Friday, December 26, 2014

Christmas Bells

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play, 
    And wild and sweet 
    The words repeat 
Of peace on earth, good-will to men! 

And thought how, as the day had come, 
The belfries of all Christendom 
    Had rolled along 
    The unbroken song 
Of peace on earth, good-will to men! 

Till ringing, singing on its way, 
The world revolved from night to day, 
    A voice, a chime, 
    A chant sublime 
Of peace on earth, good-will to men! 

Then from each black, accursed mouth 
The cannon thundered in the South, 
    And with the sound 
    The carols drowned 
Of peace on earth, good-will to men! 

It was as if an earthquake rent 
The hearth-stones of a continent, 
    And made forlorn 
    The households born 
Of peace on earth, good-will to men! 

And in despair I bowed my head; 
“There is no peace on earth," I said; 
    “For hate is strong, 
    And mocks the song 
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!” 

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep: 
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep; 
    The Wrong shall fail, 
    The Right prevail, 
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”
~Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1807-1882
   I've long been familiar with the Christmas carol which uses lines from this poem, but I've only just become acquainted with the poem itself. Written by Longfellow at the height of the Civil War, it hits a bittersweet note, and threatens to end in despondency. After bemoaning the cannon fire rending the country apart, in the penultimate stanza he despairs, "There is no peace on earth... For hate is strong, and mocks the song of peace on earth, good-will to men!"
   That winter as Longfellow sat down to write this poem he had much more than the war to despair of. In 1835, after only four years of marriage, his wife had a miscarriage and died. He remarried in 1843, but lost his second wife after a flame from a candle set her dress on fire. Longfellow attempted to put the fire out, suffering burns to his face in the process, but to no avail. (Eighteen years later, he wrote a poignant sonnet where he called his wife's death the cross that he would always bear.)   His eldest daughter had died several years earlier, and only two years after his wife's death, Longfellow's eldest son ran off without his father's permission to join the Union army. In 1863, this son was hit by a bullet which nearly left him paralyzed. As young Charles recovered in his father's house, Longfellow penned "Christmas Bells".
   That first Christmas after his wife died, Longfellow wrote in his diary, "How inexpressively sad are all holidays." The following Christmas he wrote, "'A merry Christmas' say the children, but that is no more for me." And, then, two years later, in Christmas 1863, he reached deep within to draw consolation and hope from a source outside himself.  After announcing that there is no peace on earth, the loudly pealing bells remind him "God is not dead, nor doth he sleep; The Wrong shall fail, the Right prevail, With peace on earth, good-will to men."
   Longfellow's reminder to remember that God is good is something we all must remind ourselves of, even as the world around us looks bleak and hopeless. As we celebrate the birth of Christ this season, I pray that we take comfort from the hope that God doth not sleep and that right shall prevail.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Friends Chosen for Exile

"From among my books all of Balzac, Anatole France, Victor Hugo, André Malraux, and Romain Rolland had to be laid aside to send out of Germany. All of Norman Angell, Walter Lippman, Sinclair Lewis, Spinoza, Maxim Gorky, and Edna St. Vincent Millay must be relinquished. To the growing heap I must add the poems of Heinrich Heine; Thomas Mann's A Man and His Dog; a score of Mendelssohn's Elijah; and lastly, Lessing's drama, Nathan der Weise.

          I worked quietly, feeling bereft. Before leaving France I had selected carefully when preparing the boxes of books which were to follow me. A gypsy can carry but a limited library. There were my friends, chosen for my exile. Choking back self-pity, I was silent until I came to Nathan der Weise.

          To part with that slim volume seemed more that I could bear without protest. It is a favorite of mine—one of the stories I like best of all the stories men have told.

          ...I laid my banned books into a box, fitting them so that their corners couldn't get broken, putting my favorite in a snug place...

         The servant of National Socialism brought a hammer and new nails, shining as silver, with which he fastened on the lid of the box that must leave the Reich. His steady, relentless blows shook me as if they closed a coffin, their fall beating a funeral dirge for the Germany whose matchless beauty Madame de Staël heralded in De l'Allemagne.

          Is that Germany dead? Or does she lie as Snow White in a trance from eating a poisoned apple?"

~Nora Waln, excerpt, Reaching for the Stars

  Here's another excerpt from the book I'm reading.  Waln lived in Germany from 1934 until 1938, and at this point in the story, when the books she had shipped from France are picked over and weeded out so that they may not enter Germany, it's still only about 1934 or 1935. Waln notes that this black list she's handed of her own books constitute "...that [which] a person wishing to read for culture might use... in purchasing a library, if life had kept him too preoccupied to acquire the necessary education to make his own selection." Interestingly, her collection of books from Asia made the cut: "The works of the liberal Persian poets and the pacifist Chinese political philosophers were not on [the 'black list']. Even German, French, and English translations of their books were allowed to come in."
   It's very obvious that Waln likes the Germans. She writes "I had found in Germany a people of whom I can write unconditionally that they are the most generously kind, the quickest to sympathy, of any people I have yet known..." She was raised a Quaker and she points out, "that in the name 'Friend' the people called Quaker have an ideal set before them..." Perhaps it is this religious background that informs her tone, but in tale after tale of friends being imprisoned, free speech being stifled, and books being banned, Waln manages to still humanize the people around her, to make them eminently likeable.
   I'm fascinated by the things she relates and the way they are all taken in stride by everyone around her. Most of the Germans seem to shrug and say, well, it's for the best. Sure, some raise warning flags, under hushed tones, but are quick to say that they must be careful about what they say lest they be arrested. The question that looms in my mind is how can a people become so subjugated that they quietly (and willingly) accept these sorts of intrusions upon their liberties. It makes me realize how little I know about this period in history. My best guess is that World War I really destroyed the German people in a terrible way, so that when Hitler came into power, they saw not a monster, but a bright ray of hope. How desperate must a people be to submit to such terror!

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Rabbits Nibbling in a Field of Clover

"Rabbits nibbling in a field of clover display no corporate concern when a weasel slips in among them. Seemingly their caution is only enough to register brief personal alarm. Individually anxious, the rabbits hastily hop aside from the path the quiet weasel is pursuing towards his selected victim. Crouched in hiding, they are still, heedless to the piteous death cry of their fellow. When the weasel has gone, the remaining rabbits soon present a tableau of contentment on the meadow, a pretty pastel in fawn and green.
   I keep picturing the Germans of my own kind, people privileged to some education, as rabbits. My image would have been truer if I had seen the company of liberals the world over as rabbits of a clover field, myself among them."

~Nora Waln, Reaching for the Stars.

While helping my parents clean out my grandfather's house, I stumbled across the book Reaching for the Stars. It was written in 1937 by an American woman who had moved to Germany in 1934, and is a firsthand account of the attitudes of the German people as they welcomed in their new Führer as Leader and Chancellor of Germany. I'm only in the first few chapters of the book, but so far it's proving a very intriguing read.  I found Nora's analogy of people as rabbits to be both arresting and self aware, and it makes me think how often we all are mere rabbits in the field, turning a blind eye to the weasels amongst us.

The Mystery as a Mystery

"The ancient church mediated on the question of Christ for several centuries. It imprisoned reason in obedience to Jesus Christ, and in harsh, conflicting sentences gave living witness to the mystery of the person of Jesus Christ. It did not give way to the modern pretense that this mystery could only be felt or experienced, for it knew the corruption and self-deception of all human feeling and experience. Nor, of course, did it think that the mystery could be thought out logically, but by being unafraid to express the ultimate conceptual paradoxes, it bore witness to, and glorified, the mystery as a mystery against all reason. The Christology of the ancient church really arose at the cradle of Bethlehem, and the brightness of Christmas lies on its weather-beaten face. Even today, it wins the hearts of all who come to know it. So at Christmas time we should again go to school with the ancient church and seek to understand in worship what it thought and taught, to glorify and to defend belief in Christ. The hard concepts of that time are like stones from which one strikes fire."

~Dietrich Bonhoeffer, excerpt from Letter to the Finkenwalde Brothers Christmas 1939

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Saints out of Sinners

"God creates out of nothing. Wonderful you say. Yes, to be sure, but he does what is still more wonderful: he makes saints out of sinners."

~Søren Kierkegaard, The Journals of Kierkegaard