Southern Cross (Australia).

I was wondering whether Southern Cross included New Zealand, so I checked Wikipedia. It does not, I assume because there are no Anglicans, or not enough of them, in New Zealand who are interested. But I found to my surprise and delight that there are two congregations in Japan:

The ordinariate has also begun to form in Japan, where it has presently two congregations. In February 2015, a congregation of the Traditional Anglican Church of Japan was received as the Ordinariate Community of St Augustine of Canterbury in Tokyo, the first ordinariate community in Asia. In June 2016, another priest was ordained for the Ordinariate Community of St Laurence of Canterbury in Hiroshima.

A month or two ago, or whenever it was that Pope Francis clamped down on the Tridentine Mass, I read somewhere someone's speculation that the pope's real goal is to bring those who want a more beautiful and reverent liturgy into the Novus Ordo parishes where they will improve the liturgy. That sounds pretty far-fetched to me, for several reasons, but let's hope it's true. Or maybe not, because the same logic would recommend shutting down the Ordinariates. When they were established, someone reasonably knowledgeable told me that it would be extremely difficult for a future pope to dismantle them. I hope that's true. 

Joy and Fear

If we had been told merely to fear [the coming of Christ], we should have mistaken a slavish dread, or the gloom of despair, for godly fear; and if we had been told merely to rejoice, we should perhaps have mistaken a rude freedom and familiarity for joy; but when we are told both to fear and to rejoice, we gain this much at first sight, that our joy is not to be irreverent, nor our fear to be desponding; that though both feelings are to remain, neither is to be what it would be by itself.... I say that whatever be the duty of fearing greatly and trembling greatly at the thought of the day of judgment, and of course it is a great duty, yet the command so to do cannot reverse the command to rejoice....

How joy and fear can be reconciled, words cannot show. Act and deed alone can show how.... 

May we learn to mature all graces in us: fearing and trembling, watching and repenting, because Christ is coming; joyful, thankful, and careless of the future, because he is come.



An Advent Gripe

Not about, but on the occasion of: the complaint I made last year about the thing called "Holiday":

The American Christmas has always, or at least since the middle of the last century or so, had its secularized aspect. That was fine: we were a predominantly Christian country, but plenty of people who did not celebrate the religious holiday as such found much to enjoy in the cultural paraphernalia. Irving Berlin gave us "White Christmas," which no decent person could dislike or resent, and he was Jewish. Notice, though, that he didn't shy away from using the word "Christmas." From an early age I had a sense that something was missing when the decorations and greetings and such of the season left out any mention whatsoever of Christmas itself. And at a not so early, but not very late, age it occurred to me that "the holiday season" would lose the essence of its charm if the religious core of it were removed.

Well, that has pretty much happened now as far as public speech is concerned.

"Middle of the last century"? I must have meant to say the 19th. It certainly predated the middle of the 20th. But anyway:

The good part of this is that as I lose interest in Holiday I take more notice of Advent.

Which I'm currently doing. 


Two Christmas Reflections

One from Joseph Ratzinger, as he was then (1959):

It is the birthday of the undefeated Light, the winter solstice of world history, which gives us the certainty amid the rise and decline of this story that here, too, the light will not die, but has already achieved the final victory.

Christmas drives out of us the second, greater fear that physics cannot dispel. This is the fear of humanity and before man himself. It is a divine certainty that the light has already conquered in the hidden depths of history, and that all the great progress of evil in the world in the end can do nothing more about it. The winter solstice of history has irrevocably taken place in the birth of the Child from Bethlehem.

And one from National Review's Kevin Williamson, a somewhat grim one:

Man is meat. About that there is no question. The question is whether he is to be only that. We Christians should not be too otherworldly, because the facts as we understand them are bloody before they are glorious and glorious only because they are bloody. The truth of the Incarnation — God as meat — is not that the facts and events and suffering of this world do not matter in light of the glorious kingdom to come but that they do matter. Meat matters. Blood, too. Metaphor won’t do. The Incarnation is our only link to that other kingdom.

Hating "Holiday"

And not much liking "the holidays."

Every year I get more annoyed with the de-Christianized winter festival formerly known as Christmas. Unfortunately the advertising for that season begins in mid-November, which means that it's during football season, which is almost the only time I watch standard TV and am exposed to any great number of commercials. I am unreasonably annoyed by advertisements that begin "This holiday....", usually followed by something like "make your family happy by buying our thing." I might not be so put off by the whole thing if I weren't seeing those commercials.

The American Christmas has always, or at least since the middle of the last century or so, had its secularized aspect. That was fine: we were a predominantly Christian country, but plenty of people who did not celebrate the religious holiday as such found much to enjoy in the cultural paraphernalia. Irving Berlin gave us "White Christmas," which no decent person could dislike or resent, and he was Jewish. Notice, though, that he didn't shy away from using the word "Christmas." From an early age I had a sense that something was missing when the decorations and greetings and such of the season left out any mention whatsoever of Christmas itself. And at a not so early, but not very late, age it occurred to me that "the holiday season" would lose the essence of its charm if the religious core of it were removed.

Well, that has pretty much happened now as far as public speech is concerned. It seems that Christmas has become That Which Must Not Be Named in most situations that are not specifically Christian. And as far as I'm concerned all that paraphernalia I mentioned, which I used to enjoy for the most part, has begun to seem lame, dull, tawdry, and often depressing. I guess every Catholic who's ever read a book has heard of Flannery O'Connor's famous response to the suggestion that the Eucharist is only a symbol: "If it's only a symbol, then the hell with it." That is pretty much my view of Holiday carefully scrubbed of any Christian reference whatsoever.

The good part of this is that as I lose interest in Holiday I take more notice of Advent. I can't say I've observed it very well this year, but I did a little better than last year. And this year, thanks to the Anglican tradition, I've discovered what is called "the Advent Prose": an English translation of the Latin Rorate caeli. You can read it at the Wikipedia page for Rorate caeli. It's obviously not a contemporary translation, but I don't know how far back it goes. It's good strong stuff; here's how it begins:

Drop down, ye heavens, from above,
and let the skies pour down righteousness.

Be not wroth very sore, O Lord,
neither remember iniquity for ever:
thy holy city is a wilderness,
Sion is a wilderness, Jerusalem a desolation:
our holy and our beautiful house,
where our fathers praised thee.

I guess it would be wrong for me to think it would be fine with me if that deluge washed Holiday away. 

Another Epiphany Poem, This One By George Mackay Brown


The red king
Came to a great water. He said,
Here the journey ends.
No keel or skipper on this shore.

The yellow king
Halted under a hill. He said,
Turn the camels round.
Beyond, ice summits only.

The black king
Knocked on a city gate. He said,
All roads stop here.
These are gravestones, no inn.

The three kings
Met under a dry star.
There, at midnight,
The star began its singing.

The three kings
Suffered salt, snow, skulls.
They suffered the silence
Before the first word.


Brown, or Mackay Brown, is one of the poets in the British Poetry Since 1945 from which I drew at least one poem for the 52 Poems series. The index of that book lists him under "M" for "Mackay Brown." I don't understand this British thing in which sometimes two unhyphenated names, which appear to be middle and last, are treated as a surname. (MB is Scottish, but you know what I mean.) This seems to be the case with Ralph Vaughan Williams and has always bothered me. Why is he not just "Williams"? Or if he's going to be indexed under "V", "Vaughan-Williams"? 

Anyway, I like this poem, which someone posted on Facebook a few days ago. And I like the two poems of M-B's in that anthology. But the brief bio there does not mention that he was a Catholic convert. According to his Wikipedia page (notice that it calls him just "Brown"):

In late 1960 Brown commenced teacher training at Moray House College of Education, but was unable to remain in Edinburgh because of ill-health. On his recovery in 1961 he found that he was not suited to this type of work and returned late in the year to his mother's house in Stromness, unemployed. It was at this time that he was received into the Roman Catholic Church, being baptised on 23 December and taking communion on the following day. This followed about twenty-five years of pondering his religious beliefs. This conversion was not marked by any change in his daily habits, including his drinking.

Sunday Night Journal, December 23, 2018

It must be close to twenty years ago that I wrote a science-fiction story in which Christmas had been replaced by "Holiday." (That wasn't a major part of the story, just a passing remark by a character.) I thought it was clever at the time, but it soon became an interesting and personal reiteration of a lesson I had long since drawn from the work of others: that when the real future gets here it's likely to make past imagined ones look dated at best, and absurd at worst. That usage is now expected in many situations and effectively mandatory in others.

Some years ago (less than twenty, not less than ten) I began to notice it in my workplace. No one insisted upon it, but I could see that certain co-workers, especially those very much aware of prevailing cultural winds in the academy, said "Happy Holidays" in a way that was just ever so slightly self-conscious, almost pointed. And to say "Merry Christmas" to them, one realized, was a bit of a faux pas. And some of these were highly-placed people, whom their subordinates did not wish to offend. It made the exchange a little awkward, a little uneasy. To call this an exercise in political correctness would not be completely wrong, but it was also in part a genuine desire to be "inclusive" and considerate, though it was a little peculiar at a small Catholic college where both parties were usually at-least-nominal Christians. 

Soon, of course, the matter became an explicit skirmish in the culture wars, with Christians, especially politically right-wing Christians, denouncing "the war on Christmas." That was rather an exaggeration. But as with those who so scrupulously avoided using the C-word, they weren't completely wrong, either. Trump was able to score points with them by including in his list of great things that would happen if he were president the item "We're going to say 'Merry Christmas' again." I wonder if it occurred to him that if your "Merry Christmas" is administered to your political enemies as a blow to the face you're not altogether in the right spirit.

Arguments about a war on Christmas seem to have died down somewhat now. Culturally we've reached a point where Holiday really has replaced Christmas for most public purposes, and I guess we're all coming to take it for granted. I almost never watch commercial television--that is, old-school television, where whatever you're watching is interrupted frequently by advertisements. Unfortunately the thing that necessitates the "almost" is college football. And a little bit of pro football. And unfortunately these mostly occur in the three months preceding Christmas, and after Thanksgiving almost every advertisement involves "the holidays." I can hardly stand them, and I don't know what I'd do if there were no such thing as a "mute" button on the remote control. There's the grotesque consumerism itself, such as the commercial in which a young man has bought himself and his wife (or girlfriend), as "holiday" presents, giant SUVs which probably cost at least $40,000 each. And there's the scrupulous avoidance of any mention of the religious content of "the holidays." I'm going to stifle my impulse to complain at length about these. It serves no purpose and anyway everyone knows what I'm talking about. 

There was a time when the commercialism and American Christmas customs coexisted. The distinction was there, though I think it was often unnoticed. Even as a child in the 1950s I was vaguely aware that some of the "Christmas" paraphernalia had nothing to do with Christmas. I distinctly remember wondering why some advertisements said "Season's Greetings" instead of "Merry Christmas." I think I was in my early teens when it suddenly dawned on me that "Winter Wonderland" and several other songs associated with the season had no connection at all to the Christian celebration. 

But even as a child in the 1950s I was vaguely aware--I guess I could say unconsciously aware, if that isn't contradictory--that without Christmas, Holiday would be an empty thing. This was true even though I was vastly more interested in the presents I would be getting than in the birth of Christ. Somehow I knew that to remove the stable and the shepherds and the angels and Mary and Joseph and the baby from the picture would take the life out of it all. 

The disconnect between Holiday and Christmas grew over the years, but they were still closely enough associated that the former had much of the allure of the latter for me. That's pretty well over now. Part of the reason, I guess, is the jadedness of age, but in any case I've been slowly reaching a point of almost complete indifference to Holiday. It's a little sad, or more than a little, because I miss that old feeling.

The loss has some advantages: appreciation of Advent, for one. I find it difficult in our culture to focus on Advent. And yet I very much want to, which has not always been the case for me. And Christmas itself means more now, much more. The sad and shallow frenzy of Holiday is now becoming part of the darkness, a pathetic attempt to strike a few sparks that kindle no lasting flame. 

And so I still enjoy the lights, even if they're only Holiday lights. At night you don't necessarily see the difference. I have imagined what might easily be the case ten or fifteen or twenty years from now, when I might be unable to get out by myself, hoping or asking that someone would take me out one night a day or two before Christmas so that I could see the lights and think of Christmas Past and Christmas Yet to Come.

These thoughts were flitting through my head one night last weekend as I sat in my car waiting to make a left turn onto Highway 72 in Athens, Alabama, looking at a house across the way, its roof outlined in lights which, though unspectacular as these things go, were for me nevertheless expressive. 


Sunday Night Journal, December 31, 2017

I hate to admit it, but for four or five years now I've been slowly turning into one of those people who feel depressed at the approach of Christmas. Still, I usually find that I snap out of it, more or less, by the time the day itself arrives--if I don't feel so very good, I at least stop feeling bad, and even rise to mild cheerfulness. This year I didn't make much attempt to talk myself out of it or fight it, but just accepted that this is the way it is now.

My wife and I seriously considered not getting a tree. She's been leaning that way for a while, as most of our children are far away, and our local grandchildren would not be at our house for more than a few days of the two weeks or so that are generally encompassed in the term "the holidays." So the two of us would for the most part be the only "audience" for it, and in that case was it really worth the trouble? Left to her own devices I think she would not have had one, but I can't quite bear to let the custom go. We decided to compromise by getting a small one, so on the Saturday two weeks before Christmas I went off to Fish River Trees while she worked on the deep carpet of cypress needles and sycamore leaves that covered the yard.

Some years ago my late friend Robert sent me a mixtape that included a lot of pre-rock-and-roll Christmas music by people like Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald. I've never been very fond of secular Christmas-pop songs like "The Christmas Song" (aka "Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire"), and the truth is that much of the material on that tape struck me as cheesy. But for several years while we still had children at home I played it in the car on the way to the tree farm. And I learned to like the Sinatra album with which it began, A Jolly Christmas. In time I bought the CD, and when my youngest child was still at home, and it was sometimes just the two of us going to get the tree, it was a bit of a tradition for us to hear it on the way there and back, not without a certain irony produced by the old-fashioned swingin' '50s way in which it starts off: a jazzy re-working of "Jingle Bells" which includes a group of background singers  in an upbeat chant of "I love those j-i-n-g-l-e bells--OH!--those holiday j-i-n-g-l-e bells." 

I wasn't sure whether I wanted to listen to it the other day. I thought it might just be sad. But I decided to do it anyway, and if it made me feel sad about past Christmases, well, I would just wallow in it. 

And it did turn out to be a bit of a wallow, not for anything personal to me, but for what has been lost in our culture since 1957, when the album was recorded. This is not a desire to "return to the 1950s", as is generally charged against anyone who feels any sort of nostalgia for the time. There were certainly a great many things wrong with American life at the time, and we can be glad that some of them have been corrected. But only a fool--well, an old fool or a young person who doesn't know any better--can fail to see that in many significant ways American culture is now meaner, cruder, dumber, more dishonest, and vastly more cynical than it was then. You may argue that on the whole things are better; fine, I might even agree with you, depending on what's in front of me at the moment. But still: something has been lost. Much has been lost, in fact. It seems inevitable that mankind will always throw out babies along with bath water, and steer clear of Scylla only to be dragged under by Charybdis.

The Sinatra album is an instance. It's about evenly divided between secular pop Christmas songs (why is "Jingle Bells" even considered a Christmas song, anyway?) and carols. The carols are truncated, made to fit the two-and-a-half-minute strait jacket of the popular music of the time, but are simply and tastefully arranged (by Gordon Jenkins) and presented with an unforced respect, even reverence. A word comes to mind, a somewhat casual word which acknowledges that some things are better than others in ways that ought be obvious to all, not as profound moral truths but as a matter of a properly formed sense of what is decent and appropriate: "class," as in "classy." It has a bad and laughable sense, as used by people who lack the thing itself, in which it refers to something meretricious, something marked by an insincere or misguided attempt to appropriate class: "Let's put an "e" on "old" to give it more class." But in its good sense it signifies respect for that which actually has merit, for a certain dignity and grace: "The losing team showed its class by congratulating the winners."

The Sinatra album has class, which is something we don't often get from popular music today, and I ended up listening to the CD five or six times over the past few weeks, and deciding that I like it quite a lot.

I kept returning to one song, one of the pop-Christmas songs that I've heard for most of my life and never paid much attention to: "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas." This is an odd little song. The title, which begins and ends the lyric, seems somewhere between wry and spiteful. The whole thing is subdued, almost somber, wistful, and a little mysterious. You have the sense that something is going on, something not explicitly referred to, and that the hopeful words ("From now on our troubles will be out of sight") may be in defiance of that something, or at least relief that it's over. And the music is definitely melancholy, and far from jolly. But then in the next to last line the melody ascends where it had descended, so that "Hang a shining star upon the highest bough" becomes a cry of hope.

The song comes from the musical Meet Me In St. Louis, and until tonight I didn't know what its context in the drama is. I could have found out easily enough, but had very deliberately not yet done so because I like the ambiguity of it, and the sense of its being extracted from a conversation we haven't heard.

So just now I did look it up, and now its melancholy makes perfect sense. It was in fact as originally written resisted by Judy Garland, who was to sing it in the original play, and others because they found it depressing. You can read the whole story of its revisions here; "depressing" it certainly was in the original:

Have yourself a merry little Christmas
It may be your last


The lyrics were revised heavily for the play, but the next-to-last line remained "Until then we'll have to muddle through somehow." This was replace by the shining star for Sinatra, who thought muddling through wasn't quite the touch he wanted in his "jolly Christmas" album. And though one might decry it as bowdlerization I think in this case the late revision really makes the song.  At the moment it's certainly my favorite of the pop-Christmas repertoire.

All my quirky personal reactions aside, by the way, I can recommend this album to anyone who has any taste at all for this kind of music. Sinatra's voice was in its golden cello-like prime, and Gordon Jenkins was a top-notch arranger.

The tree turned out very nicely, by the way. It's only five feet tall, small enough that all but a few inches of it fit into the trunk of my Honda Civic, and light enough that I can pick it up with one hand: easily set up, and it will be easily taken down, but still bringing a sufficient amount of greenery, colored lights, and glittering ornaments, to the living room.  


Now that the 52 Albums project is over, there will probably be more discussion of music in this post. For instance: here is a Christmas playlist put together by Sigur Rós for BBC Radio 6. I don't see that it has anything to do with Christmas, but those who like the band will probably like at least some of the music. I know I'll be looking for more music by some of the artists represented. And at the very beginning you get to hear the voice of Sigur Rós herself. As fans of the band know, she is the sister of Jónsi, the band's vocalist, and she was only a few days old when the band was formed in 1994. So now she's twenty-three and introducing the band's playlist on the radio. It's interesting to hear the way she pronounces her name. I wouldn't have recognized it.


Speaking of 52 Things: as we discussed over the past week or two, this year it will be 52 Poems, appearing on Thursdays. I have something in mind for this week. Beyond that it's open. I said in that discussion that I would have specifications for the format, because formatting poetry for the web can be difficult. But after doing some experimenting I think that may not be necessary. We'll see. For now you can just send the poems in a Word or Word-compatible format, or in plain text. Or you can just send me a link, if the text is online, which is quite likely. So you can send me things whenever you want. If I have nothing by Wednesday morning, I'll supply a poem. If I have more than one I'll post them in the order received. And if two people send the same poem...well, I guess we'll cross that bridge if we come to it. Should I post a "dibs" list? Did anyone ever consult those in the past?

Also, I'm not soliciting original poems, or publishing any of mine. No offense but I just don't want to be in that position. 


Sunset, Christmas Day. SunsetChristmas2017Best wishes to all for a happy new year.

The Moment

Then came, at a predetermined moment, a moment in time
    and of time,
A moment not out of time, but in time, in what we call history:
    transecting, bisecting the world of time,
     a moment in time but not like a moment of time,
A moment in time but time was made through that moment:
    for without the meaning there is no time,
     and that moment of time gave the meaning.

--Eliot, Choruses from "The Rock"


Kathleen Battle and Wynton Marsalis: Silent Night

I tend not to like jazz reworkings of Christmas carols. There's almost always a kind of levity that either borders on or crosses over into irreverence. And for that matter I'm not fond of classically-trained voices singing anything except classical music. But this seems an exception on both counts. A friend sent it to me, and she seemed to have the same basic reservation that I do, but added that "they perform it with reverence within that genre." Just so. At least Kathleen Battle does. Marsalis mostly does, but I could do without the wah-wah stuff.


Past Three O'Clock

This is a carol I did not know until fairly recently but have come to love, by way of this King's College recording, which I think I've recommended before. It's an inexpensive two-disc set of wonderful performances of most of the best-known and some lesser-known carols, plus a Vaughan Williams "Fantasia on Christmas Carols" (which is the last thing in the set and which I confess I haven't really listened to). The recordings are from the early '60s, so not up to contemporary sound quality, but still very good. You can find the words here.



Merry Christmas!

If you don't know Britten's A Ceremony of Carols, you should. It's a selection of Middle English poems related to the Nativity, set to music. Here's a performance of the entire piece. 


And here is something I posted a few years ago, a sort of recipe for a very tasty holiday drink. I said then that it was the first and probably only recipe I would post, but I actually have another invention which I will post when the weather is warmer, as it's a very summery kind of drink. (Yes, drink; you can see what interests me in the kitchen.)

Big Around As A Washtub


I hope Our Lady would take the title of this post in the affectionate tone in which I first heard it, which was from the lips of a college teacher in reference to his own wife's gravid condition. She was within earshot, if I remember correctly, and seemed to be more amused than not.

This painting is on the cover of this month's Magnificat, and I found it startling. I don't think I've seen another picture of the pregnant Mary that's quite so...pregnant. And I think it's good to be reminded of the elemental physicality of her condition, which sometimes gets missed in the devout respect shown to her, and especially as it would have been two days before the Birth. I would hope the homely comparison would have amused her as it did my teacher's wife (I think).

It occurs to me that many people today may not have seen a washtub. Here's one in operation (picture lifted from an interesting-looking blog called Old Picture of the Day:


A Christmas Caryll (12)

...In the meantime, the only thing that I can see that will help you is to learn to love yourself, to forgive yourself, to be kind to yourself, by looking outwards to God, by accepting the fact that you are infinitely loved by Infinite Love, and that if you will only cease to build up notions of the perfection you demand of yourself, and lay your soul open to that love, you will cease to fear, and you will cease to be exhausted as soon as you stop fighting one part of yourself with another. I can only pray for you and beg you to turn your face to this immense love and power and cast all your fear on to it. You should try to realize that in you is the power, strength and love of Christ, that you can carry all that darkness and not go under, if you realize that it isn't you but He who will carry it; also, if you will try to realize that in you Christ lives His risen life, that He has already overcome death--died and risen from death and overcome it; that it is the Risen Christ, who has already defeated death, who lives in you. If you will only realize that, you will soon be convinced that you will also come right up through the darkness into the light. One can't think of God at all without thinking of light; at least I can't... Try to believe that life is in you like a seed, pushing, striving, struggling up to light. Instead of fighting yourself, let this seed of supernatural life fight its way out through darkness, just as an ordinary seed fights up through the darkness and heaviness of the hard, frozen earth. First it has to sharpen its own green blade in the night and cut through the ground, or pierce the wood if it is a leaf on the tree, but suddenly it breaks into flower or leaf; and when it does that, it does not see its own beauty--the world outside it sees that; what it sees is the glorious sun that drew it up out of the darkness. Light. So too it will be with you; your soul, your mind will break into flower and you will find it is flowering in the midst of light, the light of Truth and Beauty and Life.

I enclose a good translation of the Veni, Sancte Spiritus. Try to say it--read it--will it.

God bless you.

I'm sorry I can't write a decent letter, but I am snowed under with people and work.

My love, and have no fear, for all will be well.

--Caryll Houselander, Letters

This is one of a series of letters described as "To a Young Friend Who Married and Settled Abroad."

After returning to work on Wednesday at the end of the Christmas-New Year break, I was very busy and chose the selections for the past three days pretty hastily. Today I had a bit of free time and sat down with the book intending to spend as much time as needed to find a good quotation. But it opened at this page, and I thought I would hardly do better. And this was the first of the letters that I've wanted to quote in full. Now to go back to the beginning and read the book through.

A Christmas Caryll (11)

I knew once the primmest old invalid lady who could well have offered her helplessness to God but had a grievance with Him because He had not permitted her to be eaten by a cannibal for the Faith; she could not accept herself as a sick woman but she would have achieved heroic virtue as a cutlet!

--Caryll Houselander, The Reed of God

A Christmas Caryll (10)

"Be it done unto me according to thy word" surrenders yourself and all that is dear to you to God, and the trust which it implies does not mean trusting God to look after you and yours, to keep them in health and prosperity and honor.

It means much more, it means trusting that whatever God does with you and with yours is the act of an infinitely loving Father.

The war has shown even the inexperienced, the young, that you cannot depend on money. In less than a few second the richest man's home becomes a heap of rubble; at the same moment the little son is killed.

Is trust of God to go as far as that? Are we to see the pathetic little burden carried away in the warden's arms and still say: "That is God's dear son, the object of all His all-powerful love!"

--Caryll Houselander, The Reed of God

I think a lot of Christians, especially certain Evangelicals, really get themselves into spiritual trouble with the belief she describes in the first paragraph.

A Christmas Caryll (9)

If I were you I should not worry with de Caussade and his ilk. Most books of that sort are written by and for religious (monks and nuns), and once they have made a clean break from their family and the world, they have not got the same kind of troubles that we have. It is much easier to be "abandoned" when you are not tied up and twisted and rooted into those you love; and if you are a married woman with a family, you must love your family and you must mind what happens, and whether you can pay the rent, and whether there is anything in the larder, and so on. Your sanctity comes from putting your trust in God for yourself and your family, and you are not expected (by God) to be indifferent to those whom He has given to you to be loved by you! If you try to apply (as many do) ideas which even in a monastery are difficult to practice, to life in the world, it will end in depression.

It's not wrong to worry or fear, but it is wrong not to accept worry and fear if they are your personal cross. Only hand out the worry and fear to Our Lord; ask Him to bear it with you.

--Caryll Houselander, Letters

Jean Pierre de Caussade, in case you are not aware of him, was an 18th century French Jesuit who for a time was spiritual director to a congregation of nuns, and wrote (for them, I assume) Abandonment to Divine Providence.

A Christmas Caryll (8)

I think the most moving fact in the whole history of mankind is that wherever the Holy Spirit has desired to renew the face of the earth He has chosen to do so through communion with some humble little human creature.

In the instances we know of, it has not been to great or powerful people that the Spirit has come but to the little or the frightened, and we have seen them made new, and known that the subsequent flowering of their lives was nothing else but Christ given to them by that sweet impact.

It is always a love story, a culmination of love between the Spirit of Light and the Bride of the Spirit.

This is something which can happen to everyone now, but it could not have happened to anyone but for the fiat of the peasant girl in Nazareth whom the whole world calls Our Lady.

--Caryll Houselander, The Reed of God.

A Christmas Caryll (7)

You have prayed and have not yet, as you think, had the complete answer. This is usually because you have not given Our Lord something he asks for, in order to answer you. For example, when He worked miracles He asked for some trifle which one would suppose useless--as, for example, the loaves and fishes for the feeding of the five thousand; and again, for the Mass, He asks the offering of the simple substance of bread and wine for the miracle of the Consecration. You say, "He hasn't worked the miracle," "He hasn't given me the courage I need." Well, the answer usually is: "You have not given Him anything to work the miracle with." Of course, He can do miracles without, but usually He asks us to give something, and, if the miracle you ask is personal transubstantiation--that you may be changed into Him--then clearly, unless you offer yourself--all of yourself--He can't do it, for what has He got to change?

--Caryll Houselander, Letters

This letter was to a Mrs. Boardman, who wished to become a Catholic but was encountering great resistance and hostility from her family.