The Consolation of Philosophy

Within the space of a few days, one of my close relatives turned eighteen, another turned fifty-five, and a third turned ninety. The last celebration in particular brought the extended family together around the close of the Christmas season, having a Christmas gift exchange one evening followed by a lavish meal, then assembling in a restaurant the following night, culminated by an open house the next afternoon for friends from the neighborhood and the congregation.

This, then, was how I spent my Christmas vacation, sleeping in the house of a relative and eating food cooked by that same relative. Vacation schedules are always out of step with regular life—especially at this relative’s house, where breakfast is served late in the morning, lunch is served well after noon, and dinner might not reach the table until nine o’clock at night. (At home I usually eat breakfast around seven a.m., lunch at 11:30 or noon, and dinner at 5:30 or 6 p.m.) My reading pattern adjusts to fit the new schedule. When I wake up at this relative’s house, I get dressed and grab a cup of coffee, then start the day reading from the Bible and from some devotional book. (At home I often don’t do that reading until after dinner.)

My devotional reading for 2018 is selected portions from the Christian writers of medieval Europe. Many Christians today neglect the medieval writers, skipping from Augustine to Luther, with perhaps a nod toward secular writers like Chaucer. I delight in the literature of the Middle Ages, from the Authurian legends to the songs of the Niebelung (the source material for Wagner’s epic Ring Cycle operas), Beowulf, Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene, and Dante’s Divine Comedy. The theologian/philosophers of that time are equally awesome, from the mystics to the scholastics, with many beneficial teachings about the Bible and about Christian living.

So it happened one morning that I was sipping coffee and reading Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy (written in the year 524) while my host studied the morning paper and my hostess was at work in her kitchen. The coming open house was intended to be a stunning display of her home itself, but also of her culinary skills. She was preparing more than a dozen finger foods, from fruit skewered on a stick to fancy hors d’oeuvres like her mother used to make. I had already sifted through family photographs to select dozens of images of the birthday guest at various stages of life, and these were also scattered around the house. Various family members were enlisted at various times to help prepare the food and the house. Furniture had to be rearranged to accommodate the guests and to hold all the food that would be served.

Here is a sample of what I was reading that morning: “Wealth cannot give a man everything and make him entirely self-sufficient, even though this is what money seems to promise. But I think it most important to observe that there is nothing in the nature of wealth to prevent it being taken from those who have it…Therefore, a man needs the help of others to protect his money…But he wouldn’t need it, if he had no money to lose… The situation is upside down, for riches, which are supposed to make men self-sufficient, actually make them dependent on the help of others… Don’t the wealthy become hungry and thirsty; don’t they feel cold in the winter? You may argue that they have the means to satisfy their hunger and thirst and to protect themselves against the cold. Nevertheless, the needs remain, and riches can only minimize them. For if needs are always present and making demands that must be met by spending money, clearly there will always be some need which is unsatisfied… Though the rich man has a flowing torrent of gold, his avarice can never be fully satisfied. He may decorate his neck with oriental pearls and plow his fertile lands with a hundred oxen, but biting care will not leave him during life, and when he dies his wealth cannot go with him.”

A call from the kitchen reminded us that help was needed, certain tasks still needed to be accomplished. My host sighed, set down his Wall Street Journal, and left the room to pull a serving table out of storage. I also set aside my reading for a more opportune time and checked to see how I could be of service. J.

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Holidays

Labor Day weekend led me to thinking about the many different holidays we observe. My initial thoughts about holidays became too complex and entangled to post. Here, then, is a summary of my remarks about holidays.

Some holidays are truly holy days. Christmas and Easter stand at the head of this class, although over two thousand years the Church has marked many other days and seasons for celebrations and commemorations. For this reason, I don’t take part in the seasonal objection to “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” The world’s recognition that a certain day is holy should be encouraged, not resisted.

Other holidays are national holidays. In the United States we mark Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, and Thanksgiving, among others. All of these are declared by the government to be holy, time for us to set aside work, to enjoy life, and also to consider the blessings we have s citizens of the United States of America.

In the United States, certain days have been set apart to reflect the various cultures of which the American experience has been built. Saint Patrick’s Day, el Cinco de Mayo, Juneteenth, and Octoberfest all have developed as holidays that call attention to one or another ethnic groups in the United States.

Some holidays reflect the seasons as they change. Most cultures have, in some way, observed the solstices and equinoxes. Many Yuletide customs reflect more the change in seasons than the Incarnation of the Savior. Celtic and Germanic groups in pre-Christian Europe also marked the half-way points between solstices and equinoxes, laying the foundation for Groundhog Day, May Day, and Halloween.

Not all holidays are widely celebrated. Some are personal, celebrated only with family and close friends. Birthdays and wedding anniversaries fall within this category, and some families have other special commemorations to recall past events in their shared lives.

Families and nations sometimes commemorate sad events. September 11 and December 7 are days that “live in infamy” for most Americans. Once again, families might commemorate the loss of their loved ones on the anniversary of their deaths, or they might remember other sad or frightening experiences they have shared.

On my personal calendar, I like to add a few celebrity birthdays to celebrate in my own private way. The four Beatles, the seven main cast members of the original Star Trek, and a few other entertainers are listed on my calendar. They neither know nor care that I remember them on their birthdays. No one else really cares either. I don’t make a major celebration to mark their days, but I do happen to remember them on their birthdays.

Do you have any holidays that are special to you or unique? J.