Category Archives: history

Light itself was permanently stained.

When in the novel The Fountain Overflows Rose Aubrey accompanies her father to the House of Commons to persuade a particular MP to help his current cause, we find out just how wily a politician he is. We also get a glimpse of the glory of the architecture:

“…I looked down for the first time on Westminster Hall. We had entered a Victorian building and had come on Shakespeare. The stone chamber was splendid like blank verse, the golden angels who held up the roof matched the poetry of earth with heavenly hymns, great embodiments of the passions had gone out a minute before, trailing their gold and crimson cloaks on the staircase that leads up the wall and into the end of the play.”

… and of the drabness of the age, mused upon while waiting in the Central Lobby:

“It was like sitting in the midst of a tureen full of gravy soup. I was growing up at the end of an age which, partly by necessity and partly by choice, was very brown. In the towns chimneys poured out smoke from open fires and kitchen ranges, and light itself was permanently stained; and town-dwellers, who then so largely set the way of thinking, romanticized the obscurity to which they grew accustomed. Such sights as a narrow shaft of light struggling over a broad dark passage aroused none of the impatience we would feel today, but rather a sense that here was something as acceptable as a succession of major chords or a properly scanned line of verse.

“The House of Commons was a supreme effort of brownness. I can remember looking at one such needle-broad shaft of sunlight that afternoon, struggling through an interior brown in itself, what with brown wood, brown paint, and brown upholstery, and made more brown because the struggling rays of defeated natural light were supplemented by the molasses of shaded gaslight.”

The Central Lobby no longer lit by gas.

Originally I had planned for the photo just above to end my post, but then I saw Susan Branch’s recent exploration with lovely illustrations of BROWN. I am drawn to Rebecca West’s descriptions as an intimate peek into another time and place, but not having lived through that dimness to see the brightening of it, Susan’s take on Brown is closer to my own!

The endless troubles of everyday life.

To read the biography of a brilliant writer without having read any of her writings — that seems unwise, perhaps especially in the case of Rebecca West, who appears to have put her best self into her writings. As I told one of my readers, I’m afraid if you read her biography first, you might be put off from reading her.

It may be that Black Lamb and Grey Falcon was the first of her books that I heard about, and I did intend to read it back then. It is generally considered to be her magnum opus. My friend Cathy has read it, and so far she is the only real-life friend with whom I have been able to enjoy the kind of experience that West’s biographer describes below. Our most recent venue was the agape meal at church yesterday. 🙂

For a time I owned a large volume of West’s letters, but they were either depressing or boring for me; I wasn’t familiar enough with the personages of her era, and in letters she was often critical or complaining. The Birds Fall Down I found on my father’s bookshelf; I know it happened to be there because my grandfather had been a member of the Book-of-the-Month Club, which featured it. It was fascinating and gripping, and I knew I must read it again to truly grasp it, but first I would need an in-depth history lesson on the Bolshevik Revolution. None of that has happened yet.

I only know that West experienced some satisfaction and happiness in life because of what I read in the Aubrey Trilogy. It is a story of endless troubles, theirs and their friends’, from sibling bickering to murder, but I don’t mind sharing the drama with the Aubreys, because they manage to create such beauty and familial warmth out of their meager circumstances. Even the most traumatic or heartbreaking events become opportunities for increased love and understanding, and for growing up — but without sentimentality. West wrote the story in her 60’s, when she had surely grown up, too, and grown away from the stridency of her youth.

Besides the stories of home and family relationships, there are all the other aspects of the place and culture in which they live, plus commentary on art, politics and music — pretty much any topic might and does come up in the lively Aubrey household. I plan to share a few quotes here in the days to come.

I noticed just now that Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is on Kindle. Maybe I will read it after all; or Survivors in Mexico, another book that’s been waiting on my shelf…. But here is Gibb:

Lorna Gibb

“For me, as for so many of my peers, West is a shared pleasure, passed on, read, then later discussed in dingy student Soho coffee shops in the eighties, or more recently, over wine at a picnic in a garden. Perhaps the most wonderful thing of all is that, because of the eclectic nature of West’s writing, these exchanges could be on so many topics: literature, espionage, travel, the role of women, all originating from a book or article by a single author.

“West dealt with big topics, many of which still reverberate today, such as the integration of Eastern and Western religious faiths, the contradictions of femininity and power, the causes and effects of wars. Yet, in her considerations, she did not lose sight of the domestic concerns, those personal and intimate stories taking place against the backdrop of social change and unrest. As she once stated in an article for The New Yorker, she did not wish to write history as Gibbon liked to record it, but a history of the endless troubles of everyday life.”

-Lorna Gibb, in the introduction to The Extraordinary Life of Rebecca West

From bitter cold to laughter and light.

I know that the Feast of the Nativity of Christ has passed; the Leavetaking of Nativity was yesterday, so that we might enter fully into today’s feasts. So it may seem a bit odd for me to post the poem below, but for many reasons it seems most appropriate. (One practical reason is that I only now rose from my sick bed to look at my blog!) I might be hearkening back to the early church, about which we read:

“During the first centuries of Christianity, the Feast of Theophany was celebrated together with a number of observances as recorded in the Gospels. They are: the Annunciation of the archangel Gabriel to the Holy Virgin Mary; the Birth of our Lord Jesus Christ, with the glorification of the heavenly hosts, the veneration by the shepherds and the coming of the Magi; the Circumcision; the Naming of our Lord; the Presentation in the Temple; the Flight into Egypt and Return; the Baptism at the River Jordan; the Temptation in the Wilderness and the Testimony (Witness) of St. John the Forerunner.

“This group of feasts was celebrated from the 6th to the 13th of January, called the octave of Theophany; the most prominent being the Birth and Baptism of our Lord Jesus Christ, with special importance afforded to the Baptism. The church grouped the birth and baptism, together (called Theophany, “the revelation of God,”) on January the 6th because they were the first revelations of His divinity, incarnation, and the beginning of His ministry as Lord and Savior of mankind.”

I first read the poem last summer on Elizabeth’s blog, so she obviously thought it applicable at any time of the year. And for myself, I can’t imagine looking forward to a new calendar year with anything but foreboding, were it not for the fact that “God is with us.”

Do you count this the seventh or eighth day of Christmas? Most Christians count Christmas Day itself as the first day, so New Year’s Day is the Eighth Day. For us Orthodox, it is also the Feast of the Circumcision of Christ, and St. Basil’s Day. Soon we will arrive at the glorious Feast of Theophany.

So many feasts and commemorations! But they all flow from the astounding fact and reality that “The Word became flesh, and dwelt among us.” Happy New Year, Dear Friends!

NOĂ‹L

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.

-J.R.R. Tolkien

If your Christmas celebrations were lacking in bells, I recommend these videos of bell-ringing from New Jersey to California and abroad. Most of them start out slow and progress to very lively and joyous. Nothing compares to hearing them as you are leaving church after services of a Great Feast, but these are worthwhile substitutes. The bells of Paradise never stop ringing.

Bells of St. Nicholas

Brother Seraphim

St. Alexander Nevsky

Sf. Ioan Teologul

St. Alexander Nevsky (shorter)

Sun temples don’t celebrate in winter.

Why is Christmas on December 25? Did Christians make use of a pagan festival date when they decided to celebrate Christ’s birth? Very unlikely, as you will understand if you read William J. Tighe’s  “Calculating Christmas.”

“In the Julian calendar, created in 45 B.C. under Julius Caesar, the winter solstice fell on December 25th, and it therefore seemed obvious [to some] that the day must have had a pagan significance before it had a Christian one. But in fact, the date had no religious significance in the Roman pagan festal calendar before Aurelian’s time, nor did the cult of the sun play a prominent role in Rome before him.

“There were two temples of the sun in Rome, one of which (maintained by the clan into which Aurelian was born or adopted) celebrated its dedication festival on August 9th, the other of which celebrated its dedication festival on August 28th. But both of these cults fell into neglect in the second century, when eastern cults of the sun, such as Mithraism, began to win a following in Rome. And in any case, none of these cults, old or new, had festivals associated with solstices or equinoxes.”

Tighe explains that “…the pagan festival of the ‘Birth of the Unconquered Sun’ instituted by the Roman Emperor Aurelian on 25 December 274, was almost certainly an attempt to create a pagan alternative to a date that was already of some significance to Roman Christians. Thus the ‘pagan origins of Christmas’ is a myth without historical substance.”

If they didn’t choose December 25 for that reason, why did they? For reasons we never would have thought of in modern times. Read the whole brief article to find out.