When life is difficult or poignant, as it is for Margaret and myself at present, we all of us tend to take solace in looking back to better times, to “halcyon days”. The days were such when I first met Margaret in Grahamstown in South Africa.
I was a theological student there, she a teacher in training, but not the only bird I was interested in. With binoculars about my neck I used to roam the nearby, wooded hills hoping for sightings of the secretive but lovely red, green and blue plumaged Knysna loeries.
Another of my pastimes during those golden years was listening to music on records borrowed from the local library. One of them introduced me to an exquisite song by Henry Purcell entitled “Halcyon Days”. Since then the word halcyon has been a favourite, able to effect in me what it means: a golden period of calm and peace. The very word itself floods me with the joy, health, peace and love that encompassed me in those long gone days.
Kingfishers and Kookaburras
A Shepparton Kookaburra initiated this reminiscing. A few days ago we were sitting looking out onto our front lawn’s garden, with its fountain and water-lilied pond. Suddenly, as if from nowhere, a great Kookaburra plunged into the pond and emerged with a glistening and wriggling gold fish in its bill. The Kookaburra is a terrestrial kingfisher, though not as terrestrial as I had thought.
Kingfishers are of the genus Halcyon. The name goes back to Greek mythology, to Alcyone daughter of Aeolus and happily married to Ceyx, son of the Morning Star. Because they angered Zeus he threw a thunderbolt at Ceyx’s ship and he drowned. Upon news of which Alcyone threw herself into the sea in her grief. Out of compassion, the gods changed them both into halcyon birds, named after her. “Halcyon days” were originally the seven days in winter when storms never occur, the seven days each year (either side of the shortest day of the year) during which Alcyone (as a kingfisher) laid her eggs and made her nest on the beach, and during which her father Aeolus, god of the winds, restrained the winds and calmed the waves so she could do so in safety.
I write this little article on the first day of a few days off. We are barricaded in the Rectory, I have put the phones on to “do not disturb” and disconnected the door bell. We holiday at home because the devices and aids now fitted in the Rectory to enable Margaret to maintain her independence are indispensable to easy and contented living, and her greatest joy and recreation centres on her far from portable sewing machine. My own greatest recreations: reading, music and gardening are all centred on home too, so here we are, occasionally curtain twitching to see who of you are passing by, and giggling quietly when importunate beggars are thwarted by a silent door bell.
All that is essential to worthwhile recreation is a change of occupation, though a change of scenery can help too. As I have to do more about the house because of Margaret’s illness, I am learning to regard domestic chores as recreation, in that they provide welcome relief from humdrum parish priesting. This is easy to do with things like hanging out the washing, cooking and shopping for food, all of which I enjoy. It takes a far greater imaginative effort to do so with hoovering, dusting, or bed making, all of which I do not enjoy. Overseas tours, cruises, exotic restaurant feeding and so on, are not what holidays and recreation are essentially about. Recreation has far more to do with stepping out of one preoccupation into another and revelling in the change.
One of the greatest of blessings in my life was being brought up in relative poverty. My parents, being missionaries, subsisted on what today would be regarded a pittance, far, far below our so called “poverty line”. Yet how happy we all were. When Jesus says in St Luke’s Gospel, “Blessed are the poor”, I am sure he meant just that. I suggested as much to Tim Costello when he visited Shepparton last year. I made the point that his slogan “Make Poverty History” would make more Gospel-sense if turned on its head and recast as “Make Poverty universal and Affluence history.”
Contentment in life lies in simplicity of life and in learning to curtail and diminish wants and desires rather than continually and hopelessly attempting to gratify them.
For many years of my life I have lived close to terrorism. As a deacon and priest in Rhodesia I became familiar with curfews, convoys and the brutal murder of friends and acquaintances. I had to travel to parts of my parish in convoy and with a submachine gun on the seat beside me in the car, purely for defence of course. It is in part because of this, perhaps, that I am outraged at any lack of outrage at acts of terror and the killing of unarmed and innocent people. When the hideous IRA were at their murderous worst, I was outraged at what seemed to me to be the mildness of outrage from the Roman Catholic Church. Those supportive of, or behind such action should all have been unequivocally and severely criticised and summarily excommunicated. When the Rhodesian “freedom fighters” shot down civilian aeroplanes I was outraged by the equivocal and qualified condemnation of bodies such as the World Council of Churches. When Islamist inspired terrorists blow innocents to smithereens I am outraged by the mildness of outrage or total lack of outrage from the Mullahs, as well as from self-styled sophisticates who attempt to explain or even excuse the unutterably horrific as something “we’ve really asked for” or as being “all George Bush’s fault”.
A lack of outrage at brutality and horror is a sign of moral emptiness. The desire for revenge is natural and even laudable. To indulge it, however, is evil as well as counterproductive for it perpetuates and extends the brutality and horror. Justice not revenge is the only considered moral response.
Eternity in an hour
One of my great quests in life, which has helped to give it focus and meaning has been a conscious search for windows from the ordinary into the extraordinary, from the mundane into the heavenly, the material into the spiritual, the particular into the universal, the terrestrial into the transcendent. The poet William Blake put his finger on what I am getting at in that strange amalgam of banality and unutterable beauty that is his poem “Auguries of Innocence”:
To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour.
There is so much more to existence than just flesh and bone, than just quarks, protons, electrons, nuclei, atoms and molecules. The microscope and telescope don’t reveal a half of the world’s wonder. The material and the physical point to a greater reality beyond themselves. Imagination, myth, story, poetry, music, human personality, express a reality more real and greater than the material. A mucky, primitive stable and a mewling, puking infant in ancient Bethlehem, breathe truths of the spirit that can only be articulated in artfully naive and lovely stories, but that in fact are more real than reality itself.
A materialist’s Christmas can of course be more than just an echo of the poor turkey’s anthem: “Gobble, gobble, gobble, gobble.....” for it is sometimes illuminated by and expressive of human love. But a true Christian’s Christmas is illuminated by and expressive of so much more. The Bethlehem stable is a window into a reality that takes our breath away, a reality in which love resides at the heart of the divine and is life’s purpose and meaning.
Not literally, but oh so very really, it is Love, as Dante says which moves the sun and the other stars. Not literally, but oh so very really, the hands that hold us in existence are pierced with unimaginable nails.
May the twelve days of your Christmas and all of 2009 be blessed, halcyon days.