Who needs Christmas?
Who needs the ruthless lesson of darkening days, winter tides, stone surfaces cold to the touch, winds moving through bare branches?
I surprised myself this past Sunday morning thinking about Christmas, and I surprised myself thinking about it at the Cape Cod National Seashore. I leaned against the weathered fences and railings beyond which, signs warned me, loomed the danger of sliding cliffs. I watched what the wind did even that sunny morning to the low undergrowth covering the cliffs. I thought of the nights ahead when the shivering of the undergrowth would not lessen or stop.
No one would call it courage to shake when there is no alternative, no defense, no energy or even way to stop.
No one would call it courage to shake unless nature had long ago decreed this capacity as vocation – unless nature had decreed it as identity.
Ten years ago I visited a Romanesque abbey church in the Loire valley. In the remote village of St-Benoît-sur-Loire in the 1930s, French poet Max Jacob had made his home in the shadow of Abbaye Fleury. In flight from a Montmartre that no longer sustained his hopes for authentic identity, Max Jacob had taken quiet refuge near the ancient abbey even though there was no monastic community in residence there.
I remember standing outside the church ten years ago and staring up at the rough-hewn capitals topping the twelve columns in the church porch. In my mind’s eye I pictured the same stone columns in late December, icy in the early darkness of the afternoon before Christmas, festooned with wreaths of evergreen. It seemed that something about Christmas would be comprehensible only in that remote winter stillness of stone.
No one would call it courage to be so still unless nature had long ago decreed that capacity as vocation – unless nature had decreed that patient stillness as identity.
In a shop attached to the rebuilt monastery guesthouse, I purchased a greeting card. Into the white card stock had been embossed an impression of one of the Romanesque capitals in the church porch. The scene comes from the Gospel story of the Flight into Egypt. I had the image framed when I returned home to New England.
It is in my new home – a place to be still with the slow approach of Christmas, a place to shake as well at times with the danger of sliding cliffs. No Christmas worth the name will come if I consider myself exempt from either vocation.