Saint Paul implores us to remain “unspotted from the world.” I suppose I have my share of spots but, in order to keep from accumulating any more, I do my best to avoid the news. Even so, I cannot but notice that something is amiss. Odd staples go missing from the refrigerator for days at a time: butter, sausages, milk, ham, mustard, and so on, only to reappear in bulk a week later, like a cornucopia stocked by an obsessive compulsive with a Costco membership. This morning I trekked into the deep interior of the pantry to discover two cans of tomato paste, an old jug of maple syrup, and eight tons of ramen. Nowhere, however, could I discover toast, oatmeal, or anything bearing a vague resemblance to an omelette or welsh rabbit to break my fast with.
It all feels unusual.
A friend from Poland told me once that, in the bad old days of the Soviets, people used to wait in lines a hundred-men deep for the same necessities over which contemporary Americans are getting into fisticuffs at grocery stores (or so I’m told by my wife, who reads the news for me.) Of course, if you were a small girl, as my friend was then, you were liable to be shoved out of the way, or to have your chocolate rations stolen by some local tough. But, for the most part, she says people were more united by the experience of being under the same thumb than they are today, when self-interest is pursued without hindrance from the commissars. If you had an extra store of flour or sugar, you made an enormous amount of cake and gave a party for the neighborhood. I remember her family being the sole support for the social life of the cul-de-sac where they made their home, many years after their emigration to the United States. Few of the Yankee families I know, even if they threw a party, would be capable of the heroic efforts at jollity that these warm-hearted people regularly performed. I recall waking up at four in the morning to the sound of loud singing, mostly in a foreign tongue, and the clink of glasses of lemon-infused vodka.
But these halcyon days are behind me, and I must lean on the two props left to me in my dotage—what I call the Two Hours. You might know them as Evensong and six o’clock post meridian, which last is the only time in which it is permitted to mix gin and dry vermouth, garnish the mixture with a slice of lemon peel, and consume it. The Two Hours are listed in descending importance. The merits of the first are spiritual, the second bodily, and around their sacred axes my days turn like planets in an astrolabe. I see no reason why it should be otherwise. Life is a vale of tears, and it can seem to be one of lassitude and waste. It is during these more fundamentally real moments that one feels the heavens open and the spheres align.
I read somewhere that, in the Arctic, the search parties that attempted to uncover the fate of the lost Franklin Expedition discovered—among the cannibalized bones of Captain Franklin’s men—the relics of highly civilized, bourgeois, and ritualistic people: a full set of silverware and fine china plate, silk handkerchiefs, scented soap, slippers, sponges, hair combs, and a great variety of books, including The Vicar of Wakefield. It shows where their priorities were.
Decades earlier, Disraeli, when asked what life should be, answered, “a continuous grand procession from the cradle to the grave.” Since so much of our routine is now disrupted, perhaps we ought to consider abandoning routine and requiring ceremony. Ceremony shows us, by its formal structure, the true, ideal, or essential character of our experiences. The text of the Mass, at its highest points, is as invariable as possible, for precisely this reason: the ritual must show as well as effect the true character of the Eucharist. Poetry attempts an analogous project, and so does the logical process of definition, the most important tool of philosophy, although all these things are quite different from one another. As David Jones, the 20th-century painter and poet once wrote: “None of us must allow ourselves to get away with the idea that we can avoid sacrament.”
Because we lack ritual, and often because we possess routine, we find our days passing interminably and all too quickly. Ritual is not, however, a mere screen, the pattern of which we throw up before the blasé mirage of life. Rather, ritual is what naturally occurs when we realize what is actually happening before our eyes. We feel ourselves in the presence of something of great importance and weight, and we, if we are sane, fit our actions according to the pattern it demands. This is precisely what we do when we restrict ourselves to one kind of cocktail, to be imbibed during one particular hour: the dry martini at six o’clock p.m., specifically. We then look not only at the fruit of the earth and the work of human hands—i.e., at a cocktail—but also at our entire past experience, under the aspect of eternity. Or, as Spinoza put it, Sub specie aeternitatis.
When I was wed, the entire nuptial ritual conspired to remind my soon-to-be spouse and me that we were not merely ourselves any longer—the ceremonious movements of the cleric, the antique language of the never-sufficiently-lauded Coverdale Psalter, the row of resplendent bridesmaids, and the neat forward column of grooms. Only one, I think, was actually armed. At every turn, we felt we were more than two individuals who happened to bump into one another. We were Adam and Eve, and our marriage was sanctified in the new Garden of the Resurrection. My own personality was trussed up like Isaac in the dated accoutrements of grey suit, tie, pin, buttonhole, etc., to be purified, so that I could be revealed not as a particular man with certain tastes or prejudices, but as a redeemed Soul and a Spouse. Thus I could see the Great Marriage of which my marriage was but a facet.
How, then, shall we make ceremony of these asymmetrical days? I think my two earlier suggestions are enough to be getting on with, but there are a thousand things one could do the better to hold life up to the mirror of eternity: Put on beautiful clothing. Walk slowly. Listen to pleasant music with someone. Fast ambitiously on Fridays; feast sumptuously on Sundays. Keep afternoon tea from vanishing altogether from the face of the earth. Write a sonnet. Learn Greek. Fight the good fight, and finish the race.
Image: The Blessing of the Wheat by Jules Breton