Sunday, November 15, 2009

History is a pattern of timeless moments

It's an experience familiar to most college students. On a lazy autumn day, you have taken time for your mid-afternoon nap. Waking with a start, you glance at the clock. 5:42 it says. Your room is dark; no light filters in through the windows and the bedsheet you've hung for a makeshift curtain. You wonder how you've slept all the way through the night; but then it comes back to you suddenly that you recently adjusted your clock by order of the United States Congress, so it may just as well be PM as AM. You check your cell phone to confirm this hypothesis and find you are correct; you have not, after all, missed chicken nugget dinner day at the Cafeteria. Relieved, you throw on assorted sweats (bottoms and top assorted in color and even more in degree of cleanliness) and stumble out into the cold, dark evening. The stars are obscured by clouds, and the moon gives no light. You get into line for your chicken nuggets with several minutes to spare before 6 PM, but your appetite is not what it might be for the a vague uneasy feeling deep inside - or memory of a feeling - which seems to sit somewhere near the top of your stomach; the feeling that something is altogether queer about the experience you've just had, even though you might have had the same experience several times before. You can't quite put the quality finely into words, but there is an unparalleled uncanniness in waking to a darkness you cannot comprehend, to an unknown dark hour which may easily be early evening or early morning, or an hour of untold time and darkness - the hour before no sunrise at all, or following the sun's final setting in the sky, the hour of dark which will be ended only in a flash and a trumpet blast....

The unsettling untimely dark of mid-November is an importantly meaningful experience for those who attend to its rich symbolism. Even on days of so called "Indian Summer" (such as this glorious afternoon in which I could walk out in shorts and a tee-shirt), the season asserts itself at the day's early end - however gaily the Sun shines during the daylight, he must keep the same somber curfew. In "The Four Quartets," T.S. Eliot called such unseasonal days their own season: midwinter spring. Elsewhere in the same poem (East Coker, II), he ruminates on the meaning of the autumn's encroachment on the sun's freer summer reign:
What is the late November doing
With the disturbance of the spring
And creatures of the summer heat,
And snowdrops writhing under feet
And hollyhocks that aim too high
Red into grey and tumble down
Late roses filled with early snow?
Thunder rolled by the rolling stars
Simulates triumphal cars
Deployed in constellated wars
Scorpion fights against the Sun
Until the Sun and Moon go down
Comets weep and Leonids fly
Hunt the heavens and the plains
Whirled in a vortex that shall bring
The world to that destructive fire
Which burns before the ice-cap reigns.
Today, a perfect embodiment of "midwinter spring," found me walking out of Church after hearing these chilling words from Our Lord in the Gospel: "Jesus said to his disciples: 'In those days... the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from the sky, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.'" Looking into the bright blue sky, feeling the warm sun on my face, it was somewhat difficult to feel that we were "in those days" of which Our Lord spoke. But I knew that within a few short hours, already the sun would be retreating from sight and leaving the world to its long vigil of night, and that this night might be the night that does not end in dawn.

This is what November "means," and it means it quite insistently and intensely. And it is well for us to "get it." The world as we know it is ending. If we don't see it, then we're not reading right the signs of the times. No, I'm not talking about 2012 or the dive of the dollar or any of that. I'm talking about the annual "death of earth" which T.S. Eliot poetically celebrated in "The Four Quartets" (read them today if you get the chance). I'm talking about the end of the year, and about a certain event that happens in the dead of winter on the same day annually and yet still manages to find the great majority of us unprepared.

I offer this brief reflection as a sort of pretext to an observation I'd like to make about Christmas and its proper celebration. I'm sure many of us already have seen Christmas lights going up around our home towns, in people's houses or on the light poles. And perhaps some of us find this distasteful or untimely or a corruption. But I would like to suggest another view, one which I think is particularly urgent for our day and age, when the seasons too easily become monochromatic, and the hypnosis of electric light and the constancy of the 9 to 5 workday lull us into a routine that desensitizes us to the visceral life-cycle of the physical and spiritual world around us.

So, please check back for my next post, but in the meantime read T.S. Eliot if you can and ask yourself: What does November mean?

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