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Advent tea with St. Therese

“The Lord will dawn on you in radiant beauty. You shall see his glory within you.” — Liturgy of the Hours

We are sitting in my living room, reflecting silently together in the glow of the blinking lights of the Christmas tree. It looks particularly lovely in the dark. Its light turns the smooth, gentle face of my companion from pink to yellow to blue and back again. She seems content with her tea in a flowery cup from our kitchen.

“St. Therese, what is Christmas?” I ask.

She likes this question. I have been trying and trying to write about her, but she wanted me to interview her about Christmas. So we’re talking about Christmas.

“It is the time that the children of God remember and celebrate the birth of the infant Jesus.”

She smiles with a faraway look, “It is also a time that once again the doors of heaven swing open, great graces and torrents of spiritual light are poured into the world. The child Jesus will come to each person in a special way, to be reborn in each soul, all the world receives a blessing from heaven.”

“So many people have a hard time with Christmas, St. Therese. Some people have trouble with their families, don’t have money for gifts, or are agitated and stressed at Christmas, or they get their feelings hurt at their family celebration, or things don’t go the way they want them to, or they feel lonely or they are grieving. Can you address situations like that?”

She looks at me tenderly, knowing my mixed feelings at this time of the year, and that, as I said, they are shared by far too many others. She herself suffered grief, sorrow, loneliness, depression, severe illness and disappointment.

“I want God’s children to know that Jesus truly comes to them in all humility and with love. Just as he left his beautiful heaven to be with us on earth, so he comes to be in your soul, a heaven infinitely more dear to him because of his love, his personal love for you. When you are tired, look inside and find the little beggar of love. Cradle him, cherish him; look at him. Find a moment of peace there in the Christmas stable of your heart and he will give you his grace.”

“What should we do if we are disappointed or get our feelings hurt with our families at Christmas?”

“One Christmas when I was 13, my family got back from midnight Mass, and my father was very tired and grumpy. I overheard him say he hoped this was the last year for presents for me because I was getting a little old for this. I was crushed! I had been a very sensitive child ever since the death of my mother when I was little. My family doted on me, but they knew a torrent of tears was coming and they dreaded it. I ran upstairs to cry. Somehow something happened before I reached the top stair. Everything changed for me. A new strength, a new tenderness touched my soul. I encountered in the depths of my heart the light and tenderness of the Holy Child and in an instant I just … changed my mind. My tears dried, I turned around, came back down the stairs and surprised my family very much with my joyful opening of presents and sharing with them all the happiness of the occasion. It was a Christmas miracle!”

“How do we get in touch with the grace you describe in that transforming moment of your life?”

“If I reflect on it, I see that I had been preparing myself for that moment by making small sacrifices wherever I could. I saw this as adorning my heart with freshly gathered flowers for Jesus. Some of these were violets and roses, others were cornflowers or daisies or forget-me-nots. I wanted all the flowers I could gather to cradle the baby Jesus in my heart. “

She is leaning forward now, and I see how her face lights up talking about this.

“It seems to me you are talking about how you trained yourself not to let an opportunity to do a kindness, or make a small sacrifice slip by. Is that what you mean?

“I found that life would bring me plenty of opportunities. So if one of you should find yourself naturally irritated with someone this Christmas, decide for peace and serve that person nicely. It will set you free.

“If your Christmas isn’t going the way you planned, give up your expectations as a sacrifice to Jesus, and you will feel your burden lightened.

“If someone wants to argue, let her win; just this one time.

“You will be surprised how you can walk away happy, or even find that you regard that irritating person with genuine affection. Find opportunities this Christmas, to be kind, to serve, to take the lowest place. I will be there winking at you!”

I laugh, imagining this. “That’s perfect!” I say. “I will be looking for you.”

I lift my tea cup for a toast and we clink our cups together, smiling.

She tells me a story about life in the convent when now and then one of the novices would lose her temper with St. Therese and tell her angrily exactly what she thought of her. “I decided to savor these incidents like good vinegar on a fresh salad.” She chuckles. “You could use that at Christmas, to counteract all those holiday sweets! I will be there to give you a high five to celebrate your glorious victory over yourself, and Jesus will grant you immense strength, you will see.”

“This is hard stuff, though,” I say.

She knows it is hard.

“I had such a longing to be one of God’s great heroes. I had such overwhelming desires to do great things. I came to understand that doing these small things with great love offers plenty of challenge. Yes, these are almost the hardest things of all, these little things to do! But before you know it, you will find such joy. You will realize the presence of the Little Beggar of Love in your soul. And you will be glad you gave him what he wanted for Christmas most of all. The milk of your love at every opportunity you had.

“Ask the good God to show you an opening to do a small bit of good around you, to lighten someone’s burden quietly.”

I am smiling now because I know she is right. This is a way to be good soil for the seeds of the Gospel Jesus came to bring. If we give ourselves over to little Jesus in this way, he will find our souls full of flowers for him to be cradled in, and he will make his sweet presence there known.

We will find ourselves not only doing small things with great love, but with great joy.

And if you burn the cookies, or you say something you shouldn’t have, be patient with yourself, she says.

“Little children fall often but don’t have far to fall, so they don’t hurt themselves very much.” So strive to be little, even to yourself.

Practice this “Little Way,” for his Christmas presents, fill your heart with these flowers, and the little Jesus will come to you with his grace to be cherished within you.

That is the Christmas spirit, I believe, according St. Therese of the child Jesus.

“Love him,” she says, draining her teacup.

“Love him in everything. It’s that simple.”

“In this brilliant night which illuminates the joy of the Holy Trinity, Jesus, the gentle little child of the hour, will change the darkness of my soul into torrents of light.” — St. Therese of Lisieux

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While you were out: my brother part xyz

X

In my dream I am swimming in dark water. As I descend into depths unknown, I can tell there are other people watching from farther away, as if they line the walls of an underground cistern with different rooms and levels, filled with water completely, water unfathomable.

I dive into an area further down than the others. It seems like a dark aquarium but without light on either side of the glass. However I can still somehow see a box on the bottom. I open it. It is full of pictures, letters, keepsakes. In the dream I know what these things mean and I am filled with intense sorrow. My brother is at my shoulder now. A more terrible emotional pain than I have ever known fills me. I try to show my brother the things in the box and explain the significance and the pain but he can’t answer me. He only looks on. I am not sure he understands me.


freediver ascending from the depths
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Y

I am distressed. “Why did you bring him?”

The Lord is silent, his expression inscrutable. I look at my brother who is standing at his elbow; “I can’t deal with talking to you!”

Mark’s hand had been coming out to me and he had started to say my name.

“OK OK! So I can’t fix everything at once!” he says.

He turns as if to leave but I have to ask, “Wait! … Have you seen Mom?”

“No,” he says to my surprise. “But I can feel Mom.”

I think about that. “Are you with God?”

“I’m …learning about God.” Another surprise.

“Well… where are you?”

“I don’t know. It’s just quiet here.”

I think of of the land of the Samaritans, of Jacob’s well, and the mountain in the distance where the people worshiped God whom they did not really know (see John 4:4–26.)

“Do you see anybody?”

Just Bob.* He isn’t always here but he comes to see me sometimes and we talk.

“OK.”

]

bird s eye photography of mountain
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Z

I am circling over the top of the hotel where my brother shot himself and fell from a balcony on the ninth floor.

Then I realize I am standing on the balcony next to my brother. Intense grief wells up in me.

“Didn’t you remember us? Didn’t you understand how much we loved you?”

He doesn’t look at me or speak but I feel that I am him and in my mind’s eye I see our family and all of our friends. But they are so far away as if they are across an infinite chasm.

“I saw every one of your faces.” I feel his longing and love for each one dear to him. I understood that the longing was more like a longing for the past though. To him there was no way back. I feel his overwhelming sorrow.

I understand that while to me there was a way back, to him there wasn’t.

I can’t feel the impact of the shot. I don’t hear it.

But then I experience him falling. It’s slow, very slow. He knows right away after the shot that this was all wrong, a terrible, horrible mistake.

As he falls he senses these beings all around him, present in different places all of the way down; some close, some witnessing from farther away. He realizes they are sad, so sad. He knows they are sorry for him and that they mourn over this terrible act he has just committed. They are gentle though, not angry. Just terribly terribly sad.

He wonders what they are. He thinks his sister would probably call them angels, but he isn’t sure.

What happens now?

The fall continues in slow motion.

Suddenly he’s caught. It all stops. Big strong arms squeeze him tight.

“It’s OK, buddy. It’s OK. It’s all over. You’re safe. I’m here. Come on with me a while.”

It’s Bob.

Breaking the fall.

jumping plane military training
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*Bob was my brother’s best friend, colleague, mentor and soul brother for 24 years. He was also his brother-in-law. Bob died in my and my brother’s arms in April of 2012.

stainless steel close wrench on spanner
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Christmas Shopping with Jesus

adult beautiful elegant eyewear
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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.

close up photo of people holding hands
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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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