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Less than two weeks to go before Christmas and my family is still enjoying a wonderful Advent. We put the tree up last week (I still wanted to wait until this weekend) and on Sunday travelled to Omaha to attend Mass at the St. Cecilia Cathedral. Just before we began dating my wife lived in the Dundee neighborhood in Omaha and attended Mass at St. C’s. She has always loved the large Advent wreath, about 8-10 feet in diameter, that hangs suspended 10-15 feet above the center aisle of the cathedral. She wanted our kids to see it for themselves and I wanted to revisit that big ol’ church. In the spring we had attended the wedding for the daughter of great friends there and it was probably one of the “best” (whatever that means in terms of weddings) weddings I can recall attending. The bride and groom did not spend a small fortune on flowers or decorating because they were told that “we’ve had families spend over $10,000 or more on flowers here and they get lost in the space.” And it’s true. It is a large, vast, beautiful space that elevates one’s mind and soul to where it should be focused: on God. Instead of being all about flowers, and all about them, their wedding was a witness to this couple’s faith and their joining to not just one another but to God. There was no Bridezilla. No narcissistic look-at-me-look-at-me attitude by the bride or anyone in the wedding party. No goofy processional dance routines to post to YouTube. I’ll never forget that.
(And less you think them a stodgy family, the reception was a blast. Two large Irish-Catholic families were joined. I seem to even recall hearing Irish bagpipes at one point, and plenty of Guinness was available at the bar.)
So we went to see the big Advent wreath. And the kids got to listen to their dad sing all the various parts of the Mass for a change due to the excellent cantor direction and the cathedral’s use of Gregorian chant. It’s the one thing I can sing well. While it still requires an ability to carry a tune, the natural cadence and “breathing” of chant makes it so enjoyable. We were blessed to hear an excellent homily by the young assistant pastor in which he discussed the dearth (and shallowness) of feel-good movies on Hallmark and ABC Family this time of year. And this leads me to…
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My Top 5 list of Christmas movies. Around ten years ago or so my wife used to roll her eyes and poke fun at me this time of year because I would plant myself in front of the television each night to watch a Christmas movie on Hallmark or what used to be known as The Family Channel. This was before ABC bought the channel and turned it into the anything-but-family channel it is today. But over the years I began to notice that almost all of these movies came from the same script template:
Small town (single/divorced) young woman who is a (ad executive/magazine publisher/lawyer) works in (Chicago/New York/LA). A traumatic event (mom dies/father dies/job crisis) causes her to have to go back to said small town in (Iowa/Oklahoma/upstate New York) in order to (execute a will/close the small town’s factory). While there she runs into the ghosts of her past, represented by (family/old boyfriend/old best friend who stayed behind to get married, have babies and be generally happy). Thus she begins to struggle with the decisions she’d made in her past life and question what it is “she really wants out of life.”
Wrap this up in a bow and in the show’s description as “Samantha/Tiffany/Melanie, a young successful woman’s magazine publisher, returns home after the death of her father and to face an old love. While there she discovers the true meaning of Christmas.”
And yet, that is what’s being churned out year after year. Basically I just described Sweet Home Alabama with Reese Witherspoon, but in December.
There are not any of that type of movie on my list. Those below, however, are. And when watched with a quilt and something warm to drink are just about perfect.
5. A Christmas Story (1983): Yeah, I know. Not really about the Christ-child. What it is is a harkening back to the simpler times of childhood. I own four Jean Shepherd books (he plays the voice of the narrator) and believe it or not the short story upon which this movie is based is not the funniest of the bunch. Plus, in this two seconds the film captures so much of my own dad that I can’t not love this film.
4. A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965): No, it’s not a theatrical release and without the Dolly Madison commercials it’s only 22 minutes long. But just try to get a cartoon or any other kind of show on television these days in which a main character recites from Scripture.
3. Going My Way (1944) / The Bells of St. Mary (1945): I can’t choose between the two. I love them both. Bing Crosby as Fr. O’Malley with either Barry Fitzgerald or Ingrid Bergman.
2. A Christmas Carol (1984): While I do enjoy Patrick Stewart’s turn as Scrooge in 1999, I like the George C. Scott version from 1984.
1. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946): I skipped this movie for years before finally watching it while alone in my apartment on Christmas Day in 1991. I fell in love with the film and wept like a baby when it was over. Still do.
Honorable mention: Santa Claus Conquers the Martians from 1964. But it has to be the Mystery Science Theater 3000 edition. I can’t stop laughing when I watch it as they riff on it. Starring a young Pia Zadora. No, really.
And my favorite Christmas book? I suppose it would have to be the first two chapters of the Luke’s Gospel. After that, the rest is just details.
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This is the time of year when one spends some time in reflection, looking back over the year that was and the lessons learned, and setting goals for the year to come. One of the things I learned that was both frightening to me and a shock to my wife came to me during my retreat in September.
Are you ready?
I learned that I have too many books. I could spend the rest of my days reading, studying and meditating upon probably less than fifty. Or twenty-five. Maybe even just ten. If you could have only seen the look on her face when I told her this. It was a combination of relief and shock. Yet it remains true and among the goals I have set for 2013 is a significant reduction in my library’s inventory. I will never part with the classic editions I’ve purchased over the years from Easton Press or the Folio Society as I believe a day is coming when paper copy books will be worth a small fortune (and I’m not just talking monetary value) as the era of digital publishing presses forward. They will be valuable because of the unaltered and un-politically correct content contained within. There are already stories in the news regarding the censoring and altering of magazine articles, news stories, and yes…even books. It’s all too easy to do this to a citizenry dependent upon the digital landscape. No…I’ll never part with many of these works. But I do need to scale back. Check that. I want to scale back.
C.S. Lewis said “I can’t imagine a man really enjoying a book and reading it only once.” I’ve more than one book that I am trying to get to the first time, let alone the second.
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My rational for scaling back is that I’ve decided it’s time to go deeper. I’ve reached the age when I’m becoming aware of the limited time I’ve got left and I no longer have an interest in casting my net as far and wide as possible to experience a little taste of everything under the sun. I’m satisfied with the experiences I’ve had and know that more is to come. But now I also want to go deeper and get into the heart of life and all its wonder.
Today is the feast day of that great Spaniard and spiritual master St. John of the Cross (1542-1591). John was, along with his Spanish contemporary St. Teresa of Avila, a Carmelite. A book from which I read each night, Divine Intimacy, is steeped in Carmelite spirituality. During the last two days in particular there he’s been: St. John of the Cross advising whoever is reading that in order to deepen one’s spiritual life and knowledge of God one must rid him or herself of the trivial things in life. And in the second reading from this morning’s Office of Readings he had more advice:
Though holy doctors have uncovered many mysteries and wonders, and devout souls have understood them in this earthly condition of ours, yet the greater part still remains to be unfolded by them, and even to be understood by them.
We must then dig deeply in Christ. He is like a rich mine with many pockets containing treasures: however deep we dig we will never find their end or their limit. Indeed, in every pocket new seams of fresh riches are discovered on all sides.
Put another way, I’m not accomplishing some goals I wish to achieve because I’m too busy madly grasping and anything and everything I can experience. My God, I’ve somewhat adapted the YOLO (You only live once) mentality I criticize so much. My attic…my brain…is as cluttered as the bookshelves and end tables in my home.
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Last week an old buddy from college asked people to list three things they were going to stop doing in 2013. I listed two items, and then paused before typing out the third: Facebook. I’m not deleting my account because it has become my extended family’s preferred method of communication. And because baseball season for my boys is around the corner which means more communication and photos shared with our extended baseball families. So what do I mean? Nothing more really than that I will not be actively participating in the Facebook “community” on a regular basis.
I have just a few goals for 2013. The reduction of clutter in my life is one. Another is going deeper into my prayer life.
The third? To learn how to play the guitar, baby. I’ve got a beautiful Fender acoustic guitar collecting dust on its stand as it sits partially hidden behind a stack of books. My nine-year old son likes to strum it and for Christmas is getting one of his own. My baby brother is in the Nebraska Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and while known primarily as a drummer, he is also an accomplished bass player. He lives here in town and I’d be silly not to tap him as a resource for lessons.
Music soothes the soul. It helps one go deep.