New Years

In Avalon, New Jersey with friends for New Years and leaving Monday afternoon. Visiting the shore in wintertime is a strange thing, mainly because a place you’re used to experiencing full of other people is almost deserted. A place you’re used to experiencing in the heat of summer with wide open windows is instead cold and closed up. But with good people, even deserted places feel full of life.

This has been a good and important year for me, and I’m looking forward to whatever the new year holds.

Windows that open

It’s winter, so I’m thinking about summer.

I’m thinking specifically of the warm breezes of summer. I’m thinking of how difficult it is to enjoy natural weather in the summer in modern buildings whose window don’t open for safety/liability reasons as much as because we demand climate controlled spaces.

But these characteristics of our times are probably an example of regression rather than progress, at least in the sense that they degrade the experience of any given place as distinct or diminish the chances of encountering our neighbors or hearing the sounds and smelling the smells of the streets.

I think places should shape how you live. A few years ago I took these photos of a street in Old City, Philadelphia. It’s an example of a specific set of buildings, where one of the older ones retains a feature that newer buildings avoid: windows that open.

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Few if any new construction incorporates anything as beautiful as that building’s architectural flourishes, let alone its enormous windows. At the apartment where I lived in Old City at the time we had a wide glass window that provided a great view of the street, but that was a sealed, single pane of glass. Only thin slats near the top opened to let in some of the sound of the street, but none of its noise or breeze on a warm evening.

I think a lot of this has to do with America’s liability culture, and the fear from owners and developers that buildings with great windows like the one above that draw neighbors closer together are also risks for anything from basic falls to darker things like suicide. But making decisions like that makes the exception the rule, and the rule of daily life in apartments like ours is that you can see the street, but you can’t feel the neighborhood. You can’t drink it in.

I think more beautiful, wide-open windows would be a specific improvement that would significantly enhance the character of my neighborhood. What about yours?

Civilization, continuity, memory

Dominique Venner writes:

“Memory” is a much abused word. But so too is the word “love,” which doesn’t mean it can’t be used in its fullest sense. It’s the force of “memory,” transmitted within the bosom of the family, that enables a community to endure, despite all that seeks its dissolution. It’s the long “memory” of the Chinese, the Japanese, the Jews, and other such peoples that has enabled them to surmount the perils and persecutions to which every people is heir. To their disadvantage, due to the rupture of their history, Europeans have been deprived of their memory.

I am reminded of this rupture every time students ask me to speak about Europe’s future. For whenever the word “Europe” is pronounced, it evokes a host of ambiguities. To some, it evokes the European Union, either positively — or negatively insofar as it’s not a “power.” To avoid confusion, I always specify that the Europe of which I speak is not Europe in its political sense. Guided by Epictetus’s principle of distinguishing between “that which depends on us and that which doesn’t depend on us,” I know that it depends on me to base my life on authentic European values, whereas I have no say on what politics Europe pursues. I also know that without an animating idea, there is no coherent action, [political or otherwise].

This animating idea is rooted in the consciousness of Europe’s civilization, a consciousness that transcends its regions and nations. You can be a Breton or a Provençal, French and European, son of the same civilization which has endured over the ages, since its first crystallization in the Homeric poems.

“A civilization,” Fernand Braudel says, “is a continuity, even when it profoundly changes, such as when adopting a new religion, for it incorporates its old values in the new, retaining its substance.” To this continuity, we are obliged to be who we are.

In this vein, Will Durant observed that “The old is preserved in the new, and everything changes except the essence. History, like life, must be continuous or die.”

Another way to think about “civilization” might be “cultural continuity.” This is the basic idea that both Venner and Durant are speaking to. A friend commented to me that the World Wars of the last century make far more sense when thought of as the last major civil wars of the European powers.

If that’s true, then what Europe is working through today is whether it can survive as a civilization after these devastating conflicts.

Education as escape

Paul Beston writes on the experience of a young man:

He had been a talented but utterly indifferent student, and it is only after he leaves college that he understands what an education really means: “To escape from the little island of the living. To know what thinking men and women have felt and seen and imagined though all the ages of the world. To meet my natural companions among the mighty dead. To walk with them in conversation. To know myself in them, through them. Because they are what we’ve become.”

This young man named Andrew Klavan came to these realizations after coming of age:

Klavan’s is a story of a thoroughly secular man, one who attends college just as postmodernism is coming fully into academic vogue and who knows the world of flesh and money and temptation better than most. He spends his life immersed in secular culture; his touchstones are not obscure. They range from Carole King songs to Raymond Chandler novels, from Faulkner to Shakespeare, Dostoevsky to the Bible, Bar Mitzvahs to baptisms; they include the hunger for experience that puts young men on the American road and the uncanny capacity of baseball to throw out metaphors to those same men, older now, when they need them most.

Don’t we all want to meet our “natural companions among the mighty dead,” so that we might understand our own place better among the living?

Christ’s otherness

Joe Sobran wrote many years ago:

The Western world, including many of those who consider themselves Christians, has turned Christmas into a bland holiday of mere niceness. …

Some people think you can take Christ’s “teachings” and ignore his miracles as if they were fables. But this is to confuse the Sermon on the Mount with the Democratic Party platform.

The natural reaction to Christ is to reject him. He said so. In fact, when he was taken to the Temple as an infant, St. Simeon prophesied that he would be a center of contention. Later he predicted his own death and told his followers they must expect persecution too.

He expects rejection.

Chief among his teachings was his claim to be God’s son: “I and the Father are one.” “Nobody comes to the Father except through me.”

His teachings are inseparable from his miracles; in fact, his teachings themselves are miraculous. Nobody had ever made such claims before, enraging pious Pharisees and baffling his pious disciples at the same time. After feeding thousands with the miraculous loaves and fishes, he announced that he himself was “the bread of life.” Unless you ate his flesh and drank his blood, he warned, you have no life in you.

This amazing teaching was too much. It cost him many of his disciples on the spot. He didn’t try to coax them back by explaining that he was only speaking figuratively, because he wasn’t.

He speaks literally.

Christians shouldn’t resent the natural resistance of those who refuse to celebrate his birth. In their way, those people are his witnesses too.

He’s strange.

Christianity’s historical coherence

Fr. Robert Barron’s “Catholicism” series is great. It’s a new media series sharing the story of the faith across ten, hour-long episodes. It’s a genuinely incredible series. Fr. Barron is a sophisticated and powerful conveyer of the Christian story.

In “Amazed and Afraid: The Revelation of God Become Man,” comes the story of Francis Cardinal George’s reflection as he stood in 2005 near newly-named Pope Benedict XVI to greet the world:

Asked what he was thinking about at that moment, Cardinal George explained: “I was gazing over toward the Circus Maximus, toward the Palatine Hill where the Roman Emperors once resided and reigned and looked down upon the persecution of Christians, and I thought, ‘Where are their successors? Where is the successor of Caesar Augustus? Where is the successor of Marcus Aurelius? And finally, who cares? But if you want to see the successor of Peter, he is right next to me, smiling and waving at the crowds.'”

What did I think as I heard this recollection? J.R.R. Tolkein and his King Theoden’s battle lament:

King Theoden’s despair is ultimately turned back by Gandalf the White’s arrival at the peak of the battle. Cardinal George of course wasn’t despairing, but rather celebrating, because our own savior has come and will return. Christianity perseveres, and indeed seems strengthened by challenge.

What I love about Cardinal George’s thinking in that to be part of the faith is to be a part of an historical flow, a continuum where the dead truly live and where Christ in fact does live. And historically speaking, Marcus Aurelius and Caesar Augustus are still our peers.

Merry Christmas

A friend of mine shared In Hoc Anno Domini, which the Wall Street Journal has been publishing each year for the past 70 years. It’s a beautiful reminder that the liberty we celebrate in America is an echo of the first revolution that was Christ’s appearance in the human story:

When Saul of Tarsus set out on his journey to Damascus the whole of the known world lay in bondage. There was one state, and it was Rome. There was one master for it all, and he was Tiberius Caesar.

Everywhere there was civil order, for the arm of the Roman law was long. Everywhere there was stability, in government and in society, for the centurions saw that it was so.

But everywhere there was something else, too. There was oppression—for those who were not the friends of Tiberius Caesar. There was the tax gatherer to take the grain from the fields and the flax from the spindle to feed the legions or to fill the hungry treasury from which divine Caesar gave largess to the people. There was the impressor to find recruits for the circuses. There were executioners to quiet those whom the Emperor proscribed. What was a man for but to serve Caesar?

There was the persecution of men who dared think differently, who heard strange voices or read strange manuscripts. There was enslavement of men whose tribes came not from Rome, disdain for those who did not have the familiar visage. And most of all, there was everywhere a contempt for human life. What, to the strong, was one man more or less in a crowded world?

Then, of a sudden, there was a light in the world, and a man from Galilee saying, Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s.

And the voice from Galilee, which would defy Caesar, offered a new Kingdom in which each man could walk upright and bow to none but his God. Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me. And he sent this gospel of the Kingdom of Man into the uttermost ends of the earth.

So the light came into the world and the men who lived in darkness were afraid, and they tried to lower a curtain so that man would still believe salvation lay with the leaders.

But it came to pass for a while in divers places that the truth did set man free, although the men of darkness were offended and they tried to put out the light. The voice said, Haste ye. Walk while you have the light, lest darkness come upon you, for he that walketh in darkness knoweth not whither he goeth.

Along the road to Damascus the light shone brightly. But afterward Paul of Tarsus, too, was sore afraid. He feared that other Caesars, other prophets, might one day persuade men that man was nothing save a servant unto them, that men might yield up their birthright from God for pottage and walk no more in freedom.

Then might it come to pass that darkness would settle again over the lands and there would be a burning of books and men would think only of what they should eat and what they should wear, and would give heed only to new Caesars and to false prophets. Then might it come to pass that men would not look upward to see even a winter’s star in the East, and once more, there would be no light at all in the darkness.

And so Paul, the apostle of the Son of Man, spoke to his brethren, the Galatians, the words he would have us remember afterward in each of the years of his Lord:

Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ has made us free and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage.

Christmas music

Earlier this fall I sent off three of my grandfather’s magnetic audio reels to South Tree for conversion to digital format. Pop recorded these in the early 1960s, and until last fall they had been sitting in a basement. I frankly wasn’t sure if any of the audio had survived when I sent them off. It turned out that the audio had survived in great condition for its age.

These magnetic reels were essentially an earlier version of a mixtape, recorded with a device with a small microphone. Pop recorded the kids (my mother and aunts and uncles) in some of them, he recorded Kennedy’s Cuban Missile Crisis speech on one of them, and he recorded Christmas music on them. These magnetic reels are large, roughly 9×9″ for perspective.

I’m not sure where the audio I’m sharing below came from. This reel has Mitch Miller on Side 1, but Side 2’s audio is totally different character and not at all like commercial music. You can hear my grandfather introducing the recording, recorded Christmas Eve 1962. He was about 35, and within two years would move with my grandmother from Philadelphia to Bucks County where he taught history at Central Bucks West.

  • Polish, Russian, Czech, Slovakian, German, etc. Christmas choral music
  • A Child Will Come, choir music
  • Sleigh Ride
  • Greensleeves (Orchestral)
  • It’s Time for  Mistletoe and Holly
  • Little Italian Girl’s Christmas

We’re proof of a mystery

“The body, and it alone is capable of making visible what is invisible, the spiritual and divine. It was created to transfer into the visible reality of the world, the invisible mystery hidden in God from time immemorial, and thus to be a sign of it.” – John Paul the Great

It’s nearly Christmas, which is not a normal holiday in any sense. It’s a Christian holy day centered around the fact that we believe God himself (being itself) became man as a means to bridge an incredible divide. Approaching Christmas, I’m thinking of Christopher West’s introduction to Theology of the Body, which I started reading recently. What is this fascination with the person of Jesus? John Paul answers:

“The fact that theology also includes the body should not astonish or surprise anyone who is conscious of the mystery and reality of the Incarnation. Through the fact that the Word of God became flesh, the body entered theology…through its main door.”

Our being, our existence—these things are proof of a mystery of the universe. The mystery of the universe, which is so fundamental that not even research into the origins of time itself provides intelligible conclusions. But perhaps there’s another way—through an investigation into our own bodies. I think Theology of the Body is uniquely appropriate to Christmas for the reasons Christopher West lays out:

“It’s not only a response to the sexual revolution, it’s a response to the Enlightenment. It’s a response to modern rationalism, Cartesian dualism, super-spiritualism, and all the disembodied anthropologies infecting the modern world. In short, the theology of the body is one of the Catholic Church’s most critical efforts in modern times to help the world become more ‘conscious of the mystery and reality of the Incarnation’—and, through that, to become more conscious of the humanum, of the very purpose and meaning of human life.”

It’s at Christmas (even more than Easter, I think) that we are presented with a specific, scheduled event inviting us to consider the fundamentals of our lives. If it’s true that we’re proof of a mystery, how is our personal investigation coming along?

Christmas ghost stories

“There’ll be scary ghost stories and tales of the glories of Christmases long, long ago.”

“Why ‘ghost stories’ at Christmastime?” I’ve heard this question raised among friends and figured I’d share what I’ve found. First, see A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens and the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future. Delving into the question this answer raises (but why ghosts in A Christmas Carol?), here are bits of insight listed reverse chronologically from the order in which I discovered them:

aoy24_4In the last few decades … perhaps one of the most interesting Victorian Christmas traditions has been almost completely lost from memory. “Whenever five or six English-speaking people meet round a fire on Christmas Eve, they start telling each other ghost stories,” wrote British humorist Jerome K. Jerome as part of his introduction to an anthology of Christmas ghost stories titled “Told After Supper“ in 1891. “Nothing satisfies us on Christmas Eve but to hear each other tell authentic anecdotes about specters.” …

Isn’t there something inherently unseasonal about ghosts? Don’t ghosts belong with all the ghouls and goblins of Halloween? Not so for Victorian England. “There must be something ghostly in the air of Christmas — something about the close, muggy atmosphere that draws up the ghosts, like the dampness of the summer rains brings out the frogs and snails…” (Source)

As a means of fellowship and entertainment:

Ghost stories were an integral part of the Victorian Christmas. Read around the fire, they were a popular home amusement in those households that could not afford the expense of the theatre or concert going. Many stories were specifically written for such evening entertainment. The ghostly tales of M.R. James (1862-1936), for instance, were originally composed for reading on Christmas Eve at King’s College, Cambridge; they were first published as Ghost Stories of an Antiquary in 1904. (Source)

Echoes of the past in modern media:

An example of this is Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, which has a group of friends sitting around the hearth on Christmas Eve telling a very scary and sinister ghost story. Another is in the Christmas song It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year where one line states, “there’ll be scary ghost stories and tales of the glories of Christmases long, long ago.” More recently Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas reflects a lingering interest in ghosts during the holidays. (Source)

As acts of cultural/familial conservation:

An old American tradition was to spend Christmas Eve sitting at the fireside with your loved ones telling stories and accounts that needed to be handed down from generation to generation. It was believed then that Christmas Eve, being a magical night was the given chance a spirit had to visit those who would be missed the most. This is portrayed in A Christmas Carol. (Source)

An alternate title:

When Charles Dickens published A Christmas Carol in 1843 the actual title was “A Christmas Carol, in prose, A Ghost Story of Christmas” (Source)

I savor how these insights highlight the way history, mystery, and myth pervade even the most ordinary experiences even if we don’t know how to recognize it. From the question of “ghost stories” you find Dickens gave his book another title. From there you find many wrote similar “Christmas ghost stories.” From there you learn it was a Victorian embodiment of Christmas. From there you can delve further into the pagan/spiritual ideas about the winter season and Christmastime.

And so from a cursory investigation of a YouTube-inspired riddle you find yourself sharing in a bit of the spirit of the truly ancient past.

Anyway, this is why we sing about “scary ghost stories” in one of our Christmas songs.