This “sermon,” based on a chapter from the book The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame, was read by Rev. Dan Harper and Emma Mitchell.
SERMON — “Dulce Domum”
Somehow, in our culture, this December season has become associated with the pleasurable side of being home. When we dream of white, snowy Christmasses, we dream of the ones we used to have back home. This association — of home and the darkest time of year — has nothing to do with Christmas. I believe it comes from another one of the roots of our culture, the ancient Northern European pagan celebration of solstice and Yule. In ancient times in northern Europe, of course you wanted to be at home at this time of year — better to be at home, even with any family squabbles you might have to endure, than to be outdoors in the bitter cold with the hungry wolves howling.
But I’d like to believe that you can leave home and make a new home; if for no other reason than that children need to be able to grow up and move out and make their own homes. I have a story about Yuletide, and leaving home, which is from the book The Wind in the Willows. In this book, the Mole left his home one spring, and he wound up living on the River bank with a new friend, the Water Rat. Our story commences half a year later, on a cold December day:
[The Mole and the Water Rat] were returning across country after a long day’s outing with [their friend] Otter, hunting and exploring on the wide uplands where certain streams tributary to their own River had their first small beginnings; and the shades of the short winter day were closing in on them, and they had still some distance to go….
They plodded along steadily and silently, each of them thinking his own thoughts. The Mole’s ran a good deal on supper, as it was pitch-dark…. As for the Rat, he was walking a little way ahead, as his habit was, his shoulders humped, his eyes fixed on the straight grey road in front of him. [Suddenly, the Mole smelled something that reminded him of home — his old home, that he had abandoned so long ago. But the unsuspecting Water Rat urged him to be a good fellow and come along before the snow started…. [When much later, they stopped to rest,] poor Mole at last…cried freely and helplessly and openly, now that he knew it was all over and he had lost what he could hardly be said to have found.
The Rat, astonished and dismayed at the violence of Mole’s paroxysm of grief, did not dare to speak for a while. At last he said, very quietly and sympathetically, ‘What is it, old fellow? Whatever can be the matter? Tell us your trouble, and let me see what I can do.’
Poor Mole found it difficult to get any words out between the upheavals of his chest that followed one upon another so quickly and held back speech and choked it as it came. ‘I know it’s a — shabby, dingy little place,’ he sobbed forth at last, brokenly: ‘not like — your cosy quarters… but it was my own little home — and I was fond of it — and I went away and forgot all about it — and then I smelt it suddenly — on the road, when I called and you wouldn’t listen, Rat –… We might have just gone and had one look at it, Ratty — … it was close by — but you wouldn’t turn back, Ratty, you wouldn’t turn back! O dear, O dear!’….
The Rat stared straight in front of him, saying nothing, only patting Mole gently on the shoulder. After a time he muttered gloomily, ‘I see it all now! what a pig I’ve been!’ …Then he rose from his seat, and, remarking carelessly, ‘Well, now we’d really better be getting on, old chap!’ set off up the road again, over the toilsome way they had come.
‘Wherever are you (hic) going to (hic), Ratty?’ cried the tearful Mole, looking up in alarm.
‘We’re going to find that home of yours, old fellow,’ replied the Rat pleasantly; ‘so you had better come along, for it will take some finding, and we shall want your nose.’…
They moved on in silence for some little way, when suddenly the Rat was conscious, through his arm that was linked in Mole’s, of a faint sort of electric thrill that was passing down that animal’s body…. Mole stood a moment rigid, while his uplifted nose, quivering slightly, felt the air. Then a short, quick run forward — a fault — a check — a try back; and then a slow, steady, confident advance.
The Rat, much excited, kept close to his heels as the Mole… nosed his way over a field open and trackless and bare in the faint starlight. Suddenly, without giving warning, he dived; but the Rat was on the alert, and promptly followed him down the tunnel to which his unerring nose had faithfully led him.
It was close and airless, and the earthy smell was strong, and it seemed a long time to Rat ere the passage ended and he could stand erect and stretch and shake himself. The Mole struck a match, and by its light the Rat saw that they were standing in an open space, neatly swept and sanded underfoot, and directly facing them was Mole’s little front door, with ‘Mole End’ painted, in Gothic lettering, over the bell-pull at the side.
Mole reached down a lantern from a nail on the wail and lit it, and the Rat, looking round him, saw that they were in a sort of fore-court. A garden-seat stood on one side of the door, and on the other a roller; for the Mole… was a tidy animal…. Down on one side of the forecourt ran a skittle-alley, with benches along it and little wooden tables marked with rings that hinted at beer-mugs. In the middle was a small round pond containing gold-fish and surrounded by a cockle-shell border. Out of the centre of the pond rose a fanciful erection clothed in more cockle-shells and topped by a large silvered glass ball that reflected everything all wrong and had a very pleasing effect.
Mole’s face-beamed at the sight of all these objects so dear to him, and he hurried Rat through the door, lit a lamp in the hall, and took one glance round his old home. He saw the dust lying thick on everything, saw the cheerless, deserted look of the long-neglected house, and its narrow, meagre dimensions, its worn and shabby contents — and collapsed again on a hall-chair, his nose to his paws. ‘O Ratty!’ he cried dismally, ‘why ever did I do it? Why did I bring you to this poor, cold little place, on a night like this…!’
The Rat paid no heed to his doleful self-reproaches. He was running here and there, opening doors, inspecting rooms and cupboards, and lighting lamps and candles and sticking them, up everywhere. ‘What a capital little house this is!’ he called out cheerily. ‘So compact! So well planned! Everything here and everything in its place! We’ll make a jolly night of it. The first thing we want is a good fire; I’ll see to that — I always know where to find things…. Now, I’ll fetch the wood and the coals, and you get a duster, Mole — you’ll find one in the drawer of the kitchen table — and try and smarten things up a bit. Bustle about, old chap!’
Encouraged by his inspiriting companion, the Mole roused himself and dusted and polished with energy and heartiness, while the Rat, running to and fro with armfuls of fuel, soon had a cheerful blaze roaring up the chimney. He hailed the Mole to come and warm himself; but Mole promptly had another fit of the blues… ‘Rat,’ he moaned, ‘how about your supper, you poor, cold, hungry, weary animal? I’ve nothing to give you — nothing — not a crumb!’
‘What a fellow you are for giving in!’ said the Rat reproachfully. ‘Why, only just now I saw a sardine-opener on the kitchen dresser, quite distinctly; and everybody knows that means there are sardines about somewhere in the neighbourhood…. Pull yourself together, and come with me and forage.’
They went and foraged accordingly…. The result was not so very depressing after all, though of course it might have been better; a tin of sardines — a box of captain’s biscuits, nearly full — and a German sausage encased in silver paper.
‘There’s a banquet for you!’ observed the Rat, as he arranged the table….
‘No bread!’ groaned the Mole dolorously; ‘no butter, no –‘
‘No paté de foie gras, no champagne!’ continued the Rat, grinning. ‘And that reminds me — what’s that little door at the end of the passage? Your cellar, of course! Every luxury in this house! Just you wait a minute.’
He made for the cellar-door, and presently reappeared, somewhat dusty, with a bottle of beer in each paw and another under each arm…. ‘This is really the jolliest little place I ever was in,’ [ he said.] ‘Now, wherever did you pick up those prints? Make the place look so home-like, they do. No wonder you’re so fond of it, Mole. Tell us all about it, and how you came to make it what it is.’
Then, while the Rat busied himself fetching plates, and knives and forks, and mustard which he mixed in an egg-cup, the Mole, his bosom still heaving with the stress of his recent emotion, related — somewhat shyly at first, but with more freedom as he warmed to his subject — how this was planned, and how that was thought out, and how this was got through a windfall from an aunt, and that was a wonderful find and a bargain, and this other thing was bought out of laborious savings and a certain amount of ‘going without.’ His spirits finally quite restored, he must needs go and caress his possessions, and take a lamp and show off their points to his visitor….
At last the Rat succeeded in decoying him to the table, and had just got seriously to work with the sardine-opener when sounds were heard from the fore-court without — sounds like the scuffling of small feet in the gravel and a confused murmur of tiny voices, while broken sentences reached them — ‘Now, all in a line — hold the lantern up a bit, Tommy — clear your throats first — no coughing after I say one, two, three. — Where’s young Bill? — Here, come on, do, we’re all a-waiting –‘
‘What’s up?’ inquired the Rat, pausing in his labours.
‘I think it must be the field-mice,’ replied the Mole, with a touch of pride in his manner. ‘They go round carol-singing regularly at this time of the year. They’re quite an institution in these parts. And they never pass me over — they come to Mole End last of all; and I used to give them hot drinks, and supper too sometimes, when I could afford it. It will be like old times to hear them again.’
‘Let’s have a look at them!’ cried the Rat, jumping up and running to the door.
It was a pretty sight, and a seasonable one, that met their eyes when they flung the door open. In the fore-court, lit by the dim rays of a horn lantern, some eight or ten little fieldmice stood in a semicircle, red worsted comforters round their throats, their fore-paws thrust deep into their pockets, their feet jigging for warmth. With bright beady eyes they glanced shyly at each other, sniggering a little, sniffing and applying coat-sleeves a good deal. As the door opened, one of the elder ones that carried the lantern was just saying, ‘Now then, one, two, three!’ and forthwith their shrill little voices uprose on the air, singing one of the old-time carols that their forefathers composed in fields that were fallow and held by frost, or when snow-bound in chimney corners, and handed down to be sung in the miry street to lamp-lit windows at Yule-time.
Here the congregation sang the Yuletide song “Here We Come A-Wassailing.”
The voices ceased, the singers, bashful but smiling, exchanged sidelong glances, and silence succeeded — but for a moment only. Then, from up above and far away, down the tunnel they had so lately travelled was borne to their ears in a faint musical hum the sound of distant bells ringing a joyful and clangorous peal.
‘Very well sung, boys!’ cried the Rat heartily. ‘And now come along in, all of you, and warm yourselves by the fire, and have something hot!’
‘Yes, come along, field-mice,’ cried the Mole eagerly. ‘This is quite like old times! Shut the door after you. Pull up that settle to the fire. Now, you just wait a minute, while we — O, Ratty!’ he cried in despair, plumping down on a seat… ‘Whatever are we doing? We’ve nothing to give them!’
‘You leave all that to me,’ said the masterful Rat. ‘Here, you with the lantern! Come over this way…. Now, tell me, are there any shops open at this hour of the night?’
‘Why, certainly, sir,’ replied the field-mouse respectfully.
‘Then look here!’ said the Rat. ‘You go off at once, you and your lantern, and you get me –‘ Here much muttered conversation ensued, and…finally, there was a chink of coin passing from paw to paw, the field-mouse was provided with an ample basket for his purchases, and off he hurried, he and his lantern.
The rest of the field-mice, perched in a row on the settle, their small legs swinging, gave themselves up to enjoyment of the fire, and toasted their chilblains till they tingled; while the Mole, failing to draw them into easy conversation, plunged into family history and made each of them recite the names of his numerous brothers, who were too young, it appeared, to be allowed to go out a-carolling this year, but looked forward very shortly to winning the parental consent.
The Rat, meanwhile, [began to] to mull some ale…. It did not take long to prepare the brew and thrust the tin heater well into the red heart of the fire; and soon every field- mouse was sipping and coughing and choking (for a little mulled ale goes a long way) and wiping his eyes and laughing and forgetting he had ever been cold in all his life…. [At last] the latch clicked, the door opened, and the field-mouse with the lantern reappeared, staggering under the weight of his basket…[and the] contents of the basket had been tumbled out on the table.
Under the generalship of Rat, everybody was set to do something or to fetch something. In a very few minutes supper was ready, and Mole, as he took the head of the table in a sort of a dream, saw a lately barren board set thick with savoury comforts; saw his little friends’ faces brighten and beam as they fell to without delay; and then let himself loose — for he was famished indeed — on the provender so magically provided, thinking what a happy home-coming this had turned out, after all. As they ate, they talked of old times, and the field-mice gave him the local gossip up to date, and answered as well as they could the hundred questions he had to ask them. The Rat said little or nothing, only taking care that each guest had what he wanted, and plenty of it, and that Mole had no trouble or anxiety about anything.
They clattered off at last, very grateful and showering wishes of the season, with their jacket pockets stuffed with remembrances for the small brothers and sisters at home. When the door had closed on the last of them and the chink of the lanterns had died away, Mole and Rat kicked the fire up, drew their chairs in, brewed themselves a last nightcap of mulled ale, and discussed the events of the long day. At last the Rat, with a tremendous yawn, said, ‘Mole, old chap, I’m ready to drop. Sleepy is simply not the word. That your own bunk over on that side? Very well, then, I’ll take this. What a ripping little house this is! Everything so handy!’…
The weary Mole also was glad to turn in without delay, and soon had his head on his pillow, in great joy and contentment. But ere he closed his eyes he let them wander round his old room, mellow in the glow of the firelight that played or rested on familiar and friendly things which had long been unconsciously a part of him, and now smilingly received him back, without rancour…. He saw clearly how plain and simple — how narrow, even — it all was; but clearly, too, how much it all meant to him, and the special value of some such anchorage in one’s existence. He did not at all want to abandon the new life,… to turn his back on sun and air and all they offered him and creep home and stay there; the upper world was all too strong, it called to him still, even down there, and he knew he must return to the larger stage. But it was good to think he had this to come back to; this place which was all his own, these things which were so glad to see him again and could always be counted upon for the same simple welcome.
So ends the Yuletide story of Mole and Rat. May you, like the Mole, have a core of something that you can go back to when the year is dark and cold. May you always have somewhere, or something, that feels like home to you, something that reflects the core of who you are. And may you always find your way back to the sun and the warmth and all that they promise; may you always have a place on the larger stage of life.