Archive for December, 2020

Hidden Hope

Thursday, December 31st, 2020

Thomas Hardy’s life had its share of contradiction. Best known today for his novels, he considered himself first and foremost a poet. Long estranged from his first wife, Emma Gifford, he realized after her death in 1912 that he had, in fact, truly loved her. A passionate critic of class based social restrictions, he died a wealthy man in 1928. Adamant that he be buried with his wife in the village of Stinsford, Dorsetshire, his ashes were instead interred at Poets’ Corner in Westminster. Yet in a compromise between his executor and his family, his physical heart was buried in St. Michael’s churchyard, Stinsford, near Emma’s grave.

Raised in the Anglican tradition, Hardy maintained an emotional attachment to church ritual while abandoning his belief in God. His novels’ main characters, doomed by fate to tragic ends, embody Hardy’s dark vision of life. He was keenly interested in ghosts, desperately sought evidence for life after death, and wrote of overpowering and indifferent forces controlling human lives by chance or whim. This odd assortment of disbelief and credulity, not unusual among late Victorian writers, afforded Hardy space to entertain doubts about his doubt.

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Not Left Comfortless

Wednesday, December 30th, 2020

Jane Kenyon’s luminous poem, “Let Evening Come,” isn’t a winter poem, nor is it – as it as is often used – a funeral poem. I read it as a standing invitation back to the beauty of the real, a call as welcome at year’s end as at close of day. The dark settles as it will, but we aren’t left comfortless. There’s no reason to fear. What we call “nature” or “the environment” – as if these words name something that doesn’t include us – teems with creatures that need no such reminder. Humans apparently do.

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Broken and Beautiful

Tuesday, December 29th, 2020

December 29 commemorates the assassination of Saint Thomas à Becket at Canterbury cathedral in 1170. Thomas was a political insider (and allegedly something of a scoundrel in his personal life) whom King Henry II named Archbishop to serve as the crown’s reliable yes-man. To Henry’s dismay, Thomas took the new role seriously, a personal and public transformation that ultimately resulted in his politically motivated murder. Whatever else one may take from his biography, Thomas reminds us not only that deeply flawed humans can become saints, but they are the only ones who ever do.

In the northern hemisphere, with winter just getting started and memories of a dark and troubling year weigh heavy, it’s a balm to remember that each successive day from now until June grows imperceptibly longer. The worst of the weather and the pandemic may yet be ahead, but that’s never the whole story. For all that humanity does to mangle our one and only planet, we remain broken and beautiful people in a broken and beautiful world. Focusing too often and too long on the brokenness blinds us to that beauty. Eyes open to beauty are vaccines against apathy and despair.

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Any Rationalization in the Storm

Monday, December 28th, 2020

December 28 is traditionally observed as the commemoration of the “Massacre of the Innocents” under Herod the Great. The dark episode is recorded only in Matthew’s gospel, and its absence from any other primary historical source – despite Herod’s generally bad reputation among contemporary Jewish and pagan historians – leads many scholars to view the story as a narrative device.

Whether historical fact or instructive fable, it sheds much needed light on the human habit of justifying brute force and lethal violence in service of some abstract greater good. The myth of redemptive violence in the United States, for example, doesn’t mark a partisan or ideological divide. Wars, invasions, and massacres have been championed by left and right. American notions of progress have underwritten the Indian Removal Act, Prohibition, and eugenic sterilization. “The greater good” has been invoked to justify chattel slavery and the bombing of entire cities. Doing bad things with the best intentions is not a quirk of history but an all too human constant.

We often come to admit and regret the large-scale disasters, if only in retrospect. It’s far easier to rationalize away the smaller instances in our everyday lives. Among the challenges of the Christmas season is the temptation to put ourselves into the story as a shepherd, a wise man or woman – perhaps even an angel – and not to recognize Herod’s shadow in our hearts and minds.

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Christmas Regret

Sunday, December 27th, 2020

Christmas, like life, rarely brings us what we once wanted or imagined we needed. No doubt that explains why so many products of consumer capitalism’s holiday season create and feed a relentless craving for “the best Christmas ever,” a sales campaign designed to insure that, in the words of a song by Over the Rhine, “all I get for Christmas is blue.” Recognizing the chasm between what I thought I wanted and what I truly need is an essential lesson on the regret-laden road to spiritual maturity. Here’s a poem for those on the way.

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“A sad tale’s best for winter.”

Saturday, December 26th, 2020

Shakespeare’s late romance, The Winter’s Tale, is full of contrivances and plot holes, including perhaps the most famous stage direction in history, “Exit, pursued by a bear,” yet it remains among my favorites. The title itself is a mystery. The only plausible reference in the text is young Mamillius’s offhand comment, “A sad tale’s best for winter,” even though the play ends in an unexpected reconciliation. So it is that I associate the play with Christmas, as so much of the Christmas story, as in the stories of our lives, finds joy in sad and difficult terrain: long, hard journeys; no room at the inn; Herod’s jealous rage; the flight to Egypt.

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Prince of Peace

Friday, December 25th, 2020

Octavian Augustus, first emperor of Rome, was known by many titles, including Divi Filius (Son of God), and Princeps Pacis (Prince of Peace). An inscription in Asia Minor states that Augustus’s birth “… has been for the whole world the beginning of the gospel (εύαγγέλιον) concerning him.” How strange, then, to use the same names for a contemporaneous but obscure Palestinian Jew, whose understanding of peace, politics, and power was so radically different. How strange to have so long diluted the scandal of the gospel (good news) with accommodations to an Augustan vision of a peace built on the use or threat of lethal violence. Here’s a Christmas poem calling attention to that contrast in a conscious act against forgetting.

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