Perry Como taught me Latin when I was just a child. In case you don’t remember, or never knew of him, Mr. Como was what used to be called a “crooner”, a term for a silky-voiced singer. I can still see the cover of his Christmas album in my mind’s eye, his friendly face encircled by a wreath of holly. He was my parents’ favourite, and that record played continuously at our house during the festive season when I was little. On it, he sang the Latin carol, Adeste Fidelis, and singing along at the top of my voice I learned every word flawlessly, though I hadn’t a clue what I was singing. It was years before I knew the words were identical to the hymn, O Come All Ye Faithful. I was startled to find out that was what I’d been singing all along, albeit in indecipherable Latin.
A lot of words have taken on new meaning for me this year. Words that, although familiar, had never caught fire in my soul until the match of circumstance set them ablaze. For years I knew C. S. Lewis had written, “No one ever told me that grief felt so much like fear.” I had always found that to be an interesting observation, but it didn’t burn with empirical understanding until Edward left me so suddenly in August, never to return.
As a schoolgirl I learned about the rise of fascism, reading the warnings of those who lived through the horrors of the Second World War as though reading of other worlds. I heard the stories from my parents, whose patriotism was planted in cleaner soil than that which we walk upon today. I read Orwell… “In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” I read Sinclair Lewis…. “When fascism comes to America it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.” Those words were merely part of history class, with no contemporary meaning for me. They might as well have been written in Latin. Or so I thought. Today, after a weekend when my government instructed the Centers for Disease Control to immediately cease using the words, “diversity”, “vunerable”, “science-based”, “fact-based”, etc, these quotes and passages so long ago learned are no longer merely smoldering in the pages of history, but have caught fire to block our path to any sort of normalcy.
I have been told by those lucky enough to be in the audience that Bruce Springsteen is closing his remarkable show on Broadway with a reading of The Lord’s Prayer. People have been somewhat astonished by their own reactions, which have often been surprisingly emotional. Words that are so familiar they are almost quotidian, glow with new meaning and resonance as he says them. “Give us this day our daily bread”. “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Like Mr. Springsteen, these days I am on an expedition of sorts, to ferret out and reclaim the words I thought I knew. No longer do I trust others to interpret for me. I feel, like Walt Whitman, who so sagaciously told us to, “Re-examine all you have been told in school or church or in any book, and dismiss whatever insults your own soul.” In doing this, like a sculptor, I am beginning to uncover what is lasting, true and beautiful. What is worth living for.
Last week on a bitterly cold and snowy night, I stood outside the National Portrait Gallery in London and listened as members of the choir of St. Martin’s in the Fields across the street came out to stand on the steps and sing. With traffic noise all around them, with throngs of bundled-up shoppers jostling for space on the crowded pavements, they sang,
“Angels we have heard on high,
Sweetly singing o’er the plains,
And the mountains in reply,
Echoing their joyful strains:
Gloria, in excelsis Deo
Gloria, in excelsis Deo.
This Christmas season, it is my prayer, for myself as well as for my readers, that these words take on new meaning in our hearts even as they are illuminated by the harsh glow of what we have faced this year and what we may yet face in the coming one. May we hold fast to the words that live. May we reclaim the words we thought we knew and make them truly our own. And may they give us the courage to cast off fear and complacency so that we can stand with others for whom truth, compassion and love are the only things that matter.
Happy Holidays to you All.