Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Nollaig Chridheil! ~ Two Gaelic Christmas Carols

Nollaig Chridheil dhuibh, a h-uile duine. Merry Christmas, everyone.

Today I'm afraid you, my readers, will have to endure another outburst of my Scottish geekiness. Fortunately, this one is appropriate to the season, and it involves more listening than reading. So turn up your speakers and prepare yourself for a wash of musical Christmas beauty.

Last Christmas I taught myself one Gaelic carol. That was all I had time for, what with the host of other preparations I had to make for the feast day. But this year I was eager to discover more: traditional Gaelic music holds a special place in my heart and I was sure there were some gorgeous Christmas songs out there just waiting for me. I was not disappointed. In my search I quickly uncovered the album Duan Nollaig: A Gaelic Christmas, by Fiona Mackenzie.
The album is lovely as a whole, including, along with the traditional Scottish carols, translations of some English favorites, like "In The Bleak Midwinter" and "Silent Night". Two of the native Gaelic songs in particular caught my attention: "Oran na Nollaig" (The Christmas Song) and "Bha Buachaillean an Dùthaich Shear" (There Were Shepherds in an Eastern Country). Below I post the videos and English translations of each song.
As soon as I read the lyrics to this song I knew I had to learn it. The words tell the story of a different kind of "Night Before Christmas"--this time, the midnight visitor is not a jolly St. Nicholas, but the voice of the Holy Spirit Himself. I invite you to read along as you play the video.
Oran na Nollaig (The Christmas Song)
The night before Christmas sleep fled far from me,
I lay on my elbow with a whisper in my ear
Saying, "Arise, get dressed and we'll go for a wander--
To a town far away across the ocean.
"There'll be a star in the sky," said the voice in my ear:
"Follow it and you'll get your reward:
You will glimpse the child they call the Lamb
Lying in a manger--his cheek like a star.
The Lamb of Reconciliation in the manger. Give him hospitality and welcome.
The Savior of the world, the beautiful child of joy,
What the prophets reported in the Bible
You will see tomorrow night--come sail with me."
"Who are you," I asked, "Whose voice do I hear?
Who leads me to the sleeping child?
Why did you invite a poor, wretched sinner?
Come and tell me the reason--don't leave me so quickly."
"Farewell," said the whisper, "I'm the Author of the book;
May the song of Christmas be daily on your lips
May the child's mercy follow your steps--
As long as you're on earth give honor to Him."
If you've read this far, it means you've survived the beauty of Fiona Mackenzie's voice and the heart-wrenching violin interludes. I congratulate you! But you ain't seen nothing yet...
When I first heard the opening harp chords of "Bha Buachaillean an Dùthaich Shear", a chill pricked my spine and felt my heart pulled into a kind of swoon. This I had to learn! To my surprise, when I looked up the lyrics, they were merely a straightforward account of the angels' appearance to the shepherds on Christmas Eve. The story itself was utterly familiar, but the Gaelic poetry and swoon-inducing melody infused it with a new beauty, gentleness, and wonder. The song sounds like stars. I'm sorry, that's the only way I can describe it.

Bha Buachaillean an Dùthaich Shear (There Were Shepherds In An Eastern Country)
There were shepherds in an eastern country,
Watching their flocks by night,
When there came an angel from heaven,
And the slope lit up with light.
The men were terrified but he said to them,
"Fear not, for I bring good tidings of great joy
To you and all generations."
"The Savior of the world,
The Christ, the Holy Lord,
Tonight has come to Bethlehem,
A helpless, gentle child;
And you shall find him securely wrapped
In a warm manger in the hay,
The precious, heavenly babe
Promised to us since the beginning of time.
Thus said the angel to them,
And suddenly the heavens were full
Of angels singing sweetly
And this was what they sang:
Glory to God in the heavens,
Everlasting peace of earth!
Glory to God in the heavens,
Everlasting peace of earth!"

I have no doubt these two carols will become part of my favorite Christmas repertoire. There is something breathtaking about viewing Christ's birth through the eyes of another culture's language. I have enjoyed it immensely, and I hope I've helped open your ears to another world of Christmas music. Beannachd leibh, agus Nollaig Chridheil! (Blessings and a Merry Christmas to you all!)


Thursday, December 18, 2014

Four Advent Candles...Plus Two More

If a Roman Catholic walked into our dining room at dinnertime during the last week before Christmas, he might be a bit perplexed. Yes, there would be the familiar Advent wreath with its four candles...but there'd also be two additional candles lit, making a mysterious total of six. What's with the extra candles?! he might wonder.

My father was a practicing Roman Catholic for the first 40 years of his life. Then, when I was about 4, he discovered the Byzantine Catholic Church. Feeling God's call, our whole family switched to the Eastern rite. But with so many beloved Advent practices left over from our Western heritage, our preparation for Christmas became a unique amalgamation of traditions.

Like I mentioned in an earlier post, the Eastern Church's Philip's Fast starts two weeks before the West's Advent. Thus our family keeps the Advent wreath, but adds two candles for the two extra weeks. At meals we sing Byzantine hymns during the beginning of the fast, but during the final week carol "O Come, O Come Emmanuel". We set up our Western-style nativity scene and tree, and then on Christmas Eve sit down to a traditional Slavic meal of sauerkraut and mushroom soup.

Personally, I love the hodgepodge. We breathe with both lungs of the Church and share the best of two worlds. Today--since I'm guessing most of my readers are more familiar with the Western side of things--I'd like to share a bit of Byzantine hymnography for this final week before Christmas.

Like Advent, the Eastern Philip's Fast is a time of preparation. Through our hymns, we remind ourselves of the miracle about to take place. Just read this text, from the prefestive troparion of the Nativity:

Bethlehem, make ready,
Eden has been opened for all.
Ephrathah, prepare yourself,
For the Tree of Life has blossomed from the Virgin in the cave.
Her womb has become a spiritual paradise
In which divinity was planted.
If we partake of it,
We shall live and not die like Adam.
Christ is born to raise up the likeness that had fallen.
In a single hymn, we cover the redemption of the old Adam, the prophecies about Bethlehem and Ephrathah, the Incarnation, and even a hint of the Resurrection at the very end. The prefestive troparion clearly places Christmas in the wondrous context of all salvation history.
This is also the theme of the Emmanuel Moleben, a short prayer service that can be said during Philip's Fast. Near the end of the service, the priest recites a long "kneeling prayer" (so called because it's one of the few occasions during the year when Byzantines actually kneel!). It too recounts the crucial place Christmas holds in the true epic of our salvation (emphasis added):
O God and Father, the Almighty One, you created the human race in your image and likeness, and when we fell through disobedience, you promised to send a Savior. When the fullness of time had come, your favor rested on your only-begotten Son, and he was born of the Virgin Mary. Thus, what Isaiah the prophet foretold was fulfilled: "Behold, the Virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call him Emmanuel, which means 'God with us.'" His birth filled all creation with light; he gave us the baptism of repentance, and restored our ancient dignity. Now most compassionate Lord, you bring us to these honored days of the Christmas Fast that we may do battle with the desires of the flesh and draw strength from the hope of resurrection. Receive us, then, as penitents and forgive our wrongdoing, those done knowingly and unknowingly, through malice and through weakness. And may our prayers our fasting, and our works of mercy rise up before you as incense, as sweet spiritual fragrance, that in the company with the Magi and the shepherds we too, with pure hearts, may be found worthy to bow down before the Nativity of Jesus Christ, your beloved Son. To him, together with you and your all-holy Spirit, belong glory, honor, and worship, now and ever and forever. Amen.
Christmas is both an arrival and a turning-point, a culmination and a beginning. The long-promised Savior is now visible to the world, but His mission is only just begun. As for us, Eastern and Western Catholics alike, the Christmas Fast is not quite over. Keep battling, soldiers! The King is almost here.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Literature, A Mode of Knowledge: "The Lost Country"

This week I'd like to share with you a small but fine literary journal I have discovered--The Lost Country. It's a bi-annual publication of fiction, poetry, criticism, and reviews produced by The Exiles--a group of men and women in Forth Worth, TX, who in the tradition of the Inklings have founded a club for the creation and appreciation of great literature. The magazine is only in its third year, but they already have some fine work to showcase. This fall's issue includes an essay on William Wordsworth, a fairy tale with a generous dose of cracked humor, a plethora of insightful poems (including--I admit it--one of my own), and much more. I encourage you to take a look at it online for free.

While exploring The Exiles' website a bit more deeply, I happened across their philosophical vision statement, "Literature as a Mode of Knowledge". By the first two sentences, I was hooked:

The members of The Exiles share the conviction that literature is one of the modes of knowledge through which truth becomes accessible to man. The contemplation of a literary work of art, far from being a momentary diversion, an escape from reality, is, rather, a vision of that deeper reality which we mean by the term Truth.

As a young woman who feels a vocation to write, this idea is extremely exciting to me. Of course, I have read such speculation on the purpose of literature before, but every time I encounter it, it reminds me all over again of the real, joyful, intimidating nature of my art. I'll explain what I mean in a moment.

Often in the daily (well, almost-daily) grind of working on my novel--agonizing over adjectives, bridging plot holes, chiseling out characters--I can forget what all the labor is actually for. That's why I enjoy stepping back and realizing the true end of my craft, which The Exiles express quite beautifully:

...[L]iterature presents an eschatological view of human life and experience, a view as though from the end of time when the meaning of everything that has happened is seen, a view in the light of eternity which is beyond our ordinary mode of perception. By seeing human actions in relation to their end, the literary work of art reveals that all the events, the agonies and the conflicts, of human life have meaning.

Now you see what I mean by intimidating? What a calling! The writer not only has a responsibility to hone his or her craft. The craft is inextricably bound to the pursuit of transcendent truth in the human condition. Keeping the physical ear tuned to the sound of the right words is just as important as keeping the spiritual ear alert for that inner harmony, that music of meaning. Writing requires perceptiveness on multiple levels.

This concept is as fascinating as it is frustrating. Lately an odd sense of the mystery of reality, in relation to the writer's craft, has been pressing on my mind. Every detail of real life seems overwhelmingly important. How does one really describe the glimmer of wet grapes, or the whistling hush of bird wings, or the satisfying pain of a hard run in the cold? Or, on the spiritual level, how does one truly pin down that elusive, irrepressible impulse bound in our beings, Love? Each experience has its own unique reality, which we only encounter directly when undergoing the experience. Words are comparatively vague. Writing seems to me a bit like trying to hand-mold a fine clay sculpture while wearing very bulky mittens. Words, those little meanings enfleshed in sound and shape by language, are all we have to trace the inimitable outline of God's reality.

This is the "mode of knowledge" that is literature. Like any art that tries to reconcile the real and the ideal, it's tremendously difficult to do well. In fact, given that no human can be all-knowing, it may be impossible to perfect. Nevertheless we try. The people behind magazines like The Lost Country try. On the whole, the results are quite beautiful. So I applaud their efforts, and quietly return to my own work, re-inspired.

Quotes in this post are copied with permission from the article "Literature as a Mode of Knowledge",

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

"Staggerford", by Jon Hassler

The following is a book review written for

Losing. That was the melancholy strain running through dozens of papers every year. Parents lost in death and divorce, fingers lost in corn pickers, innocence lost behind barns and in back seats, brothers and uncles lost in Vietnam, friends lost in drug-induced hallucinations, and football games lost to Owl Brook and Berrington.

Thus middle-aged bachelor Miles Pruitt's impression of his hometown of Staggerford, Minnesota. Set in the 1970s, Staggerford--like most small rural towns--has its share of saints and sinners. Miles, a high school English teacher and fallen-away Catholic, is an observer. Quiet and unobtrusive, he seems content to let life trundle along in its ordinary way. But he has had his share of losses as well--most significantly, the loss of both of the women he loved and might have married, to other men. Yet while Miles shares in the vague malaise of regret infecting the town, he does not seem to have the will or direction to pursue a deeper purpose.

The novel Staggerford is a chronicle of one week of Miles's life, taking place between October 30 and November 7. Thanks to a host of colorful supporting characters and side-stories, the main plot can be difficult to trace. In that way the book marvelously resembles a detailed snapshot of small-town life, rather than a traditional novel. However, the main story can be said to center around Miles, his landlady Agatha McGee, and one of his English students, Beverly Bingham.

Agatha and Beverly are the only two characters to whom Miles means, in the words of the landlady, "a deep, abiding lot." However, they could hardly be more different. Agatha, an elderly spinster and a staunch Catholic, has taught in the town's Catholic school for over forty years. Coming from an orderly, uncompromising moral worldview, she too feels loss as she witnesses the upheaval in both the Church and the secular world. But she gets along with the steady, uncomplaining Miles (though they do have their differences--he teases her about her pre-Vatican II missal while she prays every day for his lost faith). Agatha is the very picture of discipline, loyalty to tradition, and common sense.

Beverly, meanwhile, is the polar opposite. Although one of the brightest students in Miles's English class, she carries the burden of a terrible home life, a deranged mother, and a devastating family secret. Terrified for her future, she comes to Miles more and more often for advice and support. She is attracted to his steadiness precisely because her own life is so off-kilter. Miles, meanwhile, begins to wonder if he, a middle-aged bachelor and a teacher for over a decade, is actually falling in love with this 18-year-old girl. This new relationship sets off old memories of his previous failed romances.

While Miles struggles with past and present loves and Beverly endures her broken family, Agatha grapples to understand the purpose of evil in the world. In a central passage of the novel, she attempts to draw an analogy between the moral order and a bed of ferns in her garden:

"So what I was thinking, Miles, was that maybe there is a similar process going on in human affairs. If you let sunshine stand for the goodness of the world and you let rain stand for evil, do goodness and evil mingle like sun and rain to produce something? To bring something to maturity, like those ferns? Does God permit sin because it's an ingredient in something he's concocting and we human beings aren't aware of what it is? Is there sprouting up somewhere a beautiful fern, as it were, composed of goodness and sin?"

Although this analogy does not put Agatha's mind entirely to rest, it does reveal her deep trust in Providence. Throughout the rest of the book, goodness and evil mingle, eventually climaxing in a great good--a healing relationship between the motherly Agatha and the desperate Beverly. However, it will take a tragedy to accomplish it.

These hints at Providence, along with Agatha's moral compass, provide a quietly Catholic backdrop to a very real story. With gentle soberness and humor, Jon Hassler also brings to life a medley of supporting characters--a female librarian obsessed with facts, an ambitious but nervous principle, a superintendent with a phobia of death, and many more. Each brings a mingling of good and evil to the landscape of Staggerford.

Overall, Staggerford is a comfortable, easy read, with a memorable cast of characters and a poignant ending. Hassler does not preach Catholicism with this story. Instead, he uses it to gently illuminate his characters' actions, in a quiet attempt to make order of our small, sometimes messy, ordinary lives.