A Spiritual Christmas

by Martha G. Shepherd

A number of years ago, the two of us who lived at MH Ottawa, had a deep desire for a “spiritual Christmas.” We were fed up with the way each year, despite our best intentions, the heart of Christmas seemed to disappear in a whirl of activity.

This year we wanted to skip the decorating, the visiting, the feasting and so forth, and go straight to the grace of the birth of Jesus Christ. Our solution to the situation was to go deeper into the desert—to a monastery.

That, however, was not as simple as it sounds. The monastery was a mere five hours away, but we have no car. By bus, this would be a costly, 24-hour trip; a rented car slightly less costly and quicker. But in either case, it had become immediately obvious that this “spiritual” Christmas was going to cost money.

As extra money is something we do not (and should not) have, we gave the whole thing back to God.

We let our friends know that if they wanted to give us anything for Christmas, we would appreciate contributions towards the trip and then left it to the will of God.

As it happened, our friends did make it possible. Thanks to the kindness of many, the 23rd of December found us speeding off in a white rented car.

It was a slushy, sleety, gray and miserable drive, rocketing along on the interstates in the wake of huge trucks. And it took eight hours, not five.

Neither of us likes to drive. I have been told that when I am behind the wheel of a car, I look like I’m facing imminent death. That is because I am!

We arrived exhausted, irritable, with every nerve on edge. In fact, we felt pretty much like we usually did after our usual Christmas preparations.

And that is what we found the monks doing—decorating, entertaining visitors, and making other preparations for celebrating Christmas. They gave us something to eat and then, exhausted, we went off to bed.

Determined to pray, we rose early enough the next morning to walk the mile over rolling hills in the cold dark and join the monks for their night office at 4 a.m. After that, we prayed silently till Lauds and Prime at 6.

Then we walked back to the guest house as the sun was rising, to freshen up, returning to the monastery for Terce and Mass. Breakfast at the guesthouse followed.

It seemed but a moment before it was time to make the walk to church again for Sext, the next part of the Divine Office.

We began to feel that when the sheep in the fields raised their heads as we passed, it was because they recognized us!

Sext was followed by lunch (at the guesthouse) and the mid-day rest, after which we returned to the monastery to help the monks decorate.

By then it was nearly time for Christmas Eve Vespers, just enough time to go back to the guesthouse, change, and return.

In case you haven’t been counting, that brings the total miles walked to … Well, it was a very physical day. Why had I thought that a “spiritual” Christmas in a monastery meant only sitting quietly praying?

Well, there was some sitting quietly. And now it was a pleasure to do that in the chapel waiting for Vespers to begin.

The rather stark sanctuary had been transformed by evergreens and one hundred tall candles. There were candles everywhere, high and low on brackets, on stands around the altar, on candlesticks at the monks’ stalls.

A novice began to circle the sanctuary lighting them, the glow spreading softly, adding a touch of growing excitement to the wait.

High up near a cornice one wick failed to catch. The novice didn’t notice, but continued on. The missing candle left a dark spot. And though there were plenty of others and this was high up, slightly behind a post, it bothered me.

I found I couldn’t not look at that one dark “hole” where a flame should be, and I actually began to pray that the novice would see and return.

He didn’t notice, but another monk did and nudged him. The novice returned to light the hundredth candle.

At that moment, the penny dropped for me. The light bulb went on. At least one bell within went “ding.” And a cartoon of my mind would have shown a bubble with exclamation points of enlightenment.

The returning novice had brought to my mind, not a manger but a man telling his hearers about a shepherd seeking one lost sheep, a woman searching her house for one lost coin, and about the joy of heaven when they were found.

The Father in heaven looks upon the souls of all his children and cannot rest until each one is lit with the knowledge of his love. There are so many billions of people in the world, and like the candles in the monastery chapel, each one matters.

Coming from a fairly secular background, I had a negative picture of missionaries. Now, for the first time, I saw Christ as a missionary.

Then as this sat inside me and I gazed at the candles, other images came to mind: Christ as the light, then that Light as the source of all light. Then the light of Christ entering into the heart of all Christians, entering into my heart.

And so each Christian, bearing within, the light of Christ, is called to somehow do the same and be in some way both missionary and evangelist.

To be a missionary is first of all to submit to the purifying fire of the love of God.

Whenever and wherever anyone has burned with the fire of God’s love, light has spread.

We see that most dramatically in the lives of the saints, but it is visible also in the humbler fire of a loving and welcoming parish and the startling difference of faith-filled individuals.

No candle was ever lit by the concept of flame, but only by the flame itself.  And the light of the knowledge of God is only spread by those whose own lives glow with his fire. Knowing we “should” bring Christ to others will not bring his life.

On this earth, fire needs matter in order to continue burning. We are not the fire. We cannot produce the fire by desiring it or by any other effort of our own.  But when lit by the spirit of Christ, our lives are the matter which spreads light.

By the time my reflections had reached this point, vespers were well under way. I found myself smiling through the reading of the psalms at the absurdity of my desire for a “spiritual” Christmas—a Christmas without all the busyness, preparations, decorations, food, and socializing that had always been a part of my Christmases before this one.

But never, precisely since that first Christmas, has it been possible for anyone bearing the name Christian to separate the spirit and the body, since we follow a Lord who is both divine and human.

Why do I seem to have to learn again and again that we only grow close to him by becoming more human and by letting the Spirit shine through all the dimensions of our lives?

Even if it were possible, resigning from the physical would not bring us closer to God.

And, on the other hand, no real spiritual life ever leaves our physical lives unaffected. It is the affected physical lives which become our true proclamation of faith, living words of evangelization. Without these living words, any spoken word rings hollow.

Midnight Mass at the monastery was deeply reverent, of course, but I had an image of angelic chuckles mixing with the glorias. Once again, the joke was on me.

I’d come on a Christmas retreat, only to discover that celebrating Christmas means spreading the light, being a missionary.

And I received this grace not through something I would consider “spiritual” but through decorations, through something so physical and human: a simple candle and a novice who didn’t notice that it wasn’t lit.