December 25, 2018
Lo how a rose e'er blooming
This Christmas I have roses on my mind. Rosie was born four weeks ago Thursday—our first grandchild. Rosie is short for Rosamund, from the Latin Rosa Mundi, “Rose of the World,” whose birth we celebrate tonight.
Lo how a rose e'er blooming
From tender stem hath sprung
Of Jesse’s lineage coming
As seers of old have sung.
In our house, the day prior to Rosie’s birth felt to me a little bit like Christmas Eve: calm, quiet, expectant. Modern obstetrics being what they are, we knew tomorrow was the day. Over at Rosie’s parent's house, the atmosphere was busier and on the father’s side more nervous. Rosie’s father’s name is Christoph which like his daughter’s echoes Christmas. Christoph means “Christ-bearer.”
Christoph’s birth might not have happened. Somehow, Julie and I managed to get married without first discussing children: would we have them or would we not. On our wedding day, right here, on my side of the aisle, the complacent assumption was that we would of course. I would found out that the new Mrs. Keller harbored reservations. The reasons why are none of your beeswax—but they were weighty. Constitutionally, in marriage, a decision to have a child requires a unanimous vote, so my wife’s uncertainty was also mine. Now I imagined two distinctly different futures: through the door to the left was life with children; through the door to the right was life without.
Living with uncertainty on big questions takes a little faith, and I had some—about average faith, I figured, for a young man who had been raised in church by faithful parents. In college, I realized I had above average faith compared to peers from other backgrounds.
On this matter of children, my faith was neither neutral nor dependent on a certain outcome. My hope was specific: the passage to the left was what I prayed for. But through either door, faith, hope, and love abide. I believed that. I had been taught it here. As the years went by, no children in sight, life was good at home.
One day, walking by Julie sitting in an armchair working yarn and needles under lamplight, I asked, just making conversation, what she was crocheting. It was none of my beeswax, she let me know, not looking up, but I peeked and saw it was a little teddy bear. The door on the left cracked open. Through the door and down the road our family would add Christoph, Mary Olive, Laura, John, and, on November 27, Rosamund.
From the look of Rosie’s dad in the room that day, post-delivery, one might have supposed that he was the one who had had the baby. From now on, when I hear the Christmas story, I’ll imagine Joseph as more frazzled than I used to. Laura, Rosie’s mom, was exhausted but otherwise serene, like Mary in the paintings. Her parents, Ann and Jimmy Porter, up from Hamburg, were on hand and Laura asked that the grandparents come on into the room together to meet the baby. That was when Laura told us that Rosamund’s middle name is Julianna. Laura looked at Julie, looked at Ann, and said: “‘Julianna’ is for her grandmothers, who are the two best role models our daughter could possibly have.” Amen.
Isaiah 'twas foretold it, the rose I have in mind.
With Mary we behold it, the virgin mother kind.
To show God’s love aright, she bore to us a savior,
When half spent was the night.
Sometimes people with time on their hands worry about God, who seems not to be answerable to anyone. If God turned against us there is no law to hold him back! Who will protect us from the Great and Terrible Oz? Richard Hooker, a splendid English theologian, answered that worry so well centuries ago: what holds God back is love. “His being is the law of his doing,” as Hooker put it. Who God is determines what he does—and Christmas shows us who God is by what he did. . . when half spent was the night.
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden.
T.S. Eliot was my father Christoph Junior’s favorite poet and I inherited his taste. The lines above are from early in the Four Quartets, his favorite poem. The rose garden door was to the left, but the poet went right. We do not know why.
From there, the poem begins its journey, a long one, until arriving finally in the yard of an English country church. The name of the place is Little Gidding. A small group of saints, led by a priest named Nicholas Ferrar, had prayed there centuries before. As the poet approaches a voice in his heart—still, small—reminds him:
You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity.
You are here to kneel where prayer has been valid.
An old man walks up—a former professor of the poet he had not seen for years. In his ear, like Dickens’s ghost of Christmas past, the professor shares a secret:
Let me disclose the gifts reserved for age
To set a crown upon your lifetimes effort
In old age, the teacher had grown disillusioned with himself. Complacently, he had before always strongly felt he acted only with the best intentions. He was proudly known for his integrity. Now in retrospect, that feels like hogwash. “All is vanity,” a seer of old had said. From the poem, the professor tells us all that there comes a time for each to feel:
The rending pain of re-enactment
Of all that you have done, and been; the shame
Of motives late revealed, and the awareness
Of things ill done and done to others’ harm
Which once you took for the exercise of virtue
Then fools approval stings, and honour stains.
Although the man was no Scrooge, his encounter with the past was haunted.
From wrong to wrong the exasperated spirit
Proceeds, unless restored by that refining fire
Where you must move in measure like a dancer.
“Restored by that refining fire where you must move in measure like a dancer”— if there is a better description of life in Christ, I would like to hear it. It means faithful, hopeful, loving through the half-spent night. It welcomes specific hopes for this and that: some child tonight praying for a bicycle with a ribbon and bow right beside the tree. Me, forty years ago, praying someday to be a dad. Those gifts happen or they don’t. Meanwhile, other gifts arrive unlooked for. Julie and I had not been married long when to my surprise and hers I heard a call into the ministry. In parenthood, we reached the empty nest ten years ago. In priesthood, the kids moved back in!
I visited another priest, older than I, the other day, whose heart is acting like it has had enough of pumping blood—day in, day out, year upon year ba-bump, ba-bump—and wants to lay its burden down. It seems to say: “Haven’t I done enough for you by now?” Some of his other appendages and parts echo the entreaty: “Us too, we love you, but we’re tired.” Our visit was in the same hospital where Rosie was born—a different unit, floor, and atmosphere. Like me, as a boy, my old friend had grown up in Boone County. Like me, his working life has been a blend of academic work and ministry. He preached by day and taught philosophy by night. He is a dear man. Before him lie two distinctly different futures: the door to the left is continued life for a little while yet with his kids, grandkids, friends and loved ones—peace on earth. “I’d miss them if I go,” he told me, “so I’d rather stay.” So we pray for that. But the door to the right doesn’t frighten him at all. Hope, faith, and love abide, and there are other loved ones, so many, waiting for him now, happy and expectant, over there where all is calm and all is bright. “I’m not ready to leave,” he tells me, “but I’m ready to go if that makes sense. I’ve been ready for that pretty much my whole life.” He’d been taught that in church, and learned it from faithful parents. Average faith sees through that final door.
In Little Gidding, the Fourth Quartet, towards the end a mystic’s voice appears:
All shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well
The words are Christ’s as heard by Julian of Norwich, who knew him. In the last stanzas of the long poem that line repeats at intervals, like a drumbeat growing louder:
And all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well
By the purification of the motive in the ground of our beseeching.
These refrains surround the old professor in the poem, and his hard truth of things ill done to others’ harm, and they soften his predicament. In the end, it is not for us to judge ourselves any more than it is for us to judge our neighbor. Rosie will be bad or good but that won’t stop us from loving her. With our judgments, we usurp the prerogatives of God, who won’t allow it. Eliot, a poet of above average faith, sings out like Simeon in his Nunc Dimittis:
The dove descending breaks the air
With flames of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one discharge of sin and error
Can something good be fearsome? If we’re not used to it, it can. If an angel said boo our hearts might stop. In her encounter, Mary was braver than the shepherds, but even she at first was troubled rather than elated.
On wings of the dove with fire, love descends from heaven.
Then from the earth it rises, and––
From the stem of Jesse
When Quirinius was governor of Syria
In the city of David
From the womb of Mary