Sunday, January 6, 2002
--Feast of the Epiphany
Today the three Magi, Wise Men, Kings--thank God no longer the "astrologers" of the first New American Bible translation--presented their legendary gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the Christ Child in Bethlehem two millennia ago, and here I sit to begin writing a book I meant to begin months ago. I care nothing for birthdays or for the symbolism associated with those mounting numbers. Yet recently, on turning fifty, I felt a gnawing dissatisfaction with the prospect of another half century ahead of me. My father, at this milestone, while I was a junior at Princeton, confided to me, "I feel as though my life is almost half over." He added that Jack Hemingway, the eldest son of his most famous author, had remarked, "I've spent the first fifty years of my life being my father's son, and will spend the next fifty being my daughters' father." That story came back to me last year while I was having breakfast at the Ivy Club in Princeton during a visit to my freshman son. Hearing my name mentioned, a girl looked up from her reading and asked with all the eagerness of youth, "Oh, are you Charlie Scribner's father
?" I burst into laughter, explaining that for four years at that very table I had been "Charlie Scribner's son" (my father was the real one, a university trustee); and now I come back to be "Charlie's father." Independent identity remains elusive.
I told that story at Jack Hemingway's memorial service at the Explorers Club a few weeks later. I felt a kinship with Jack--well beyond the fact that my grandfather and Ernest Hemingway had been best friends, or that my father had been his final publisher. No, it was that I had always felt that Jack's amusing comment was leavened with love for both his father and his children. It was a love I shared with him and with most of fortunate humanity, the love for one's parents and for one's children, and the pride--the good pride, not the deadly sin--that goes with it. But if truth be told, of the two roles I have always felt far more qualified for the first, that of a professional son. It is one I have played for most of my life, and one develops comfort, not to say confidence, with decades of practice.
Up until that breakfast, I had been able to prolong that role for more than five years beyond my father's death, in 1995. I am still not ready to retire from it: I like being his son, first and foremost. But in doing so, especially during his final years of illness and then in the flurry of activity that followed--estate, memorials, and the excavation of memories--I had slipped into neglecting two key activities in my life, two keyboards in fact: the piano's and this laptop's.
Music has always been my first love. Writing came later, although inescapable through birth, profession, and even surname (originally Scrivener, until the late-eighteenth-century change to Scribner), which means "scribe." Within the past year, I bought three pianos for our new apartment: a baby grand for the living room, an electric one for late-night practice, and finally a new Steinway grand for what I have since dubbed the Music Room. Here I finally face this silent keyboard and the book I now know I must write. Its outlines are dim; the mists have not yet risen as it is late at night, with only twenty-some minutes left in this Feast of the Three Gift Givers.
My books on Rubens and Bernini were easy to tackle: I had both their lives and their (illustrated) works as instant structures. But now I have only a theme--if not a title--"The Shadow of God," taken from an inscription my father gave me to post on my study carrel in Princeton's Marquand Library, my senior year, as I faced writing my thesis. Lux Umbra Dei
--light is the shadow of God. It seems to fit Epiphany, the feast illumined by the light of that wondrous star and following, by a few weeks, that more ancient festival of lights, Hanukkah.
Last evening, during the Epiphany homily, the priest at St. Gertrude's in Bayville, Long Island, noted that this feast is really about taking a risk for faith. The Magi followed their star for a long journey, but with no guarantee that they would achieve their goal; nor even, after they reached the manger and delivered their gifts, that they would be able to return home as planned. We never learn what happened after they received a warning in a dream and returned home "by another route." Were they able to go home again? Were their lives forever changed in other ways?
Tomorrow I shall begin the journey toward the next Epiphany. WQXR has just played the midnight chime. Time to rest until daylight may reveal the path to take.
Monday, January 7, 2002
The workweek having begun, already I find myself breaking a writing habit that served so well in times past--to write early in the morning, then reflect at night and plan the next day's work. That's what it was all about--having a good plan. My father's driving motto--his recipe of marital success, at least in an auto--was "No new routes." (They often lead to getting lost, and spousal consternation.) How did the Magi fare? They went home "by another route": was it a new one? In some ways, it could not have been otherwise. The world was renewed by a baby's birth, but would they have known that? They had left behind the most precious of gifts in a rude hovel. How could that have seemed anything but reckless extravagance?
Perhaps that very extravagance gives this feast its special allure--like a High Mass celebrated with solemn splendor in the simplest surroundings. I should like to visit the Cave of the Nativity someday; it's the very contrast of the royal trappings and the rustic place that gives those paintings of the Magi at Bethlehem their majesty, as in Rubens's at the high altar of King's College Chapel, Cambridge: it's the world upside down, kings paying homage to a poor baby on a straw bed. "Contrast" is too weak a word, "juxtaposition" too technical; the Italians come closer with contrapposto and chiaroscuro
--if it were music it might be "divine dissonance"--the convergence of metaphysical opposites.
Walking home tonight from work, I was saddened to see men already beginning to dismantle the base of the great Rockefeller Center tree. Didn't they know that the Christmas season still has six days to go, until next Sunday, the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord? At least it still stood and shone with its colored lights, this year all red, white, and blue--a patriotic response to the tragedy of 9/11. Then, along Park and Lexington Avenues, all those sad discarded trees--like Shakespeare's "bare ruined choirs"--to be picked up and disposed of in the earliest morning hours. Is there a sadder sight? There was.
Just as I felt melancholy dispersed by the still brightly lit manger outside my parish church, St. Vincent's (those wise and wily Dominicans know better than to close up the stable early), a woman on the corner asked softly for help. I thought she wanted directions, but she asked for a dollar. I was stunned: she was dressed simply, but with a dignity that was reinforced by her voice and manner. She said she lived at the women's shelter across the street, at the Armory. I asked if she knew about the help to be had at St. Agnes Parish, about a mile away. No, she said, she had a place to stay, but she needed some money for another woman in special need, "and it's so hard to ask for money."
I was so struck by the unlikelihood that such a lady would be in such need that I pulled out the largest bill I had and was grateful that she didn't look down at it before she gave a blessing in return. How many epiphanies have yet to be had before the manger, even a miniature one with plastic figures? There are so many such encounters on the streets of New York. What made this one seem so different?
When I got home I pulled out a Christmas card from the pile. It was a poem written by Father Andrew Greeley.We live in a cosmos that is oddly forgiving.
It is never too late to begin again.
There are always second chances and more.
Like Ulysses it is possible to go home again.
We will all be young again and laugh again.
Love is always and necessarily renewable
And life is stronger than death.
How can a whole city full of discarded trees negate the joy promised in these verses? Greeley's words literally saved the day. And the book that accompanied them, his prayer journal My Love, which he had published so that readers might be encouraged to keep their own journals--well, that has saved me from my worst instinct: to second-guess myself and abandon a project before it is hardly begun.
I am not ready to write to God, but I'll take up the good Father Greeley partway and keep a journal until Epiphany, to follow that star back to its rising again. My father's favorite saying was "The secret of a happy life is to do a little work every day" (to which I, the wise-guy college student, replied, "OK, Dad, I will . . . as little as possible!").
Tuesday, January 8, 2002
This morning, after the 9 a.m. mass at St. Vincent's, I stopped at the Rosary Altar, which I had restored in the millennium year as a memorial for my father; it's now in the midst of a plywood construction site of church renovation, which added a certain ambience to the manger scene set up behind the prayer rail. I knelt and took in the carved figures of Magi and shepherds and animals and the Holy Family, with the Babe aglow in his creche. Three Charleses came to mind. First, my father, whom I now associate in a very vivid way with this richly carved altar of saints. "For all the saints, who from their labors rest" was one of his favorite hymns, a staple of Episcopalian funerals. I like to think of him in their company now. The second is my son Charlie, a sophomore at Princeton; when he was two, I showed him this altar and creche on Christmas Day. He studied it, and then suddenly sang, "Ee--eye--ee--eye--oh!" (Nothing problematic about the iconography for him.) The third is Charles Ryder, Evelyn Waugh's narrator of one of my favorite novels, Brideshead Revisited
, whose magnificent translation to film my wife and I watched weekly on PBS television soon after son Charlie's birth. In one early, idyllic summer scene on the terrace of Brideshead, Charles challenges his eccentric and much-beloved new friend Sebastian over the latter's troublesome convictions as a Catholic. Charles dismisses it as "an awful lot of nonsense," but Sebastian replies, "Is it nonsense? I wish it were. It sometimes sounds terribly sensible to me.""But, my dear Sebastian, you can't seriously believe it all."
"I mean about Christmas and the star and the three kings and the ox and the ass."
"Oh, yes, I believe that. It's a lovely idea."
"But you can't believe things because they're a lovely idea."
"But I do. That's how I believe."
And then I thought: What has brought me to this manger, time and again? To Mass? To faith? What is the basis of personal belief? Or, put another way, how far back can we trace the roots of faith? How deep are they? How were they fed? And--dare we ask--who planted the seedling? The questions themselves point toward a journey back to childhood and from there (as in one of my favorite films) "back to the future." With no DeLorean, equipped with flux capacitor, to take me to that very place in time--the mid-1950s--I'll have to rely on flickering memory alone to power the time travel, and this manual machine for the words to unlock doors.
Wednesday, January 9, 2002
That recollection of Sebastian and Charles discussing the Magi while on summer holiday from their Oxford colleges brought back to me the image of the great Rubens Adoration of the Magi
in King's College Chapel, which I had first seen as a teenager on summer holiday and which, as a scholar of Rubens, I have pondered and admired more knowingly for the past three decades. But it is only now that I finally realize the appropriateness of its modern relocation at that high altar (it was originally painted for a Belgian convent). The connection between its subject and its final home had never dawned on me: the three kings . . . in King's College! It's so obvious. But then, as my father once said in a talk about Hemingway, "The obvious is these days often much neglected."
What about Sebastian's claim to believe something because it is a "lovely idea"? Is this nothing more than the intellectual equivalent to his teddy bear, Aloysius (named after a young Jesuit saint)? Is truth more likely to be lovely? A theological argument might be made in favor of this "lovely idea" based on the claims of St. John's gospel that God is both absolute Truth and absolute Love--an equation (as it were) that supports Sebastian's point. But how does it ring in our own secular, skeptical, scientific age? Soundly, or merely quaintly? It's astonishing to read among contemporary cosmologists that so often the persuasiveness of a scientific theory is based on the beauty
of the theory--its elegance and economy in accounting for the ultimately unknowable. On the front page of today's New York Times I read under the heading "Hints of a Cosmic Starburst" that "based on the Hubble Space Telescope data, some astronomers believe that light from the first stars emerged from a dark cosmos like a fireworks spectacular, not in the slow manner long assumed." I thought at once of the simple Genesis formula "And God said, 'Let there be light,' and there was light"--and then I heard those thunderous, shimmering chords of Haydn's Creation
: "The heavens are telling the glory of God, the firmament proclaims the wonder of his work." Art and science and faith never seemed more in tune.
Then, in the next section of the paper, a touching article on an eighty-seven-year-old Catholic priest who holds the record in this city for tenure at one parish--sixty years at St. Helena's in the Bronx--ended with another echo of Genesis: "My eyes are dimmed . . . but this is the idea I hold to now: Everybody is a person, made to the image of God. And for that I love them all." Light is but the shadow of God, yet humankind in all its imperfection and frailty is fashioned in God's image. That surely must be harder to grasp, much less believe, than our Lord's myriad miracles, which pose stumbling blocks to skeptical humanity two millennia later.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Shadow of God by Charles Scribner, III. Copyright © 2006 by Charles Scribner III. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.