Lamplighter illuminated timing of Christmas

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, December 23, 2003

This is the time of year when our fancies turn to lighting lamps, candles, brightly coloured bulbs, and wonderment on children's faces.

Memories of one lamplighter in particular have filled my thoughts since a coffee chat a few days ago with Barry Thorson.

Barry is the accomplished writer, actor, director, and storyteller who founded Cochrane's Lone Wolf Theatre Company. Like myself, he owes much of his sense of wonderment to Franciscan priest and astronomer Lucian Kemble, whose nickname was "Lamplighter."

Lamplighter was well known locally as a counsellor and retreat team member at the Mount St. Francis Retreat. Internationally, he had a reputation as a passionate scholar of the night sky. He passed away in 1999 at the age of 76.

Everything fascinated Lamplighter: the refraction of sunlight through a glass of wine or a drop of melting snow, the melancholy twitter of a bluebird – and one admirer's dejected self-image of being no more significant than a speck of dust in the vastness of the universe.

"Dust?" Lamplighter said to his young friend. "You and I may be made from dust, true – but it's star dust!"

Lamplighter's fascination with all things was infectious, and Barry was grateful for his exposure to the infection. As a teenager growing up in Cochrane, he was able to spend many nights at the telescope with the gentle friar.

"We would look out at the stars – looking upon a world I could not even begin to understand – listen to Mozart on a tiny cassette player, and drink hot apple cider," Barry said. "I was spellbound by the combination of such genius, love and knowledge."

Of Lamplighter's deep, personal identification with the means and objects of his fascination, Barry said:

"He became his telescope, and through him we were all able to see some far-off light. He became his favourite books, and one could spend hours with him and be ushered into strange and magical worlds. He became his sermons, and one could hear in him the call to adventure. He became the simpleness of a flower, and all one needed to do was observe – observe and learn."

Nor did the timing of Christmas escape Lamplighter's attention. Barry passed me a letter Lamplighter once sent him on the merging of Christmas with winter solstice celebrations.

In the letter, Lamplighter wrote of the tug-of-war between light and darkness in the ancient world. Long winters and "the apparent death of nature" resulted in beliefs and myths of "dread, finality, despair on the one hand and hope, promise, expectation on the other," he said.

"Some people tend to blame the Church for merely taking over old Roman seasonal god-myths of mid-winter. Blame or not, it was a 'natural' and the placing of the birth of Christ at the time of the winter solstice was a stroke of genius, in its dramatic parallels. . . .

"In post-Roman, 'barbarian' times when Europe was in the grips of turmoil and dark for some five centuries, a lot of primitive myths (meaning early, not unintelligent, as we often use the word) were gradually incorporated into the Christian unfolding of seasons. Mostly quite smoothly and easily because both struck chords in the human psyche.

"Things like the Yule tree and log, for instance. Imagine living in a cold, dank, rat-infested gloomy 'castle' (or worse still, the feudal peasants' huts), for weeks on end, watching the Sun daily rising later and sinking earlier. The great hall would find warmth and hospitality and cheer against the threatening terror of the night outside, with a roaring, huge, fire log. And in the dread forest of goblins and witches, and werewolves, and bandits, the evergreen was the only sign of possible life to come.

"And when Christ was preached as the Light having come into the world, offering love and light and forgiveness, etc., winter and Christmas celebrations must have really meant a lot."

Setting the letter down, Barry and I raised our mugs in a Yuletide toast to our friend who really meant a lot: "To Lamplighter, who saw every glorious detail of life as gift to be opened and treasured!"

© 2003 Warren Harbeck

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