Beauty and terror often combine to reveal moments of the sublime—in both Victorian Christmas ghost stories and downhill skiing.
I took up skiing as an adult in order to join my children and husband on the slopes. It was a daring move, if I may say, since I’ve never been a natural athlete and I happen to have a severe fear of heights. Even now, the moment before I pitch down a run is an exercise in managing terror. My fear is offset only by awe at perceiving my insignificance in comparison to the landscape—cascading ice-packed peaks, evergreens holding their shape under layers of snow, an occasional glimpse of a raptor ascending a thermal in the bitter cold. I’ve come to value those moments poised at the top of each run, where I exist between sheer beauty and terror. In those moments, I’m living the concept of the sublime.
Of course, to an experienced athlete my launch down each slope appears almost laughably simple and safe—a cautious skier carefully carving her way through measured S-curves down an intermediate run. In my mind, however, I am facing the possibility of death or dismemberment with every curve, at the same time that I am glorying in the landscape, the speed, the immensity of it all.
Few experiences lift me out of my own head like skiing. I must be fully present to manage the emotional and physical intensity, and this means that my mind is temporarily cleansed of clutter—whether or not the leftovers will suffice for dinner, how many hours the student exams will take to grade, how to help my son with perennially perplexing math problems, and all the other concerns and regrets that insist on haunting me daily.
So what does this have to do with humanities and belief? I came to my career through a love of reading, an activity that I find unexpectedly analogous with skiing. The lines of a poem can make me catch my breath. Entering the mind of a character in a novel entices me to leave behind the quotidian worries that drain so much time and energy. Encountering an innovative idea in an essay requires me to alter my perspective.
Lifting myself out of my very limited mortal perspective is an experience I cherish as deeply spiritual. I’m rarely so attentive to the divine beauties of this world as I am when teetering precariously at the top of a ski slope. Those are moments when humility and reverence are nearly tangible concepts. I’m never so alive to the virtue of leaving self behind and serving others as I am when reading, teaching, and studying. As Robert Browning’s flawed but sympathetic Fra Lippo Lipi suggests,
Art was given for that;
God uses us to help each other so,
Lending our minds out.1
Let me tell you about a few of the moments when “lent” minds have shaped the experiences my students and I have had lately.
Last fall I had the opportunity to teach a course on Victorian Christmas literature, a topic that provided ample opportunity to explore concepts of belief and faith alongside folk traditions and secular concerns. It might be surprising to learn that ghost stories were a staple of nineteenth-century Christmas celebrations, hearkening back to ancient Roman and folk customs regarding the winter solstice. Charles Dickens was following suit when he first envisioned Scrooge’s nighttime visitors.2 In our class we read Dickens, and we also read about ghostly Christmas trees, rollicking trickster spirits, and unnerving child-ghosts. These tales could be terrifying, but somehow experiencing that discomfort prepared us to encounter devotional literature from a different and, I believe, spiritually rewarding perspective.
In Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s touching meditation on Mary, mother of Jesus, she imagines what it might have been like to cradle a napping infant Christ while meditating on his future. As Mary envisions ghostly spirits worshipping her son, her own “spirit . . . dilateth with the woe / Of His mortality” (53–4). Her maternal pain plays counterpoint to her devoted wonder as she searches for a term of endearment appropriate for her divine child, “Ah King, ah Christ, ah Son!” (117). He is her helpless infant son; he is her eternal Saviour; his death will redeem the mother who gave him birth.3
Mary’s motherly “woe” is echoed in Elizabeth Gaskell’s “Lizzie Leigh.” Annie is a farmwife mourning her husband whose dying words on Christmas morning have freed her to perform a holy quest—to seek their long-lost daughter who had borne an illegitimate child and disappeared into the life of the streets. Purposefully echoing Christ’s parables of the prodigal son and the lost coin, Annie journeys to recover her child. Her eventual discovery exorcises the guilt that had haunted the mother for years and reminds us that Christmas is an advent, a commencement of a new spiritual life, no matter what has come before.4
At times Annie’s quest mirrors the quest of the wise men as depicted by T. S. Eliot in “Journey of the Magi.” Eliot’s spare Modernist aesthetic gives the journey an almost uncanny sense: the wise men had “[a] cold coming . . . of it” as they faced grimy travels and “refractory” animals (1, 6). They found their epiphany, the Christ child, but their discovery did not end their travels either physically or spiritually. Returning to once-familiar lands, they found “an alien people clutching their gods” (42). Their estrangement leaves them processing the enormity of a new dispensation.5
Reading this literature alongside Christmas ghost stories brought a whole new set of perspectives on Christmas worship into our classroom discussions, so that we could see our own Christmas memories and beliefs anew. And that is the point. At their best, Victorian Christmas ghosts spook us into a better spiritual state, just as skiing down a slope combines the beauty and terror of the sublime in a way that invites awe and reverence. Ideally, we all seek opportunities to cultivate spiritual and intellectual epiphanies that surprise us out of our complacency and disencumber our minds in preparation for receiving revelation.
The students in the Victorian Christmas literature class curated an exhibit in the Special Collections library this last December, titled “From Shrieks to Shenanigans: How to Celebrate a Truly Victorian Christmas.” Their accompanying digital exhibit is available online: victorianchristmas.byu.edu.
Leslee Thorne-Murphy is a newly appointed associate dean in the College of Humanities and associate professor of English.
1. Robert Browning, “Fra Lippo Lippi,” Robert Browning’s Poetry, Eds. James F. Loucks and Andrew M. Stauffer, New York and London: Norton, 2007: 304-6.
2. A Christmas Carol, first published in 1843.
3. Elizabeth Barrett Browning, “The Virgin Mary to the Child Jesus,” Elizabeth Barrett Browning: Selected Poems. Eds. Margorie Stone and Beverly Taylor, Peterborough, Ontario, Canada: Broadview, 2009.
4. Elizabeth Gaskell, “Lizzie Leigh,” Household Words: A Weekly Journal, vol. 1, no. 1, 1850, pp. 2–6. Ed. Emily Hilton, Victorian Short Fiction Project, 14 December 2018, http://vsfp.byu.edu/index.php/title/lizzie-leigh/.
5. T. S. Eliot, “Journey of the Magi,” Poetry Archive, 2005–16, https://www.poetryarchive.org/poem/journey-magi.