At my church this past Sunday, the choir sang a powerful piece composed by Pavel Tschensnokoff, a Russian composer living between 1877 and 1944. The title is “Salvation Is Created” (1912) and the only words are “Salvation is created in the midst of earth.” It’s in a minor key with those unmistakable bass resonances found in so much Russian choral music. Once the words are sung, however, the piece is far from over. It continues for many minutes but the only sound is a series of “alleluiahs,” the Russian form of “alleluia.” As I let those syllables enter my consciousness, I thought again about the power of repetition. There are simply some moments in our lives when sentences or even phrases fail us because what we are feeling is too large to be expressible. Sometimes such moments turn around unspeakable losses, e.g. King Lear’s inability to make sense of his daughter Cordelia’s death so he just keeps saying over and over “Howl, howl, howl, howl.” Other times we may find ourselves amidst such grandeur that no regular words will do, e.g. how I felt as I stood amid all the stone sculptures and carved out rock spaces in Arches National Park in Utah. So I just kept saying hopelessly inadequate things like “wow.”
In faith systems, such moments occur when someone like a composer of sacred music feels so certain of their supreme being’s love that they stop trying to put that into words. Then we get chants by holy women and men or repeated words like “alleluiah” in the piece I just heard. The common factor in such moments may be a realization that no human construct of meaning is sufficient to hold the deepest mysteries or to give sense to the ineffable. We know in all such moments that some things cannot be explained or even understood, but must either be dismissed as some kind of “magic” or we admit just how tiny and limited we are in the face of grace, be it natural or supernatural.
Mr. Tschesnokoff felt that as he wrote about his sense that salvation is not something nebulous or out of this world. Rather, for him and for me, I must say, it is in and of the world we inhabit every day. We miss it sometimes because we’ve been taught that it is beyond us, just as sometimes we miss miracles because we expect some Damascus Road experience that changes everything in an instant. So salvation can be my feeling connected to the three cardinal couples who visit my feeder each dusk, first in gendered groups–the males come first, lighting up my back yard, and then the females in their stunningly nuanced shades of tan and scarlet. Or it can be how I feel when a poem takes over my consciousness, drawing me deeper and deeper into some world I haven’t imagined or been able to inhabit before.
Watching my cardinals or reading poems by people like Tracy K. Smith or Robin Coste Lewis or Emily Dickinson or John Keats, I slip into incantations, leaving any attempts at sentences in the wake of my emotions. “Wow, wow, wow, wow, wow.”
At 10:19 p.m. on December 21st, those of us living in Minnesota marked the exact Solstice moment–at that precise minute we made the magic planetary shift or turn so that the next day we would receive a tiny sliver more of sunlight. For four decades, it has been the Solstice that has caught my attention at the American holiday season. My then spouse and I began hosting a small gathering of women friends. The group assembled in our living room, lit only by candles and the fire in the fireplace–a real fire, I might add–and listened as each spoke about something of Importance in her year that she wanted to “give to the fire.” If it was a hard thing, the token was given to the growing darkness; it it was a positive thing, it went to the returning light. When that spouse ended our relationship and moved out in the fall, I decided to hold the Solstice circle anyway, not inviting a few women who were clearly “her” and not “our” friends. Though that was a particularly painful moment for me, I was sustained by the support coming from my friends, so I put a single sheet of paper with their names on it (plus a few people not in Minneapolis) into the fire.
Since both the winter and summer Solstice are about light, I focus on that part of life at those occasions. I also know how crucial light is symbolically for writers and people of all faiths. Recently I told a good friend that I wish I spoke Latin so I could say in that old tongue “light falls generously.” At my church whose choir is superb, I so respond whenever they sing something with “lumen” in the title. A particular favorite is a piece entitled “Lumen Christi,” or, obviously, “light of Christ.” And of course, the Bible has God’s initial proclamation to be “Let there be light.”
So what is it about light that gives it such heft? Even scientists join in valuing it when so many take their various devices and go to places where they may witness eclipses of the sun or moon, moments when our part of the universe is cast into total darkness for a relatively short time. Once the British writer Virginia Woolf experienced an eclipse while living in London. She then wrote a moving essay about how she felt as it faded and a then vanished. Terror was the word she used because her highly active imagination let her feel what it would be like if the sun never reappeared. She believed life as we understand it would stop. So the joy in her language when the sun showed its first thin slice of luminosity (our vestige of the Latin word) was palpable when first I read this essay.
That’s how I feel on December 22nd,. even if the new sliver is totally imperceptible to me. I believe it has come, even if I can’t see it yet. And that’s faith, surely. Now it’s January 6th and this morning, I saw the first tinges of a sunrise about a minute earlier than in late December. So the universe has graced us once again, even if we don’t deserve it. But then grace may never be “earned,” just as faith is unnecessary in tangible circumstances. Light, then, is part of the mystery of existence, connected in unknowable ways with whatever we think of as the ineffable. And until I can get help in writing my three-word sentence, I’ll be glad just to say “lumen” and “lumen” and “lumen.”
No, I’m not referring to the Disney feminist remake of the story of the Snow Queen. I’m referring to another queen who actually is still alive–Queen Elizabeth II–and to the six-season Netflix special about her life and reign. “The Crown,” as this immensely popular series is called, just began its third season. As some of you will know, Netflix contracted to make six seasons, each to cover approximately a decade of Elizabeth’s fantastically long reign. After two years with one cast and production crew, the program finds new actors to be Elizabeth, Philip, Margaret, and other players. Though the figure at the center of this dramatic. epic is Elizabeth, the title tells us a lot about what the production is really about. It’s about what is exacted from the human beings who are chosen or forced to wear the crown. And Shakespeare had it entirely right when he said so long ago “Heavy is the head that wears the crown.”
What the Netflix production is making utterly clear is that “head” may be heavy but at least it is supposed to stay functional. As for other important organs, most notably the heart, they must be shut off, hidden away, sacrificed on the altar of monarchical power and control. In the first two seasons, when Elizabeth is first a child and then a very very young head of state, we see her as shy and reluctant to step into the limelight. Then she falls in love with Philip and for a little while, until the mandatory children/future heads of other states begin coming with exhausting regularity, their ardor wanes way too fast. A turning point in their relationship, in my view, came when Philip asks her not to make him kneel before her at her coronation. He says he’s fine with proclaiming her his sovereign, making him–her husband–kneel before her in public is just too demeaning and erases their intimacy. Though she wants to let him off the hook, her all male advisors use so many laden words about duty and honor and al lot of other cold virtues until she bows to their wishes. From that point, Philip begins first a flight into flirtations/gambling/carousing with the “boys,” and, in this new season has settled into mostly detached interactions or advisory meetings in which he upholds the same values that caused her to make him kneel in the first place.
Season three gives us an Elizabeth who is almost never a person, who admits to Harold Wilson, her new Prime Minister, that she is “emotionally deficient” because she can’t cry even when faced with the devastating coal disaster in Wales that killed over 100 children caught in their grade school classroom. I remember when this happened and the Queen did not visit the town for almost a week. My black and white TV ventured a weak pronouncement about it’s perhaps being too long to have delayed. When the Netflix program shows her finally agreeing to go, we hear her being told that in Wales they “expect” tears, not her usual stoicism. So, once she has paid the mandatory visit to an actual dwelling of one family who has lost their child, as she exists to the press and cameras, she uses an elegant hanky to wipe at eyes that have not watered. Midway through the third season, however she leaves the palace to go look at prime race horses with her Master of Horses, a commoner with whom she clearly enjoys relaxed conversation about withers and such details. At dinner, she talks to him about how being with horses is what makes her “truly happy,” and as she elaborates on that feeling, genuine tears come into both eyes.
Elizabeth has a sister who is just a little her junior–the infamous Princess Margaret. Margaret would have relished being a monarch and done it with élan if not wisdom. Her people would have loved her even if they didn’t revere her. In the opening episode of Season Three, the director has made a stunning decision: he shows them as little girls again at the moment their father dies and Elizabeth is told she must be coronated. Margaret says she would love to do this and thinks she’d be good at it; Elizabeth agrees as her eyes and tight little body signals that she definitely does NOT want to do it and thinks she won’t be good at it. The last thing young Margaret says is “It will be better for us both.” Elizabeth asks her advisors to let Margaret become queen but primogeniture will have none of that. The wooden advisor tells little Elizabeth that once she is queen, she will cease being a person. Rather she will be the figure wearing the crown.
As this monumental commitment continues to unfold, I remain fascinated by how powerfully it illustrates the destructive downside of absolute rule. And, since I assume the living Queen Elizabeth is watching, I have to wonder what she makes of it all. For example, if she watches the episode in which her son Charles is made to give up the life he would like to life as an actor and go to Wales so he can stage his eventual investiture as the Prince of Wales and next in line to the thrown, how does she feel when the superb young man playing Charles tells her she knows nothing about him or his views. Olivia Coleman, playing the Queen to stoic and lonely perfection, answers by looking him directly in the eye and saying “And no one wants to know [what his views are]–NO ONE.
Watching what happens not only to the person Elizabeth once she becomes queen but also to those closest to her as part of the royal family makes me sad. It also lets me read Shakespeare’s history plays with more nuanced responses as one damaged monarch after the other becomes more and more frozen into a role that neither nourishes them nor promotes good governance.
Some words delight me simply because of how they feel in my mouth as I voice them. Incunabula is one of those words. The repeated “u” makes my lips pucker, while “nabula” sounds like a word a wizard might utter to work magic or like some marvelously sinuous creature who lives deep under the sea. I remember when I first learned this word. My much-older sister had given me a strange birthday present when I turned eight years old–a book called Thirty Days To a Powerful Vocabulary. It was in paperback, maybe one of the early titles to be available in that new cheap format. On every page were words and words, each with two or three definitions and then a sentence made using the preferred meaning. I was told that each day I would learn one of these often very long and strange words. At dinner, I would be asked to say the word, give a definition and make my own sentence. Needless to say, evening meals became occasions for stress and pressure to perform.
The days I had to deal with “prestidigitation” and “post-prandial” put me right off whatever my mother was serving for dinner, but then there came a day when the word was “incunabula.” Something about its sound and its meaning drew me into its aura, and I’ve never read or heard it since those childhood formative days without rolling it around inside my mouth before uttering it out loud. If I ask myself how I feel about the meaning of this lovely-sounding word, again I feel utterly positive because books have been at the very heart of my being for almost my entire life. So always remembering that this word refers to books printed before 1500, named “incunabula” because of the Latin root of “cradle,” endears the word to me on a content level to match the auditory one.
Such books are extremely rare now and are considered words of art as well as being souvenirs from the infant stages of the field of publishing. Such books are, of course, related to the invention by William Caxton (1433-1491) of the first printing press in England. It resided in the household of the Duchess of Burgundy (who was French) and was used to print her own collection of French romances. Carrying the design from France to England, Caxton set up his own press in Westminster and between 1477 and 1491, he published about eighty books, all translated from the French.
One of the most significant volumes to come from this cradle press was Thomas Cranmer’s edition of the Bible in 1540. Cranmer himself wrote a prologue talking about what it would mean for this crucial book to be printed so that some people could read for themselves what was in the various sections, no longer having to rely on a priest to tell people in the pews what was in such germinal books. This version included a woodcut by Hans Holbein, the famous artist. In the woodcut, King Henry VIII is shown seated, watching Cranmer and Oliver Cromwell hand out copies to deserving members of the court.
Today we sometimes are warned that the book as we’ve known it may be on the way “out,” to be replaced with e-books or Audible taped books or other immaterial versions of those things we have long held in our hands, reading them with flashlights under the covers after our parents have turned off the lights, or passing them from person to person so as to have groups with whom to argue the virtues (and vices) of some new novel or poem. I listen to these predictions, keep holding my novels and poem collections in my hands, and believing that there will continue to be people who come upon their very own incunabula when someone lets them hold those first cardboard picture books while one mesmerizing story after the other is read to them. Or the next stage of encountering incunabula when youngsters check out their first/cradle books from their local library, experiencing the power of momentary ownership and the heady sense of not having to rely on someone else to tell them what’s between the covers–just as those early people in churches could finally read the word of their god themselves.
So I’ll keep rolling the vowels and consonants of the magic word for what has become a magic act down through the centuries ever since Caxton ran off a few copies of bawdy romances and we first spoke of “incunabula.”