Grace builds upon nature, and perfects it. But what if the foundation of nature is missing?
I look out of the window to the broad stretch of open yard behind our house. It is covered with the snow we got last week. If you stand in it, and look at it in the light of the sun ahead of you to the west, the tiny crystals of ice that make up the crust will glint with all the colors of the spectrum. Move your head a little this way or that, and they change; what was red turns to violet, and what was pale orange turns to green.
It has been a dead kind of year, as my readers must know; but then, there was not much life to begin with. I do not miss the glad shouts of children playing, or the sight of boys trooping through my back yard to go hunting around in the woods, because they were not there in 2019, either. I can miss them only by remembering what my siblings and I, and the other children in our neighborhood, used to do all winter, even after dark—for we had the quite adventurous lives that children had before television.
My February, 1900 copy of The Century Magazine features a fine article by the urban reformer Jacob Riis, on “Midwinter in New York.” Midwinter was a season of danger, no doubt, especially from house fires; but it was also a season of freedom and delight. Where to find that delight? Not, says Riis, by escaping to the country, nor even by seeking out the frozen rivers to behold the “marvelous sunsets that flood the western sky with colors of green and gold which no painter’s brush ever matched.” To get the best of the human spirit, he says, “I should lead you, instead, down among the tenements, where, mayhap, you thought to find only misery and gloom.”
On the contrary! Here are two groups of boys from enemy city blocks, fighting for pride with snowballs for weapons: “Full many a lad fell on the battlements that were thrown up in haste, only to rise again and fight until a ‘soaker’, wrung out in the gutter and laid away to harden in the frost, caught him in the eye and sent him to the rear; a reeling, bawling invalid, but prouder of his hurt than any veteran of his scars.” A safety valve for youth, says Riis; “there are worse things in the world than to let the boys have a fling where no greater harm can befall than a bruised eye or a strained thumb.”
But merry fights were only a part of the fun. The children went sledding down the hilly streets, and they discovered “countless ‘slides’ in those that were flat, to the huge delight of the small boys and the discomfiture of their unsuspecting elders.” Says Riis, with all of fifty years on his back, “I cannot to this day resist a ‘slide’ in a tenement street, with an unending string of boys and girls going down it with their mighty whoops. I am bound to join in, spectacles, umbrella, and all, at the risk of literally going down in a heap with the lot.”
Over at a playground—Riis was an early and vigorous proponent of city playgrounds—the boys have piled up the snow to make a vast concatenation of walls, passages, and parapets “cunningly wrought, and sometimes with no little artistic effect.” Then there is the coasting: “Let any one who wishes to see the real democratic New York at play take a trip on such a night through the up-town streets that dip east and west into the great arteries of traffic, and watch the sights there when young America is in its glory.” Children on makeshift bobsleds and “belly-whoppers” made up of bits of board—down they go, “rich and poor, boys and girls, men and women, with yells of delight,” lasting “far into the young day,” for apparently they keep it up all night long, and the sun rises upon their mirth.
This is not a flight of imagination. Riis simply reports on what he did, and what he saw, all the time.
I present it as an exemplar. My readers can surely supply their own: the many things that ordinary human beings used to do, mainly together, often for fun, sometimes to meet the hard necessities of life, and often with a dash of risk—especially the risk of young love—for where have all the dances and the socials gone?
I am not praising a former way of life in contrast with a current way of life. I am saying that there used to be a way of life, and there is not much of one now, be it good or bad or something in between. All kinds of human things are missing: self-made music, singing, play, mutual help, public lectures, reading rooms, fraternal societies, the Welcome Wagon, you name it—people with other people.
Grace builds upon nature, and perfects it.
We live among intensely lonely people. Loneliness is not a constant in human existence; people in many societies know nothing of it. We live among people starved for beauty. That starvation is rare for man; perhaps there was not much in the way of well-wrought art among Eskimos, when the harsh climate made it nearly impossible. But there was poetry, and there was immemorial song; all peoples have had those most human of the arts—all except for us. We live among a people who hobble about on knees locked and frozen, who have never learned the suppleness of worship. We have few stories, and those few are under attack because they express unchanging truths about man. Homer must go to hell, not for being a pagan, but for being a man—a human being who tells the truth about us. Dante must go to hell, certainly for being a Christian, but more fundamentally for being a man—especially a truth-telling man.
You cannot change man—or woman, for that matter; but what cannot be changed may well be stifled. An acorn will not become a maple, but we can do our best to keep it from germinating and becoming an oak. The Sahara will not bring forth corn, but we can do our best to turn fertile fields into dust bowls—we are doing that best.
This reality, I insist, presents us Christians with a challenge, a clear task, and an opportunity.
The New Year is upon us, and I’m not one for making resolutions. But what if we Christians resolve to make a steady and forthright effort to recover at least one good, hearty, human thing this year? Recapture just one thing for our families, our neighborhoods, our schools, or our parishes? Ancient Greeks who had never heard the Gospel had Homer and Hesiod, Phidias and Praxiteles, Socrates and Plato. Barbarian Germans who had never heard the Gospel had their heroes of old, and the songs they passed down from generation to generation. The people roundabout us do not have the makings of the heathen, because they do not have enough of the human things to qualify. For all our political outcries about race and ethnicity, not much divides black from white in the United States. We are all gray and pale.
Our task is to become more human, so that others too will join us; as the foundation is being set and as nature returns, the grace of that same God who made our nature and made it good will come to perfect it, if we will but allow it. Where are the songs? We must sing them.