Monday, December 25, 2017

Dreams of Christmas

Dreams of Christmas

Ellen in a recent blog ( likened Christmas to a dream, and I believe that gets at the heart of what Christmas is: a dreamscape.

Christmas, as we know, has long become a domestic holiday. We spend it inside our homes. Whether it has snowed or if our area of the country never sees snow, a hush falls over the world as for one day most businesses close and commerce stills. We have, for a moment, the time to stop, reflect, and dream. 

In The Poetics of Space, Bachelard connects the dream to the house:
the house shelters day­ dreaming, the house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace. Thought and experience are not the only things that sanction human values. The values that belong to daydreaming mark humanity in its depths.

Christmas dreams of a better world, at least in the wisps and fragments of reverie. 

The consumerism at the heart of the modern Christmas is distorted, but it is the distortion of a dream--the dream of what the world could be if people acted with the material generosity to each other all the time.

Christmas may accentuate social isolation and family dysfunction, but central to it is a dream of community and family in shalom order and the home as haven. I did appreciate this Christmas card from friend Sherri Morgan:

Yet Christmas speaks as well to something deeper.

I find myself drawn this year to stories that are not Christmas stories but seem like Christmas stories to me because they touch deeply on the Christmas dream. This year I have been revisiting Peter Pan, a story that opens with domestic whimsy and humor  about the intrusion of the dreams of childhood into the intensely  domestic space of the Edwardian London townhouse. Peter Pan is openly the symbol of  imagination, imagination unfettered by rational adult constraints. This seems at the heart of Christmas.

I reread too part of The Sign of the Twisted Candles, a Nancy Drew mystery, but intensely a domestic drama of  interiors and a dream of righting the wrong in a domestic space that has been invaded by evil. Protecting the innocent and vulnerable, the very elderly and the young, is at the heart of this children's mystery and the Christmas dream.

At Christmas, we decorate the prosaic pine tree. We make the ordinary beautiful.

I came across this in the New York Times, and it has helped guide my days recently and bring a touch of joy centrally to them:

Each morning I write the words “I Will Feel Great About Today If I …” on a notepad. This is NOT a “to do” list. It is purely about creating the “reward” you describe: feeling great.
George Eliot puts this a different way: “The strongest principle of growth lies in human choice.”

It helps me to think of Christmas as a dream and a choice. The dream imagines a world of peace and goodwill, of gift-giving, community, healing, harmony and generosity. This is both a secular and a Christian dream, the dream of all tears being wiped away. If it is not here, we can start to dream it into being. We also have the political choice: we could, if we wanted, make a better world much more of a reality than it is right now. 

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

For the first time on the web: Margaret Fell's "A Few Lines concerning Josiah Coale," 1671

Thanks to fine sleuthing by John Jeremiah Edminster, we now have the entire text of Margaret Fell's only known poem to put on line, an elegy on her friend, Josiah Coale (circa 1632-68), who died at around age 36. I had previously found 11 lines of this 44-line poem, but the rest seemed to have disappeared. It deserves to be on the web in its entirety, so I have placed it below.

Coale, like many early Quakers, traveled far and wide to spread the word about Friends, visiting both Holland and the American colonies. He was beaten and jailed by the Dutch and the Puritans. He received a warmer welcome from the Susequehanna Indians, with whom he negotiated a land deal.

Isabel Ross's Margaret Fell: Mother of Quakerism depicts Fell as appreciating Josiah's vibrant personality and strong faith. Fell was 18 years older than him, and saddened by his death. Though not one to write poetry, perhaps it was Coale's own poem, “A Song of the Judgments and Mercies of the Lord," written  in 1662 that inspired her own verse. According to Quaker Artists's History, a facebook page (
He said his poem was “written at the movings of the spirit of the Lord”. The piece concerned the new revelation brought by Christ as reported by John in the New Testament. An excerpt:
“Until Johns Ministry I came to see, which was the great’st of all,  The Prophets which had gone before: from the great’st unto the small,  For then the way was made so straight, the path was made so plain  That, th’ Coming of Gods Son I saw in his great power to raign;  Whose kingdom now is Come with power, the Lamb is sets on’s throne.”
Like Coale's work, Fell's 1671 poem uses rhyming couplets. The poem, not surprisingly, is 
religious, celebrating Coale's faith, discernment, vigilance, and sufferings as he traveled abroad. Interestingly, a variation of Mary's Magnificat--"My should doth magnify the Lord--" is put into Josiah's mouth as "Let God be magnified, that was his [Josiah's] Song." In the final couplet, Fell, now presumably speaking for herself, again uses the word "magnified" in praise of God, connecting both Josiah and herself to an extremely important female figure. Mary, as Fell argues in Women's Speaking Vindicated, indeed preached in her Magnificat, a beautiful retelling of Hannah's speech about being a humble handmaiden of the Lord. This Lord notably takes cares of the poor and lowly, as Mary celebrates:
He hath put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree. He hath filled the hungry with good things; and the rich he hath sent empty away. 

 The final couplet of Fell's poem sounds Shakespearean, but it's unclear how familiar Fell was with Shakespeare. Quakers shunned the theater, and Shakespeare had not yet secured the superstar status he would after 1700. She might, however, have read his sonnets.

I particularly like the intimate, personal nature of the opening stanza: dear Josiah, the repetition of "gone" emphasizing the sense of personal loss, and the gentle, domestic image of Josiah resting on God's bosom.

There's also a poignance in the last verse, as Fell, who would have been 54 at the time, remembers that God, and implicitly Josiah lying in his bosom, "never waxeth old."

A few lines concerning Josiah Coale

Is dear Josiah gone? Yes he is gone;
He’s gone from us, in the Eternal one
Where he from all his labor is at rest.
I’th Bosom of the Father, who is forever Blest.

Ah Valiant Champion for God’s Truth, so pure,
Thy Name’s as precious Ointment, thy memory shall dure
In upright Hearts, from them nothing can hide,
Thy worth, thy faithfulness, all shall abide,

To their refreshment, though thy Body’s laid
I’th bowels of the Earth, yet as thou said,
God’s Majesty was with thee, and the Crown
Of Immortal Life is on thee; and that will renown

Thy Name to Generations, yet unborn,
When they shall hear, Josiah  did adorn
The Gospel of our Lord by Doctrines that was found,
Within his Native Land, yet he was found

In foreign Lands, spreading forth the fame
Of his beloved Lord: and that his Name
Might be Advanced, thought no Travel long
Let God be Magnified, that was his Song:

His Travels they were sore, within, and eke without:
His Recompense was large; yes, there’s no doubt.
Now he shines as a Star, of no small magnitude,
Who, by the Power of God, hath convinced a Multitude.

Many are the Children, he hath gathered
To the Knowledge of the Lord, and Christ their Head.
He rightly did divide the Word of God;
Gave Milk to Babes; but Fools are for the Rod;

He sweetly comforted the Meek:
Ah, he was strength unto the Weak;
But terrible he was to the Stout-hearted,
Who verily was smote before he parted.

The Workers of Iniquity by him
Were trampled under foot; the man of sin
Was sorely wounded by his powerful Hand
The hypocrites before him could not stand;

 But by the Power of God he did them flay:
But now, alas, he’s gone, he’s gone away,
And we who loved him, though our Loss is great;
Yet being fixed in God, we are compleat;

There meet with his Spirit, who gathered is
Into the Mansion of Eternal Bliss.
Praised be God, and Magnified be He
Who never waxeth old, nor chang’d can be.