Thursday, December 17, 2009

O! Holy unto the Lord: Trim Every Blessed Pot

(No that title is not a tech pun. I wonder if there are any other Chestertonians who know about trimming a pot: "pot" is tech jargon for "potentiometer" which you probably call a "volume control". Hee hee. But let us begin, we've got a lot to do today.)

Wow, according to the moon and the sun, today is Durin's Day - the first day of the last new moon before the Winter Solstice - "as all should know" it is New Year's for the Dwarves. (Of course such an astronomical specification for a feast sounds very Easter-y to me, but let us defer such things for a future post, hee hee.)

Today being December 17, it is also the first day of what the Church calls the "Greater Feria", the great count-down to Christmas - the last seven days before the Vigil on which we hear those seven lovely and ancient O antiphons: seven great titles of our Lord drawn from the Hebrew scriptures:

O Sapientia = O Wisdom
O Adonai = O Lord of Israel
O Radix Iesse = O Root of Jesse
O Clavis David = O Key of David
O Oriens = O Rising Dawn
O Rex Gentium = O King of Nations
O Emmanuel = O God-With-Us

As you can see, I have written elsewhere on these, but you can read them for yourself, since I have lots more to do today - I am busy as a Dwarf just now. Hee hee.

Of course, as we know, the Dwarves did not celebrate Christmas, or at least they had not done so in the time of Bilbo and Frodo, though I imagine there have been conversions over the last two millennia. Indeed, I speculate that the famous Boreal workshops of the Bishop of Myra (who, like Gandalf, is known by other names in different places throughout Middle Earth) are at least partially staffed by Dwarves, who are very good at making clever things - see for example Tolkien's comments about the "musical crackers" at Bilbo's famous "eleventy-first" birthday party. If St. Paul could state how the Gospel abolishes such distinctions as Jew or Greek, male or female, [Gal 3:28] I am sure that the long-standing division between Elf and Dwarf was likewise set aside once they heard (as the voice of an eagle made known) "the Black Gate is broken and our King has passed through, and He is victorious - and He shall dwell among us all the days of our lives..." [JRRT The Return of the King; cf. Luke 1:77-78, Hebrews 10:19 and John 1:14 among others] Yes, very Easter-y.

But let us not explore such issues today when we have decorating to do! Rather, let us take a take a look at another important class of folks, somewhat closer to our own selves: the Whos who live down in Who-ville, just south of Mount Krumpet.

You may have heard their handy little check sheet of how to decorate the home... just in case, I shall give my own transcription, apologising in advance for my misquotes of the technical terms used:
Trim up the tree with Christmas stuff,
Like Bloogle-balls, and Who-foo Fluff.
Trim up the tree with Goggle-gums and Bissle-dinks and Wungs!

Trim every blessed window and trim every blessed door,
Hang up Koo-goo-who Bricks,
Then run up and get some more!

Hang Pang-tookas on the ceiling,
Pile Pan-foonas on the floor,
Trim every blessed needle on the blessed Christmas tree.
Christmas comes tomorrow! To you! To me!

Trim up the tree with Fuzzle-fuzz,
And Blipper-bloops, and Wuzzle-wuzz,
Trim up your uncle and your aunt
With yards of Who-fa-flay!
Trim up the tree with yards of Who-fa-flay!
[approximated from T. Geisel's "How the Grinch Stole Christmas"]
Your Uncle and your Aunt, huh? Hmm... But actually, it seems evident to me that the Whos read Chesterton, since this song demonstrates that "the greatest of poems is an inventory." [GKC Orthodoxy CW1:267] But there is something more important here than just the list, no matter how poetic.

Rather, I found this list suggestive of another very Tolkien-ian matter, what we might call the matter of the Tree. But I do not mean Telperion and Laurelin - nor yet Eden's famous Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil with its forbidden fruit (no the Bible does NOT say it was an apple - check it out!) Nor, even, the far more terrible and glorious Tree of Calvary, hymned in the Improperia of Good Friday, though that is far closer to my topic.

No, I refer to a famous and almost forgotten tree, which I have only recently learned more about: the arbor scientiarum, the Tree of Sciences, known to scholars in the High Middle Ages. I learned of this famous Tree from a book called Science and Creation in the Middle Ages by Nicholas Steneck - this is a study of the work of Henry of Langenstein, a scholar who died around 1397. Steneck tells us that Henry assumes a certain attitude
in his investigation of nature. As a philosopher, scientist, and theologian, he works under the supposition that knowledge as "scientia" is one. He assumes, without ever specifically saying so, that there is some underlying and consistent truth to the universe that may be manifest in many ways but that ultimately represents only a single truth. Disciplines, as branches of the arbor scientiarum, can be spoken of as individual entities ... but none is ever totally separable from the tree. There is no reason to distinguish one branch from all others as an autonomous unit. More than this, there is no reason to limit one discipline exclusively to one method. This is not to say that some disciplines do not employ one method more than another. Certainly they do. But there is nothing to suggest that they ought to use only that method. If other disciplines have something valid to say about science, or the reverse, Henry is perfectly willing to go that route. Truth is truth no matter what its origin.
[NS Science and Creation in the Middle Ages 145]
Glorious! And here, my dear friends, my fellow Chester-who-tonians, we find the medieval antecedents for Chesterton's famous quote that "there is no such thing as a different subject" and its congeners. Hurray! So it seems that GKC really does revert to the doctrinal methods of the thirteenth (and fourteenth) centuries to get things done. Wow.

But why (you moan) do you bring this up, Doctor? I thought we were going to talk about decorating.

We are. That's the point of my quoting the famous decorating song of the Whos.

You see, there really is supposed to be a unity in our decoration. We ought to somehow adorn each blessed thing in our home in a fitting way, to show its unity in the Creation, and to place it properly in the Christmas mode. For "none is ever totally separable from the tree".

Alas, I do not have time to lecture on how one can do this, and why one doesn't have to study the medieval scheme of the arbor scientiarum in order to prepare for Christmas - though, like Chesterton's point on the study of hydraulics, it is a most fitting subject to study when Rome is burning. [GKC WWWTW CW4:43] Yes, when you are struggling to grasp the correct scheme, don't go to the web, or to the "holiday issue" of a magazine. Go to Genesis One, and check off the list of the parts of Creation, the light, the water, the earth, the sun, moon and stars, the plants and birds and fish and animals, and the humans - and pay careful attention to the human part, which goes on into the rest of that book!

I have a couple of comments to make about this sort of "Tree of Creation" scheme. First, do not neglect the angel, who played such an important part in Christmas. However, you need not commit to any particular conclusion regarding the famous question of "when" they were created, hee hee. You have got to take them more lightly than that. Hee hee! Another curious difficulty comes about with the representation of "water" and how we might symbolise that on our tree. Simple: the curves of garlands (silver or blue, perhaps) might suggest the ocean waves, and the tinsel suggests icicles or rain - and of course you can always cut yourself some snowflakes, one of the best and easiest decorations to make at home. (See below for an important Who-like idea!) Another little issue arises in attempting to deal with the thousands of species of plants and animals - I shall not even attempt to mention things like minerals or stars, you will have to get by like I do, a light of each stellar type, and little ornaments in shape of the 32 crystal classes... But as a Chestertonian, I insist on having a tiny elephant, [see Orthodoxy CW1:266] and of course a giraffe which still looks like a lie [ILN Oct 21 1911 CW29:176]and "some considerable number of interesting fishes" ["The Queer Feet" in The Innocence of Father Brown] and some chairs [Orthodoxy CW1:238] and camels [Heretics CW1:167] and whales and peacocks and lampposts and pelicans and coats-of-arms... oh my, I think we may need at least two trees this year. And we still have to handle DNA, and proteins (I hope to get amino acid ornaments some day!) and all the prokaryotes, and the list goes on and on.

(No wonder the Holy Spirit dictated only Seven Days of Creation: imagine what a huge Bible we'd have if it listed everything in detail! But then we ought to be poetic in our inventory, which is the first thing the commentators on Genesis One forget. They ought to try writing their own version of Creation, and see how easy it is! Ahem.)

Oh, yes, I nearly forgot about what I call the "Human Part". There are two aspects to this. First, all human activities, from keys to clocks, from beef stew to rock-and-roll, from beer and burgundy and poems and plays to roads and computers and cell phones and theological texts - all these are our SUBCREATIONS, nevertheless, God's hand is at work in all of them! If we do something good, it is with His power, using His gifts, at His inspiration, and furthering His will. Hence the medievals classed all the various fields of art and engineering and "vo-tech" and menial chores of home and field within the Sciences - which they sometimes called "Arts" just to be fair. (Remember what I said earlier about St. Paul and the abolition of divisions? it's another paradox for another time!) But there is something else of the Human Part which is not to be forgotten here: the very special story called Salvation History: the Fall, Noah, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Joseph, Moses, David, and the prophets... and the little towns of Nazareth and Bethlehem... all these also must take their places, and ought to be represented somehow in our decorating. (Maybe I will need three trees this year.)

After all - Chesterton thought it was important to go all-out in decorating. He had a very Who-like awareness that Christmas ought to touch all things in the home. Yes, you will be surprised: idea (which is much cheaper) is to make a house really allegoric - really explain its own essential meaning. Mystical or ancient sayings should be inscribed on every object, the more prosaic the object the better; and the more coarsely and rudely the inscription was traced the better. 'Hast thou sent the Rain upon the Earth?' [see Job 38:26] should be inscribed on the Umbrella-Stand: perhaps on the umbrella. 'Even the Hairs of your Head are all numbered' [See Luke 12:7] would give a tremendous significance to one's hairbrushes: the words about 'living water' [See John 4:10] would reveal the music and sanctity of the sink: while 'Our God is a consuming Fire' [See Hebrews 12:29] might be written over the kitchen-grate, to assist the mystic musings of the cook...
[GKC writing to FBC quoted in Ward's Gilbert Keith Chesterton 99]
As you see, the Who-decoration method is very Chestertonian! Let us hear just a little more:
These are, at least, the two types that we have to fear; the adventurer of commerce, who will be content with nothing except adventures, and the drudge of commerce, who may suddenly rebel against his drudgery. What is the cure for both; or is there any cure for either? The approximate cure exists, but it has been neglected so long that people call it a paradox. A friend of mine has made game of me in a recent book for saying that lamp-posts are poetical; [See e.g. Heretics CW 1:112-113] that common things, the boots I wear or the chair I sit on, if they once are understood, can satisfy the most gigantic imagination. I can only adhere with stubborn simplicity to my position. The boots I wear are, I will not say beautiful upon the mountains, but, at least, highly symbolic in the street, being the boots of one that bringeth good news. [See Isaiah 52:7] The chair I sit on is really romantic - nay, it is heroic, for it is eternally in danger. The lamp-posts are poetical; not merely from accidental, but from essential causes. It is not merely the softening, sentimental associations that belong to lamp-posts, the beautiful fact that aristocrats were hanged from them, or that intoxicated old gentlemen embrace them: the lamp-post really has the whole poetry of man, for no other creature can lift a flame so high and guard it so well. You may think all this irrelevant to the case of Mr. King and Mr. Robert. That is just where you make a mistake. This doctrine of the visible divinity in daily or domestic objects, this doctrine of the household gods, so old that it seems new, is the only answer to the otherwise crushing arguments of Mr. King and Mr. Robert. Our modern mistake has been, not that we encouraged the adventurous poetry that inflamed the soul of Mr. Robert, but that we have neglected altogether that religious and domestic poetry which might have lightened and sweetened the task of Mr. King. From the beginning there have two kinds of poetry; the poetry of looking out of the window, and the poetry of looking in at the window. There was the song of the hunter going forth at morning, when the wilderness was so much lovelier than the hut. And there was the song of the hunter coming home at evening, when the hut was so much livelier than the wilderness or the world. The first is expressed quite feverishly in modern literature; there is a mad itch for travel. We talk of the English as if they were the Gypsies. We talk of the Empire as if it were a vagabond caravan; as if the sun never set on it because the sun never knew where to find it. Our literature has done enough, and more than enough, for adventure and the adventurers; it has filled the soul of the Oriental Mr. Robert to the brim. But it has done nothing for Piety, for the sacredness of simple tasks and evident obligations. There is nothing in recent literature to make anyone feel that sweeping a room is fine, as in George Herbert, or that upon every pot in Jerusalem shall be written "Holy unto the Lord."
[GKC ILN July 24 1909 CW28:363-4]
Well? What are you waiting for? Run up and bring down your Pam-foonas and all the other stuff. And don't forget to trim your pots: even your kitchen utensils should announce, like the vessels of the Temple, that Christmas is "Holy unto the Lord".

P.S. If you or your visiting Who-relatives decide that you need (or want) something very unusual for your decorations, you can always make some seven-sided snowflakes. See here for instructions. And don't run with the scissors! I would post instructions for making "pang-tookas" and other such ornaments, but I can't seem to find them just now. Probably up in the attic under my great big ELECTRO-WHO-CARDIO-SCHNOOTS. Hee hee. I only have an "alto" one, it's not quite as big as the one you saw on TV, but it was a lot cheaper; it takes five people to play it. We'll get it out on Christmas when some friends come over, and we'll play some Who-tunes. It's loud - but then as GKC noted, "Christ definitely approved a natural noisiness at a great moment." ["The Tower" in Tremendous Trifles] Hee hee. (If you want to know more about large musical instruments, check out this.)

Oh yes - I forgot to say how much I like that the Whos decorate on Christmas Eve - it's very Chestertonian.

Incidentally, next Thursday is Christmas Eve. Oh boy!

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