Sunday 29 November 2020

'Time's handiworks by time are haunted'

Today is the first Sunday of Advent, and it’s a strange one. Public worship is currently banned in England, though that’s supposed to end in a few days - but the first day of the new liturgical year will not begin in church, just as the most important feast of the Christian year couldn't be publicly celebrated back in the spring. We are in Advent where we were in Lent, preparing for a Christmas not much more cheerful than lonely Easter.

For many people, spring never really came this year. We never got out of the Long Lent; dreary February became anxious March, and then time stood still. I wrote back at Whitsun (also cancelled) about the unsettling feeling of living through unmarked time, cast adrift without the anchors of ritual, festival, and rites of passage. ‘Always winter and never Christmas’ was in the back of my mind as I wrote it, but then Christmas seemed like a long way away - and now here we are.

November, mid-afternoon

Everyone’s experience of this year has been different. Some people have been working much harder than usual, with no escape from work or the worry of unemployment; for them, time has not been plentiful. Many, especially those with caring responsibilities, probably feel as if they haven’t had a minute to themselves all year. That hasn’t been my own experience. I’ve mostly been very lucky; I haven’t lost my job, or lost anyone I love. (I did lose my home, so it’s not all been easy.) My experience has been one of emptiness: empty time and empty space. I’ve been working, and fortunate to have been so; but you can’t work all the time, and when there’s nowhere to go and nothing to do, the evenings and the weekends and all the time that’s not work can be very long and very empty. Of course you find ways to fill that time; nice ways, lots of them. But nine months of empty hours is a lot of time to fill.

As for empty space - I’ve spent a lot of time walking this year, through empty streets and empty fields, alone except for cows and birds. More recently, I’ve been going into my workplace, and it’s been very strange to be alone in rooms I used to know as full of crowds: communal spaces which were places of community and friendship, full of movement and chatter, now empty and silent. At times I’ve started to feel a bit like the ‘last survivor’ of Beowulf - an anonymous character who is the sole survivor of his vanished people, left with nothing to do but bury their treasures, because they are worthless with no one to share them. As he buries the treasures in the earth, he laments:

Death in war,
fierce deadly evil, has carried off
every man of my people who gave up this life, 
who saw the last of the joys in the hall. I have none to bear the sword
or carry the decorated cup,
precious drinking-vessel. The company has passed elsewhere...
There is no joy in the harp
or pleasure in the singing wood; nor does a noble hawk
swoop through the hall, nor the swift steed
stamp in the courtyard. Baleful death
has sent forth many of the human race.

He's describing a noble hall, once full of human joy and animal energy, now empty and desolate; all its precious trappings - sword, cup, harp - have lost their value now the people who treasured them are gone. Anglo-Saxon poets were fascinated by such empty places, which often evoked for them apocalyptic scenes of winter desolation (more on that in this week's Patreon post). We’re not quite at that level yet, but it’s the general sort of mood. Perhaps more the kind of thing is this reflection by Thomas Traherne:
I remember once the first time I came into a magnificent or noble dining room, and was left there alone, I rejoiced to see the gold and state and carved imagery, but when all was dead, and there was no motion, I was weary of it, and departed dissatisfied. But afterwards, when I saw it full of lords and ladies, and music and dancing, the place which once seemed not to differ from a solitary den, had now entertainment, and nothing of tediousness but pleasure in it. By which I perceived (upon a reflection made long after) that men and women are when well understood a principal part of our true felicity.
‘A principal part of our true felicity’ - I like that so much. What value are any of our treasures - tangible or intangible - if there is no one to enjoy them with? And many places usually full of people are currently standing empty - including churches, on the first Sunday of Advent.

Advent is a season for thinking about time, and I can't imagine that I'm the only person who has felt time pressing heavily this year. Some people have been confident, pretty much since the beginning, that all this will just be a blip - a brief pause in our lives, soon to be forgotten once we press the restart button and get life going again. Now that a vaccine is on the horizon, they’re convinced this will all soon be over, and they’re saying - just as they said back in March - that it’s simply a question of following the rules for a few weeks, and then everything will be back to normal. I admire the optimism, and I really do sympathise with the desire to believe this, but it seems to me unrealistic. You can’t press pause on life for a year and not expect that there won't be permanent and irreparable losses in the meantime. How hollow such ‘back to normal’ talk must sound to those who've lost their jobs and livelihoods, looking at years of work invested in businesses or careers which have been taken away from them and can’t be given back. All the parts of our lives which arise from our being humans with bodies and not virtual heads-on-Zoom can’t, fundamentally, be put on pause: we are all growing older all the time, and we can’t take a year off from that. Those who have this year lost months of good health, of fertility, of education, of time with swift-growing grandchildren or fast-ageing loved ones - they can never get that time back. Because of course time didn’t really stand still, just because we were unable to mark it: it carried us along on its inevitable forward progress, as it always does. And some people will have to live with the consequences of that lost time for the rest of their lives. 

Who can restore the year that the locusts have eaten? Nobody on earth. But this is Advent, and Advent, with its focus on Apocalypse as well as Incarnation, explores the possibility that there is more to understand about time than the little bit of it we live through. Pushing this belief that you can press pause on life to its logical conclusion, some of the ‘just a few more weeks’ people have recently been fantasising about delaying Christmas. Just push Christmas back to July, they say, when this will all be over! Again, I understand the impulse, and many people probably will choose to delay their usual celebrations, as indeed my own family are doing. But there’s perhaps no subject on which the UK media class are more consistently silly than manufactured controversies about Christmas and Easter, and of course 2020’s has to be lockdown-flavour. So journalists and commentators have been pretending not to understand why some people might feel deeply unhappy about not seeing family at Christmas, even if they accept it as necessary (‘what’s the big deal? It’s just one day!’), or pretending to be upset that a Christian festival is getting special treatment (conveniently forgetting that every other Christian festival this year has also been curtailed by lockdown - and also that in every other year these same journalists are making up a fake controversy about whether Christmas is actually a Christian festival at all.) It all feels very disingenuous, and really quite weird.

Like it or not, the reality is that in Britain just over 90% of people celebrate Christmas in some form, the majority as a secular rather than a religious festival. For most of those people, spending time with family is a key part of the celebration. So in terms of numbers alone, its loss affects many more people than the loss of other festivals (including other Christian festivals), and pretending not to understand why it poses a unique logistical challenge is little more than a cheap rhetorical trick. Since sneering at how other people celebrate Christmas is a regular part of journalistic ritual at this time of year, I suppose we shouldn't be surprised that they also pretend to think that all people value about Christmas is food and presents - because then they get to roll out their yearly complaints about the supposedly selfish, greedy poor who spend all their money on turkey, garish lights, and piles of toys they can't afford (unlike good middle-class journalists, who keep a tasteful Christmas). Don't underestimate how much the tyranny of good taste underlies media chatter about how we 'ought' to celebrate Christmas, even in a time of pandemic.

Unless you're this particular kind of media person, it's not that difficult to understand why people invest money - and time, and thought, and planning and care - into making a happy Christmas for their families. The British festival year used to involve numerous seasons and holidays when people could gather together, in extended families and in local communities; now for many people in that 90% it's almost all concentrated on Christmas, and that's a lot of pressure. Of course advertisers exploit that pressure for their own ends, so many of us have a vision in our heads of the 'perfect family Christmas' which may bear little or no relation to how we have actually experienced the season. (I'm sure the journalists are attacking the imaginary advertisers' Christmas more than anything they've seen in real life.) 

It's typical of the modern Christmas, most of all in its focus on family and childhood, that it leads people to places of strong emotion, both good and bad. Whether your memories of childhood Christmas are happy or unhappy ones, when Christmas comes round there's no escaping them. Whatever your family is or isn't, or whatever you want it to be, this is the time when you are insistently pushed to think about it and to compare yourself to others. Any sense of loss or deficiency in the family is made worse by the contrast with images of other apparently perfect families, or by remembering past happiness, or imagining what could or should be. Grief is harder. Absences are more keenly felt. It's a season when one phrase or one note of a song can open floodgates of emotion, calling forth profound fears, griefs, and longings which in ordinary time we might manage to contain. Christmas used to be a season of ghost stories, and it's certainly a time when it's hard not to be haunted by memories - even happy memories, of 'those who rejoice with us, but on another shore and in a greater light'.

You can call that sentimental, or irrational, but it's very powerful all the same. And it's no coincidence - of course it isn't - that this is all intensified because it takes place at midwinter, when the days are very short and the nights very long; when the weather is cold and hostile; when light is lowest, and the shadows longest. There's a reason we call this season 'the dead of winter', with all the sterility and hopelessness that implies. That makes the Christmas brightness all the brighter, or the darkness all the darker - the lights and the warmth and the company all the more welcome, or their absence all the more painful.

It's a bleak and lonely and isolating time of year, at the best of times; and these aren't the best of times. How much more endless the empty evenings seem now in November than they did in April, now they begin at four o'clock in the afternoon! The 'it's just one day' people can go on saying that as much as they like, but this particular day, after nine months of isolation or separation from family, is going to be hard for a lot of people.

None of that has much to do with the Christian meaning of Christmas; it's all as true of a secular Christmas as of a religious one. And yet of course it does, because in Britain the Christian festival and the cultural significance of this time of year have grown up together, over many centuries, rooted in a particular place and a particular culture which have formed and influenced a particular expression of both. This has been a Christian country for well over a thousand years (that's a historical fact, not a polemical point); so if you want to understand the modern British Christmas, you can't untangle one from the other. 

In Britain, as elsewhere in northern Europe, Christmas is a midwinter festival. (This is where people start shouting 'because it was stolen from the pagans!' so I'm now going to talk about that; but please proceed with an open mind, and don't just shout at me...) By the time early medieval missionaries came to convert the various peoples of Britain to Christianity, Christmas, like Easter, was already a well-established festival in the church. It's a common mistake in modern discussions of this question to massively overstate the influence of English-speaking culture within the medieval Christian church; I talked about that in relation to Easter here. So it's important to say first that the association between Christ's birth and the winter solstice, between the Son of God and the sun as a potent symbol of light and life, predates this country's conversion to Christianity by several centuries. The story of its establishment is more complex than is popularly believed, and long before the festival reached this country it was already linked up with a network of other liturgical dates, including Easter and the Feast of the Annunciation, which were thought to trace their origins back to the Gospel narratives of Christ's life and death.

But such ideas, communicated and shared throughout the international church, also manifested themselves in distinctive ways in different Christian cultures - and latitudes and climates. When Christmas reached this part of the world, it met some kind of pre-existing midwinter festival(s) with which it subsequently became entwined. As always, we know much less about these festivals than we would like to know, and much less than is often confidently stated in the media. But in the Anglo-Saxon regions of Britain, that midwinter festival was probably Geola (Yule), and what resulted from that meeting was a new expression of Christianity which went on to develop its shape and meaning within a particular cultural context. As a parallel, we might compare what happened when the very widespread tradition of Biblical and early medieval Christian 'sun' imagery for the 'Son of God' entered the English language, where the words for sun and son were very close - to a medieval way of thinking, a meaningful conjunction rather than a linguistic accident. Anglo-Saxon Christians knew perfectly well that their ancestors had celebrated a midwinter festival too, and they didn't pretend otherwise; but the new religion had given new meaning to it, and in their eyes, a meaning more true and powerful.

Religious conversion is a profound cultural shift, which involves rebuilding the social architecture of an entire society. That works itself out in different ways in different places, with an almost infinite amount of diversity and variety. In England, when it came to the festival year, it involved harmonising a new religion which had its roots in the Middle East and the Mediterranean world with the climate and agricultural calendar of a country on the edge of northern Europe. That was a complex process of synthesis and negotiation - not a matter of simply laying one calendar on top of another, or just celebrating old festivals under new names, but of reinterpreting and rethinking the intersections between the divine and the human, between religious observance and the rituals of daily life. One reason I find it frustrating when people ignore this complexity to rant about 'stealing pagan festivals' is that it denies the agency and intelligence of the converted peoples, as well as of those doing the converting. This was a process which required serious thought on both sides, and its result was an English festival calendar which had a remarkable longevity, lasting - not by any means unchanged, but very stable - from the seventh or eighth century up to just a few decades ago. Comparable, but distinct, processes took place in other parts of Britain and in Ireland, where new festival calendars were formed within these different contexts - no more or less Christian, but the product of differing cultural forces and forms of negotiation. Those variations are regularly glossed over in modern discussions of these subjects (see: Lammas, Halloween), as if all parts of what's now Britain and all forms of non-Christian religion were basically the same; but of course they weren't, and the differences are important to note.

I’m increasingly troubled by the discourse of cultural purity which surrounds the ‘stolen festivals’ myth, since it's not only historically inaccurate but also would imply, if taken to its logical conclusion, that no cultures are ever allowed to change or influence each other. I do wonder if the people who aggressively assert, more than a thousand years after Britain converted to Christianity, that Christian festivals are still a foreign imposition, unjustly supplanting some kind of native pagan religion, are really prepared to accept the implications of that argument. Are they truly suggesting that mutual influence between different cultures and religions can only ever be seen as illegitimate and corrupting? That there is one form of religion indigenous to the British Isles (paganism), and every religion introduced later has no rightful place here? That immigrants to a country should never be allowed to integrate or combine their religious traditions with those of their new home, and that even centuries after their arrival the traditions they've introduced - even if they have been widely and enthusiastically adopted - must always be stigmatised as inauthentic, not really British? I can't imagine how stultifying it must be to think of culture in such prescriptive terms, nor what it suggests about their attitude to religious diversity in general.

The medieval attitude to the development of religious festivals and seasons was considerably more flexible than such a rigid modern perspective would allow. In the early medieval period, liturgical calendars were organic in their growth, and very localised. Over time things became more standardised, but the story of the development of the Christian calendar in the first millennium is often one of feasts beginning in a particular place, where they're found to be meaningful and valuable, and then spreading elsewhere if that meaning could be translated to a new context. Some remained local, as many saints' feasts did; others started local but caught on, like All Saints' Day, or the Advent fast, and became more widely celebrated throughout the church.

In general, there's a balance between diversity and universality in early medieval practice which many people in post-Christian Britain struggle to understand. If they've only encountered one variety of Christianity - most likely a form of Anglo-American Protestantism, which they often know better from TV than from personal experience - they assume that its beliefs and practices must be universal, rather than culturally conditioned. If that's Christianity, they think, everything which varies from it must be deviant, and the easiest thing is to label those deviations 'pagan'. Some Christians are prone to this too, of course. This applies to many things, such as attitudes towards scriptural authority or interactions with the dead, but anything to do with the natural world - cycles of the earth or the sun and moon - is especially liable to fall into this category, even though it's self-evidently absurd to think that nature is somehow inherently pagan. (People who think lunar calendars are 'pagan' might want to take a look at some other major religions sometime.) How can the experience of living through the seasons, which is the most universal experience imaginable, belong to one religion more than another? What can it possibly mean to say that the feeling of living through midwinter, for instance, somehow intrinsically belongs more to paganism than it does to any other religion, such that it can be 'stolen'? The experience is the same: when it's cold and it gets dark early, people want light and warmth and the hope that this won't last forever. They may link those wants and hopes with their religious beliefs, or they may not; but surely no way of acknowledging those feelings and marking the season can be more or less right or wrong, pure or impure, native or stolen. It’s just human beings, living through time.

There are many troubling assumptions underlying this binary approach to religion, as well as a long history of what we now know to be faulty scholarship - in particular, that of 19th-century scholars who sought to identity pagan roots for Christian practices because they preferred that to acknowledging these practices' Jewish or Catholic history. One reason it would be good for the British media to take religion more seriously, and for journalists to attempt to educate themselves about a much greater diversity of religious practices, is that it would help to get away from these binary ways of thinking - basically, to understand that the world contains many more religious options than 'Anglo-American Protestant' and 'pagan'. They could, for instance, learn to recognise the kinds of symbolic language in which many religions speak about the divine, rather than insisting on taking everything with such a tired literalism ('but would it really snow in Bethlehem?'). Or they could try to understand the role of tradition and the interpretation of sacred texts in different religions, with all their complicated history and nuance (rather than thinking they're being clever by saying 'Jesus' birthday isn't mentioned in the Bible, so the date must be arbitrary!'). It would be nice to think that as we engage in another profound cultural shift, from Christian to post-Christian Britain, we could discuss these questions in more open and less intolerant ways.

'Christ was born...' (BL Cotton MS Tiberius B I)

To return to midwinter. Anglo-Saxon writers often use 'midwinter' as another name for Christmas, even in the most explicitly Christian contexts. 'Crist wæs acennyd... on midne winter' ('Christ was born at midwinter'), begins the most unambiguously liturgical Old English poem. Even in the eleventh century, when England had been soaked in Christian culture for many generations, Christmas could be called 'Midwinter's mass-day', as a completely unremarkable alternative name for the feast. That's certainly not because these writers were consciously or unconsciously still a bit pagan; it's because, like the early medieval church more widely, they were part of a culture fascinated by the intersection of liturgical time and natural time. As they saw it, God created time, like everything in the natural world; and so time and the seasons, like everything else, was pregnant with potential meaning. That meaning they understood by the light of their own environment and their Christian faith. It's no coincidence that Bede (who had thought very seriously about the transition from pagan belief to Christianity within his particular cultural context), chose a winter scene to illustrate something about that transition, giving voice to the thoughts of a pagan Northumbrian discussing whether or not to accept the new faith:
The present life of man, O king, seems to me, in comparison of that time which is unknown to us, like to the swift flight of a sparrow through the room wherein you sit at supper in winter, with your commanders and ministers, and a good fire in the midst, whilst the storms of rain and snow prevail abroad. The sparrow, I say, flying in at one door, and immediately out at another, whilst he is within, is safe from the wintry storm; but after a short space of fair weather, he immediately vanishes out of your sight, into the dark winter from which he had emerged. So this life of man appears for a short space, but of what went before, or what is to follow, we are utterly ignorant. If, therefore, this new doctrine contains something more certain, it seems justly to deserve to be followed.
The point of this story is that not that Christianity, unlike paganism, protects you from the storms of winter. It's more bleak than that, more honest. The lighted hall, full of people and warmth and feasting (so different from Thomas Traherne's empty magnificence) is human society on this earth - all that we build to shield us from the cold and darkness. Pagan or Christian, an individual life coming into that society is still like the brief flight of a sparrow, fragile, vulnerable, transient. But the point is that if this new religion meant anything at all, it meant a glimpse of something outside the hall: of a different kind of time to that which is known to us. It meant the hope of a presence out there in the emptiness, a light in the midwinter darkness.

Monday 2 November 2020

The company of the dead

There’s a particular horror in the idea of dying alone, and the fear of a lonely death haunts many of us. But in one or way another, death is always lonely. The grave is a solitary place, and death is a journey you have to undertake alone. Different cultures develop their own ways of lessening the loneliness of the grave, providing those who are grieving with some continuing connection to the dead. In the Christian Church, for the past thousand years, an important season for bridging the gap between the living and the dead has been the twin feasts of All Saints’ and All Souls’, on 1 and 2 November.
As the names suggest, both feasts offer the very opposite of solitude: they are opportunities to connect with multitudes, communities, vast companies of the dead. The first day celebrates the saints in heaven, the “cloud of witnesses” and the “great multitude which no man could number”, as they are described in Biblical texts read at this feast; the second day is for everyone else, all the “faithful departed” — an even greater crowd of souls.
By the later Middle Ages, these days formed a coherent and widely observed season of remembrance, known in medieval England as “Hallowtide”. The two days had distinct but related aims: All Saints’ was intended to celebrate the glorious dead and to ask for their prayers, but the purpose of All Souls’ was to pray for the dead, for those in Purgatory who needed the prayers of the living to help them in their passage to heaven. It was a time not only to remember the dead but to look after them, to give them assistance and comfort. On the nights of Hallowtide, church bells rang out to reassure the souls in Purgatory that the living had not forgotten them. It must have been profoundly comforting to the grieving, too, to feel that they could still do something to help those they had lost.
Caring for the dead wasn’t just for Hallowtide, though. In the Middle Ages, looking after the dead was a duty incumbent on believers all year round. Prayer for the dead, known and unknown, was a regular feature of medieval devotion, and was seen as an important act of charity. Believers were encouraged to pray for the souls of those they had known in life — their family, godparents, or benefactors — but also for those whom they had not personally known, but with whom they shared some connection: deceased members of their professional guild, or all the dead buried in their parish church. And they were asked to pray too, as many still do today, for those who had no one else to pray for them. No one was to be left alone in death.

I've written for Unherd about All Souls Day in this year of solitude; read the rest there

It's struck me so forcefully this year that whatever else you might say about the medieval church, they knew how to deal with death: learning how to face it, and how to talk about it, were seen as skills fundamental for living a good life as a thinking person in this world. For many modern people, the vast medieval literature about death and the rituals and structures for facing it are easily dismissed as superstition; but as we've seen this past year, ignoring the reality of death doesn't tend to make societies less irrational about it. Not wanting to talk about the inevitability of death doesn't make it go away; and if you don't learn to face the fear of death, the fear itself can consume you, and swallow up everything else you hold dear.