January 5, 2014
This story starts on the first Sunday of Advent, which this liturgical year was December 1st, 2013. It was evening, and I was home alone decorating my tree. I felt good, happy, was listening to Handel’s Messiah, had eaten a good dinner and was sipping a glass of wine in between hanging ornaments. My hand was reaching up to one of the higher branches of the tree to hang a favorite hand- blown glass angel when suddenly I was visited by a familiar Christmastide emotion. When “it” visits, I quickly become heavy, depressed, almost despairing. When “it” visits, I am reminded of what it feels like to get the flu. One minute I am fine, and the next I am sick in bed with a fire of a fever. Just like that; one moment I was happy and completely enjoying the moment, and the next I was blue and unhopeful. In that moment, I felt sure that Christmas would once again bring disappointment. Another death, another accident, another surgery, another sickness, another way that things would not go the way I intended them to go.
I dread this feeling. Although it feels very real and in some ways to be expected given what so many of my holidays have held, I also very truly feel happiness, expectation, joy, connectedness…many positive feelings that I associate with the holidays. Why can’t these positive feelings dominate my consciousness? I went to sleep that night wondering what, if anything, I could do with these paradoxical experiences and feelings.
The next morning while meditating I got stuck on the word hope. Interesting, since the first candle of the Advent Wreath symbolically represents hope. What, exactly, was the hope of Christmas? What could I hope for, since I already knew I could not hope for an incident-free holiday? That morning I decided to dedicate my Advent meditations to hope.
The first words that came to my mind were those of T.S. Eliot:
I said to my soul be still and wait
without hope, for hope would be
hope for the wrong thing;
These words had a hold of me for several days. It became clear to me that I was hoping for the wrong thing. I was hoping to magically control things I could not control. I realized I was even praying, in some sly way, that God would let this Christmas pass without any big trauma. “Just give me one Christmas that won’t be disappointing, God. Really. Is that too much to ask? Maybe this year it will be the way I imagine it should be. Do some magic here God, on my behalf.” Embarrassing but true.
The second week Richard Rohr’s words from The Naked Now came into my consciousness. “Hope and union are the same thing. Real hope has nothing to do with mental certitudes.” Real hope. That’s what I want to focus on. The hope of being in relationship with God, of spending time with the Holy One, of paying attention to what God was doing with the incarnation. God becoming human. God-seed in everyone. Now that was something I could hang my hope on. I knew that to be true.
The third week I was focused on the hope I feel when I get to spend extended, relaxed time with my daughter and husband. I allowed myself to feel my deep and abiding love for them, as well as for my extended family and close personal friends. I know how to love and how to be loved. I can hope in that.
The fourth week I spent time with Romans 15:12-13. “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” I wanted to overflow with hope, but I wanted it to be real hope. The hope that I knew came from trusting in God, not by trusting that nothing bad would happen over the holidays.
The “visitor” came several more times during the holiday. When it did, I quietly acknowledged my disappointment of Christmases past, and I said to myself, “Don’t go there. Don’t go down that rabbit hole. It is not helpful.” I learned that trick from watching an interview with the wife of Randy Pausch, the man who gave The Last Lecture and whose book of the same title became a NY Times best seller. When his wife was asked during an interview how she dealt with the knowledge that her husband was going to die and that she was going to be a widow with two kids, she said that her therapist and she had come up with a mantra, and that mantra was, “Not helpful.” Indeed, it is not helpful to go into that place of despair. And not only is it not helpful, it is not the whole truth. The whole truth is that when I hold the paradox of the disappointments from the world as well as the joy of union with the Holy One and with others, then Christmas becomes exactly what it was meant to be. A chance to celebrate and honor that God became human and that we have an invitation to join in that relationship. The Latin phrase, Sic et Non, means Yes/And…or Yes/But. This Christmas, my hope was in the Yes/And.
In 2014, I am going to continue to focus on hope. I invite you to join me. What are you hoping for this new year? What is true hope for you? What past disappointments get in the way of moving into a state of hopefulness? What keeps you from opening to some new possibilities? How do you hold yourself back from living into the fullness that you are? Let me know what you think.