Month: December 2010

A Dickensian Evening

“At last the dinner was all done, the cloth was cleared, the hearth swept, and the fire made up. The compound in the jug being tasted, and considered perfect, apples and oranges were put upon the table, and a shovel-full of chestnuts on the fire. Then all the Cratchit family drew round the hearth, in what Bob Cratchit called a circle, meaning half a one…

. . . All this time the chestnuts and the jug went round and around; and bye and bye they had a song. . . from Tiny Tim; who had a plaintive little voice, and sang it very well indeed.


There was nothing of high mark in this. They were not a handsome family; they were not well dressed… But they were happy, grateful, pleased with one another, and contented with the time; and when they faded, and looked happier yet in the bright sprinklings of the Spirit’s torch at parting, Scrooge had his eye upon them, and especially on Tiny Tim, until the last.”

I have had an evening at once as human and eternal as any such sweet incident out of Dickens. As I relate it here, it shall appear singular and disconnected, without context because of the absence of my writings here during these hectic months. Yet, I hope the atmosphere I shall endeavor to re-create in all its richness will help, in some small way, to fill up that void and relate accurately the character of the missing passages of time.

The last ordinary day of the semester had come; behind us was five months’ scholarly labor and discovery, and ahead lay the grueling week of finals. The space between was a sort of respite, a calm before the storm, and several of the teachers took advantage of this time to do something special for the students. Our philosophy professor–a remarkable, keen-witted man to whom we owe much for opening the wonderful world of Socrates and Plato to us–invited all of his students to his home for a “little Advent gathering.” I anticipated a pleasant evening, but I was thoroughly surprised.

We followed the directions he gave us along the dark, twisty country roads, through the naked woods of late autumn, up the mile-long gravel drive until we beheld the Christmas candles shining out from the windows of an old-farmhouse-style home. The door opened at our knock and flooded us with a soft golden glow. Inside, the home was lovely, perfectly decorated with an antique simplicity that gave it the charm of . . . a Dickens novel: something old-world and old-fashioned, quaint but homey.
Upon entering, we met his winsome, impish blonde daughters and his quiet, hospitable wife. The professor himself welcomed us and introduced us to all his family–his many daughters, his brave-looking little son, and his wife–her name, he said, was Sophia.

It was, perhaps, at that moment that the evening began to take on a special charm; for the very second he said her name, a strange thrill went through me. I was struck immediately by the immense–nay, almost Divine, in the Providential sense–humor and sweet irony in the name of his wife. Behold a man who, “hitching his plow,” as he would say, to the great wisdom of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and Aquinas, had spent his life devoted to philosophy–to the loving pursuit of wisdom.

And he had married a woman named Sophia. And Sophia means wisdom.

How fitting! I thought, How incredibly right!

We all gathered in their cozy little parlor, and while other guests arrived, our host knelt down at the hearth of the great, carved oaken 1880’s fireplace, and proceeded to build a fire. As he stirred the little sparks to flames and carefully placed the logs according to some art unknown to me, he was aided by his two youngest daughters, busily crumpling newspapers–which they occasionally stopped to read–to use for kindling.

The flow of conversation was, at first, merely a stiff trickle, as we gradually grew accustomed to the quaint beauty of our surroundings; but the cordiality of our hosts–particularly, that keen, insightful manner of his–soon made us feel at home. When everyone had arrived, and gathered around that glowing hearth, I rather wondered how the evening would proceed. What would we . . . do? Simply sit in his parlor? At any other sort of gathering, I’m sure a movie or a football game or at least music would have been playing in the background, for our culture has grown accustomed to perpetual entertainment filling in the blanks of our lives. But nothing like that was to be found in this house; nor would it have been fitting there.

So, I was slightly taken by surprise when the professor, seated on a little stool beside the fire and surrounded by his children, suggested quite simply that we “sing a few rounds.” As novel and unusual–or rather, unexpected–as that suggestion was to me, it felt perfectly in accord with that little world; it was, in fact, quite natural. Something inside me echoed: “Oh, but of course, What else on earth would we do at such a time and place?”

And so we sang in rounds, what songs we knew; and what rounds we didn’t know, we quickly learned. My, how wonderful it sounded! the whole room rang with the silly little songs we sang, harmonized and echoed through the house.

When the songs were done, we each had a mug of Christmas punch–wassail, they called it–and milled about a little while, just chatting, until our host shepherded us back into the parlor, and asked us to share our memories and thoughts of the semester. Cookies were then passed around, and we all hushed each other as he announced he would read aloud to us that poignant and powerful essay by Hilaire Belloc, “A Remaining Christmas.”

As he finished with the sweet and moving final lines of that piece, there was all round an awed silence, as in the presence of something marvelous and ethereal–indeed, such a silence as one finds before the Holy Creche. As he closed the book, I noticed that the thoughtful look upon the professor’s face was reflected in each of his pupil’s faces, perfectly as in a mirror.

Then, suddenly, one mischievous student broke the silence and asked: “What’s on your mind, doctor?”

He smiled and replied, “Actually, I was wondering what is on your minds.” The richest, most beautiful discussion followed:
about Christmas and Belloc,
change and time,
tradition and eternity,
England, and Catholicism, and History, and The Faith,
music, and movies,
art and contemplation,
and the effect of images on the soul,
culture, and heritage and philosophy,
and life and death.

And when it was all done, and the clock struck ten, and the children had nodded to sleep beside their father, our host quietly signaled the end of the evening by rising from his seat beside the dying embers. We rose, too, and thanked him, bade farewell to the family and home, and departed. “God bless!” I cried out over my shoulder as I left; and I meant it from the bottom of my heart.

Human gatherings such as that, around a family, around a hearth, truly transcend time and place. Dickens knew this; he captured them in the Spirit of Christmas Present, epitomizing not only what was at his time, but what always ought to be. They are the same in every age, or should be; for the traditions we experience tie us to the past and preserve our memories for the future, letting us touch the eternal.

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