“A room without books is like a body without a soul.”― Marcus Tullius Cicero
That decree to the masses, an order to arrive in Bethlehem to view the newborn son of God, suggests many things. Among them is the inference that there will be many of these ‘faithful’ who should put down whatever they’re doing and flock to view the newly proclaimed spiritual King of all men. The beloved Christmas carol tells us the ‘faithful’ are also ‘joyful’ and ‘triumphant’, even before they’ve made the aforementioned pilgrimage to adore the new Lord. There’s an enormous amount of uplift and rejoicing, to say nothing of a continuous mention of royalty, spiritual and otherwise, and it’s clear that the command for the faithful to come is completely non-negotiable. What’s in it (if anything) for the traveler, the common man, isn’t disclosed upfront. It’s the new baby that requires praise and attention from everyone, as long as they’re faithful.
I’ve always loved the music that accompanies this carol, especially the descant written by our chorus master in school and awarded to the sopranos lucky enough to earn the duty to let the glorious harmonies soar as we participated in the month long, pre-Christmas school caroling. No one cared about the specificity of the religion or the meaning of the words. It just felt good to sing together, sharing in a community of carolers who enjoyed the companionship. I used to be particularly thrilled about the fact that I could sing with all the students without going into a church or house of worship where I was just as innately uncomfortable as I was delighted to be making a joyful noise in the lobby of my school’s entrance. There was something pleasingly secular and inclusive about the gathering place of an academic institution’s front hall.
My usual discomfort with what always felt to me like a segregating experience in a place of worship had no room to get in the way of the thrill of collaboration with any and all students passing through the hall. It seemed to be the way singing brings all humans together, which we know to be true. It was about the singing itself and not the doctrine. No one was left out and all were welcome, no matter what their vocal gifts might be. It was also about how we students, even in a highly competitive academic environment, had certain things in common that no one could take from us, and that when we came together to share them, we became a very real, all-inclusive community. Our faith was in each other and ourselves, not an unseen entity some could apprehend while others couldn’t. That exclusionary quality of organized religion always upset me, and I don’t know if it was because I saw so much of the ‘system’ from the inside with a grandfather who was an Episcopal bishop, but I think not. It always made me a little queasy, like any other club that was open for the faithful, but not for all.
I prefer the second definition of faith: “the complete trust or confidence in someone or something”, to: “the strong belief. . . based on spiritual apprehensions rather than proof.” So where does that leave me at this time of the year with so much riding on the Christian faith renewed by the birth of ‘the son of God’? I think about the changing commitment (or lack thereof) of the millennials to formal religion. Reading about what’s taking the place of houses of worship in our society today, I understand that it’s not as if we’re becoming more isolated, and the changes aren’t about technology. All the research points to new centers for community building in the form of coffee shops, local gyms, and even my personal favorite, independent bookshops! If people come together best around sharing human needs, then communication is the key, and whether it’s singing together or sharing intellectual exploration, it’s the inclusiveness and the need that motivate.
My favorite Winter Wonderland, the state of Vermont, has 20 established, successful, independent bookstores. Some are on their third generation of owners, all committed to that sharing of literary exploration that thrills me as much as singing with my schoolmates used to. One started by a young woman in Waterbury, Vermont, who promised herself at the age of four that someday she’d own a bookshop that would be a community center in every way possible, is my idea of the most heavenly place to experience happy feelings with other humans. There’s more “spirit” in that store and its adjoining café than I’ve ever experienced in a formal house of worship. So, at Bridgeside Books, as well as many other bookstores of equal social value, I sing out at this time of year, ‘Oh Come All Ye People’ to enjoy the peace and sense of comfort that come from sharing good books with your fellow humans. Happy reading to you all in the New Year!!!!