Christmas, in transit

Merry Christmas! I’m in the cafe car on Amtrak, heading to Philadelphia. I think this is the first time I’ve traveled alone on Christmas Day, and am eager to be with family tonight.

I stayed in Washington for Christmas Eve because I wanted to be there for Midnight Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. Archbishop Christophe Pierre, Apostolic Nuncio to the United States, was the celebrant. And EWTN broadcast it:

It turned out to be a spiritually rich Christmas Eve, for which I’m really grateful. And as a bonus, I ran into a friend and his fiancé from my University of Mary bioethics program. We sat together and caught up afterwards.

Christmas reminds us not only that Christ came into the world, but also that we’re not alone.

Mary sang in this world below

I’m at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception this evening for confession before Christmas, and will stay here for Midnight Mass tonight.

Billy Ryan shares J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Christmas prayer to the Virgin Mary,” apparently an only recently rediscovered 1936 poem called “Noel” that appeared in an Oxfordshire magazine:

Grim was the world and grey last night:
The moon and stars were fled,
The hall was dark without song or light,
The fires were fallen dead.
The wind in the trees was like to the sea,
And over the mountains’ teeth
It whistled bitter-cold and free,
As a sword leapt from its sheath.

The lord of snows upreared his head;
His mantle long and pale
Upon the bitter blast was spread
And hung o’er hill and dale.
The world was blind, the boughs were bent,
All ways and paths were wild:
Then the veil of cloud apart was rent,
And here was born a Child.

The ancient dome of heaven sheer
Was pricked with distant light;
A star came shining white and clear
Alone above the night.
In the dale of dark in that hour of birth
One voice on a sudden sang:
Then all the bells in Heaven and Earth
Together at midnight rang.

Mary sang in this world below:
They heard her song arise
O’er mist and over mountain snow
To the walls of Paradise,
And the tongue of many bells was stirred
in Heaven’s towers to ring
When the voice of mortal maid was heard,
That was mother of Heaven’s King.

Glad is the world and fair this night
With stars about its head,
And the hall is filled with laughter and light,
And fires are burning red.
The bells of Paradise now ring
With bells of Christendom,
And Gloria, Gloria we will sing
That God on earth is come.

Brideshead Revisited

I read Brideshead Revisited over the weekend. What Willa Cather accomplished in painting a portrait of a particular time in Shadows on the Rock or My Ántonia, Evelyn Waugh accomplished with Brideshead Revisited. I’m glad to have finally read this book.

In December 1945, John K. Hutchens reviewed Brideshead Revisited and called it Waugh’s finest achievement:

“Brideshead Revisited” has the depth and weight that are found in a writer working in his prime, in the full powers of an eager, good mind and a skilled hand, retaining the best of what he has already learned. It tells an absorbing story in imaginative terms. By indirection it summarizes and comments upon a time and a society. It has an almost romantic sense of wonder, together with the provocative, personal point of view of a writer who sees life realistically. It is, in short, a large, inclusive novel with which the 1946 season begins, a novel more fully realized than any of the year now ending, whatever their other virtues. …

Unless “Brideshead Revisited” finds you a very new member of the Waugh public, you realized with his first novel (“Decline and Fall,” 1928) that his equipment as a social satirist was just about perfect. In the first place, he obviously knew what he was talking about: this was reporting at first- hand by one who had been in that world if not of it. He wrote with a sharp thrust which smote a victim or merely pinked him, as circumstances dictated. His style was clean and fast. From one sentence to another you read with a virtually sensuous delight in his gift for the exact word, his remarkable use of a detail to summarize a place or a person, his wonderful sense of the ridiculous. …

In the beginning it is gay enough–an affectionately ironic picture of Oxford in 1923, the sunflower estheticism, plovers eggs and getting drunk at luncheon, the lively, small banter, the happy irresponsibility, “Antic Hay.” It is there that Ryder meets Lord Sebastian Flyte and forms a romantic friendship with him; Sebastian, the brilliant, charming “half-heathen” second son of an old Catholic family that is verging on dissolution which, Mr. Waugh seems to suggest, parallels England’s change from the old order to the new. Then, the story’s arrival at Brideshead and its baroque castle, the tone changes to a somber hue as the themes develop: the love story of Ryder and Sebastian’s sister Julia, of which Ryder’s and Sebastian’s friendship had been a spiritual forerunner; the Church giving haven to the soul-torn, drunken Sebastian and reclaiming Julia and even the Byronic father who comes home at last from Italy to die. …

There will be, quite certainly, no little discussion and even controversy about the problem he poses, or rather the conclusion he offers. Mr. Waugh, a Catholic, is also, politically, a Tory. As a writer, as a story-teller and an artist, he insists on nothing. Of Catholicism as a factor in the lives of the Marchmains he writes so objectively, seeing it through the eyes of the non-Catholic narrator, that it could actually be construed as the slightly sardonic report of an unbeliever confronted with (and baffled by) “an entirely different outlook on life.” What he is saying in effect is that faith is a saving answer to anyone who has it or had had it; which could scarcely be called propaganda, though he will surely be charged with propaganda. It will be said, too, that his political conservatism is patent in his reluctant acceptance of social change, and this will be true: the end of a Brideshead is to him a matter for regret and misgiving, for he believes in “order” and the continuity of tradition. Above all, he believes in responsibility, the absence of which in his own class he has castigated so fiercely.

Sunday Christmas scenes

It’s been a beautiful weekend in Washington. I headed to Alexandra this afternoon for a Christmas/baby birthday party, and then saw a friend off at the airport before catching the Metro to Rosslyn and walking home across the Key Bridge.

Here are two photos of a great Georgetown home, and the view this evening from the Washington Reagan Airport concourse.

Handel’s Messiah

I’ve looked out onto the Kennedy Center many times, and driven past it or run past it many times, but never been inside. Tonight I visited the Kennedy Center for Handel’s Messiah with some Leonine Forum fellows:


National Symphony Orchestra: Handel’s Messiah
Thursday, December 19, 2019 – Sunday, December 22, 2019

Since its debut nearly three centuries ago, one work reigns unchallenged as the ultimate celebration of holiday cheer: Handel’s Messiah. This year, experience Messiah’s supreme glory in Sir Andrew Davis’s must-hear orchestration with a stellar cast of soloists and The Washington Chorus.

“Everything I have done instrumentally stems from the enormous respect, even awe, which I feel towards this supreme masterpiece.”—Sir Andrew Davis, conductor

Sir Andrew Davis, conductor
Andriana Chuchman, soprano
Daniela Mack, mezzo-soprano
Alek Shrader, tenor
Sidney Outlaw, bass
The Washington Chorus; Christopher Bell, Artistic Director
Handel: Messiah (arr. Davis)

Dramatic Key Bridge run

Great run after work last night, from Georgetown across the Key Bridge and up past Clarendon and then back down past our old office, through Rosslyn, and back home. It was raining and foggy, and the Potomac was totally blanketed by the fog. It was the first time I couldn’t seen the Washington Monument from the Key Bridge—and I couldn’t really see more than a few dozen feet past the bridge on the way into Virginia. Dramatic, fun conditions for a run in weather that didn’t feel as cold as it really was.

Here’s a live photo I took with my iPhone on the way home that gives a better sense of the rain. Twitter let me turn it into a GIF when I tweeted it:


Washington in December

A few scenes from the last few days in Washington, from a walk to Epiphany for morning Mass, a walk to the office, a walk to Saint Matthew the Apostle for the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and walks through Georgetown.

Isn’t that a beautiful DC Health ad, by the way? “Protect your loved ones,” urges DC Health, as a child kisses his brother or sister through their mother.

Stars and Christmas lights

After a Christmas party in Bethesda/Rockville on Saturday night, I left around 10pm for State College in order to get into town for the Mount Nittany Conservancy’s Sunday board meeting, the meeting of the year.

I opted for the slightly longer but more scenic/rural route, which is great even at night. I stopped for a few minutes off a side road in Franklin County, near the little town of Lemasters, Pennsylvania, because you could night sky was very visible. It was also nearly totally silent, and I tried to capture the sound of silence.

I got into State College past 1am and walked down Allen Street to take in the Christmas lights before heading to sleep. After the Mount Nittany Conservancy meeting and a few brief errands, I hit the road back to Washington on Sunday around noon.

The dynamic of friendship

I think the first snow of the season in Washington last year happened in roughly mid-November. No snow to be seen yet, and this week has been generally gorgeous—here’s a scene from earlier in the week, paired with something from David Whyte on friendship that Tim Ferriss highlighted in his “5-Bullet Friday” newsletter:

“The dynamic of friendship is almost always underestimated as a constant force in human life: a diminishing circle of friends is the first terrible diagnostic of a life in deep trouble: of overwork, of too much emphasis on a professional identity, of forgetting who will be there when our armored personalities run into the inevitable natural disasters and vulnerabilities found in even the most average existence. …

But no matter the medicinal virtues of being a true friend or sustaining a long close relationship with another, the ultimate touchstone of friendship is not improvement, neither of the other nor of the self; the ultimate touchstone is witness, the privilege of having been seen by someone and the equal privilege of being granted the sight of the essence of another, to have walked with them and to have believed in them, and sometimes just to have accompanied them for however brief a span, on a journey impossible to accomplish alone.”

God’s advent

Today is the first Sunday in Advent, and we hear from Matthew: “Therefore, stay awake! For you do not know on which day your Lord will come. Be sure of this: if the master of the house had known the hour of night when the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and not let his house be broken into. So too, you also must be prepared, for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come.”


It’s raining this morning in Washington, but a light rain that doesn’t leave you overly chilly. After Mass at Epiphany, I continued reading Romano Guardini, “The Lord,” and specifically his chapter on judgment:

Men have always known that something was wrong with human existence; that everywhere stupidity, injustice, deception and violence were at work. Consequently there was always the feeling that someday things must be set right and fulfilled. Some expected this clarification to come from human history itself: humanity by its own powers would fight its way through to a kind of divine existence. Let us allow this hope to die a natural death; it is flagrantly contrary not only to Revelation and Christian thinking, but also to the conclusions that must be drawn from a single honest glance at reality. We maintain our conviction that clarity can come only from God, after earthly life is over. But how is such a judgment to be imagined?

One might say: Throughout existence we find vain appearances and downright deception. A man is seldom rated by his fellow-men for what he really is. Often people of great value are poor, the honorable are unknown, and the questionable or utterly useless are wealthy and esteemed. Seldom does a person’s appearance reveal his true nature. Even towards oneself there is much deceit. The self-appraising eye looks away at sight of the truth; the will hides its true intentions from itself and pretends to much that is non-existent. Thus judgment might well consist of the falling of the masks; the transparent appearance of all things as they really are. . . . We might also say: The inner reality of an individual should harmonize with the outer. The man who is pure should also be healthy; the good beautiful, the magnanimous strong and powerful of frame. Actually, it is quite different. Such unity is so rare, that an encounter with it seems like a fairytale. And it will never be otherwise. Neither physical-education nor spiritual formation will be able to change this radically, for the root of the disturbance goes deeper than human will. The cracks that run through personality will always be there—the stronger the personality, the deeper the cracks. Judgment could mean that disposition and being become one, that every human becomes in reality what he is by intention.

Or this thought: How rarely are life’s promises kept, tasks completed, do human relations bear their fruit, does potential greatness become actuality. Again and again things break off and remain fragmentary. Life seldom receives the full, intelligent and loving approbation it desires. Even love is insufficient and illusory. Hence judgment could mean fulfillment; that every being might say: Everything in me that could be, has been perfected, has received its “yes” and its “no.”

These suggestions, like many others, have their grain of truth—also of Christian truth. Many passages in Scripture, particularly in the Old Testament, support them. Still, what Christ says is different. In order that “judgments” such as these take place, things have only to appear before God’s clarity. But what Jesus was referring to in the last days of his earthly existence was something else.

The judgment he means will not come through the falling away of time’s constraint and the placing of all things in God’s clarifying light, but through God’s advent. Judgment is not the eternal consequences of divine government, but God’s specific historical act—the last. After it, we are told, comes eternity. There is no action in eternity, only purest being and eternal fulfillment. And the God who is to come thus is Jesus Christ, he who is addressing us. …

When will Judgment come? No one knows, says the Lord—not even the Son. This knowledge is reserved to the Father and his counsel. It is not necessary to pull this word to pieces. It is part of paternal sovereignty “to know the times or dates which the Father has fixed by his own authority” (Acts 1:7). Judgment comes from the freedom of the Father, the Inaccessible One.

One thing we are told: it will come suddenly. Like the thief in the night, the master from his journey, the bridegroom from the wedding. This “suddenly” is the same kind of adverb as the “soon” of the Apocalypse and Paul’s letters. It does not mean a brief span of time rather than a long one—not ten years instead of a thousand. This is how it was interpreted in the beginning, so that people thought Christ’s return would take place in the next few years. In reality, any time is “soon” because all time is short, i.e., transitory. A thousand years before God are as a day, and all time as nothing, for he is eternity, but time passes. Whenever the end comes, it will be “soon.” And people will say: “Now? Why now? We have scarcely begun to live! We haven’t done any of the things that must be done, if everything is not to be lost! We have neglected the essential.” Always it will be: “We have neglected the essential!” This is how Christ’s “suddenly” is meant. …

God’s gaze is constantly upon earth, and his coming is a constant threat.