Saturday, February 6, 2010

Bump in the Night

An awesome windstorm rose during the night and filled the sky with an enduring, booming sound. Something woke me at three in the morning—that wind, perhaps, or a bump in the night. A little later I heard a dull clatter. In search of it I discovered our plastic trashcan blown into the street and making orgiastic circles lying on its belly. I set things right and then went back to bed; but this activity had awakened me enough so that for a while I was playing word games in my head; bump in the night; that sort of thing. Eventually the whole verse came back:

         From ghoulies and ghosties
         And long-leggedy beasties
         And things that go bump in the night,
         Good Lord, deliver us!

The verse next reminded me of something I'd read recently, namely that this seemingly amusing chant had once been part of an Anglican litany. Trying to remember where I’d seen that, I drifted back off to sleep. This morning a great high pressure system had replaced the wind and brought searing cold and a bright sun. I got up to discover the origins of this verse if I could.

The first mentions Google brought asserted that this was an old Scottish ditty. Next I found confirmation that it might have been a litany. Last I came across a book by Don E. Post entitled, yes, Ghosties and Ghoulies and Long-Legged Beasties and Things that Go Bump in the Night. The book is subtitled Christian Basics for the Twenty-First Century. To an eye like mine the title and subtitle taken together—and with the Ph.D. following the author’s name on the cover—did not promise enlightenment. I couldn’t be sure, but this sort of pattern suggests a work intended to “update” and to “modernize” Christianity to make it if not hip at least respectable. I proceeded to look at the front-matter and there found, on page ix, a section called About the Title. It says in whole:

An Early Cornish Litany
         Laity: O Lord, deliver us from Ghosties and Ghoulies and long legged beasties and things that go bump in the night.
         Clergy: O Lord, deliver us.
Lest one think I am trying to be funny, this phrase was reportedly part of a 14th or 15th Century Protestant litany, probably Cornish, although sources within the Anglican Church have not been able to locate the total litany. This may seem humorous now, but it represents a world filled with scary creatures. Unfortunately, that eerie world still exists for too many. This superstitious world view hang-over is a good example of what social scientists call cultural lag.
Very well. The commentary seemed to confirm my interpretation of the book's general pattern. Just yesterday elsewhere, commenting on the phrase “moving on,” I mentioned the cult of progress. In this commentary I saw another instance of it. But having gotten this far, I thought it was time to put the kettle on. And while the kettle made its seething sounds, a kind of miniature windstorm, I was pondering the direction in which our time is really trending. Lines formed in my head more or less spontaneously in my honest effort, I think, rapidly to close that cultural lag and to bring us now up to full speed:

          From profs and from pollsters
          And men with huge holsters
          And drones that drop bombs in the night,
          Good Lord, deliver us!

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