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Bethany Hang Out

Catholic contemplative life and devotion

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Faith

Prayer without “praying”

 “Today, the vegetables would like to be chopped

By someone who is singing God’s Name.”
~ Hafiz

A few mornings ago, sitting at the table with my coffee, looking out over the meadow, I noticed with a smile, the moon in the brightening sky.

It was a rich gold, shining out momentarily as the sun came up, and then, as the light from the sun intensified, changing to it’s usual white. Slowly it became translucent. It faded away like the Cheshire cat, leaving a grin behind, eventually disappearing all together as morning filled the sky.

The whole thing was enchanting. It was prayer without “praying.”

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There are times when the human soul is in a state of recollection and communion just by being what it is, by living, and being receptive when it is given silent brightness.

Holy mindfulness, the Sacrament of the Present Moment, and the Practice of the Presence of God are usually thought of as actively cultivated. However, perhaps these are graciously given, as well, and become the way we receive and experience the minutes and hours of daily life.

It seems in the quiet moments of the day, we can be deeply in tune with the loveliness of being, the loveliness of God, by being receptive, and just by being.

 

Maybe this is because we live in God’s presence, are made in His image, and the kingdom really is in our midst, and truly within us.

 

“…the Father and I will go to him and make Our home within him.” John 14:23b

 

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In our gentle appreciation of beauty, in our every day task of making food for the people we love out of the beautiful carrots, onions, and garlic he has given us and that human hands have  grown, we can be recollected spiritually without necessarily even thinking about it.  I think, but I’m not sure, that is what the indwelling of the Trinity might feel like. After all, this indwelling is true and real in each of us.

When you lean down to hug your dog and a warm breeze comes rushing by, embracing you both, and all is still inside as you close your eyes; maybe this is what “the morning star rising in [our] hearts,” is like.

When the coffee is hot and good, when someone you love very much is sitting silently at the other end of the table with his coffee and his cigarette, as the morning light turns from blue to pink to gold to white,  sometimes it isn’t necessary to form any words of love, or even really to think about anything at all. Your heart is already praying just by being there, and being what it is.

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When everything seems quietly alive, as if even the inanimate in creation joins us in silent praise, and it’s no big deal, it just is; it could be there is nothing very strange or esoteric about that.

Maybe when Jesus said, “the pure of heart shall see God,” this is because with Him we are pure of heart, and when we are pure of heart, all we see is God.

Maybe when the heart is open, it automatically is filled with a receptive “heartfulness,” singing God’s name, without words, without thoughts, all the time.

 “Today, the vegetables would like to be chopped

By someone who is singing God’s Name.”
~ Hafiz

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My guru

His mother calls him “Pete,” (for “Sweetie Petey.) His dad calls him “Macaroo.” Meet Mac. I know he didn’t say anything  you recognize as “How do you do?” But he knows you’re here, and that you are a new person in the room. I wonder what he thinks?

I like to tell him he’s my guru. He is forever in half lotus position, after all. His legs are pretty much stuck that way. However, nearly every moment with Mac is a Zen moment. So it makes sense that he sits like a Master.

His  eyes can be disconcerting at first. We are used to eye contact from others, and Mac’s eyes tend to be unruly, rolling wherever they want to, unseeing. But once you get used to his eye movements you will find  enchanting blue eyes. There is something wise about eyes that do not see. I think it is because eyes like that imply an inner vision. Mac is not going to give you eye contact. But he seems to give soul contact. It’s one of his mysteries.

When I turn Mac over in the morning, I usually ask him how he slept and whether he had any interesting dreams. He talks to me, too, in “happy Mac sounds,” and I answer, “Really? You don’t say! Oh, not THAT!”

As I get him ready for the day  he cooperates as best he can. Or not. (He has his faults like anyone, of course.)

I pull him into his chair from his bed with ease now. I used to not be as good at it, to say the least. We did some unintended yoga  now and then. Mac had to put up with me.  He looked pretty worried at times.

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Trust is a very important part of Mac’s life every moment. It has to be. I’m so glad he trusts me now. His mother says  Mac is “literally an example of blind faith.” When you watch Mac, you can see how true that is. In even the routine events of the day he has to practice faith, and patience. He more often than not shows great sweetness, even sacrifice, forbearance, generosity and love.

For a goofy example, he will wear hats and glasses just for me. His mother says I am the only person he does that for. I realized he does it to please and amuse me even though he doesn’t like it at all. He will even laugh with me the whole time, just because I am happy. I came to see that these virtues of Mac’s are choices he makes. He has been pressed hard to make these choices by necessity every day, but the choice to be virtuous and loving has been his.

Eating is the hardest thing he does all day. It takes all his concentration. It’s hard for him to get his mouth and tongue to do what he wants them to do. He gives it his best most of the time. He has apparently decided, however, that the food had better be worth the trouble. He makes sure I have a chance to practice patience too, when I feed him.“OK, Mac, PILL!” He knows what that means and reluctantly opens his mouth for me.

At first I had a hard time getting his pills down him. I kept putting pills in the wrong place on his tongue, spilling water so it went up his nose, and generally making the process more difficult than necessary. This was hard on both of us. He was mad at me sometimes. But after a little while he would forgive me and lean his head on me to show it.

The day  the pills went down without a hitch, he crowed with joy. He leaned his head against my arm and nuzzled me–the Mac hug. I felt like the best kid in class. I laughed and he laughed too.

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I speak English, Mac speaks Mac, and we both speak music. When I turn him over on his stomach and put on some music he likes, he arches up, raising and swinging his torso, lifting up against the outward curve of his “C” shaped back, pushing with his elbow a bit to stretch higher. He reminds me of a dolphin leaping from the water. He may begin whooping and howling. I like to howl with him. He thinks that is funny and laughs contagiously. Sometimes we raise quite a ruckus and the dogs come running in, barking.  His  “Macnastics”  dance to his favorite song (on repeat) in the morning is an uncontainable Alleluia– joy concentrate.

A big part of our day is listening to music.  He pays close attention, usually, to any new music I play for him. If he loves it he will sing with it, which might sound a little more like screaming to the uninitiated. If you knew Mac though, you would be able to tell that it is beautiful and soulful.

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Mac loves the wind. He especially loves a sudden gust that rushes against his face. He will sing to a breeze like that. He lunges in his chair with happiness when the wind brings leaves scuttling across the driveway. If he is like me, and maybe he is, he likes the way the wind seems to fill his soul and lift his spirit. Or his happiness with the wind could be something completely unique to the Mac-iverse that we will never know.

Sometimes on our walks I gather rose petals and sprinkle them over his head. He can’t see the petals or even what I am doing but he smiles gently, as if he appreciates the love.

In the afternoon I like to do my meditation with Mac’s feet in my hands. He seems to know to be silent with me then, unless he needs something or is uncomfortable. Then he isn’t silent.

Sitting quietly with Mac, his funky little feet warm in my hands, the sun spilling through the windows, the dogs sleeping nearby, is rather heavenly.

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When his family comes home Mac lights up as if all the love in the world is right here at his house.  It does seem that way, they are so crazy about him, too.  I feel privileged to be let in on the love they have going there.

What is it like to be Mac? How much does he “understand” in the way we define it?  Mac does not “do” much by the world’s standards. But he participates in and lives life. He loves and is loved. His soul has beauty, purpose, and wisdom of its own.

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There are so many things  Mac can’t do but I hardly ever think about that. I’m fascinated by what he can do, what he might be doing, and how much he shows me what it is to live, to be human, to be a child of God.

He teaches me things I thought I knew.

Mac is a shining light of every truth he lives.

I have  finally received the true initiation from my 23-year old guru, his highest honor, the Mac kiss. I’m going to smile all day. You would too. I think he just taught me all I need to know.

Mac really is my guru.  His teaching is simple but profound: Everybody has a soul, that you can connect with by love. Everyone has love within them. Everyone has a mission from God and is loved, loved, loved by God. We all “know” this. But to see this, really see it, is to be in Heaven already. And in Heaven nobody cares if you drool a little. That’s how it should be.

The Feet of the Master

feet of the master 🙂

 

  • I wrote this article in 2014, with the permission of Mac’s parents, when I was in my first year of working with Mac. I wanted to reflect on my work with him again as my official job with him is ending. We’re not worried. We know we will always be friends.

The Prayer of dreams; being attentive to the Dreamer within

“I was asleep but my heart was awake. A voice! My beloved was knocking: ‘Open to me!” (Song of Songs 5:2a)

Have you ever had a dream that seemed to be from God, one that helped you understand something about yourself, reassured you He was there, or helped you know His will for you?

Maybe you have had a redirecting sort of dream, or one that changed your life. Many people have had dreams  in which they seemed to talk to someone they loved who had died, or , more rarely, a dream about something that was about to happen. It seems that dreams open a door in us that is most often closed.

There are psychological interpretations of dreams, and scientific explanations of dreaming. According to the Scriptures, some dreams can be very important indeed, and are one way God speaks to the human soul.

Dreams are part of the stories of  St. Therese, St. Faustina, St. Monica, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Dominic, St. Perpetua and others.  Dreams were an important part of the journeys of several Biblical people, too, like Daniel and Joseph in the Old Testament, and, of course, in the life of St. Joseph, husband of Mary. The three Wise men were also directed by a dreams. Dreams are potentially powerful parts of our own spiritual lives.

Attention to dreams can be a fruitful spiritual practice. Dreams have been powerful messages to me during times I couldn’t understand myself, or what God was doing in my life.  Many dreams have been healing to me, or reassured me of God’s love and presence. Some dreams I have never forgotten though I had them years and years ago, because they were so important to me.

Dreams most often speak in symbols, which is how God tends to speak to humanity. The Church, the Liturgy, the Scriptures, are all overflowing with truths expressed in symbol and metaphor, or in imagery laden language that is closer to poetry and parable than linear narrative or stark information. Dreams have their own precision and logic that is on a different level altogether. Dreams seem to put us in touch with the mysterious reality that Heaven inhabits the human soul and  speaks to her in its’ own preferred language, which is, after all, the soul’s own native tongue.

Sometimes dreams seem to come from that same place of meeting between the earthly and the spiritual as a holy vision would come. A dream can be a door to the timeless, a bridge to the sacred, a mirror of spiritual truth in our lives.

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The late  Episcopalian priest, author and counselor,  Morton T. Kelsey, suggested that there is a “dreamer within,” and that the “Dreamer Within, is none other than the Holy Spirit,” who prays within us, teaches, consoles, inspires, and guides us.

Father Kelsey went so far as to say that when he was working with someone who was having trouble believing in God, his first suggestion was that they  start writing down dreams every day. He said that practice usually helped change a person’s perspective within a few weeks.

There is something uncanny going on, a wisdom being expressed that is beyond our own. One tends to notice that when reading over a series of recorded dreams.

I think it’s less important to “decode” dreams or try to “figure them out” as much as it is important to experience them as a soul who seeks God in all things. We could value our dreams and treat them as potentially valid spiritual experiences meant to help us on our way. To do this we  need to remember them, record them, and pray them.

 

How to Remember Your Dreams:

Be open to remembering them, want to remember them.

• Keep a pen, a notebook, or your journal beside your bed expectantly. You are more likely to remember dreams this way.

• Be disciplined and write them down while they are still fresh in your mind when you first wake up. Write them down just as you remember them as soon as you can.

How to Practice the Prayer of Dreams:

• If you have had a dream that felt important to you,  a troubling dream,  or a puzzling dream, make time to revisit the dream in prayer.

Try to replay the dream, perhaps as you write reflectively, in your journal.

• Recreate the scene of the dream. Step into it in your imagination, only this time with an awareness of Jesus at your side.

• Let Jesus show you what He wants you to see. Often doing this is transformative of the dream and even of the person who dreamed it!

  • One of my favorite things to do when I go over a dream prayerfully, is to look for Jesus in the dream. He often has a hidden role among the characters of each dream. When you go through a dream and recognize Him, it can be very meaningful and often it is a surprise. In a dream that was originally upsetting, Jesus turned out to be a crane operator showing me how to operate a crane. The meaning seemed to be that He shared my sorrow and could show me how to carry it with His help.
  • Sometimes God has more to tell us about a dream. We just have to invite Him to tell us what He wants to about it.

• Respond to God about the dream in prayer. You might write this prayer in your journal if you like to pray that way.

• Make good use in your life of any insights that apply.

  • You may want to go back and read the dream sometime when you need it to remember that God is constantly working in your soul, and this will strengthen you again.I think most dreams have to do with the part of the Interior Castle that St. Teresa of Avila calls, “The Room of Self Knowledge,” and are the Holy Spirit helping us know ourselves better.There are also dreams that are obviously an experience of the Lord or an angel or a saint, or a visit from someone you love, who has died. It’s easy to see these dreams as powerful gifts from God, messages of love and reassurance of His presence.

    Dreams can guide us and point us in the right direction in our lives, or help us grow in trust that God is within us always.

    Some dreams seem made to be puzzled and prayed over. Those can be just as life changing as the more numinous kind, and the process of unraveling them seems to be good for us, and our relationship of trust with God. When I have had a puzzling dream, often the Scripture readings at mass will seem to open its’ meaning for me or reinforce its message, or something will happen, or someone will say something that makes clear what God is trying to show me in a dream I have wondered about. So if you’re puzzling over a dream, keep paying attention to what God may be trying to get you to hear in your life. If He is telling you something, He will keep saying it in as many ways as you might hear.

    Usually the meaning of the dream, according to psychologist, Beth Row, is the meaning that makes sense to the dreamer, the meaning that “clicks.” You are the one God gave the dream to and you will know when you have understood, even though wise people,  books and other dream guides can be helpful.

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    When we write dreams out and pray them, they become a more conscious form of contact with God, and can be helpful for us in our spiritual lives. I sometimes get the impression that the Lord enjoys puzzling over a dream with me, and is glad I came to seek its meaning from Him and show Him I value His communications  in the dreams He sends to me.

    It seems to me the Prayer of Dreams is one way we can say, in our sleep, as at any other time, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”

    Dream on, Christian soul.

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A Christmas meditation

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Mary

Warm, soft, vulnerable and alive, this sleeping One in my lap. I caress the tiny forearm, touch the curled, unsure hands. I can’t stop kissing his fast-beating heart, listening to his unpracticed, uneven breath. I touch his soft, dark, baby hair, nuzzling the top of his head with my nose. His little feet, slightly cold- so tiny and perfect- have never yet touched the ground. I hold them in my hands to warm them. I kiss their satiny soles. “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus,” my heart in wonder repeats, repeats. I press him to me, this Lord of mine, with a profound, peaceful, joyful gratitude and love, a protective love. He opens his eyes, still that deep slate gray of the newly arrived human. They hold the newborn’s sage, open gaze; mildly curious, seeming to drink in the powerful love pouring out of the utterly enchanted person looking back at them. He blinks innocently at the tears falling from my eyes into his.

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Jesus in His Sacred Humanity

I am cold, my arms flailing awkwardly and out of my control. I’m confused. I don’t know what’s happening. I need comfort, warmth, nourishment. And then I am warm, pressed soothingly all around. A deep, sweet peace flows into my mouth and through my body as my unruly hands tangle in her hair; Mama, Mama. The only thing I know is this love, this union, this protection and assurance. I relax completely.

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TheBlessed Trinity

I am that I am, Being, Love, Light and Life. I surround my Son, inhabit my Son, I am within my Son, I love my Son, I am my Son.

I have remained what I have been and will be eternally, and I have become what I was not. In my love of humanity, I have finally become fully human, entering the world of time and space in the most profound and humble way. So great is my love, I have been conceived and born into this human cloud of unknowing, emptying Myself, taking the form of a slave, in order to free and divinize my beloved humanity, made of dust, that they might share my Divine Life.

Vulnerable, human, innocent and unknowing, be, oh Christian soul. I have shown you the way to Me: this little Child, this Way, this Truth, this Life, full of humility and trust, gentle, humble, simple, with the need, the open-ness of the newborn. Come to Me, forgetting everything but Love Itself, and be born again. Be little, be free, be loved. Never be afraid, it is I, the Little One, asking for your love.

Answer Me, say from the heart:

Truly, I have set my soul 

In silence and in peace

As the Divine Child has rest in His mother’s arms,

Even so, my soul.

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Sunrise: through the dark faith of Advent to the brightness of Christmas

Traveling through Advent with grief this year has led to me to soul search about what Christmas is, and, in the process, to notice similarities between the journey of Advent into Christmas and the stages of the soul’s progression into the heart of God.  According to Carmelite spirituality,  the soul first travels through and away from outward distractions, into inward beauty, then into the deep pain of the dark night when even these lovely interior gifts are removed and the soul’s perception of them and consequently, of God, is radically changed. This happens so that the true nature of God can be apprehended by naked faith and purified love. In this way, the soul is prepared for union with God, and begins to radiate peace and love through His indwelling presence.

Throughout this journey, the soul finds that the things around God, even things that point to or reflect God, are not God Himself. The soul has to learn to relate to all these other things in a whole new way that has to do with loving God as He is in Himself. This is something which God will begin mysteriously to teach the willing and loving soul, who responds to God, in and through this suffering, with more and more surrender and determination. God will transform that soul, making it able to receive God in pure faith, hope and love.

In a similar way, the journey through Advent prepares us for the very real grace of Christmas, which is beyond all of the outward and even inward trappings that surround Christmas itself. We journey through all these things to the heart of Christmas, and thereby receive its true grace.

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Advent is full of things that are good and point the way to Christmas, but they are not Christmas itself. I can be distracted by the outward show of the season; the lights, the gifts, the traditions, the social interactions. These outward things can be good, used to serve others and remind us of the birth of Jesus. But they are not Christmas itself.

Even the people in our lives, whom we love and enjoy, and/or who cause us a lot of stress at this time of year one way or the other; they point the way to Christmas because they are our school of love, forgiveness, mercy, sacrifice, and communion. They reflect the love of God to us. But people and relationships are not actually Christmas itself.

The events we plan with our families and friends, as good (or as stressful) as they can be, are not Christmas either.

Our feelings, memories and thoughts, so intensified (sometimes painfully, sometimes happily) during this time of the year, are part of our journey. Our expectations, our longing for unity, joy, peace, justice and beauty, are all from God and are holy. They point us to the meaning of the Nativity, and to the joys of Heaven. But even these are not Christmas itself.

Sometimes I am happy about shared love and memories with family and friends. Sometimes I am keenly aware that I am in deep mourning. Some years I have truly felt that I have known Christmas joy. Other years I did not feel it. But it is still Christmas, whatever I think or feel.

Cultural expressions of the season, social events, our relationships,  and even our inmost feelings, all these things, painful or joyful as these may be, are not Christmas. These are things that surround Christmas, that reflect its light.

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What is Christmas? Is it just a remembering of the birth of Jesus? I think it is that, but what else is it?

Does something actually happen at Christmas?

I think Christmas is a remembering by us, the Church, that makes present and re-presents an eternal reality. With this remembering, I believe, Heaven cooperates whole heartedly.

I believe that at Christmas, by a special grace, there is a sunrise that bathes every face, a release of extra love and light coming through the heart of the Church, Christ’s Body, that shines on everyone.

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The Church prays for it: “Grant….that the the coming solemnity of [the Nativity of ] your Son may bestow healing upon us in this present life.” ~ from the Liturgy of the Hours Wednesday of the Third Week of Advent

Jesus has come into the world and continues to be with us.

Christmas is true no matter what happens with events outside or inside myself, or how I perceive them.

Christmas is real, and that sunrise is there.  It’s coming.

The God who brought light out of darkness has shown in our hearts.

-The God who brought light out of darkness has shown in our hearts.

To give the light of the knowledge of God’s glory that appears on the face of Christ.

-He has shown in our hearts.

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit.~Responsory from Morning Prayer from the Carmelite Proper of the Liturgy of the Hours, Feast of St. John of the Cross.

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  • I originally wrote this piece in Advent of 2015

An Advent Hangout :)

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Come to me,

all you who are weary and heavily burdened,

and  I will give you rest for your souls.

~Matt. 11:28

The invitation said “Shawna’s Day of Silence.” When we arrived, her house was open, breezy, and, obviously, quiet.

My friend had set up areas to be comfortable to think, read, journal or pray or even nap. There were candles burning, and an array of books on various tables; spiritual reading, art books, a Bible. Art supplies and paper were in the kitchen with snacks and coffee. I brought a basket of rosaries to set on the coffee table. A note encouraged us to go for a walk, or do whatever quiet activity we liked.

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I remember walking in her beautiful garden, scribbling in my journal on her couch, smiling at my friends, just hanging out. People came and went as they pleased or as they had time.

Shawna was going through a hard time in her life then. It is beautiful that one of her responses to her spiritual growth during her suffering was to open her home for us as a refuge of silence and acceptance.

You would think such a gathering would feel awkward, but, especially among good friends, it was not awkward at all.

I was inspired, some years later to hold a “day of silence” at my house. I decided to punctuate mine with times of communal vocal prayer.

People could come and go, similar to Shawna’s day, but they would know that at various times we would gather to pray together.

My friend Jocie came early to my “Day of Silence,” and made memorable breakfast tacos for everyone.

I set up an environment similar to the one Shawna had.

We then gathered for Morning Prayer form the Liturgy of the Hours in the room in my house we had set aside as our family oratory. (I called it my chapel but I know that is not actually correct terminology.)

Then everyone could do whatever they liked.

We had a tree house rosary at noon, Divine Mercy Chaplet at 3, and Evening Prayer from the Liturgy of the Hours on the trampoline at 6.

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It was a great day. One of my fond memories of that day was wandering into the “chapel” and seeing my friend Molly in there with a bucket of soapy warm water and a towel. She asked me to sit down and she washed my feet!

It was very touching.

* (You may ask where my kids were that day or how did I got them to be quiet all that time. Answer: My kids were there some, but mostly at a friend’s house that day- otherwise it would never have been a day of silence!)

I have hosted days of silence and reflection on other occasions, but they have been shorter. They were more like a come and go open house with communal prayer at the beginning and the end for a few hours, and food and coffee and tea, of course.

I have also tried a “day of silence” with my fiancee. In our schedule we made, we set times for walking, reading, quiet prayer togetherandjust open quiet time. We broke silence for meals and for going out for coffee.

At three o’clock, we washed one another’s feet, and anointed one another with oil.

The day was the first anniversary of my brother’s suicide which had unfortunately marked most of the duration of our relationship with trauma and the various crises that emanated from that event. It was important that we have a healing day.

When we washed one another’s feet, we also told each other how grateful we were for each other’s strength and wisdom, faith and resilience, acceptance and presence.

In the evening, we prayed Evening Prayer together from the Liturgy of the Hours, and went out for a special meal.

Consider hosting a Day of Reflection or a Day of Silence at your own home, your Domestic Church. There are so many ways to serve others without a lot of “doing.” You can be open and accepting to others, your house like the open heart of Jesus.

You don’t have to make small talk or worry about how you are doing. Just be like Joseph and Mary when they opened the stable at Bethlehem for the Shepherds, for the wise men, for whoever wanted to come to be with Jesus and with them under the light of the Star.

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We all have so many Christmas parties we go to. We have shopping and cooking, baking and decorating, travel and other plans.

Take a moment. Let the fresh air of the Spirit come into your house, the sweetness of silence with Jesus permeate your home and your friendships.

You could have different kind of Christmas party, one that cultivates peace and gives refuge to your friends in the middle of all their intensified seasonal activity and holiday stress.

Put on the coffee pot. Light the candles on your Advent wreath. Set out some good food, some spiritual reading, maybe some art supplies.

Then open up your home and your heart.

The fruit of silence is prayer…
The fruit of prayer is love
The fruit of love is service
The fruit of service is peace
~ St.Teresa of Calcutta

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Monastery Christmas

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During Advent, I asked Friars, Priests, Nuns and Sisters what they do for Christmas in their communities. I called a cloistered Carmelite convent and asked what the nuns do for Christmas. I read accounts in articles and on web sites of Christmas at monasteries. I didn’t really know why I was doing it, or where I was going with it.

I was surprised by some of the responses I got to my question, especially by the fact that there is sometimes loneliness or emotional distance in religious communities at Christmas.

I heard about Christmas nights with everyone exhausted from ministry work.

Some Christmas Days are spent, anti-climactically, with each member in his own room after all the masses are over.

Some Christmases are difficult or disappointing, just as some of ours are.

I don’t know what I expected to hear. Of course they have problems, too.

Some described happy Christmases among brothers as the norm.

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Other accounts had a gentle simplicity and sense of the sacred we could work harder to imitate or be more in touch with if we wanted to.

…Advent can be a quiet but intense time. The days are getting shorter and darker. It is a period in which nature and the liturgy can harmonize in a way that naturally draws a monk or nun more into a reflective and prayerful mood. When the great day of the Lord’s birth arrives, it is as if a great light had burst on the scene. The dramatic turning point is Midnight Mass, something Trappists do in a very distinctive way. The liturgy is simple but majestic. We are often joined by dozens or as many as a hundred of our friends and neighbors with their children.

On Christmas day, we are allowed to sleep in a little longer. Breakfast will often feature delicious pastries made by a Trappist brother or sister or one of our neighbors. We do not exchange gifts, but we receive many cards and goodies from people far and wide who appreciate our silent witness as contemplatives. We are permitted to call our families and catch up on news from home. All of these are means for really enjoying and celebrating Christmas. But, perhaps, what a Trappist monk or nun most cherishes about Christmas day are the free periods given us to spend time in the chapel or walk in nature and enter into the mystery of Christmas in silence and solitude.
http://trappists.org/newcomers/social-life/holidays-and-celebrations

This  response from my friend, Sister Lynn, was particularly joyful:

“ We have a special Vespers service on Christmas Eve where we sing the portions of Isaiah that speak of the Emmanuel. We usually sing Christmas carols in Chapel before Mass as people are arriving. Since we are located in a very rural area we don’t usually have a lot of guests at Mass; perhaps a dozen or so on Sundays. But Christmas Eve is the one Mass where we get a huge turnout of people – usually around 100. After Mass we visit with our guests a bit as they leave.

Christmas morning we have Morning Prayer. We have Christmas Day Mass with our elder sisters in the infirmary. Then the sister cooks get to work preparing our Christmas dinner. Easter and Christmas we splurge … this year we are having steak! Different sisters sign up to do parts of the meal – I am on for vegetarian main dish (we’re having specially seasoned Boca burgers and cauliflower steaks) and also salad.

In the afternoon we have some rest time. The

evening is my favorite part of the day – we have our community Christmas party. We have fun finger foods, open gifts that have been given to the community – usually there is a small gift for each sister (something like an Amazon gift card or gift of an extra retreat day). It’s only community – no guests, we put on our jammies and just have fun being together.

~ Sr. Lynn, O.S.B.

Sister Lynn and two of her Sisters

The sisters of Carmel gave me this glimpse into their Christmas celebrations.

St. Nicholas, Friend of Children and of the Poor, Master of Sneaky Good Deeds

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I wanted Santa to be real to my daughters forever, not only when they were small, but always. I accomplished this by teaching them about the original Santa Klaus, St. Nicholas, Friend of Children and of the Poor, Master of Sneaky Good Deeds.

As a Saint he is forever accessible to us who believe. Very useful in this Santa catechesis was the little movie, Nicholas, the Boy Who Became Santa.* My girls loved it and they watched it over and over and so did the neighborhood kids who were always at our house. The movie shows the boy Nicholas giving away his things to the poor, buying slaves their freedom, sneaking food and gifts to children and the poor in the middle of the night, always remaining anonymous.

St. Nicholas, who had an intense devotion to the Christ Child and a special love for children, became a bishop in what is now Turkey. He was persecuted by the Romans who burned down his church and arrested him. He spent years in prison, even sharing his bread and water with his fellow prisoners who weren’t particularly nice to him. Eventually he was set free and was able to re-join his fellow Christians.

I incorporated devotion to St. Nicholas into our family celebration of Advent and Christmas, having the girls write him a letter on his feast day, Dec. 6 ( a letter in return for which, he always left some simple treats, some change,and possibly some glitter.) They would write to St. Nicholas about what they wanted him to pray for them about in their lives. I always had them include three virtues they wanted him to obtain from God for them. (This is where The Family Virtues Guide came in handy.)** Some of these letters the girls wrote were very beautiful and of course some were hilarious!

Shawn and Kids
Shawn and Kids 12/00

During the course of Advent and the Christmas season, we would attempt to imitate St. Nicholas by doing sneaky good deeds as much as we could. One year I remember we put a bunch of Christmas roses in our red wagon and stayed up late, going out to leave roses and glitter or some toys for the kids at each house on our street. As people did in honor of St. Nicholas after his death, we sometimes left a note that said, “St. Nicholas.” As you can imagine, this was great fun.

Of particularly fond memory is a Christmas we drove around to houses

where people struggled with poverty. I remember how we silently giggled as we sprinkled glitter all over porches, leaving presents and food and red rose petals. We laughed about it on the way home in the car.

The girls understood that in this way we were being helpers of St. Nicholas just like anybody is when they give sneaky gifts in honor of Jesus’ birthday the way St. Nicholas did. So my kids transitioned slowly to understanding that the adults in their family did this same thing for them each Christmas… as helpers of St. Nicholas who loved the Christ child, loved children and the poor. So that’s how it all worked! However he stayed real to them as a Saint and a friend. The legend could grow up with the kids.

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This was a very good way to learn what Christmas gifts are about, and who Santa really is. Sometimes there were challenges, however.

One Christmas morning, my wide eyed little girls ran in the back door yelling, “MAMA! St. Nicolas SMOKES! And he DRINKS, TOO!”

My dad and brother had been over in the middle of the night, helping St. Nicholas with a trampoline in the back yard for the girls. Apparently they had left cigarette butts and a few beer bottles around as well.

Looking at my daughters, I tried not to laugh. No laughing. I had to think.

I thought of several possible answers in the midst of their shocked clamor.

It was the helpers? Should I bring elves into this? It’s Christmas, give Santa a break? It was Uncle Mark and Grandaddy? (No, not that, not yet.)

I looked down at their horrified little faces and shrugged.

“Well! Now we know what to leave St. Nicholas on Christmas Eve from now on instead of the hot coco and cookies. Next time we will leave him cigarettes and a beer!”

blur bright celebration christmas
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Advent Activity: Go out and do a sneaky good deed in honor of St. Nicholas and of the Christ Child. Cigarettes and beer are entirely optional.

*https://www.cccofamerica.com/?portfolio=nicholas-the-boy-who-became-santa

** http://www.virtuesproject.com/family.html

Christmas Shopping with Jesus

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“When Black Friday comes,
I’m gonna dig myself a hole,
I’m gonna lay down in it ‘till I satisfy my soul.”
-Steely Dan

The Advent Season is at the same time as the Shopping Season. I wish it wasn’t so. I wish, when December comes, that I could spend my Advent and Christmas as a hermit  instead.

I would probably miss my brother though.

I told Jesus how much this time of year stresses me out.

There is so much to do and the whole soundtrack of Advent is Christmas music when it isn’t Christmas. They play and play those Christmas songs everywhere you go, and by the time Christmas comes I don’t even want to hear Joy to the World  ever again.

I hate shopping, even on line.

I am prone to mall nausea.

Jesus listened in silence. He is good at that.

He has been helping me pack, since I am in the middle of moving.

“Can’t we just trick all the stores by moving Christmas to some other time?”

He sat back on his heels, smiling at me. “Let’s go shopping.”

“What, right now?”

But he was already putting on his shoes. Which means I had to put on mine, too.

He wanted to go to Wal-mart. I hate that place. But I drove him there.

There was a lot of traffic, and some people were not driving in their right minds. I growled at them, but I said, “God bless you, have a nice day,” because what else can you say with that guy around?

When we arrived, he wanted to sit in the parking lot and hold my hand for a while.

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So we held hands sitting in the car.  I looked at him sometimes, and sometimes I watched the people going by. So many of them were smiling, though many seemed pre-occupied. People handed each other carts, stepped aside for the elderly, grinned conspiratorially at the children, many of whom were skipping or jumping up and down. Parents looked at each other over their children’s heads and laughed.

I thought about how even in the midst of the over commercialization of the season, it is true that people seem to treat each other with a little more kindness. Maybe there is something to the magic of the season after all. It’s Jesus coming out in people at his special time of year.

Jesus said his mom always took him shopping when she went, that he loved going with her.

I thought about that.

We always think of Mary’s pregnancy during Advent. She was filled with Jesus. She took him everywhere. From what Elizabeth said at the Visitation, his presence could be felt in her. I imagined Mary, very big and pregnant, doing the shopping, smiling, knowing.

Jesus squeezed my hand. “Let’s go.”

At the front doors, he made sure I donated to the Salvation Army, and reminded me to thank the bell ringer for being out there.

He drew me into conversation with some little boys who were raising money for their team, prompting me to ask questions that seemed to please them.

We walked through the tinseled Wal-Mart, noticing people and blessing them. He pointed out to me the ones who were tired or worried or sad, and had me pray for them. He showed me examples of people being kind to one another across the usual social boundaries we rarely think about and seldom disregard. I began to kind of almost like Wal-mart.

I bought some dog food and we silently blessed all the people in the check out line; especially the young mother with the crying baby and  fussy toddler, the cashier who looked as if she had worked a double, and the old man who counted his change out so slowly and then did it again.

I felt happy.

But then Jesus said that the mall was next.

little presents
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Bother.

Yep, there was that Christmas music. He smiled, I noticed. He said he likes Christmas music all the time.

It was crowded in the mall and I was almost instantly over stimulated. He patted me on the back.

He thought I should try smiling from the heart at everyone I saw.

This simple exercise had an amazing curative effect on my nerves.

I started seeing possible gifts my daughters might like a lot. I even started to feel a little excited. I walked a little faster. I thought how easy to please both my daughters are, and how much I love them.

As we made our way through the mall, Jesus reminded me to say a kind word to everyone I interacted with, even to go out of my way to compliment people. I was surprised how much this little effort brightened people’s faces, and mine, too.

He wanted to go into a store that looked really glitzy to me. I dislike places like that. They make me feel ridiculous.

Sure enough when we stepped across the threshold, I noticed the hole in the toe of my shoe, became conscious of the eccentric bent and general sloppiness of my clothes, the fact that I have not worn make up in years.

Looking at all those expensive beauty products on mirrored surfaces, all those swanky clothes, the fashion show music, the fast pace, being surrounded by the fashionable and well dressed, made me unusually self conscious. Then I was annoyed at myself for caring.

Jesus pinched me. Because in my self absorption, I had not noticed a teenaged girl whose bag had come open on the bottom. Her items fell and rolled across the slick, polished aisle and under clothes racks, scattering hopelessly. People stepped over her things, or avoided her or stared at her, but nobody was helping her and she was embarrassed, as teens tend to be.

I helped her find everything, even getting on my hands and knees and crawling under hanging coats, smiling because it reminded me of hiding from my mom in stores as a kid.

All her things restored to her, and a new bag procured, the embarrassed teen was on her way, hopefully feeling a little better, and thinking of what was for dinner.

On our way out, Jesus and I passed one of those triple mirrors that help you see your new outfit from every angle. As I walked by, I saw an unexpected flash of color and retraced my last two steps. I saw myself in a golden dress with bracelets on my arms, rings on my fingers, and gold sandals on my feet, a small crown on my head. I laughed as the vision faded, and the voice in my ear said, “This is how you look, to ME.” I closed my eyes in sheer joy.

gray glass bottle with pink ribbon
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When I opened my eyes, he had slipped away.  He must have gone to help someone else so I got into the car alone, knowing he had his own ride home.

At a very busy intersection I saw him standing on a corner holding one of those signs saying that he was hungry, and would someone please help.

I hate when he stands on a corner where I can’t get to him unless I go to the next exit and turn around and almost get in a wreck trying to help him. But I did it anyway. I even gave him a hug along with the money. He patted me and said, “God bless you.”

Back in my car, I turned on the radio. Matt Maher was singing “Alive Again” and it made me cry a little bit.

“You called and You shouted
Broke through my deafness
Now I’m breathing in and breathing out
I’m alive again

You shattered my darkness
Washed away my blindness
Now I’m breathing in and breathing out
I’m alive again”

I understand. The spirit of Advent, Lord, is in listening to you, noticing you, and spending time with you in the ways you lead me to, loving in all the ways the world around me offers… even in shopping and going to Wal-Mart and the mall.

nativity scene christmas decor
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  • I originally wrote this in 2014. It appeared on ATX Catholic and also in my newspaper column at Bryan Eagle.  🙂

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