^ Coventry carolers singing my favorite Christmas hymn “Bye Bye lully lullay”
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As a child, I attended a school where during the weeks before Christmas we sang carols at school assembly and rehearsed, then performed, a Christmas pageant. How dearly I loved that pageant, with its cameos and its sweet angel carols sung by a choir of high-soprano girls ! Even today I hear them singing to me, inside my soul, and I feel blessed by the sound. Even today, I join carolers making the rounds singing to neighbors.
My favorite ? The “Coventry Carol,” as it is known, a work originating in that English city and that can be traced to 1392, if not to much earlier : “Oh sisters too, how may we do, For to preserve this day, This poor yongling for whom we sing, By By lully lullay.” And so forth. Hear it once, and you will sing it forever after.
Did singing this carol and so many others (“Of the father’s Love Begotten,” “The First Nowell,” “Oh come ! Emmanuel,” “Hark ! the Herald Angels Sing,” “Adeste Fideles” and more) make me a Christian ? Not at all. Did singing them enhance my soul ? You bet it did.
It was not until I reached age 18 that I started to wrestle with the idea of God: did such an entity exist ? If so, what, and why ? If not, why not ? I read Nietzsche and William James, Martin Buber and Augustine, Benedict Spinoza, Rene Descartes, and Albert Schweitzer. I read Karl Barth and Reinhold Niebuhr, Bertrand Russell and Martin Luther. I wrote my own, years-long combat story of mind and conscience. To this day, I am still wrestling and writing, reading and arguing. I don’t find, in most organized religions, much wisdom about the matter. Far wiser the solitary thinker, the heretic even. And the scientist.
Of late, I have come to read the works of Erasmus, of Gautama Buddha, of Martin Luther King. I am grateful that these men wrote and that I can engage them in long conversation. If there is a God, or anything higher, I have learned from Erasmus, above all, that higher powers are not all about me; I am all about them.
I also have read the works of Ibn S’na (Avicenna) and Ibn Rush’d (Averroes), Muslim philosophers of the Islamic Golden Aged, along with the works of Moses Maimonides, Peter Abelard (Sic et Non), Epictetus and Seneca. Common to them, and to all the thinkers with whom I have conversed these past 50 years, is uproarious joy in the presence of the unknown, the necessary, unknowable and important.
Yet for all my conversations about God and the idea of God, two things have never taken hold of me : first, I am repelled by the idea of imposing my belief (or my unbelief) up[on any other human being, much less using the law to do so. What devil of pride must possess any person, who thinks he or she has any such right to do ? No one is subject to anyone else’s speculation or guess about such things. Those who “go out to preach the truth” to people mistake conviction for fact — a disastrous, deadly error to make. Preach it to yourself, if you can.
Second, there has never been a time when I have not relaxed securely on the melodies and voices of those Christmas carols I sang as a child. For they are not about catechism, or orthodoxy, or membership in a congregation. They are about the truth of beauty, just as John Keats wrote over 200 years ago, at an age not much older than me at age 18 : “Beauty is truth, truth beauty — that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”
And that, dear reader, is what I do and think about at Christmas, a week for which I am most grateful.
— Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere