Happy New Year.
Frans Brüggen performs ...
My curiosity being now fully aroused, I whispered to one of the familiars, as he was about to leave the room, and begged an interpretation of the strange scene before me. A few words were sufficient for the purpose. I found that these mysterious personages, whom I had mistaken for magi, were principally authors, and were in the very act of manufacturing books. I was, in fact, in the reading-room of the great British Library, an immense collection of volumes of all ages and languages, many of which are now forgotten, and most of which are seldom read: one of these sequestered pools of obsolete literature to which modern authors repair, and draw buckets full of classic lore, or “pure English, undefiled,” wherewith to swell their own scanty rills of thought.Being now in possession of the secret, I sat down in a corner, and watched the process of this book manufactory. I noticed one lean, bilious-looking wight, who sought none but the most worm-eaten volumes, printed in black letter. He was evidently constructing some work of profound erudition, that would be purchased by every man who wished to be thought learned, placed upon a conspicuous shelf of his library, or laid open upon his table—but never read. I observed him, now and then, draw a large fragment of biscuit out of his pocket, and gnaw; whether it was his dinner, or whether he was endeavoring to keep off that exhaustion of the stomach, produced by much pondering over dry works, I leave to harder students than myself to determine.
“What a revelation it was,” he would later write, “to discover so many people in a place together, more conscious of God than of one another; not there to show off their hats or their clothes, but to pray, or at least to fulfill a religious obligation, not a human one.” The student was Thomas Merton, and given the dissolute shape of his life to this point, he thought it no small miracle to find himself sitting among the regular worshipers on this particular morning. Indeed, just a few lines earlier in his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, Merton confesses that this was the first time he “had ever really spent a sober Sunday in New York.” He could not escape the feeling that the parishioners surrounding him in the pews “had spotted me for a pagan and were just waiting for me to miss a few more genuflections before throwing me out.” At age 23, somewhat adrift and deeply insecure about the direction of his life, the young Merton was terrified of walking into a Catholic church. Yet by the time the Mass ended, he says, “my eyes looked about me at a new world … I could not understand what it was that had happened to make me so happy, why I was so much at peace."
The “new normal” is really just a return to the “old normal” in politics. Government by mandate, proclamation, edict, fiat, diktat, or order has been the norm throughout human history. It is effective and efficient, it gets the job done, it’s clean and quick, and it involves minimal discomfort or responsibility for citizens—or, rather, subjects. Domination and coercion by the elite, the wealthy, and the powerful has been the lot of most human beings around the world for almost all of human history. It’s just dressed in a lab coat or suit and tie instead of a king’s robe or a military uniform.From the long view, political freedom has been an unusual experiment in the history of humanity. The Founders knew this, calling the American experiment in self-government a “novus ordo seclorum”—a new order for the ages. Abraham Lincoln knew this, expressing the precarity of freedom clearly in the closing words of his Gettysburg Address. Freedom is never a normal, inertial state for human societies. It needs to be fostered, continually developed, and incessantly fought for in the face of perennial enemies. It is never comfortable and it is never easy.We in the U.S. have grown tired of political freedom, and we seem on the brink of capitulating once and for all. Safety and orthodoxy are just so much more stable and satisfying than the hard ground of self-reliance, independent thought, and individual responsibility. We should, though, think of our children and future generations. And we should also think of the millions around the world who still look to the U.S. as a star of hope in the long night of tyranny that has defined most of human history.
It would be tedious, perhaps, to my wiser readers, who may not have that foolish fondness for odd and obsolete things to which I am a little given, were I to mention the other makeshifts of this worthy old humorist, by which he was endeavouring to follow up, though at humble distance, the quaint customs of antiquity. I was pleased, however, to see the respect shown to his whims by his children and relatives; who, indeed, entered readily into the full spirit of them, and seemed all well versed in their parts; having doubtless been present at many a rehearsal. I was amused, too, at the air of profound gravity with which the butler and other servants executed the duties assigned them, however eccentric. They had an old-fashioned look; having, for the most part, been brought up in the household, and grown into keeping with the antiquated mansion, and the humours of its lord; and most probably looked upon all his whimsical regulations as the established laws of honourable housekeeping.When the cloth was removed, the butler brought in a huge silver vessel of rare and curious workmanship, which he placed before the Squire. Its appearance was hailed with acclamation; being the Wassail Bowl, so renowned in Christmas festivity. The contents had been prepared by the Squire himself; for it was a beverage in the skilful mixture of which he particularly prided himself; alleging that it was too abstruse and complex for the comprehension of an ordinary servant. It was a potation, indeed, that might well make the heart of a toper leap within him; being composed of the richest and raciest wines, highly spiced and sweetened, with roasted apples bobbing about the surface.The old gentleman's whole countenance beamed with a serene look of indwelling delight, as he stirred this mighty bowl. Having raised it to his lips, with a hearty wish of a merry Christmas to all present, he sent it brimming round the board, for every one to follow his example, according to the primitive style; pronouncing it "the ancient fountain of good feeling, where all hearts met together."
6 And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered.7 And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.8 And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.9 And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.10 And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.12 And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,14 Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.
Everything conspired to produce kind and happy feelings in this stronghold of old-fashioned hospitality. The window of my chamber looked out upon what in summer would have been a beautiful landscape. There was a sloping lawn, a fine stream winding at the foot of it, and a tract of park beyond, with noble clumps of trees, and herds of deer. At a distance was a neat hamlet, with the smoke from the cottage chimneys hanging over it; and a church with its dark spire in strong relief against the clear cold sky. The house was surrounded with evergreens, according to the English custom, which would have given almost an appearance of summer; but the morning was extremely frosty; the light vapour of the preceding evening had been precipitated by the cold, and covered all the trees and every blade of grass with its fine crystallisations. The rays of a bright morning sun had a dazzling effect among the glittering foliage. A robin, perched upon the top of a mountain-ash that hung its clusters of red berries just before my window, was basking himself in the sunshine, and piping a few querulous notes; and a peacock was displaying all the glories of his train, and strutting with the pride and gravity of a Spanish grandee on the terrace-walk below.I had scarcely dressed myself, when a servant appeared to invite me to family prayers. He showed me the way to a small chapel in the old wing of the house, where I found the principal part of the family already assembled in a kind of gallery, furnished with cushions, hassocks, and large prayer-books; the servants were seated on benches below. The old gentleman read prayers from a desk in front of the gallery, and Master Simon acted as clerk, and made the responses; and I must do him the justice to say that he acquitted himself with great gravity and decorum.The service was followed by a Christmas carol, which Mr. Bracebridge himself had constructed from a poem of his favourite author, Herrick; and it had been adapted to an old church melody by Master Simon. As there were several good voices among the household, the effect was extremely pleasing; but I was particularly gratified by the exaltation of heart, and sudden sally of grateful feeling, with which the worthy Squire delivered one stanza: his eyes glistening, and his voice rambling out of all the bounds of time and tune:'Tis Thou that crown'st my glittering hearthWith guiltlesse mirth,And giv'st me wassaile bowles to drink,Spiced to the brink:Lord, 'tis Thy plenty-dropping handThat soiles my land;And giv'st me for my bushell sowne,Twice ten for one.I afterwards understood that early morning service was read on every Sunday and saint's day throughout the year, either by Mr. Bracebridge or by some member of the family. It was once almost universally the case at the seats of the nobility and gentry of England, and it is much to be regretted that the custom is fallen into neglect; for the dullest observer must be sensible of the order and serenity prevalent in those households, where the occasional exercise of a beautiful form of worship in the morning gives, as it were, the key-note to every temper for the day, and attunes every spirit to harmony.
8 And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.9 And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.10 And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.
The party now broke up for the night with the kind-hearted old custom of shaking hands. As I passed through the hall, on the way to my chamber, the dying embers of the Yule-clog still sent forth a dusky glow; and had it not been the season when "no spirit dares stir abroad," I should have been half tempted to steal from my room at midnight, and peep whether the fairies might not be at their revels about the hearth.My chamber was in the old part of the mansion, the ponderous furniture of which might have been fabricated in the days of the giants. The room was panelled with cornices of heavy carved-work, in which flowers and grotesque faces were strangely intermingled; and a row of black-looking portraits stared mournfully at me from the walls. The bed was of rich though faded damask, with a lofty tester, and stood in a niche opposite a bow-window. I had scarcely got into bed when a strain of music seemed to break forth in the air just below the window. I listened, and found it proceeded from a band, which I concluded to be the waits from some neighbouring village. They went round the house, playing under the windows. I drew aside the curtains, to hear them more distinctly. The moonbeams fell through the upper part of the casement, partially lighting up the antiquated apartment. The sounds, as they receded, became more soft and aërial, and seemed to accord with quiet and moonlight. I listened and listened—they became more and more tender and remote, and, as they gradually died away, my head sank upon the pillow and I fell asleep.