When I say that our Halcyon Days are over, I am not being unduly pessimistic, or morbid. It is just a fact. Since old time, in celestial mechanics, the Halcyon Days corresponded to the week before, and the week after, the winter solstice – the shortest day of the year. This was, and is, in our Mediterranean cradle, usually a mild, fair-weather period; bracketed by storms. It was life, in the midst of cold, wet death.
There was a corresponding period through the fortnight centered on the summer solstice. Now that would be morbid, from our modern point of view. For that was death in the midst of life.
To a Christian, verily, there is no need to be anxious. That our life persists, in the midst of death, and vice versa, was something we accepted through many centuries – when death was acknowledged not only as fact of life but as its principal fact. It could hardly be hidden from us, let alone escaped.
Now, Christian mariners unconsciously (or consciously), “moved” the winter solstice to Christmas, and thus the end of the Halcyon Days to what we now take for New Year’s. These days we say that such things reveal our inner pagan, though to my logic, Christianizing things isn’t pagan.
Happily, this was also the logic of our Christian pioneers. Whatsoever was good, true, beautiful, could be Christianized with ease, and by the convert instinct, nothing would be lost. We are, or at least we were, not an iconoclastic cult, not “puritans.” Our religion was not announced by a “cancel culture.”
I’d like to dwell on this a moment because I think that it is very, very important. The Catholic impulse is not censorious. It is to assimilate and to save. When things are purified, they are not erased. Rather they are transformed into the best of themselves.
Nor do we fear contact with uncomfortable facts. (Biological death might be an example, or grievous illness, or debilitating pain.) This is part of life, and thus of immortal life, in the Christian conception of reality, and Salvation.
Some things in this world are inarguably unpleasant; I have actually participated in a few. It is our “human condition” for the duration of our stay on earth, if not longer. The Catholic cognizance of Purgatory is – to my mind, as ever – a guarantee of our commitment to the highest realism.
Our pleasures are likewise “accidents,” in the philosophical sense. That is why a life pursuing pleasure is a shallow, meaningless life, and compared to a life of pain, “equally” worth avoiding. It is why our “consumer society” is such a contemptible thing, as is any in which we pursue an irrelevant activity, ignoring urgent commands.
There is, in some sense, a worthy sensuality, in which we take our pleasures as a Catholic should take them: as gifts and not as rights.
A very good modern example is “the joy of sex.” In approximately nine cases in ten (actually, the proportion is much higher), we are told that sex is a good in itself; that, to be as vulgar as possible, we have “a right to get laid.” I should think even mindless cafeteria Catholics suspect there is something wrong with this, even while they are “going with the flow.” But perhaps I am too optimistic.
Yet there is a place where “the joy of sex” belongs, in an intimacy quite hidden from the world, as opposed to advertised by bikini-clad models. That we are, at our best, actually capable of grasping this, is to the credit of the Lord who created us, and created everything for a purpose.
Too, the (“old-fashioned”) association of sex with pregnancy, and thus with the continuation of our (human) race, reflects a God-created order, in which He made us women and men. The logic within this natural order is irrefutable, and our technological efforts to refute it have, invariably, not ended well.
As it were, there are no quick fixes; only miraculous ones. We cannot expect to pass a test, to get into Heaven, the way we might ace an SAT test to get into a university. Indeed, as priests and parents have been teaching since time out of mind, we cannot hope to get there on our own, as a prize for our own merits. We would never have enough.
Against this background of striving to become fully human, in more than the definition of an animal species – if we are striving at all – the Halcyon Days come and go. They have come and gone for the current season, and Christmas Day has passed.
I need to remind myself, that others have experienced worse holiday seasons, and also worse years than was the apparent average for 2020. Alone, and fairly miserable, outwardly, through the last fortnight or so, I also had to remember better days, not for the contrast, but in themselves.
Family may be gone, for the most part; and for what is remaining, taken away. Churches might be closed, and the Mass made unavailable, as it is in the worst despotisms. And yet the birth of Christ was an ineradicable fact, and continues to be so.
This occurred in the middle of the Halcyon Days, as was once calculated. That He will come again to judge the quick and the dead is an event in Time that remains incalculable; but that God came down from Heaven to be among us is not something that can go away.
That He came with a Love that transcends every human attachment, and yet specifically to us, is mystery and miracle enough for all ages.
We may be lonely, feel abandoned and oppressed. There are moments when we feel that all is lost, and some have given up in perpetuity.
And yet we are still watched over by the Mother of God; by the Alcyone of deeply receding ages; praying for us mariners as we drift over seas.
*Image: Christ appearing to Saint Peter on the Appian Way (Domine, Quo Vadis?) by Annibale Carracci, 1601-2 [National Gallery, London]