This Advent, I have asked the Friars, Priests 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 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.
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.
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.
My friend, Fr. John, S.J., said most of the other Jesuits go home to their families of origin for the holidays during the break at the University where he teaches, though those that remain behind have a special mass and dinner. He thought I should write about something else. My life sounds more entertaining to him.
The sisters of Carmel gave me this glimpse into their Christmas celebrations.
On Christmas Eve morning we pray Lauds and then chant (Gregorian) the hour of Prime, in which the Martyrology is also formally chanted by one of the Sisters. On Christmas Eve we are announcing and proclaiming the Birth of our Savior, so the chant is very solemn and beautiful. We have copied it here below for you to read what is sung in Latin. When the Sister pronounces the words that speak of God becoming Incarnate for us, we all kneel and then prostrate with our faces to the floor in adoration. It is a moving and inspiring moment…
In the 1599th year from the creation of the world, when God in the beginning created the heavens and the earth. The 2957th year after the flood. The 2015th year from the birth of Abraham. The 1510th year from Moses and the going forth from Egypt of the people of Israel. In the 1032nd year from the anointing of King David. The 65th week according to the prophecy of Daniel. In the 194th Olympiad. The 752nd year from the foundation of the City of Rome. In the 42nd year of the reign of Octavius Augustus, all the world being at peace, Jesus Christ the Eternal God and Son of the Eternal Father desirous to sanctify the world by His most merciful coming, being conceived by the Holy Ghost, nine months after his conception was born in Bethlehem of Judah made man of the Virgin Mary. – Sisters of Carmel
My friend, Fr. Gregory, OCD, said his community is very busy at Christmas with the parish and the staff. Though they spend a lot of time in prayer, it sounded to me that their obligations are almost as heavy as those of lay people at that time of year. They did have a lovely Christmas together this year, though, even with the stress of their current building project.
“In this house all must be friends, all must be loved,
all must be held dear,
all must be helped.” ~ St. Teresa of Avila
It sounded as if religious communities are just a different type of family, with similar joys and difficulties. Sometimes Christmas makes things that are going wrong stand out more to us, and the longing for a better unity is drawn out in every heart as we ache for Jesus to come among us, to be born in our midst again. Our families feel that deeply at times, and so do theirs. I wonder if our lay families can find more ways to support those in consecrated life, especially since they give so very much to us?
After hearing some of the difficulties they had, a friend of mine paid for a dinner so a small community of Friars could have a special meal together Christmas Eve. I sent a book of poetry by Hafiz to another religious priest I care about. Who can be lonely with great poetry?
Let’s remember and bless these human beings who have given themselves to God for the good of the Church and the world. We can pray for them, thank them, be grateful for them, but we could also learn more about them, deepen our appreciation of their contributions, get to know some of them, let them inspire our own family lives, and find out how we can support them as they support us.
Special thanks to the priests and religious who let me hear about their family Christmases.
Here are some links of interest to learn more about our friends in Consecrated Life