Meeting Frère Jacques again for the First Time (2014)

This evening, as I drove my two and a half year-old daughter home from her Quaker-sponsored daycare, she asked-told me in unmistakable chirp-tones from behind me: “Sing Dormez-vous, papa?”

I hadn’t taught it to her, and I was a little astonished at the request. But never one to lose a chance to sing in the car, I trusted her question. And so I started

Frè-re Jac-ques

and she piped along from her car-seat perfectly for the whole thing:

Frère Jacques, frère Jacques,
Dormez-vous? Dormez-vous?
Sonnez les matines! Sonnez les matines!
Ding, daing, dong. Ding, daing, dong.

We sang the song in unison for most of the rest of the ride home, with tears of delight forming in the corners of my eyes. (It being 14ºF outside the car, I dared not let the tears stream down my cheeks as they would have liked to. Driving without face-icicles is important in Connecticut in January.)

My Emilia gave special energy to

Dooor-mez-vooooooous? Dooor-mez-vooooooous?

And I look forward to asking her the same question at the end of naptimes from now on, like Roger Sterling to Don Draper in the wake of Megan’s Zou Bisou Bisou.

I marvel to myself as I get ready for bed tonight that my daughter is the inheritor of a song whose expanded-with-context English translation could go something like this:

Brother John, are you still sleeping? You are responsible for waking the other monks for Matins, the final nighttime office of common prayer in the monastery church! If you are still asleep, they will not be roused by your campanology in time to begin the prayers in order for them to finish by dawn. You are being lazy! This is the sin of sloth! Go ring the bells! Come on, ring the bells! […] Ding, ding, dong. Ding, ding, dong.

The simple children’s song is obscure in its origins and meanings—and we weren’t singing it in a round, as it is meant to be sung. But its roots are in a particularly French and jocular attitude about lazy clergy. There are dozens of nineteenth-century photographs and engravings of someone dressed as a priest who is feasting on hams or truffles, with subtitles like “Good Friday,” or “A Fast Day.”

It is as much a marvel to me that my own toddling daughter knows this song, as that this little song is (with all its assumed monastic knowledge and religious-contextual background) one of the most common children’s songs in the English-speaking world.

My Emi will never be a monk in a French monastery where the time is told only by bells, and not by digital clocks, or where an anticlericalist intelligentsia wait outside the windows to see what she is eating on fast days, and how late she is sleeping during the daily Liturgy of the Hours. My Emi may well, if her life and Lord should lead her there, join a community devoted to singing the daily office throughout the day—including throughout the night and the pre-dawn hours.

But I feel confident that her early formation as a person will include few other indications of the possibility of monastic Christian life. And it feels strange to me that, even with the Franco-English linguistic barrier, this first clear exposure of a “Brother John” is a mocking one that gains its power from the brother’s failure to keep the monastic regimen.

My rediscovery of Frère Jacques tonight has a rich mixture of delight and sorrow about it. “As sorrowful yet alway rejoicing,” I just plain love that she is singing a nursery song I liked very much, even if that song has as its background a monastic failing. I will keep singing it with her, but I will also keeping sharing with her the good life of communities in which wakefulness takes place, in which responsibility takes place, in which sacrifice takes place.

I want her to have the joy of singing a silly song as often as ever she likes, and I will always sing it with her. I want her, too, to have the experience of good monastics to counter it by balance, as they ring the morning bells, and ring the morning bells again the next day.

Originally published in Hartford Faith and Values on February 2, 2014.

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