A version of this appeared three years ago, but some of it's worth repeating . . .
As Christmas approaches, the church’s liturgical rhythm seems necessary to save us from ourselves. It’s not just that we have slid, with little resistance, into the larger culture’s gaudy mess that is now the “holiday.” Anyone, religious or not, can see how advertising and general greed have used our hunger against us, stealing right out of our hands our own sense of what is important. But I question that sense of ours. It needs the guidance of ancient ways, with or without a commercialized holiday. Even without a million shopping malls, we would skew Christmas into something that fit our busy self-importance. We need the liturgy, the tradition, the memory of our communion of saints.
The prayers shape our vocabulary, bending our thoughts Godward. The readings demand that we relinquish any stories we are stuck on at the moment. Whatever personal narrative we are chattering about today, it must defer to the Story. And there is a sequence. We must pull our thoughts around the Memories, recite the acts of God. We must listen and wait for our cue to jump in with a phrase or a silence. Yes, we must wait our turn in the processions and the songs and signs. Like any liturgy, the Christmas rituals remind us that we are part of something wonderful, wild, and beyond us. We are not in charge. We don’t have all the information. And everything isn’t up to us.
This season of the year takes us back to the stance of attention, as Advent ushers our wants and wishes through a series of stories about longing and promise and the raw gaps between them. We know that Christmas is coming, that a baby will be born and we will sing our favorite songs again and take special pleasure in the presence of children and the exchange of gifts. But it’s not as simple as that. Between now and the great event, there is waiting, and this waiting is supposed to mean something. It is supposed to accomplish something in us.
I’m thankful for this set number of days that give us space for remembering and time to align our spirits once again with the greater, wider story—of healing, restoration, justice, hope, divine encounter. It is too immense to take in quickly, or in a single holiday. We need the march of the weeks and months, the long breaths between Sundays, to gather to our minds and hearts the story in its entirety. When we live in the rhythm of that story, we have nothing to fear from the garish shopping mall or noisy airwaves. In the great rhythm of the Story, we are folded into God’s arms, one day, one season, at a time.
I'm glad that Christmas is coming. Although, I must say, its timing sucks.
I have neglected this blog (and website) for so long, that I hesitated to post anything at all. I always grow a bit lazy during the summer, and I enjoy being outdoors, so I'm not a faithful writer then. During July, in additiona to that benign lethargy, I experienced a more serious form of inaction once I learned that I was not approved to become a priest in the Episcopal Church. This was a surprise, and it set me back for awhile. What really happened was that I decided to relax and enjoy the summer. That's what I did. Then I went on a personal retreat at the end of August, just to air out my brain and consider priorities for the coming year, including writing priorities, including plans for this blog.
Then, during the first week of September, a close family member was diangosed with lymphoma. The many of you who have dealt with serious medical diagnoses understand how life can quickly get upended. And I'm in my fifties now, and not as energetic as I was even a few years ago. Actually, sometimes it's not a matter of energy but of interest. There are simply more things for which I am unwilling to expend my energy. So I have allowed schedules and plans to slip every which way. Life has consisted of my full-time editing job at Loyola Press--for which I am enormously grateful--and helping this loved on get better.
"Better" is a ways into our future. I write this in the chair next to a hospital bed--now we're dealing with an infection, which is not uncommon in chemo patients. Also, it looks like some trouble with the pancreas, and some fluid in the lungs, both problems stemming from the chemo and/or lying in bed for long periods of time. We don't yet know if we'll spend Christmas in the hospital. But we did not plan holiday travel or anything big. Actually, that relieved me of some of the normal holiday-time pressure, and although I'm stressed about the illness, I'm pretty calm otherwise.
It's almost Christmas again, which is horrible timing but a very good thing. If we didn't have holy days on a recurring schedule, think of how often we would postpone them or skip them altogether. An illness in the family, or loss of job, or broken relationship, or death in the family, or general depression and stress--these disruptions would constantly nudge the holy days out of the way so that we could give all our energy to dealing with trouble.
But there's always trouble of some sort. And I don't think trouble deserves all my energy, just some of it. There will always be an excuse to put off rejoicing and hope. Always a reason to skip the party and forget to be grateful. Trouble wants to distract us from the core of things, to our basic participation in life and love. Thanks to the Christian (or Jewish, or other) calendar, the holy days arrive anyway. They insist that we remember the story that's bigger than the illness or loneliness or tribulation.
The Christmas tree is up--although it took us a few days to get the decorations on it. We chose to send fewer gifts this year. My over-the-top holiday baking was taken down a notch by necessity. But Jim is at church today, while I stay at the bedside. Later we'll drop in for awhile at the party of some good friends. We've made reservations at a restaurant on Christmas Day because we won't be in Atlanta or Portland or Joplin or Cherokee this time around.
I unpacked my growing collections of Christmas music and movies and books. Maybe I'll get through all of them this year, and maybe not. That's not important. What is important is the intent of my heart, the intent to pause and celebrate as best I can. If I can't rejoice and be grateful and hopeful now, when will I?
This reminds me of a favorite Christmas verse, by the late and wonderful Madeleine L'Engle:
Last weekend Jim and I drove to Joplin, MO, where my sister and brother-in-law live. The tornadoes that ripped through a month ago did not touch their neighborhood, but they took us on the tornado tour, and, honestly, entire areas look like war zones and worse. Death count 150-something (a few people have died in the hospital of their injuries even recently). The miracle is that every human being has been accounted for--dead or still around. I was sure some would simply be missing until farmers came upon decayed body parts out in the fields months from now.
At such times, we are tempted to ask "why God would allow this to happen." But a friend of mine, author and spiritual director Margaret Silf, points out that the earth itself is a living organism, and without earthquakes, tsunamis, and other "natural disasters" this globe would be inert and not alive. Each catastrophe leads ultimately to the next thing, proceeding from life to life.
When we consider that most of our personal growth happens mainly in difficult times, then perhaps we should try to see the larger trials as the chaos moving us forward. Of course this is easy for me to say--I still have my loved ones and my house. But perhaps, as St. Ignatius would put it, the times of consolation are the best times to practice internally for desolation.
Peace to you all. I shall try to post more often this summer.
It seems that I get particularly nasty sinus infections around major holidays. One wiped me out the entire week leading up to Christmas, and now I'm struggling through Holy Week. So my energy level is low and I'm not feeling too creative. However, other good writers keep the world spinning, and I'm linking you to one today. Please click on this link for Tobias Winright's article about cluster bombs. Thank you, Tobias, for grappling with this discomforting subject. Thank you, Commonweal Magazine, for offering this article for free online.
If only I’d had a better education, growing up, I wouldn’t have to try so feverishly to catch up now.
If only I’d been beautiful, the world would have opened its arms to me more willingly, and everything would have gone better.
If only I had married someone not so damaged . . .
If only we’d been able to have children . . .
If only I’d seen the trend earlier, I might have written a bestseller.
If only my gifts had been more popular and people-pleasing . . .
If only we’d been able to buy that other house . . .
If only my spiritual experiences had been a bit more sexy and eye-catching, I could have written a memoir everyone wanted to read.
If only I could look cool one day in my whole life . . .
If only we were wealthy enough to travel the world and have our spiritual epiphanies in lovelier locations . . .
If only I’d been given the gifts I wanted, rather the ones I got . . .
This is my confession today. I confess the if-only spirit that so often distracts my work and seeps into my days. I confess thinking that I might have managed my life better, were I god of the universe who had the power to do such. I confess, not open hands and receptive heart, but clenched fists and a closed life.
All I can do, dear lovely God, creative God, compassionate God, is trust the Mercy.
I suppose that we could consider most deaths some form of evil, except that death must naturally follow life. But some deaths are due directly to the evil in human hearts. My This Day in History email provides a heartbreaking example. March 25, 1911, in New York City, 145 factory workers died because of sweatshop working conditions, including locked doors to prevent employee theft. A fire broke out, and those who weren't burned alive fell to their deaths by jumping out of windows or down elevator shafts.
God, forgive the greed that would allow--and even cause--the suffering of workers. On this day of Lent, I pray for all who must work for low wages in desperate conditions. Lord, have mercy. Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy. Amen.
Have had this music in my head the past two days, and could remember only that it was used in a crucial and tragic scene of the movie Platoon. Upon searching YouTube, found this video that I think is so fitting for what is happening in Japan, Libya, Afghanistan . . .
It takes ten minutes to listen all the way through. But please give yourself that ten minutes. And if you feel like crying, then that's a good thing.
LOYOLA PRESS A Jesuit Ministry : Home This is where I work--we're all about helping people's souls, as the Jesuits put it. Books to buy, articles to read, a great 3-minute retreat and other short meditations.
Lively dust This blog is created by LaVonne Neff, a good friend as well as writer/reader/editor/cook/mother/grandmother and who has a lovely way of seeing how life is sensual and divine all at once.
PBS Masterpiece series Cranford This is my new (well, new to me) favorite miniseries. Lovely, funny, heartbreaking. Made to go with a pot of strong tea and hankies with lace.
Rambling Rose I don't think there was much buzz about this 1991 movie, but I like it so much I own a copy. There's so much grace in this story, and Diane Ladd delivers one of my favorite movie speeches of all time, toward the end of the film (she and Robert Duvall, her husband, are in the doctor's office).
Mystical Hope: Trusting in the Mercy of God This is a short, readable, and powerful book. I'm on my way to read Bourgeault's other works. This one encouraged me and gave me a boost of desire for that quiet place with God.