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Beware chaos. Humankind has devised prayers to keep chaos from erupting in our lives, and we have rituals — some public, some privateand personal — that might help. But what do we know about chaos that we hope it won’t arrive at our door? And if it did, what kind of car would it arrive in? Marilyn Robertson has wondered about these things in “What Would Chaos Drive?”
Sometimes I think neatness is the charm
to keep bad news away.
A pile of books aligned: no accidents.
Socks folded in a drawer: safe journey.
Afghan laid precisely on the couch:
no one I know will die.
Every straightened picture frame
could signal one less sorrow.
So the chaos I refuse appears in dreams.
“Hey!” it calls, piling its drunken friends
into an old Studebaker.
“There’s room in the back seat.”
Angora dice hang from the rearview mirror.
Comic books and Cheetos line the floor.
None of the windows close.
Our friend Jo Page, fiction writer, essayist and journalist, is also a Lutheran pastor. She’s more informed than many of us when it comes to the liturgical calendar, and in this Christmas season she’s written about the beautiful —and, as she notes, strange —celebration of of St. Lucy’s Day. Perhaps you’ve seen the procession of St. Lucy Day, at least in photographs. In fact, it’s extraordinarily beautiful; nowadays the young women wear crowns of electric candles, but not so long ago those were real candles — the youth, the beauty and the danger were all there together. Here’s Jo in her own words:
On Dec. 13th, St. Lucy’s Day, in many Scandinavian countries and in Lutheran communities in the United States, young girls wearing crowns of candles and bearing plates of saffron buns—to represent St. Lucy’s gouged-out eyes—come before their families to sing “Santa Lucia.” Originally this was a Neapolitan sailor’s song, but the words to the Scandinavian versions plea for the return of light and for the release from winter’s darkness.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. One of the weirdest things about the observation of St. Lucy’s Day concerns the legend of the saint and how then how this 4th-century Sicilian saint came to be venerated by Lutherans, who tend not to put much stock in saints.
St. Lucy was a 4th-century Christian martyr during Emperor Diocletian’s widespread persecution of Christians. St. Lucy’s crime was that she had consecrated her virginity to God and wanted her dowry to be distributed to the poor.
Well, when her pagan fiancé found this out, along with her refusal to marry him, he did the stand-up guy thing and denounced her to the Roman authorities. After she refused to burn a sacrifice of the Emperor’s image (this was done to show fealty to the Roman authorities and to reject Christianity), it was determined that a fitting punishment would be to stick her in a brothel where she wouldn’t be able to protect her virginity.
The legend says that when the guards came to take her away they found her so filled with the spirit of God that she was as stiff as a board and too heavy to move even when they hitched her to a team of oxen. In some traditions St. Lucy is tortured by having her eyes gouged out with a fork. In another legend, her fiancé comments on the beauty of her eyes and she gouges them out herself, declaring, “Now let me live to God”.
(This explains why she is seen in paintings bearing her eyes upon a plate and also why she is the patron saint of the blind and those with vision problems. It also explains the grisly custom of having saffron buns represent her eyes. Does put a damper on the appetite.)
Whether or not she was actually burned on a funeral pyre is unclear, but many martyrs under the Emperor Diocletian were. And in St. Lucy’s story, she continues to confess her faith in God’s love while burning to death. Even a spear thrust through her throat could not silence her.
So how does a 4th-century Sicilian martyr become the poster child for the mid-December tradition of putting candles into a crown and having a procession of girls in white robes with red ribbons come in singing a lilting Italian song that had originally been written to request favorable winds while sailing around the bay of Naples?
Well, it’s not clear.
But the lyrics to the Scandinavian versions all share in common the plea for the return of light amid winter darkness:
The night goes with weighty step
round yard and hearth,
round the earth, the sun departs
leaving the woods brooding
There in our dark house,
appears with lighted candles
Saint Lucia, Saint Lucia.
It is, indeed, a strange and beautiful tradition, but more than its strangeness is how it speaks to that common need for light to return and to outlive the darkness, not merely of winter and of night, but the darknesses we find in our lives. When Christina Rosetti wrote “In the bleak mid-winter, long ago/Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone,” I think she was talking about a lot more than just the climate. She was talking about existential isolation and the hope—the need?—for redemption, which for her came with her faith.
In the Santa Lucia processions, almost pagan in their evocations of nature and the spirit of St. Lucy, I think we find that same deep yearning for restoration, for light and for renewal. Because the storied St. Lucy, bearing her eyes on a plate, represents a vision for more than what our eyes, in this darkness, can see.
December has its merry and bright times — evergreen trees with sparkling lights and glittering ornaments, the festive foods, the plum pudding, spicy cakes, and eggnog. All along the roof the eves are hung with fairy lights pretending to be icicles, and there are candles in every window. But December is also the month with the shortest days and longest nights. The dark encroaches. Marilyn Robertson’s poem, “The Pink Cloud of Evening,” has something to say about that.
Sometimes I feel I could live forever —
Like right now, listening to a Norwegian choir on the radio
and watching the last pink cloud of evening
drift over the neighbor’s field.
My ancestors came from Norway.
But they’re long dead — and I’ll die one day, too,
no matter how many clouds and choirs there are.
I ought to quit calling death the Grim Reaper.
I ought to invite him, or her, over once in a while,
like I used to invite my friends.
Can Carol come over to play, Mrs. Townsend?
Can Dorothy spend the night?
What is it about time anyway—
Whizzing through every place I’ve ever lived
as if it’s doing the hundred-yard dash?
Children are born. And their children, grown.
The little triumphs. The winter rains.
The voices of other children on the hill.
Twilight deepens and I start to dance,
humming a little something from Cole Porter.
Perhaps I’ll live forever after all.
You might want to rethink that, says the dark,
coming in for its solo on the bass,
always so mellow, so sure of where it’s going.
Yes, that’s Emily Dickinson on the left. She was born in December, 1830, and died in May, 1886, having led a rather enclosed and secluded life in Amherst, Massachusetts. To read about her is to feel sorry for her, but we have such scant evidence of her life beyond her poems that we might be mistaken. She had deep friendships and a peppery sense of humor, so maybe she wasn’t utterly sad or solemn. She once wrote of her father, saying “He buys me many books, but begs me not to read them, because he fears they joggle the mind.” And of her family she wrote, “They are religious, except me, and address an eclipse, every morning, whom they call their ‘father’.” As for the image here, you had to remain perfectly still for several moments when sitting for a daguerreotype photo, such as this one, so she looks stiffer and more formally composed than she actually was. And she favored white garments, not the dark shade of whatever color the photo registers as plain black. Of her eyes, she once wrote that they were “like the sherry the guest leaves in the glass.” Now, the reason she’s on this page is because she wrote a poem about a hurricane, and as we have a huge one eating up the North-East Coast and moving inland today — it will reach Amherst — we thought we’d post her verse here today.
There came a Wind like a Bugle —
It quivered through the Grass
And a Green Chill upon the Heat
So ominous did pass
We barred the Windows and the Doors
As from an Emerald Ghost —
The Doom’s electric Moccasin
That very instant passed —
On a strange Mob of panting Trees
And Fences fled away
And Rivers where the Houses ran
Those looked that lived — that Day —
The Bell within the steeple wild
The flying tidings told —
How much can come
And much can go,
And yet abide the World!
We’ll get to Keats’s “Ode to Autumn” a little later in October. For now, with permission, we chose a brief verse from Cheap Poems, a mini book published by Spring Harbor Press. It sums up our feelings just fine and it’s called “Rainy Days.”
Yesterday it rained some more
Just as it did the day before,
And now it’s rained all day today
And kept the kids indoors to play
And made them cross, and this has led
To tears and spankings and to bed.
Oh, it will bring us all great sorrow
If it rains again tomorrow.
As we said, it’s not Keats. And we do like the Romantics. But if you have little kids and have a week of rainy weather, this may be more meaningful than anything written by a childless Romantic poet.
There are days when the world seems even crazier than usual. Maybe it’s the endless and at times mindless presidential campaign, or blockheads exercising their free speech rights by mocking someone else’s religion, or possibly it’s the sight of brainless mobs rioting to no end, or it could be the sound of police firing at strikers who are armed with sticks, or maybe it’s a young zealot blowing herself up to protest the presence of soldiers who are already leaving. There are days when no news is good. Our Marilyn Robertson knows days like that.
No News is Good
I’ve given up reading the paper for now.
So much bad news.
But we’re not ostriches
and there’s no sand in this neighborhood.
Words leak through.
Another bomb. Another drone.
Children in the way.
When did ‘another’ stop referring to a day, a helping,
Did we fight for equality so that women
could shoulder eighty- pound packs into combat zones,
just like the men?
Newspapers never answer these questions.
Ask about the ball game instead.
Ask about the movie star’s divorce.
Plus there’s a crossword and a word jumble—
games to keep dementia at bay.
Look what we’ve already forgotten.
If you want me, I’ll be in the garden.