I’ve never read nor cared much about Washington Irving, though my parents own an old set of all of his works which rest in the middle of their living room. This Christmas I was lucky to receive an illustrated version of a book he wrote titled Old Christmas, which was printed in 1900, and for which I am thankful—me, being an old book collector.
Tonight I made my family stay seated after dinner as we read the first section of this Christmas book. Without further introduction I will jump into a passage that this post is based on.
The English, from the great prevalence of rural habits throughout every class of society, have always been fond of those festivals and holidays which agreeably interrupt the stillness of country life; and they were, in former days, particularly observant of the religious and social rites of Christmas. It is inspiring to read even the dry details which some antiquarians have given of the quaint humours, the burlesque pageants, the complete abandonment to mirth and good-fellowship, with which this festival was celebrated. It seemed to throw open every door, and unlock every heart. It brought the peasant and the peer together, and blended all ranks in one warm generous flow of joy and kindness. The old halls of castles and manor-houses resounded with the harp and the Christmas carol, and their ample boards groaned under the weight of hospitality. Even the poorest cottage welcomed the festive season with green decorations of bay and holly—the cheerful fire glanced its rays through the lattice, inviting the passenger to raise the latch, and join the gossip knot huddled around the heart, beguiling the long evening with legendary jokes and oft-told Christmas tales.
When I grow old I want my chairs to be worn down, the wood to be marked and my house to creak. There are two ways to go about this. Miss Havisham from Great Expectations has showed us one way: Lock the door and let the once life-infused house grow stale in disuse. The old house she inhabits is an exemplar of order and grandiosity, yet divorced from vitality it becomes empty. I imagine plates of food on the table as cavernous frameworks hallowed out by ants. Wood in this case will creak because it is rotting. The wood is lost, in a sense, lost from its cause of creation. Aristotle might say it has lost its virtue, for its virtue is performing its function towards its end—the end of holding up and being walked on. There, there is no weight of hospitality.
The other option is an interesting one because it leads to the wood’s destruction as well. Paradox? Last year I was baffled when I realized that virtue leads to death for Aristotle. I wondered why being virtuous for Aristotle was worth it in the end. I wrote a poem about this which began,
What is this virtue
That leads to death?
Let me explain. Imagine a hand-weaved basket. This basket comes into creation so as to carry things inside of it. It is a virtuous basket when it carries things inside of it well. It is a bad basket if it cannot. But if you continue using the basket it will eventually wear out, which makes it a bad basket, right? Eventually the bottom will wear and the twigs stretch and will finally give way beneath the weight of some apples; they will fall to the ground and be damaged, therefore its virtue leads to its non-virtue, or death.
See, my soul longs for preservation. We all do. Augustine says the difference between Plato’s happy man and a Christian is that our happiness will last forever and is secure. Preservation. Worldly aims here, aim to preserve our bodies through the use of technological surgeries and advanced treatments, preserve beauty through cosmetics and manipulation, and keep value through being respected—all these externals. But if you begin to see the world in a sacramental sense, then things begin to change. The world is a transparency, if you will, of something other. See all high-church icons or the windows of a cathedral if you doubt the church has held this.
Now I think I can see what I couldn’t before, but I can’t really see it. It’s a mystery to me. There’s something preserved in the virtue of the wood that simply isn’t in its disuse. I want to say, “The grace of the wood, or the dignity thereof.” The wood of a ballroom floor is almost sanctified in its use, whereas the wood of an abandoned barn is divorced from life and love. Think of a cello. All virtuoso cellists play the oldest cellos they can. Yo yo ma’s cello is over 150 years old, and he will tell you that through years of its being played by master cellists, it has developed a grace about it which cannot be replaced, though it is slowly but surely being worn down.
So virtue leads to death, but it preserves a grace. This grace, I believe, can influence a heart. My grandfather invested his soul and his love into the keeping of his old house. The fence out back was just about the best fence I’ve ever seen. The grace in his soul transformed the place he was in, and in transforming the place he influenced my soul. I saw the shine of a well-waxed wood floor; I saw the clearness of his pool reflecting the light of the sun; I saw a beautiful wife—my grandmother—and all the grace in her my grandfather has worked all these years to defend and preserve.
You see, grace is hospitable.
And we arrive where I began. Through the weight of hospitality, rebirth is possible, and Washington Irving knew this. Virtue is worth fighting and dying for because it preserves a grace that can live on in the heart of another, as the spirit of my grandfather has been re-birthed in me.
And now I move on from where I started to 1 Thessalonians. Paul in 1st and 2nd Thessalonians writes a theme of imitation. He praises the Thessalonians as worthy of imitation in the way they have remained steadfast in the midst of suffering. And in keeping with a Christological theme in the New Testament of being rejected by one’s own family, town, and country, Paul praises them for withstanding the same. But hospitality and hosting take on a whole new meaning here, for home is always the place of hospitality, and yet there’s none for these new Christians. Where’s their home? Heaven. How is heaven grasped here? Augustine says by hope we see glimpses of heaven in our soul. Paul praises their inward grace for having received [Hosted!] the light of the gospel and housed it well in their souls. Through suffering here treasure is stored up in heaven, where preservation of body and soul will last forever in the unity of love.
The weight of hospitality is the weight of grace preserved, which can only be preserved when Christ returns in glory and recreates all—a thing this Christmas/advent season we wait for with all of our hearts!
Till then, may a symphony of creaks be heard.