Magnificat

candles“Beside us sit all the loves we’ve lost, by our own devices or those of others. It’s why we sit a space or two apart from one another, the open cushions spelling our SOS to whomever might watch from above. I have arrived here without a single idea what love is.”

Learning to sing with Mary in this advent’s Ruminate post.

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Encounter: O. Henry

The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry

ONE dollar and eighty-seven cents. That was all. And sixty cents of it was in pennies. Pennies saved one and two at a time by bulldozing the grocer and the vegetable man and the butcher until one’s cheeks burned with the silent imputation of parsimony that such close dealing implied. Three times Della counted it. One dollar and eighty-seven cents. And the next day would be Christmas.

There was clearly nothing to do but flop down on the shabby little couch and howl. So Della did it. Which instigates the moral reflection that life is made up of sobs, sniffles, and smiles, with sniffles predominating.

While the mistress of the home is gradually subsiding from the first stage to the second, take a look at the home. A furnished flat at $8 per week. It did not exactly beggar description, but it certainly had that word on the lookout for the mendicancy squad.

In the vestibule below was a letter-box into which no letter would go, and an electric button from which no mortal finger could coax a ring. Also appertaining thereunto was a card bearing the name “Mr. James Dillingham Young.”

The “Dillingham” had been flung to the breeze during a former period of prosperity when its possessor was being paid $30 per week. Now, when the income was shrunk to $20, though, they were thinking seriously of contracting to a modest and unassuming D. But whenever Mr. James Dillingham Young came home and reached his flat above he was called “Jim” and greatly hugged by Mrs. James Dillingham Young, already introduced to you as Della. Which is all very good.

Della finished her cry and attended to her cheeks with the powder rag. She stood by the window and looked out dully at a gray cat walking a gray fence in a gray backyard. Tomorrow would be Christmas Day, and she had only $1.87 with which to buy Jim a present. She had been saving every penny she could for months, with this result. Twenty dollars a week doesn’t go far. Expenses had been greater than she had calculated. They always are. Only $1.87 to buy a present for Jim. Her Jim. Many a happy hour she had spent planning for something nice for him. Something fine and rare and sterling—something just a little bit near to being worthy of the honor of being owned by Jim.

There was a pier glass between the windows of the room. Perhaps you have seen a pier glass in an $8 flat. A very thin and very agile person may, by observing his reflection in a rapid sequence of longitudinal strips, obtain a fairly accurate conception of his looks. Della, being slender, had mastered the art.

Suddenly she whirled from the window and stood before the glass. Her eyes were shining brilliantly, but her face had lost its color within twenty seconds. Rapidly she pulled down her hair and let it fall to its full length.

Now, there were two possessions of the James Dillingham Youngs in which they both took a mighty pride. One was Jim’s gold watch that had been his father’s and his grandfather’s. The other was Della’s hair. Had the queen of Sheba lived in the flat across the airshaft, Della would have let her hair hang out the window some day to dry just to depreciate Her Majesty’s jewels and gifts. Had King Solomon been the janitor, with all his treasures piled up in the basement, Jim would have pulled out his watch every time he passed, just to see him pluck at his beard from envy.

So now Della’s beautiful hair fell about her rippling and shining like a cascade of brown waters. It reached below her knee and made itself almost a garment for her. And then she did it up again nervously and quickly. Once she faltered for a minute and stood still while a tear or two splashed on the worn red carpet.

On went her old brown jacket; on went her old brown hat. With a whirl of skirts and with the brilliant sparkle still in her eyes, she fluttered out the door and down the stairs to the street.

Where she stopped the sign read: “Mme. Sofronie. Hair Goods of All Kinds.” One flight up Della ran, and collected herself, panting. Madame, large, too white, chilly, hardly looked the “Sofronie.”

“Will you buy my hair?” asked Della.

“I buy hair,” said Madame. “Take yer hat off and let’s have a sight at the looks of it.”

Down rippled the brown cascade.

“Twenty dollars,” said Madame, lifting the mass with a practised hand.

“Give it to me quick,” said Della.

Oh, and the next two hours tripped by on rosy wings. Forget the hashed metaphor. She was ransacking the stores for Jim’s present.

She found it at last. It surely had been made for Jim and no one else. There was no other like it in any of the stores, and she had turned all of them inside out. It was a platinum fob chain simple and chaste in design, properly proclaiming its value by substance alone and not by meretricious ornamentation—as all good things should do. It was even worthy of The Watch. As soon as she saw it she knew that it must be Jim’s. It was like him. Quietness and value—the description applied to both. Twenty-one dollars they took from her for it, and she hurried home with the 87 cents. With that chain on his watch Jim might be properly anxious about the time in any company. Grand as the watch was, he sometimes looked at it on the sly on account of the old leather strap that he used in place of a chain.

When Della reached home her intoxication gave way a little to prudence and reason. She got out her curling irons and lighted the gas and went to work repairing the ravages made by generosity added to love. Which is always a tremendous task, dear friends—a mammoth task.

Within forty minutes her head was covered with tiny, close-lying curls that made her look wonderfully like a truant schoolboy. She looked at her reflection in the mirror long, carefully, and critically.

“If Jim doesn’t kill me,” she said to herself, “before he takes a second look at me, he’ll say I look like a Coney Island chorus girl. But what could I do—oh! what could I do with a dollar and eighty-seven cents?”

At 7 o’clock the coffee was made and the frying-pan was on the back of the stove hot and ready to cook the chops.

Jim was never late. Della doubled the fob chain in her hand and sat on the corner of the table near the door that he always entered. Then she heard his step on the stair away down on the first flight, and she turned white for just a moment. She had a habit of saying a little silent prayer about the simplest everyday things, and now she whispered: “Please God, make him think I am still pretty.”

The door opened and Jim stepped in and closed it. He looked thin and very serious. Poor fellow, he was only twenty-two—and to be burdened with a family! He needed a new overcoat and he was without gloves.

Jim stopped inside the door, as immovable as a setter at the scent of quail. His eyes were fixed upon Della, and there was an expression in them that she could not read, and it terrified her. It was not anger, nor surprise, nor disapproval, nor horror, nor any of the sentiments that she had been prepared for. He simply stared at her fixedly with that peculiar expression on his face.

Della wriggled off the table and went for him.

“Jim, darling,” she cried, “don’t look at me that way. I had my hair cut off and sold because I couldn’t have lived through Christmas without giving you a present. It’ll grow out again—you won’t mind, will you? I just had to do it. My hair grows awfully fast. Say ‘Merry Christmas!’ Jim, and let’s be happy. You don’t know what a nice—what a beautiful, nice gift I’ve got for you.”

“You’ve cut off your hair?” asked Jim, laboriously, as if he had not arrived at that patent fact yet even after the hardest mental labor.

“Cut it off and sold it,” said Della. “Don’t you like me just as well, anyhow? I’m me without my hair, ain’t I?”

Jim looked about the room curiously.

“You say your hair is gone?” he said, with an air almost of idiocy.

“You needn’t look for it,” said Della. “It’s sold, I tell you—sold and gone, too. It’s Christmas Eve, boy. Be good to me, for it went for you. Maybe the hairs of my head were numbered,” she went on with sudden serious sweetness, “but nobody could ever count my love for you. Shall I put the chops on, Jim?”

Out of his trance Jim seemed quickly to wake. He enfolded his Della. For ten seconds let us regard with discreet scrutiny some inconsequential object in the other direction. Eight dollars a week or a million a year—what is the difference? A mathematician or a wit would give you the wrong answer. The magi brought valuable gifts, but that was not among them. This dark assertion will be illuminated later on.

Jim drew a package from his overcoat pocket and threw it upon the table.

“Don’t make any mistake, Dell,” he said, “about me. I don’t think there’s anything in the way of a haircut or a shave or a shampoo that could make me like my girl any less. But if you’ll unwrap that package you may see why you had me going a while at first.”

White fingers and nimble tore at the string and paper. And then an ecstatic scream of joy; and then, alas! a quick feminine change to hysterical tears and wails, necessitating the immediate employment of all the comforting powers of the lord of the flat.

For there lay The Combs—the set of combs, side and back, that Della had worshipped long in a Broadway window. Beautiful combs, pure tortoise shell, with jewelled rims—just the shade to wear in the beautiful vanished hair. They were expensive combs, she knew, and her heart had simply craved and yearned over them without the least hope of possession. And now, they were hers, but the tresses that should have adorned the coveted adornments were gone.

But she hugged them to her bosom, and at length she was able to look up with dim eyes and a smile and say: “My hair grows so fast, Jim!”

And then Della leaped up like a little singed cat and cried, “Oh, oh!”

Jim had not yet seen his beautiful present. She held it out to him eagerly upon her open palm. The dull precious metal seemed to flash with a reflection of her bright and ardent spirit.

“Isn’t it a dandy, Jim? I hunted all over town to find it. You’ll have to look at the time a hundred times a day now. Give me your watch. I want to see how it looks on it.”

Instead of obeying, Jim tumbled down on the couch and put his hands under the back of his head and smiled.

“Dell,” said he, “let’s put our Christmas presents away and keep ’em a while. They’re too nice to use just at present. I sold the watch to get the money to buy your combs. And now suppose you put the chops on.”

The magi, as you know, were wise men—wonderfully wise men—who brought gifts to the Babe in the manger. They invented the art of giving Christmas presents. Being wise, their gifts were no doubt wise ones, possibly bearing the privilege of exchange in case of duplication. And here I have lamely related to you the uneventful chronicle of two foolish children in a flat who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house. But in a last word to the wise of these days let it be said that of all who give gifts these two were the wisest. Of all who give and receive gifts, such as they are wisest. Everywhere they are wisest. They are the magi.

Carol

We know the first verses. The midnight clear, the deep and dreamless sleep, all calm, all bright. The velvet, star-glittered cosmos wheeling over the snug, sun-warmed stones. The vast ancient neighboring the humble ancient. The seam of far dawn cerulean on the horizon. The diamond-white flare; heavenly light cracking through the prism of the singular star. The smell of hay. The wind in the dark, fresh as cool water, eddying the pattering olive boughs. The silence.

We know the first verses. Childhood Christmases of gaze and wonder, footed pajamas and noses on cold, silhouetted glass. Teenaged Christmases, like water tumbling into a burned-out chest, filling the vessel exhausted by the fires of intensity. Twenty-something Christmases strung by mental contortions; wiring and soldering theologies to complete circuits— striving for something that will conduct the currents of joy, ground and insulate peace.

Along the next advent days, the chorus enters, intermittent, counterpunctual:

Alto[1]: “What does it feel like to be alive? Living, you stand under a waterfall.… The hard water pelts your skull, bangs in bits on your shoulders and arms. The strong water dashes down beside you and you feel it along your calves and thighs rising roughly back up, up to the roiling surface, full of bubbles that slide up your skin or break on you at full speed. Can you breathe here?.…It is time pounding at you, time. Knowing you are alive is watching on every side your generation’s short time falling away as fast as rivers drop through air….”

Baritone[2]: Theotokos, the God-bearer. She is the one who suffers unprecedented and unmediated contact with the Holy Presence.

Alto: “I am sorry I ran from you. I am still running, running from that knowledge, that eye, that love from which there is no refuge. For you meant only love, and love, and I felt only fear…. So once in Israel love came to us incarnate, stood in the doorway between two worlds, and we were all afraid.”

Mezzo-Soprano: “The angel said, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.’ And Mary said, ‘I am the Lord’s servant. May everything you have said about me come true.”

Tenor[3]: “Human beings are dehumanized by fear…But they should not be afraid…. There, look to him in your fear. Think about him, place him before your eyes, and call him. Pray to him and believe that he is now with you and helps you. The fear will yield and fade, you will become free through faith in the strong and living Savior, Jesus Christ.”

Soprano[4]: “When we say we’re looking for a spiritual advisor, we’re really looking for someone to tell us what to do with our bodies…. While some are motivated by love (those who choose), most are motivated by fear (those who choose by not choosing).… But [there’s] something else instead, much less simple—a dissonance—like grief, whose pain is love.”

Mezzo-Soprano: “Mary treasured all these things in her heart.”

Alto: “The dedicated life is the life worth living. You must give with your whole heart.”

Bass[5]: “God being born as a baby is his way of saying, ‘You don’t need to be afraid of me. You don’t need to be afraid of me.’”

Caesura: A silent pause, during which time is not counted. Caesura. Caesura. The prayer we desire and fear. The infant we can only wrap in swaddling clothes, must soon lay in a manger because we cannot bear this embrace. Dense as a black hole; brilliant as a supernova. Lethal to hold so close to the heart: consuming, addicting, perpetual.

He could never have come as anything other than an infant. A babe in arms—unable to will harm but utterly demanding; consuming you to exhaustion, feeding you to overflowing. Powerless but irresistible. Can you walk away from the crying child? Even as hate and frustration strangle your breath, can you walk from the cradle without murdering a part of yourself? The child demands it, but you must choose what to sacrifice. Self or self? Once the child has arrived, he cannot be undone. For all the pain (the labor) the cost, you cannot imagine unexisting him. And even so, there is nothing to fear. Walk away, abandon and starve the child, and—still—when you return, forced back hardened and burning, threatened by infection, he will gladly receive, will place his hand over your heart, will meet your eyes with nothing but gratitude. He is incapable of grudge, retaliation, judgment. He has not chosen this; it’s his nature. All choice is yours. Will you crook your arm or lay back your head, still everything but your beating heart, so the child can give the only gift he has to give? Will you make of your body a place he can rest? You will not otherwise rest; set him down and the demands will begin. Caesura, caesura: during which time is not counted. Can I nurture this child? One I did not create, but who creates me?

“God being born as a baby is his way of saying, ‘You don’t need to be afraid of me. You don’t need to be afraid of me.’”

Now we begin to learn the second verses. We find we know them by heart, but have never heard them, never noticed:

Still through the cloven skies they come, with peaceful wings unfurled;
And still their heavenly music floats o’er all the weary world:
Above its sad and lowly plains, they bend on hovering wing,
And ever o’er its Babel sounds, the blessed angels sing.

O ye beneath life’s crushing load, whose forms are bending low,
Who toil along the climbing way, with painful steps and slow;
Look now, for glad and golden hours, come swiftly on the wing;
Oh rest beside the weary road, and hear the angels sing.

We have never noticed: Every carol is a lullaby.


[1] Annie Dillard

[2] Scott Cairns

[3] Dietrich Bonhoffer

[4] Anne Michaels

[5] Greg Boyd

Encounter: T.S. Eliot

“The Journey of the Magi” by T.S. Eliot

“A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.”
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty, and charging high prices.:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I have seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

The First Sunday of Advent

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I’ve become convinced that I’d be a better person if I made more art with my children. The act of creating, not for completion or accomplishment, but for the slick of paint, the jazz of color, the wind of air over twirling arms is somehow the center of being. Making art— not for a paycheck or prestige, not of duty or deficiency— is somehow transcendent and elementally human.

When I paint by myself, I justify the mess by the product. There’s flour in my hair because I made a nephew’s birthday cake. There’s thread in the carpet because my son outgrew his pajamas. Making things still gives me a splash of fulfillment, but it’s not immersion in the current. I’m not cleansed, scoured, buffeted, carried by refinishing even the most beautiful desk.

When I paint with my children, the mess isn’t for anything. The mess is the thing. I’m as often frustrated by this as inspired. What do you mean you’re done? I just finished getting everything out.

Greg Pennoyer, project director of the international art exhibition Incarnation: A Recovery of Meaning, guesses most of us adults have difficulty relating to Christmas after the wonder of childhood in any way other than materialism or sentimentality. He thinks this might have something to do with our aversion to messes:

“The more I reflected…the more I realized that my own temptation to sentimentalize Christmas involved turning away from the messiness of my disenchanted, adult life.” But Christmas is “the story of a God who does not disdain this world, despite its frailty, ambiguities, and messiness.”

This advent I hope to see it: that the mess is the thing. That I’m as often going to be frustrated by this as inspired. And I hope I can manage to voice something in my soul other than, What do you mean it’s done? I just finished getting everything out.