There’s no place like home — for Christmas. And I think we all agree on that; the Christmas tree in the corner of the living room with lights blazing and gift-wrapped presents underneath, and “Jingle Bells” playing in the background as family and friends arrive from many towns. That’s the picture we love; it’s the Christmas all of us want to have. It’s the Christmas I’ve been having for the past 50 years.
But for 20 years before this, I had Christmas in a monastery. I was a young monk surrounded by men with the same faith dreams. We were awakened at midnight every Christmas Eve by the soft strains of a beautiful Gregorian Chant called “Apparuit,” (He appeared) and we jumped out of our beds, pulled on our monkish robes and hastened to the chapel.
The chapel was darkly lit except for the sanctuary which was alive with bright lights and red flowers. Father Henry walked up the steps to the pulpit and began the Christmas sermon, as we sat down dreamily picturing the cold barn and the Baby Jesus and the shepherds huddled around Mary and Joseph.
However, when Mass was over, we went back to our cells to meditate. Each monk had his own cell — just as every man I know has his own “man-cave.” It’s our place to be alone. If we’re businessmen, we plan and organize and think of ways to delegate. But if we’re monks, we’re supposed to empty our minds completely of all other thoughts and wait for God to enter. I waited 20 years. She never came.
Many famous saints say the same thing. They call it the “Dark Night of the Soul.” Saint Mother Teresa’s famous quote is: “I have no faith. If there is a God, please forgive me.” Not a whole lot of Jingle Bells in that. But now in my final years, I know where God is: in the same place where Mother Teresa always found her God: in giving love to others. She spent her whole life giving food and medicine and love to the helpless and homeless in the gutters of Calcutta. And that why we love Christmas.
Christmas — whether you’re Christian or Jewish or Muslim — is a time for giving. You really can’t help it; it’s all around you. Every organization, every company, every man and woman — is eager to help someone who needs it more. It gets in your voice as you greet your friends, and in your willingness to help a cripple. It puts grateful tears in your eyes when your family gathers around you.
I think of this whenever my family sits around the Christmas tree and hands out the packages. I remember watching the anticipation of my children and their shrieks of joy when they became teenagers, and then the repeat of all of this in my grandchildren — and the quiet smiles of my wife throughout the years.
I feel like Simeon in Luke’s Christmas story. He was an old man, too, and had spent his whole life waiting on the Jewish Messiah. There had been many magicians and lots of pretenders; men who had looked the part and had claimed the crown. But Simeon had rejected them all. Now here was this tiny baby, crying in his mother’s arms, and somehow Simeon recognizes the unmistakable image of what he’s been waiting for all these years. This baby doesn’t look like much, but this baby means everything to Simeon. He picks up the child, looks in his eyes and says: Nunc Dimittis. Now, Lord, you can set me free. I’m ready to go.
That’s the way I feel. For 85 years I have been examining all the various attempts to bring God to mankind, including monastic meditation. Like Simeon, I have rejected them all. Now I have found God in simple acts of love. They don’t look like much but they mean everything to me.
Nunc dimittis, Lord. I’m ready.
Dr. Bill Cummings blog is www.progressiveheretic.com.