Monthly Archives: November 2010
Well the tree’s up. My family joined millions of others this Thanksgiving weekend by putting up our Christmas tree and decorations. Why do I sound less than thrilled? Look, it was too early when I started seeing Christmas commercials in September (September!) and hearing Christmas music in October. And then came all of the “Black Friday” ads in mid-November. Then the push to claim it Christmas season before the pumpkin pie had begun to settle over the still digesting turkey and stuffing. In my opinion it’s still too early. Christmas begins at well…Christmas. Today, November 28, was the beginning of Advent. I’m stubbornly sticking to it this year though I lost the Battle of the Family Tree today. I have wee ones so I make concessions.
For what follows I’m going to take some liberty and assume my reader is themselves a Christian, or has a historical sense of what the holiday traditionally represents. I take said liberty while typing at my laptop and sitting at my dining room table in the soft candlelit glow of the one item I did want to put up this weekend: our Advent wreath.
The word “advent” comes from the Latin adventus and means “coming.” As a liturgical or religious season, its traditional purpose is to anticipate the birth of the child Jesus at Christmas. Advent looks to the Incarnation of God on earth as man. But it’s not just looking back at Christmas past, but at three comings of Christ in our midst: his first coming at Bethlehem, his final coming at the end of time, and his continued coming into our hearts. The question before us is how can we, believing Christians who live in a secularized Western culture, best prepare for these three comings of Christ?
To be a believer in today’s world is tough. We see the manger from a distance, but somehow suspect it will be empty when we get there, if we ever manage to do so. We say we believe in Christ, but secretly wonder if he is nothing more than a figment of our imagination. We live in two cities, as Augustine would say—the City of God and the City of Man—and both are struggling within us and vying for our attention.
What does celebrating Advent mean in a world which teaches us, at one and the same time, to believe and not to believe? What does it mean to wait for God in a world that does not stop or wait for anything? What does it mean to expect God’s coming when society teaches us time and again not to expect anything from anyone—least of all from God? From Dennis Billy’s book There Is a Season: Living the Liturgical Year, here are a few examples of what it’s like for those of us who struggle to believe in an age of skepticism, uncertainty and doubt.
Nostalgic regret. Remember the great joy this time of year brought to us when we were little? Remember counting the days until Christmas with growing excitement? Today we look back and cherish that world and the warm memories it brought us. In our more honest moments we wish we could have it back. But we’ve changed. We have lost contact with the sense of awe and wonder that marked our younger years, and we do not know how to get it back. We’ve grown up, and some of us are unhappy with what we’ve become. We look back to the simpler days of our youth and wonder how we got to where we are now. We celebrate Advent out of a sense of nostalgia for the past joy the season brought us…to awaken the child within us.
Feverish preparation. It seems at this time of year there are so many things to do and so little time in which to do them. We get so busy getting ready for Christmas that we have no time left for reflecting on its true meaning. There always seems to be one more task to be done; one more present to wrap; one more store to visit. Advent is a time for preparing, but it is the way we prepare our hearts for Christ that really matters. By taking a contemplative attitude toward life and taking the time to ponder the mysteries of faith that have given rise to the celebration of Christmas. Otherwise we run the risk of turning this time of year into nothing more than an extended shopping season for a once religious but now very secular holiday.
Growing indifference. Perhaps you feel like you have experienced Advent many times before and do not see it as anything particularly special. You are turned off by the rampant consumerism that fills our society. Join the club. Many of us do not take Advent seriously because we feel most others do not. We have better things to do with our time. “Bah! Humbug!” as Scrooge would say. Life is hard and we are put on this earth to work, not to fritter our time away with silly ideas. Why get caught up in an annual celebration when the world will be no different afterwards? Why make such a fuss about it?
Lingering loneliness. Many people hate the holiday season and cannot wait until it’s over. Often it’s due to a sinking depression or state of melancholy that sets in out of sense of loneliness and dissatisfaction. They cannot wait for this season to pass for this reason. It’s a painful time for them. Old memories are stirred and rise to the surface. Old battles are fought; old wounds, reopened. The pain of the past makes the present unbearable. Such loneliness may or may not be a stranger to any of us. I myself have experienced this in years gone by. We need to remember that it can happen to any of us one day. There, but for the grace of God, go I.
As for me I experience all four of these every year. I am human after all. But they do not linger for long as I work hard each year to focus on the season of Advent. I light the candles on my Advent wreath with a prayer, one more each successive Sunday, until finally lighting the large white candle at Christmas. I attempt to spend some extra time each day considering the mystery of the Incarnation as well as my blessings, my hopes, my dreams, my prayers…and yes my fears and failings. I consciously slow down while the world is going a million miles an hour in a consumer-driven frenzy. I slow down to contemplate the seemingly insignificant manger-birth that took place over 2,000 years ago, overlooked by a world too busy to notice. We’re still in the dark…anticipating the light. THE light.
I’m not alone. Millions join me in this practice. This year, consider it for yourself. Whether a Christian or otherwise…slow down. I started this annual practice in earnest ten years ago. It has made all the difference for me as I am able to more fully appreciate and enjoy Christmas when it finally arrives.
Not in September. Not in October. Not on Black Friday.
On December 25.
To be still. To weigh what was said before. Stop and listen. Pause, and think of that.
Is there any note of music in all of the chorus or symphony as mighty as the emphatic pause? Is there any word in all the Psalms more eloquent than that one word, Selah? Is there anything more thrilling and awful than the hush that comes before the bursting of the storm cloud and the eerie quiet that seems to come before the tempest? Is there anything that can touch our hearts like the power of stillness?
There is in the deepest center of the soul a chamber of peace where God dwells, and where, if we will only be still, we can hear His still, small voice.
In the fastest wheel that revolves on its axis there is a place in the very center where there is no movement. Photos taken over long measures of exposure that are aimed at the heavens, centered on Polaris, the North Star, reveals circular streaks for all the stars that surround it. Only one, Polaris, is a still, non-moving dot against the black sky. And so in the busiest life there may be a place where we can be alone with God in stillness. To “be still, and know.”
When the storm clouds in this life are building and raging against us, let us be still. Pause. Listen. For when we do new life can come back to us as life comes back to withered flowers that drink in the summer rain.
Be still this Thanksgiving. Be still this first weekend of Advent as we prepare for the consumerist madhouse that has inserted itself upon Christmas and threatens to snuff out its meaning. List out your blessings with your voice. But then stop. Pause. Weigh fully what you’ve said.
In your blessings you will find peace. And where there is peace, you will find the voice of God. A voice telling you that you, the person who just listed all of your blessings, are a blessing to Him.
When I was in speech class in high school one of the funniest speeches I’d ever heard was a piece of comedy gold written and delivered by one of my best friends. Sally was the daughter of a mortician and her extemporaneous speech was an award winner and a hit at several competitions. I wish I could remember the speech but I’ve never forgotten one of her punch lines as (she said) was delivered by her father: “Remember kids, the first three letters in funeral are F-U-N!” I couldn’t help but remember her speech today.
What follows are a few random observations from today’s events, in which we attended the funeral for my wife’s grandmother. And yes, as a whole it WAS fun. It was the celebration of a life well-lived until Alzheimer’s in the final decade stole seventy years of memories.
Aileen was born in 1923 “near Heartwell, Nebraska. It occurred to me today that I used to see that a lot when I went to the funerals of people of that generation. People born “near” a location. We’re only two generations removed from a time when it was common for children not to be born in sterile hospital environments, but birthed instead on the farm. A tough lot of people, they were.
The tiny church at Assumption, which isn’t a town but a spot of dwelling at the end of a blacktop highway, holds at full capacity 250 or so people…300 tops. It was filled to the rafters today. When her husband had died in 2003 it was also filled beyond capacity. This couple had been born, lived, raised a family, and died all within a few miles of the same spot of ground. They had helped build the first school, drive the school bus, cook school meals, grade roads, and farm the land. There is very little within this tri-county area they didn’t have a hand in helping to establish.
Entering the church we passed by the open casket and I realized that this was a new experience for my kids. It was open at the rosary the night before as well, but up front and the children didn’t pass by it. My seven year old was with my wife when they walked by, and I was carrying my young daughter. All she said was “She’s sleeping, dad”. She made that same remark to me when we walked out into the cemetery that sits alongside the church. Under gray, cold windy winter skies we accompanied the casket to its final resting place and while huddled against me in the cold my daughter again told me that “she’s sleeping dad.” By the time I was my middle child’s age I had been to two or three family funerals…among them my great uncle and my grandfather. By the time I was a little older than my oldest I had buried my best friend. I hope today’s funeral was the extent of their experience with this for awhile yet. But dying is as much a part of living.
The reception hall in the basement of the building next door today had all of those 250 plus people packed inside. During the two years we dated and the first six years of our marriage we attended at least two family events per year in that hall. Always an Easter and/or Thanksgiving celebration with Pete and Aileen, their 13 children and spouses, and the grandchildren. Once Aileen was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s the final gathering was to celebrate their 60th wedding anniversary. Pete died a few years later in 2003, partially due to exhaustion in taking care of and worrying about his bride, ten years his junior. Being there today brought back a flood of memories. Most of the grandchildren have grown up and married. Today was about remembering old faces, and trying hard to learn all of the new.
Of course I sought out Uncle Frank. Frank is the husband of the eldest daughter and my favorite of my wife’s uncles. When I was first brought to meet the family and surrounded by a circle of her aunts and relatives in the kitchen, it was Frank who tugged on my arm after five minutes and backed me into a corner behind the front door. He handed me a beer and introduced himself. He then informed me that this had been his hiding spot for twenty years. I loved the guy from day one. Frank is the man who introduced the concept of smoking meats to me, and today we spent a few minutes comparing techniques with rubs and marinades, and he told me to look for the tri-tip loin. You know that’s exactly what I’m going to do next time I’m shopping for something to cook.
The backbone of so many church or parish communities are the Altar Societies or various women’s organizations who make and serve the food served at funerals. Back in the kitchen at the hall today were about a dozen of these women (and not a few men) who worked tirelessly to feed this very large crowd. They did a great job today. I’ve often joked that the best food I eat is often at a country church funeral. This is no longer said in jest. It is a fact.
My wife’s father is the oldest of the thirteen children. Her Aunt Mary is the youngest. Mary is a few years older than my wife. Her children are among the youngest of the forty-one grandchildren that survive Aileen. My son Nolan is the oldest of the forty-one great-grandchildren. So today when Mary’s son Ethan served as an altar boy with Nolan during the funeral mass we had grandson and great-grandson (both freshman in high school together) assisting with the Rite of Christian Burial. Two generations, yet the same age.
But we’re not done yet. We learned today that great-grandchild number forty-two will arrive in April. My wife’s brother Kevin announced the news today. Life goes ever on.
I read the following in the introduction to a book I read recently by Connie Neal called Wizards, Wardrobes and Wookiees: Navigating Good and Evil in Harry Potter, Narnia and Star Wars. The excerpt below was, I thought, a wonderful summary of that genre of tale. Tolkien, Lewis, Rowling, L’Engle…all have used this basic framework to craft some of the most well-read and beloved stories in our history. When you break it down to its most basic you realize that The Writer’s Journey is used all around us in one shape or form. I thought it fascinating.
Some of the most powerful literature is made up of fantastic stories—fairy tales, fantasy fiction, folklore and myths. These kinds of stories take us beyond the limitations of our own world through some mode of the supernatural. Looking back on myth and classic literature in every culture, scholars have identified story patterns, themes and mythic archetypes (standard character-types such as the hero, the mentor and the villain) that show up consistently in stories passed on from generation to generation. The basic story line shared by such stories has come to be known popularly as “the hero’s journey,” chronicling unlikely heroes who grow to confront evil and overcome evil with good. You can readily find this pattern in Star Wars, the Chronicles of Narnia and the Harry Potter series.
Fantastic stories take the audience along the path of the hero—who can be male or female—throughout the journey in his or her quest. The hero’s journey has been recognized as having so much power to entertain and satisfy audiences that it has become standard training for screenwriters. Christopher Vogler, a former story-crafter for Disney Animation, showed writers how to incorporate these classic patterns and character types—not as a rigid grid simply to be filled in by a storyteller but as a flexible guide for storytelling. Here is his summary as it appears in his book The Writer’s Journey:
- HEROES are introduced in the ORDINARY WORLD, where
- They receive the CALL TO ADVENTURE.
- They are RELUCTANT at first or REFUSE THE CALL, but
- are encouraged by a MENTOR to
- CROSS THE FIRST THRESHOLD and enter the Special World where
- They encounter TESTS, ALLIES, and ENEMIES.
- They APPROACH THE INMOST CAVE, crossing a second threshold
- where they endure the ORDEAL.
- They take possession of their REWARD and
- are pursued on THE ROAD BACK to the Ordinary World.
- They cross the third threshold, experience a RESURRECTION, and are transformed by the experience.
- They RETURN WITH THE ELIXIR, a boon or treasure to benefit the Ordinary World. 1
1Christopher Vogler, The Writer’s Journey (Studio City, Calif.: Wiese, 1992), p. 26.
The following story was sent to me by a friend today when he learned of my wife’s grandmother’s death. A priest we both know read this allegory at his own mother’s rosary the night before her funeral Mass. It is as fine a tribute to our mom’s that I have ever seen.
A Mother’s Journey
The young mother set her foot on the path of life. “Is this the long way?” she asked.
And the guide said: “Yes, and the way is hard. And you will be old before you reach the end of it. But the end will be better than the beginning.”
But the young mother was happy, and she would not believe that anything could be better than these years. So she played with her children, and gathered flowers for them along the way, and bathed them in the clear streams; and the sun shone on them and the young Mother cried, “Nothing will ever be lovelier than this.”
Then the night came, and the storm, and the path was dark, and the children shook with fear and cold, and the mother drew them close and covered them with her mantle, and the children said, “Mother, we are not afraid, for you are near, and no harm can come.”
And the morning came, and there was a hill ahead, and the children climbed and grew weary, and the mother was weary. But at all times she said to the children, “A little patience and we are there.” So the children climbed, and when they reached the top they said, “Mother, we would not have done it without you.” And the mother, when she lay down at night looked up at the stars and said, “This is a better day than the last, for my children have learned fortitude in the face of hardness. Yesterday I gave them courage. Today, I have given them strength.”
And the next day came strange clouds which darkened the earth, clouds of war and hate and evil, and the children groped and stumbled, and the mother said: “Look up. Lift your eyes to the light.” And the children looked and saw above the clouds an everlasting glory, and it guided them beyond the darkness. And that night the Mother said, “This is the best day of all, for I have shown my children God.”
And the days went on, and the weeks and the months and the years, and the mother grew old and she was little and bent. But her children were tall and strong, and walked with courage. And when the way was rough, they lifted her, for she was as light as a feather; and at last they came to a hill, and beyond they could see a shining road and golden gates flung wide. And mother said: “I have reached the end of my journey. And now I know the end is better than the beginning, for my children can walk alone, and their children after them.”
And the children said, “You will always walk with us, Mother, even when you have gone through the gates.” And they stood and watched her as she went on alone, and the gates closed after her. And they said: “We cannot see her, but she is with us still. A Mother like ours is more than a memory. She is a living presence.”
Your Mother is always with you. She’s the whisper of the leaves as you walk down the street; she’s the smell of bleach in your freshly laundered socks; she’s the cool hand on your brow when you’re not well. She’s the daily in my Mass; a station along your way of the cross; a decade of our rosary. Your Mother lives inside your laughter. And she’s crystallized in every tear drop. She’s the place you came from, your first home and teacher. And she’s the map you follow with every step you take. She’s the hospitality in our homes; the smile in every photograph; the faith, hope and courage when you doubt, despair and dread. She’s your first love and your first heartbreak, and nothing on earth can separate you. Not time, not space…not even death.
My wife received a call from her mom early this morning to tell her that her grandmother had passed away late last night. Aileen was the mother to my father-in-law, Phil. Her husband Pete passed away about eight years ago, just a few years after they had celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary. Ten years her senior Pete had expended the last vestiges of strength he had in those last few years of his life in caring for her independently for as long as he could on the farm where they had fourteen children, raising thirteen to adulthood, losing one in childhood. I named my second-born son after Peter, using his surname as Jonah’s middle one.
Aileen had been battling Alzheimer’s for over a decade. Actually, one doesn’t battle Alzheimer’s now that I think about it. It won that round with her long ago. Last night she was released from its firm grip on her mind and today she sees with the clarity of the angels.
I called our long-time priest and friend Fr. J this morning to let him know as he and Phil have played golf together a few times over the past couple of years. I liked what he said, regarding this month in which we celebrated All Saints and All Souls Days: “It’s a good month to go to heaven. All the souls and saints will be welcoming her with open arms.”
We beseech Thee, O Lord,
in Thy mercy,
to have pity on the soul of Thy handmaid;
do Thou, Who hast freed her
from the perils of this mortal life,
restore to her the portion of everlasting salvation.
Through Christ our Lord,
Note: The photo I used for this post (Hands from Heaven) is by Al Swasey, a photographer whose work I’d never seen before. Surfing through his site I saw a lot of images I liked from the areas of Wyoming and Montana. Check him out here.
I was able to sit on the couch in comfort and solitude tonight; in the soft glow of a standing lamp and a single candle flickering around the perimeter of the room. I began with today’s reading in The Divine Office from Ecclesiastes, the last lines of which stood out for me:
Though I said to myself, “Behold, I have become great and stored up wisdom beyond all who were before me in Jerusalem, and my mind has broad experience of wisdom and knowledge”; yet when I applied my mind to know wisdom and knowledge, madness and folly, I learned that this also is a chase after wind.
For in much wisdom there is much sorrow, and he who stores up knowledge stores up grief. (emphasis mine)
I then turned to C.S. Lewis and The Four Loves and my present location, the third chapter which is about the subject of Eros.
Man has held three views of his body. First there is that of those ascetic Pagans who called it the prison or the “tomb” of the soul, and of Christians like Fisher to whom it was a “sack of dung,” food for worms, filthy, shameful, a source of nothing but temptation to bad men and humiliation to good ones. Then there are the Neo-Pagans (they seldom knew Greek), the nudists and the sufferers from Dark Gods, to whom the body is glorious. But thirdly we have the view which St. Francis expressed by calling his body “Brother Ass.” All three may be–I am not sure–defensible; but give me St. Francis for my money.
Ass is exquisitely right because no one in his senses can either revere or hate a donkey. It is useful, sturdy, lazy, obstinate, patient, lovable and infuriating beast; deserving now the stick and now a carrot; both pathetically and absurdly beautiful. So the body. There’s not living with it till we recognize that one of its functions in our lives is to play the part of buffoon. Until some theory has sophisticated them, every man, woman and child in the world knows this.
I am guilty of storing up knowledge in an effort at gaining wisdom. I am guilty of much grief as a result. And I am guilty of being the heartiest of buffoons. Yet I would not have it any other way. I am alive. Guilty as charged.
©2006-2010 Jeff A. Walker. All Rights Reserved.
There are times when the well is dry…parched…barren. No matter what you do in order to generate an idea, a sentence, hell, a WORD…nothing will flow onto the page. Those are maddening times. Exasperating times.
Then those moments come to us when you cannot shut the spigot off. Ideas, concepts and words just seem to fly at you a million miles an hour. This can be just as frustrating because everything that is germinating in your brain needs to be released but it must funnel through a narrow conduit…your pen…to the paper. And sometimes it just cannot get out fast enough. Or it spills out over the top and falls into nothingness. Sometimes it doesn’t “stick” at all because you have moved on to something else that struck your fancy while it all gurgled up onto the page. Much like an earworm, or song that gets stuck in your head that you cannot shake, you become fixated on the subject and the ideas just continue to pour out at you. This is when you’d better have a journal and a pen handy because you do not want to miss a single thought. Never assume that you will retain it and capture it later. These thoughts have wings. Catch them while you can, because they will not hang around waiting for you. They’ll move on to the next conduit ready to capture them. Ideas want to be caught. They’ve lessons to share. But you have to be ready and open to them.
Right now they are flying so thick around my head that I can barely see this page. I hatched an idea an hour before I left work today and it quickly took shape in my mind while I was driving home. I have been writing in my journal ever since. Thoughts. Sketchings. Ideas. Plans. I left the dinner table tonight no less than eleven times to pick up my pen and write down another word or three. Needless to say I was the last one to finish tonight.
I’m not sure when this little series of writings will find their way here (I’m thinking perhaps after the Thanksgiving holiday), but I’m enjoying this heady, rare time. Considering that just yesterday I’d “gone fishing” it’s rather amazing.
And with that, I’m off. I just thought of a few more items that need to be written down.
I’m halfway through NaBloPoMo. Great, right? I think so. I’ve sat down to write for fifteen straight days. Some good. Some not so much. But still…consistency is what I’m after here. I find myself throughout the day thinking of things to write, angling for ideas, the bobber of my mind’s eye floating on a sea of possibilities (and bad metaphors).
This brings me to today. Today I’m alarmed. Because I have got abso-freakin-lutely nothing in that sea. It seems to have been reduced to the size of my bathroom sink. And that’s not usually a good spot to cast your line.
So I’m going for a walk…gonna button up and take a walk into the cold night and see if something shakes loose. If it does I’ll be back to write later tonight. Or at the very least sketch something out for tomorrow.
At least it took fifteen days before I had to write this post. I figured I’d have to do so around day six or seven.