G.K. Chesterton remarked that fifty percent of education is atmosphere. In response to that sentence, a priest once observed that the same is true of worship: the atmosphere counts and makes an enormous difference.
All human beings live, study, pray, or work in a place that has an atmosphere that affects them, either motivating them or disengaging them. An intangible reality that everyone senses, the atmosphere of a place affects the environment in the daily life of everyone, either stimulating interest or generating dullness.
Although no one person singlehandedly can create or control an atmosphere, he can add to it or detract from it. He can join the chorus, as it were, and add to the melody, or he can refuse to sing and act insensitive to the feelings of others and oblivious of his surroundings.
The Right Atmosphere
In a classroom where everyone studies diligently, shows evidence of completing homework, and engages in discussion, learning occurs naturally. In beautiful, quiet churches that communicate a sense of the holy and sacred, the inspiration to pray happens spontaneously, and reverence and contemplation follow. At social events where courtesy and hospitality reign, it is normative for everyone to act like ladies and gentlemen.
An atmosphere provides a tenor that produces a magical effect or exerts a winning influence that invites the best in a person. The art of living demands that all people catch the spirit of a joy-filled, beautiful, or dignified atmosphere and maintain the spell that it creates.
This atmosphere, which is finely woven of many fine threads—respect, graciousness, beauty, refinement, kindness, amiability– easily dissolves when rude speech, improper dress, or boorish conduct violate the presiding spirit of the place.
Breaking the Spell
In Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream Oberon, Puck, and the fairies weave an atmosphere of mirth, courtesy, and gentleness as they frolic at night in lighthearted revelry throughout the forest. They beautify the world with dewdrops that adorn the world like sparkling jewels, but this mood is as delicate as thread and as mysterious and evanescent as the night. It can suddenly disappear.
Quarrelsome tempers like Titania arguing about servant boys (“The fairyland buys not the child of me”) and crude remarks like Demetrius’s insulting words to Helena (“For I am sick when I do look on thee”) transform the refined magical aura of the night in the forest to discord and dissension when rude, petty bickering spoils the festive spirit of the fairies spreading beauty and cheerfulness.
The fairies that deposit the gems of dewdrops in flowers, dance in circles by the sea and on the pastures, perform “fairy favors” in the night, and “hang a pearl in every cowslips’s ear” quickly disperse at any sign of disturbance that destroys the intricate enchantment they have woven. A tactless comment breaks the spell.
Ruin the Occasion
Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales also begins in the spirit of a congenial, lighthearted atmosphere that inspires the pilgrimage to St. Thomas a Becket’s shrine. The owner of the Tabard Inn, Harry Bailey, proposes a storytelling contest on the part of the travelers going and coming from their destination “in the hope to keep you bright and merry.”
The pilgrims are to tell two stories to lighten the burden of travel since “there’s little pleasure for your bones/ Riding along and all as dumb as stones.” The one who tells the best story, a tale that both delights and instructs, wins a free dinner at the inn when the travelers return.
However, a surly carpenter spoils the fun of the game. He resents the rowdy “Miller’s Tale” in which a foolish carpenter becomes a laughingstock for gullibly believing that another Noah’s flood is coming and tying his bathtub on the roof with provisions.
The Host must intervene to stop the personal quarrel of the carpenter and the miller from ruining the mirthful spirit of the competition. Inappropriate arguments end the magic of the occasion.
Human beings likewise can enhance or ruin an atmosphere that hosts and hostesses have carefully arranged and prepared for the delight of all the guests. They can enter the spirit of the atmosphere spun by the fairies or hosted by Harry Bailey or remain insensitive to the mood, occasion, and air of festivity.
They can be convivial and spirited like Puck, “the merry wanderer of the night,” or sullen and grim like the carpenter who rides at the back of the pilgrimage and never interacts with the other pilgrims: “he rode hindmost of our cavalcade.”
While many pilgrims capture the jovial spirit of the storytelling game and narrate stories of laughter, wonder, or wisdom, the Host interrupts two storytellers for spoiling the occasion. The monk monotonously recites stories that illustrate the definition of classical tragedy: the sudden fall from high to low. Prideful man falls from happiness to misery, a victim of the wheel of fortune.
The Host objects, “Let’s have no more of it/ . . . . It’s an offence, you’re boring us, that’s why! /Such talk as that’s not worth a butterfly/ Gives no enjoyment, doesn’t help the game.” Human beings too can act with pique like the carpenter or indulge their personal hobby horse at everyone’s expense like the monk and never enjoy the fun of the event.
Poor taste spoils the spirit of a social event.
The Special Spell
To enter into the mood of the fairies or the spirit of the Canterbury pilgrimage, everyone must put aside pride and recall that the words “human,” “humor,” and “humility” derive from the Latin humus meaning “dirt.” One must not take himself too seriously. Self knowledge remembers that man’s lot is “Dust to dust and ashes to ashes.”
All men are prone to folly and sin and in need of confession and reparation—the very purpose of the pilgrimage to the shrine that applies to knights, monks, and carpenters alike. The magical atmosphere of A Midsummer Night’s Dream reminds all persons—fairies, lords, and rude mechanicals—of their common humanity and the obligation of courtesy that all social classes owe to one another.
These captivating atmospheres beckon people to experience a sense of oneness and belonging and never forget what it means to be human.
The special spell evoked by these places cultivates the virtue of self-forgetfulness, everyone recognizing the common good and larger purpose of the event that transcends every person’s small ego and individual interests. Every person, then, adds to or subtracts from an atmosphere either by bringing harmony or producing discord.
By attractive appearance, by respectful propriety, by pleasant conversation, or by gracious manners a person beautifies the atmosphere in the way the fairies leave gems in the forest at night.
By perpetual quarrels, by constant complaints, by sullen peevishness, and by careless disregard for the time, place, occasion, and people, a person breaks the spell and dispels the magical aura that is so intricate to design and so easy to dispel.