Editor's Note: This piece is part of "12 Days of Classics," a holiday series drawn from the magazine's archives and published at magazine.nd.edu from Saturday, December 22, 2018, to Wednesday, January 2, 2019. Merry Christmas!
Simeon was a clean, respectable old gentleman who lived in a neat room next to a Catholic school on Washington Place in Greenwich Village. He loved the schoolchildren as though they were family; they adored him as the neighborhood grandfather.
Some widows he met at the market admired his politeness and manners, and they would laughingly invite him to lunch with them on bagels and rice pudding, assuming that he was Jewish. Simeon never said he was Jewish, though it was understood that his wife and children had died in a prison camp in Europe. Simeon never spoke of his griefs to anyone; he kept all his secrets to himself.
The old gentleman was good at fixing things, especially if they were toys made of wood. His hands touched woodwork so lovingly that he was believed to have made his living as a cabinetmaker of a sculptor.
But woodworking, for Simeon, was merely a hobby he was good at. Like others, I never knew if he was Jewish, but I did know what his profession had been. The first time I met him, he sat on a neighboring bench in Washington Square Park, watching me struggle through the Italian text of The Divine Comedy, with the help of an English translation.
Finally, as I was leaving, he came over to speak. “Do you like the Sinclair translation?” he asked.
I, surprised, replied: “Do you know it?”
“Very well,” he said. “I have a translation in the Scots dialect I would like to show you. Do you come to the park often?”
I arranged to meet him the next day, when he read me in Scottish dialect Dante’s meeting with Paolo and Francesca on the second circle of hell. Then he showed me the structure, grammatically and poetically, of Saint Bernard’s prayer to the Virgin at the end of the Paradise.
Virgin Mother, daughter of thy son, lowly and exalted more than any other creature. . . In thy womb was kindled the love by whose warmth this flower has bloomed thus in the eternal peace.
“Do you read Hebrew?” he asked. I shook my head. “Ah, it’s a pity,” he said. “I have things I would like to share with you.”
There were other things he wanted to share with me, in a variety of languages, until finally I asked: “Are you a teacher?”
“No,” he said, “I was a linguist working as a translator at the United Nations. Next to Hebrew, I have always loved Dante best.”
Now my desire and will, like a wheel that spins with even motion, were revolved by the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.
“Magnificent poetry,” he said, “but absurd theology.”
The Holy Spirit’s first gift was the gift of languages, whereby apostles could speak in assorted tongues to ethnics living in Jerusalem. Simeon enjoyed a personal Pentecost through his command of languages; he would speak to children of an international community in their native speech, sharing their familiarity with Spanish folktales and Russian nursery rhymes. He would tell the Br’er Rabbit stories in a Cajun dialect. He would wait for them after school, when he would lament with them over bruised knees or encourage them to hope for lost teeth to replace themselves quickly. In a few homes, where the fathers had moved out, he brought a man’s love.
The children sometimes wondered about the life of their international grandfather. They guessed he was sad sometimes when he hugged them, as though he were embracing, through them, other children whom he hadn’t hugged in a long time. They comforted him for a sorrow he never spoke of, that was as much a part of him as his laughter. They kept with him a conspiracy of silence, as though they had never heard of horrors that could leave an old gentleman childless.
Simeon kept another secret that probably wouldn’t have shocked those children, mostly Catholic, even if they had known it. Simeon, that gentle, tender old man, denied fiercely and passionately that their God existed.
He did not practice the faith of a Jew. He did not believe in the God of Judaism, and he took no stock in the God of Christians. He hated the lies that supported religion. He cherished and protected gentleness in all the ways that gentleness needed his help; but he was sure, from the deepest experience of his life, that heaven offers no gentleness.
He had expected heaven to be gentle, but his expectations had betrayed him. “If gentleness were there,” he said. “I would have found it. God, if He existed, could not have refused my prayer.”
He spit on the faith that says there is a love that moves the sun and the stars.
Perhaps because we had read Dante together, Simeon mentioned to me how much he hated Christmas.
“When you think of what it does to the minds of children,” he said. “Even Christians doubt the truth of a virgin birth.”
“That is the way the story has come down to us,” I said. “I’m not comfortable with scholars who try to explain it away.”
“Are you telling me, as a reasonable man, that you believe a supreme being slept on filthy straw?”
“I’m sure they would have laid him on fresh straw,” I said. “It’s a faith I share with Dante, and Dante was a reasonable man.”
“Dante was writing allegory,” he replied, “and he used the images of allegory. He wrote of sinners being boiled in rivers of blood. He had a whole torture chamber that he wrote about. But if you believe it literally, you contradict all your theology of a God who loves you.”
“You are a scholar at home in literature,” I said. “You certainly know that Christian faith doesn’t have to defend itself against the creature-features of a medieval imagination.”
“You defended yourself with Dante,” he said, “not I.”
“That’s because I knew that you love him,” I said. “At least as a poet.”
“I also love Grimm’s fairy tales, but I don’t think they’re going to take me to heaven.”
“I’m sorry we’re quarrelling,” I said. “I do believe that children would be impoverished if we never led them to Bethlehem.”
“Couldn’t you just give them their toys without asking them to trust in a legend that will betray them, about a God so nonexistent that a belief in Him will break their hearts?”
“From the moment of his birth,” I said, “the child Jesus was promised heartbreak.”
He looked at me as though I had rebuked his life’s suffering with a cheap remark.
Simeon, I think, had a special tenderness for the children attending the Catholic school. Perhaps the reason he lived so close to the church was to keep his eye on the children, protecting them as much as he could from the superstitions of nuns and priests. He wouldn’t harm their faith; he just wouldn’t encourage them in it. He wouldn’t let them think he found it interesting to hear that they were making their First Communions or that the archbishop was coming for Confirmation. His only weapon for saving them was to display his indifference to their spiritual nurture.
As Christmas grew closer, he found it hard to ignore their happiness and excitement. “You Catholics are such fools,” he said, “celebrating feast days of deception instead of teaching your children to use their strength against heartlessness.”
The children seemed to understand the old man’s doubt; they listened carefully to the words he didn’t say. They noticed that he did not live religiously as other Jews did; he did not keep the holidays or observe the Sabbath. They expected he would ignore Christmas, lighting neither a tree nor a candle, refusing to open a gift or a card that looked suspiciously holiday. On Christmas Day, he would sit alone in his room, not even answering a knock on the door.
Simeon, depressed by the season, seemed to avoid the children; he shrank from playing their grandfather. If they asked his help, he would say: “I can’t do it now, go off and play.” Then he would hug them, as though to take away the gruffness from his words. Their parents would tell them: “Simeon is always depressed at Christmas. Maybe he’s remembering a happier year.”
Simeon brooded alone, tormented by the season’s silliness, until finally the time came when, literally, the sky fell on the children at the rehearsal of their Christmas pageant.
Actually, the part of the firmament that fell was the star, the official star of Christmas night. It narrowly missed braining the holy infant, and in its wooden clumsiness, it bent his halo. He cried, and it was obvious to everyone that he had wet himself, becoming a symbol of a soiled humanity and a dented divinity.
“Well,” said Saint Joseph, “that settles it. We need a new sky.”
“Where are we going to get a new sky?” asked the Virgin Mary. It was obvious to her that you can’t pull a new sky out of thin air.
“Look how it’s sagging,” said Joseph, a bit sharply. Indeed, there was a new dip to the Big Dipper as though it were being lowered into a well.
“We’ve got to fix it,” said the First Wise Man, with obvious wisdom.
“But how?” said the Second Wise Man, showing a passion for truth.
“Simeon!” said the Third Wise Man, as though he had seen the light.
Three kings and two shepherds, in the company of Joseph and Mary, trooped through the streets in search of an old man as their originals had once searched the earth for a child.
When Simeon saw them, he said: “Who is this?”
“I’m Caspar.” “I’m Melchior.” “I’m Balthasar,” said three young voices.
Simeon shook his head. “I gave at Halloween,” he said.
“We want you to fix our star,” said Mary.
“We want you to make us a new sky, because the old one fell,” said the kings.
“Who am I,” said Simeon, “that children should ask me to give them heaven? Go back to playing your games. When the holidays are over, we will go to the zoo.”
“Simeon,” said a boy’s voice speaking through the black whiskers of Joseph, “we need you now. The scenery’s falling apart for our Christmas play, and we need you to fix it.”
“No,” said Simeon, “I’m busy. Ask one of the priests. I’m too busy to help you.”
“The first grade is going to sing carols and the mothers’ club sewed our costumes,” argued Joseph, “but nobody knows nothing about making a star that moves across the sky. But you could do it, Simeon. You could make a star that moves.”
“I’m sorry,” Simeon said. “I can’t help you. I’ve had no experience with traveling stars. Perhaps your fathers can help you.”
“Oh, Simeon,” said the dark-faced child playing Mary, “we don’t know anyone else to ask.”
Simeon was still shaking his head in refusal when she began to cry. Joseph moved to her side, and he was crying too. Soon the wise men and the shepherds joined in.
Simeon stood there watching. Then he spoke.
“Too often I have heard children weeping in places where I couldn’t help them. What do you want me to do?”
He fashioned the children a moon and stars and hung them on a firemament of midnight blue. He made a crystal star, and as it moved across the sky, it seemed to sing; it danced down the Milky Way before coming to rest over a manger where a Spanish baby represented the hope of Israel.
Simeon, when asked how he did it, said: “Love makes the star. ‘L’amor move il sole e l’altre stelle.’”
He continued: “’The love by whose warmth this flower has blossomed thus in the eternal peace.’ Eternal peace seems possibly, if you are with children when they are happy.”
Then he pointed to a dark-faced child playing the role of a mother on a Christmas stage.
Simeon, as usual, was being himself, keeping secrets.
The late Robert Griffin was University chaplain from 1974 until his retirement in the mid-1990s.