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Artillery Row

A theology of parties

Renewing the social spirit in an age of isolation

I cannot reach it ; and my striving eye
Dazzles at it, as at eternity.

                Were now that chronicle alive,
Those white designs which children drive,
And the thoughts of each harmless hour,
With their content too in my pow’r,
Quickly would I make my path ev’n,
And by mere playing go to heaven.

Henry Vaughan wrote his poem on childhood in the 17th century. This notion of retreat to a childhood-like state of grace is pertinent as far as our far public culture is concerned, in 21st century Britain. This is to say, where if anywhere can we “play”? Are our Christian communities missing a trick, in failing to provide the space in which the door is flung open and that play — those parties in which it is freely entered outside of worship in church — can take place? Parties that are ecumenical, intergenerational and inclusive are possibly the most counter-cultural, hopeful, even godly activity in which Christians can revel, rejoice! and seek to change the world. 

C.S. Lewis and his brother knew how to party, like their friend J. R. R. Tolkien

Partying, like anything else, can be one of two things: secular, mundane and flat — or godly. We know experientially that gatherings of people can be nothing more than worldly distraction supporting Blaise Pascal’s astute diagnosis: “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room in silence. On the other hand, parties can be a foretaste of the heavenly kingdom, the banquet to which Christians of course aspire. As described in Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, it is that space to which the monk Zoisma is called, where he can say with confidence: the Lord is “rejoicing with us, transforming water into wine, that the joy of the guests may never endHe is waiting for new guests, he is ceaselessly calling new guests, now and unto ages of ages”.

I have been to parties in Oxford that have impressed me in their capacity to point to that heavenly realm, in which each person feels that they are lost in divine love. Anglican, Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christian communities have come together in houses where front-doors are counter-culturally left on the latch and lanterns are invitingly lit in the street, entreating others to come and see. Alongside them have come friends, of all kinds who would describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious”. Dear friends in their seventies and children have come to play, for instance, at C. S. Lewis’ former home, east of the city. 

When C. S. Lewis bought that property in 1930, it was chiefly to accommodate his older brother Warnie who, in retiring from active military service, referred to this rekindling of an “intimate friendship” with his brother, founded in childhood, as the beginning of his “real life”. The brothers had a constant stream of visitors to the house which they shared. They knew how to party, like their friend J. R. R. Tolkien who purportedly went to a New Year’s Party in the 1930s dressed as a polar bear. This undoubtedly influenced Lewis’ own description of the ideal party in The Horse and His Boy, written in that place (1954). 

“It was quite unlike any other party they had seen that day. The crier who went before it shouting, ‘Way, Way!’ was the only Calormene in it [ … ] And instead of being grave and mysterious like most Calormes, they walked with a swing and let their arms and shoulder go free, and chatted and laughed. One was whistling. You could see that they were ready to be friends with anyone who was friendly, and didn’t give a fig for anyone who was not. Shasta thought he had never seen anything so lovely in his life.”

Christians should not seek to retreat; they should engage

Where are these lovely parties today? Not only do they continue in Oxford, but they can also be seen, for instance, in L’Arche communities, which are worldwide communities where adults with and without learning difficulties come to live and work together. Conceived of in the 1950s by Roman Catholics in the first instance, membership of the same is far from homogeneous; rather, early literature identified L’Arche houses, uniquely, as houses that welcome. Members encounter those who are different, plumb spiritual depths through play and come away changed. 

Society nevertheless lacks spaces in which that kind of play can take place, and it is incumbent on communities of faith to fix it. In an age in which so many young people only “hang out” with other like-minded young people, this becomes truly counter-cultural, the best thing that those communities can do. Ours is also an age in which people feel immobilised by world problems like climate change. Partying in local communities could be the best thing to do to help, because it is empowering. Rightly conceived, parties are radical. 

The German philosopher Josef Pieper put it this way in his writing on festivals: to celebrate “means to live out … the universal assent to the world as a whole”. It should lead to “renewal, transformation, rebirth, and a recognition that we do not have to have solutions to the world’s problems to live in it gladly. We do not have to be grave and mysterious. 

There are those who would say Christians should retreat. There is another way, although perhaps not so different once we recognize that the distinction between “extroverts” and “introverts”, partying and peaceful solitude, is a 20th century fiction that so often colours our perceptions of how we engage, or fail to engage, with large parties. Beneath it there is a tradition of silence and confidence in sanctifying the world around us which complement one another. The point stands nevertheless: Christians should not seek to retreat and build monasteries; rather, they should be bold and engage. Like the crier, they should shout, “Way, way! Christians should want to go to Heaven; therefore, they should play.

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