Blame what follows on the winter solstice. Or the Tropic of Capricorn, whichever irks you more.
You never know from what direction something will come that will change your life.
I have a personal fascination with old things that endure. Old homes, old books, old music, old institutions. It’s not a worship of age for age’s sake, but of quality that survives through time. In a world where one of the more popular disdainful dismissals is “That’s so five minutes ago,” old things that proclaim some timeless verity while refusing to blush about their years stand out powerfully – and well above the madding crowd, at that.
Just this morning, longtime reader Cindi emailed me a link to a site she thought I would enjoy. She was correct about that. The proprietor appears to delight in many of the things I find most appealing. Along with that, he’s a fan of one of my favorite contemporary Catholic writers, the late Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen.
Here’s one of the snippets I found there – one that, despite my voracious consumption of prose, I’d never before encountered:
If I were not a Catholic, and were looking for the true Church in the world today, I would look for the one Church which did not get along well with the world; in other words, I would look for the Church which the world hates. My reason for doing this would be, that if Christ is in any one of the churches of the world today, He must still be hated as He was when He was on earth in the flesh. If you would find Christ today, then find the Church that does not get along with the world. Look for the Church that is hated by the world, as Christ was hated by the world. Look for the Church which is accused of being behind the times, as Our Lord was accused of being ignorant and never having learned. Look for the Church which men sneer at as socially inferior, as they sneered at Our Lord because He came from Nazareth. Look for the Church which is accused of having a devil, as Our Lord was accused of being possessed by Beelzebub, the Prince of Devils. Look for the Church which the world rejects because it claims it is infallible, as Pilate rejected Christ because he called Himself the Truth. Look for the Church which amid the confusion of conflicting opinions, its members love as they love Christ, and respect its voice as the very voice of its Founder, and the suspicion will grow, that if the Church is unpopular with the spirit of the world, then it is unworldly, and if it is unworldly, it is other-worldly. Since it is other-worldly, it is infinitely loved and infinitely hated as was Christ Himself. – Fulton J. Sheen
Words fail me – and when a writer says that, you should take it seriously.
Robert Louis Stevenson has told us that “The world is so full of a number of things / That we should all be as happy as kings.” Indeed, happiness is the desired end state of Man, for which we strive for its own sake, no other reason. But happiness in this life is always temporary and conditional. The pleasures of temporal existence fade with time. The delight we take in new possessions passes as we become accustomed to their presence. Every enjoyment erodes as it acquires a habitual position in our lives.
Moreover, our social nature tends to press certain unpleasant facts upon us. There’s always someone wealthier, handsomer, more admired, married to a more beautiful and loving woman. There’s always someone whose wretchedness reminds us that “time and chance happeneth to us all” – that no matter how high our estate has risen, we might yet fall. And of course, temporal existence involves work: insistent, persistent demands that we set aside what we’d like to do in favor of what we must do.
Some persons find refuge from their cares in elective oblivion: e.g., drink or drugs. But these are not routes to happiness; to escape is not to succeed.
Temporal happiness is fleeting. As Nachiketa says to Yama, the God of Death, “these things endure only until tomorrow:”
Nachiketa said: There is this doubt about a man when he is dead: Some say that he exists; others, that he does not. This I should like to know, taught by you. This is the third of my boons....
Yama said: Choose sons and grandsons who shall live a hundred years; choose elephants, horses, herds of cattle and gold. Choose a vast domain on earth; live here as many years as you desires. If you deem any other boon equal to that, choose it; choose wealth and a long life. Be the king, O Nachiketa, of the wide earth. I will make you the enjoyer of all desires. Whatever desires are difficult to satisfy in this world of mortals, choose them as you wish: these fair maidens, with their chariots and musical instruments — men cannot obtain them. I give them to you and they shall wait upon you. But do not ask me about death.
Nachiketa said: But, O Death, these endure only till tomorrow. Furthermore, they exhaust the vigour of all the sense organs. Even the longest life is short indeed. Keep your horses, dances and songs for yourself....Tell me, O Death, of that Great Hereafter about which a man has his doubts.
Even the longest life is short indeed. What better reason is there for Man’s unending search for That Which Endures Eternally?
Of course, it’s an old person saying this, so perhaps you should take it cum grano salis. (Of course I like Latin. It’s old!)
One of my fellow parishioners regularly totes a beautiful volume to Mass: this one, first published in 1954. She told me it had been one of her grandmother’s treasures, which I could easily believe from its battered binding. By dint of careful investigation and tireless inquiry – all right, yes, I went to Amazon – I found a copy for myself.
This book of prayers, venerable and modern, is a storehouse of inspiration. It provides devotional and inspirational entries for each of the three phases of the day and for the many notable occasions of the liturgical calendar. I cannot recommend it too highly.
When I told my fellow communicant that I’d found a copy for myself, I complimented her on having preserved a worthy old book against the ravages of time. She smiled and said, “Oh, this isn’t my grandma’s. That one fell apart. I bought this one about three years ago.” That’ll learn me.
Christmas, of course, isn’t an anniversary but a commemoration. The consensus from those writings that have endured is that Jesus was born sometime in the early spring. Nevertheless, the Church planted the Feast of the Nativity where it did for sound reasons.
History records several celebrations regularly held at this time of year. The one of most interest to the early Church was Saturnalia, a sort of memorial gustatory festival in commemoration of the reign of Saturn (a.k.a. Cronus), king of the Titans, the elder gods who begat Jupiter and his brethren of the younger Roman pantheon.
As the Roman Empire turned Christian, the Church found it expedient – call it a marketing decision – to position its feast days at or near the dates of those of the traditional Roman creed. The rationale was simple: replace the feasts of the older creed with the newer one, so that the converted could continue their traditional celebrations with a new, Church approved reason.
However, this time of year is significant for another reason: the winter solstice, the day of shortest sunlight. The earliest recorded celebrations were actually petitions for the return of the Sun, accompanied by ritual sacrifices to propitiate the gods and persuade them to grant Man renewed light in a new year.
In that connection, ponder this verse from my favorite Christmas hymn:
A thrill of hope,
The weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks
A new and glorious morn.
Not a bad parallel between the return of the Sun and the birth of the Son of God, eh what?
In the Desiderata, we are counseled to “as far as possible without surrender, be on good terms with all men.” It’s good advice, provided we remember the condition: without surrender.
That condition was much on my mind when I wrote the “Politicata:”
If you logroll with others, you may become enmeshed, for always there will be both shorter and longer memories than yours. Annotate your memoranda as well as your dossiers. Keep interested in your legislative aides, however humble; they are a real asset in the shifting alliances of time.
Exercise prudence in securing your file and desk drawers, for the world is full of trickery. But let this not blind you to what opportunity there is; many "good" leaks are possible, and everywhere life is full of "usually reliable sources."
Be yourself. Especially, do not feign liberalism. Neither be cynical about conservatism, for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment it is as perennial as the grass. Fade gently over the years, gracefully surrendering the porkier subsidies.
Nurture savings to shield you from sudden electoral reversals, but do not overload yourself with "unallocated contingency funds." Many scandals are born of accelerating bank balances. Beyond a healthy nest egg, partake not from the lobbyists.
You are a child of the Founding Fathers of Our Country, no less than the Proxmires and Kennedys; you have privileges to be here. And whether or not your security classification allows you to check for yourself, no doubt the Engine of State is chugging along as it should. Therefore, be at peace with the FBI, the CIA, the DIS, the DEA, and most especially the IRS, whatever you conceive Them to be, and whatever your ideology or special-interest group, in the noisy confusion of Special Investigating Committees keep faith with your lawyer and accountant. With all its Ruhollah Khomeinis, its Muammar Qaddafis and its Adnan Khashoggis, it is still a beautiful political system. Get elected. Get reelected. Don't get mad, get even.
(copyright (C) 1989 Francis W. Porretto)
And with that, I’m off to Mass.