From my Christmas notebook

Christmas Stories
One of the best Christmas stories I’ve ever read is No Holly for Miss Quinn, by Miss Read. She wrote two series of novels about English village life, and three novels about life in a small English market town from the turn of the 20th century through the post-WWII period.

I love this book especially for a particular moment during Christmas dinner, when the young boy has a sudden realization about the nature of Father Christmas and in that realization passes from childhood into the world of grown-up secrets.

No Holly for Miss Quinn speaks especially for women who are happily single and enjoy their lives to the full. But it also speaks for the child on the verge of growing up; and for the person who has lonely Christmases; and the person who has too much family at Christmas.

Another Christmas book by Miss Read is The Christmas Mouse, about a young boy who runs away from home on Christmas Eve, and the canny and wise old woman who gets him home for Christmas. Miss Read, whose real name was Dora Saint, wrote beautifully, especially in her descriptions of nature –the changes of seasons, the activities of birds and animals– and the way children interact with the natural world. She also had great insight into the urge to simplify our lives, to leave some of the unnecessary impedimenta behind.
.An Oxford Book of Christmas Stories includes both traditional and modern tales, and the illustrations are evocative and lush. These are stories for grown ups to enjoy and to read with children. Some of the titles will give you an idea: “Burper and the Magic Lamp,” by Robert Leeson. “Ghost Alarm,” by Nicholas Fisk. “The Anarchist’s Pudding,” by Geraldine McCaughrean. Mr. Pickwick’s adventure sliding on the ice is included as well. Several of the stories have sinister or macabre twists, and the Christmas ghost story is a classic form, thanks to Charles Dickens.
How about an opening to whet the appetite: “Jeremy James first met Father Christmas one Saturday morning in a big shop. He was a little surprised to see him there, because it was soon going to be Christmas, and Jeremy James thought Santa Claus really ought to be somewhere in the North Pole filling sacks with presents and feeding his reindeer.” — from “Father Christmas and Father Christmas,” by David Henry Wilson.

Stories by Paul Auster, Ann Beattie, Ray Bradbury, Italo Calvino, Annie Dillard, Patricia Highsmith, Jane Smiley and others are included in A Literary Christmas, Great Contemporary Christmas Stories, a collection from the Atlantic Monthly Press. These are stories for avid readers and for those who want to sample the work of some of the most interesting writers of our time. Some entries are excerpts from previous works, and some are topical short stories. A great read for the Christmas season.

For stories in song, The Penguin Book of Christmas Carols is very handy. It includes all the verses of fifty Christmas carols as well as the music, and it’s small enough to slip into a handbag on the way to Midnight Mass or Christmas service. The carols are from throughout Europe, some dating as early as the Middle Ages. The book includes a brief history of each carol and an introduction with a short history of Christmas caroling, as well as notes on the carols in performance. Like all Penguin Books, it’s a fantastic bargain.

And don’t forget, there are many editions of A Christmas Carol available, from economy paperbacks to lushly illustrated coffee table versions. The movies are fun, especially the musical, Scrooge, with Albert Finney in the title role; but reading the story with your family or friends is a wonderful way to spend Christmas Eve.

Speaking of the movies, let me put in a vote for the oldie with Alistair Simm as Scrooge. Yes, it’s in black and white. But Simm is such a wonderful Scrooge, and he looks like such a jovial granddad, this is a perfect version for children. The Ghost of Christmas Future is really scary, too, which the kids really like!
©2007 RK Silipo. All rights reserved.

Christmas Skies

The word, leaden, to describe the skies, must have been coined by an Englishman. The very definition of the term defines the winter skies in England. It’s a pefect word, too, because it gives not only the colour, a dark, dull grey; it also gives a sense of suppression, a  sense of the  heavy weight on our emotions, here under those skies. When, rarely, the sun breaks through for an hour or so, our elation is dashed by the inevitable return of the leaden skies, often with rain.

This greyness of days is coupled with the long, dark nights that begin to close over us in September, and reach their longest on December 2st. Sunset is earlier and sunrise later each day. Here, it is dark by 3:30 or so, and in a week it will be dark by 3:00.

All of this, for many of us, saps our energy and even deadens enthusiasm for our usual everyday enjoyment of life’s good moments.

No wonder ancient peoples needed to have a festival, a celebration day, in the middle of this season. And no wonder the ancient Christian church picked December 25th, when the days are just starting to get longer again, to be Jesus’s birthday. Who cares when it really was? We need the celebration now; we need to say, yes, the clouds will lift and we will see more light . . . maybe not soon, but eventually.

Quaker Concepts: Unity

Unity, in Quaker terms, is a staggering concept. It is reached not through voting or debating, but through silent discernment during a Meeting for Worship on the Occasion of Doing Business– short form “Meeting for Business.” During the business meeting an action is proposed, or a draft minute is presented. There is some discussion. If the item is of major importance, it is set aside to “season” for a time; that is, the decision will be made after a month or two (or ten), after everyone has had a chance to think about it and to practice discernment on his/her own. If it is a simple, practical matter, the decision might be made at the same meeting during which it is presented.

Unity  is reached by the movement of the Spirit among the gathered Friends. Sometimes this movement is palpable; other times it is not. This is difficult to describe or explain to anyone who has not experienced it, but is instantly recognizable once it is experienced.

William Penn, the English nobleman who left his title and his family to found the city of Philadelphia (city of Brotherly Love) and the state of Pennsylvania, wrote of Unity:

The objective of the Quaker method is to discover Truth which will satisfy everyone more fully than did any position previously held. Each and all can then say, ‘That is what I really wanted, but I did not realise it.’

The attainment of unity within the meeting is not the same as the attainment of uniformity. Unity is spiritual, uniformity is mechanical.

For a more thorough discussion of Quaker Unity, read Beyond Majority Rule, by Micheal J. Sheeran.

What Technology Can Be Used To Create Spiritual Experience?

This questions was asked on a discussion forum. The following was my answer:

No technology is needed. Nor are drugs, medical equipment or any other means outside your own mind and body, heart and soul. The possibility of spiritual experiences is often overlooked because we are not paying attention. And spiritual moments, in my experience, are more often small and meaningful than big and eventful. For me, spiritual experiences come every day. Meditation leads to spiritual experience; I meditate twice a day. Some people find prayer spiritually uplifting. The object is to connect with the Source (God, Goddess, Nature, the Absolute, the Spirit–whatever your terminology is), to feel the connection and carry that feeling into whatever you do in daily life. Connection is between you and the Source. Nothing else is needed to connect, just your desire and consciousness. When you experience the connection– a sense of joy, of elation, of contentment or comfort–you can carry that with you as you deal with people, work, situations, etc. all the time. You can have a “spiritual experience” all the time.

Christmas: Facing Christmas

This poem touched me. I have no idea if it’s still in print or in copyright. All I know is that it’s by Grace Noll Crowell and it appeared in a collection in 1940. I really love it.

I shall attend to my little errands of love early this year,

So that the brief days before Christmas may be

 Unhampered and clear

Of the fever of hurry. The breathless rushing

      that I have known in the past

Shall not possess me. I shall be calm in my soul

And ready at last

For Christmas;

I shall have leisure– I shall go out alone

From my roof and my door;

I shall not miss the silver silence of stars

As I have before;

And, oh, perhaps– If I stand there very still,

And very long–

I shall hear what the clamor of living has kept from me;

The Angels’ song!

HOLY TERROR – Religious Fundamentalists’ hate mongering

The Tea-party movement is simply the ‘religious right’ in disguise. Half of those who identify with the Tea Party consider themselves a part of the old ‘religious right.’ They believe the Bible is the literal word of God and that America is a Christian nation. Sixty-three percent believe that abortion should be illegal. Eighty-two percent oppose same-sex marriage

Think about it. The Tea-party movement represents a clear and present danger NOW not just to the gay community but to all Americans who refuse to support the values of the Christian right or join them in making this a Christian nation.  –Rev.  Mel White

About Holy Terror: the Lies the Christian Right Tells us to Deny Gay Equality:

“Mel White’s Religion Gone Bad reads like a page-turning whodunit. His careful recounting of the rise of fundamentalism in America is both chilling and enormously instructive. While religious progressives have been sitting around hoping that everyone would play fair with other faithful people, the fundamentalists have been planning and implementing a strategy for taking over the Christian church and the government. Religion Gone Bad (now Holy Terror) is a wake-up call to religious progressives to take back the Bible and stop being fearful of telling the story of our own salvation at the hands of an all-loving, all-merciful and inclusive God.The Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson, Episcopal Bishop of New Hampshire

I’m reading this now, almost finished, and I tell you, it is frightening. It’s also completely disillusioning for anyone who blithely believes that all self-identified “Christians” truly seek to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ. The vitriol, the ignorance, the hatred and the power-seeking that is exhibited by  Fundamentalist preachers and organization founders are direct attacks on the souls and lives of anyone who doesn’t agree with them, and absolutely deny the teachings of peace and love that Jesus gave us.

Gene Robinson is right; the book is a page turner; because not only does Mel White know the history of the Fundamentalist Christians in the USA backwards and forwards, he also knows the MEN (and yes, they are all men) who started the current movement, knows their minds and their plans; and he makes completely logical conclusions about what will happen if they succeed.

Also, Mel’s writing style is completely accessible. He doesn’t write down to the reader, but he deftly writes of complex concepts and, frankly, frightening ideas in clear, almost conversational language. It’s a history book, but it isn’t. It’s theology, but it’s more. It’s a personal political statement, but also a personal spiritual mission statement. You’ve just got to read this book.

Quakers: A Good Introduction

A Light That is Shining, by Harvey Gillman

2nd edition, 1997, Quaker Books, London

I read this book recently and it’s a wonderful discovery. In just 86 pages, with a great list of suggestions for more reading at the back, it gives a brief history of the Religious Society of Friends  (Quakers) in Britain.  Written in a straightforward, chatty style, it covers the founding of the Society and its early struggles, comes right up to the 20th century, and then lays out briefly the structures and procedures followed by Friends in modern Britain.

Harvey Gillman writes with authority, having worked at Friends House –the London headquarters of the RSoF– for many years. His style is decidedly readable, with a wry sense of humour as well as the abundant facts at this fingertips.  Although the history of Friends in the USA and many of the current practices  are different, Americans couldn’t find a more concise and readable summary than this one of the early history of Quakers.

I was particularly interested in the grotesquely expansive bureaucracy of the Society in Britain — the committees, boards, chain of command, etc. that seems to me to be stifling the core truths and historical practices of Friends. Gillman did not disappoint, giving a succinct summary of the various committees and bureaucratic procedures that were in place in the 1990s.

Highly recommended for people interested in Quakers who need a good place to start. It’s short (I read it in less than two hours) and fun to read, and full of information, giving the reader a good sense of whether s/he wants to know more or not.