that first Christmas, the one that for millennia we have gazed upon, meditated over, infused into our sugar-spun dreams, was as stripped-down as the ones perhaps unfurling under our own roofs this year.
there was no garland, only straw. no sparkly tree, only the boughs of whatever bush nestled against the flimsy walls of the barn. there were no carolers, only the lowing of the cow, and the clucking of the miserly hen who laid but one egg each dawn.
what was was a mother in labor, her anguished cries of birth echoed decades later in the anguish of beholding a necessary crucifixion, one ordained by the heavens. one that might have filled an earthly mother with undying rage. certainly the mother who types these words. but in the barn that inky night there was no rage, only cries that shattered pitch-black darkness, only cries of mother and, in time, the child.
what was was the bloody birth, the newborn soaked in waters of the womb.
what was was the gaze, eternal gaze, between mother and child, mother and the face of God. does not every mother see the face of God in the one pushed from her womb? in the one she calls her own, no matter how the child comes?
and so this Christmas, when all else is stripped away, when there are empty chairs at the table, when the oven holds less than half its usual Yuletide feast, when our arms cannot reach round the shoulders of those we love, when we cannot feel another’s heartbeat pressed against our own, we are flung into the whirl–the holy whirl–of empathies.
this is how Christmas feels to many. this is morning after morning when you awake to wanting.
and so my prayer this quiet Christmas is first and most for all those whose hearts ache, those who forage in the back alleys of this uncaring world, who go to sleep longing for a hand to hold in the hollow of the night, those who cry for justice from behind bars not of their own making.
my prayer is for those whose Christmas lullaby is the beep-beep-blip of some machine that keeps them alive.
my prayer is for the cold, cold of flesh and bone, and cold—so cold—of heart.
my prayer is for those whose gaze is washed with tears, stinging tears, all-alone tears, tears of please deliver me.
my prayer for each and all is that the blessedness of Christmas—the truth of newborn hope birthed after long hard labor, cradled heart against heart, entwined in love beyond measure from before first breath—my prayer is that the blessedness of Christmas settles deep inside the chambers of your soul, and that you look out upon a day, a world, in which radiance erupts through darkness, dawn after dawn. and all is holy, and holy is all.
merry blessed wonder of true Christmas.
a hundred blessings from here at the old maple table. sleep this year is in short supply, as we are spanning time zones from middle america to pacific northwest, filling the hours with as much Christmas as you can pack in itty-bitty phone lines. i wished for phones with smell last night, so my own firstborn–my heart’s pure joy–could inhale whatever was wafting from the oven. he said last night that he couldn’t imagine waking up on Christmas without the scents of bread pudding–the cinnamon, the egg + milk, the chunks of orchard apple. nor could i. but here it is. and next Christmas, God willing, it will be all the sweeter for its absence here this morning.
may your day be blessed. how will you make Christmas, true Christmas, come true this year?
image above, way above, is Albrecht Dürer’s The Nativity, 1511; image below is our little Christmas tree: what happens when you’re the last one to the tree lot (cuz you couldn’t bear to buy a tree till all your loves were home, and you finally realized that wasn’t going to happen this year….)
a sea or stretch of water containing many islands.
early 16th century: from Italian arcipelago, from Greek arkhi- ‘chief’ + pelagos ‘sea’. The word was originally used as a proper name ( the Archipelago ‘the Aegean Sea’): the general sense arose because the Aegean Sea is notable for its large numbers of islands.
alternative definition: calmus interruptus, in which rocky protruberances, barely discernible in dimension, arise from roiling fluid surface, providing flash of terra firma before which desperate swimmer loses grip, plunges once again into tempestuous sea — alone, afraid, intent on staying afloat. sanctity provided, ephemeral at best.
we turn to the mapmaker’s lexicon — complete with dictionary definition and etymology — because it was the faint and far-between dotted line of rock piles (aka the archipelago) that leapt to mind as the fittingest metaphor for an otherwise nearly indescribable heap of twists and turns, as i tried in vain to keep from keeling over amid this week’s drama of near historic family proportion.
it went something like this:
round about the middle of tuesday, the geography of my interior life morphed suddenly and without warning from restless squatting on the shores of big-enough occasional islands of calm (the sort where you might slow your breathing for as long as five-minute stretches, and in which you might temporarily put at least a shred of worries to the side) to swimming breathlessly through an archipelago of tiny anxious island dots, each one offering maybe a moment’s lull before the waves kicked up again. before i found myself paddling madly to not go glub-glub-glub.
while awaiting the biopsy results of brother No. 2 (see last week’s news), beloved brother No. 3 up and had a heart attack. a real one, a not-so-small one. oh, lordy. (i only have four brothers, so these odds are getting stiff.)
brother 3 — four years younger than me, the father of two young and glorious children — had called mid-afternoon that day (as ordinary as a tuesday might be when awaiting a second biopsy of someone you dearly love), wondering what to do about a terrible case of heartburn, a dyspepsia he was blaming on the banana pepper and hot sauce he had tucked into his lunch and the preamble pot of coffee that had started his until-then ordinary weekday. next thing we knew — and i mean within minutes — there was an ambulance and ER, swiftly followed by OR and days in ICU, all deeply laced with prayer upon prayer.
and i mean hard-knees-against-the-floorboards prayer. the highest octane of beseeching known to this prayerful sister.
as of this writing, brothers 1 and 4 are idly sitting in their homes, where they’ve been instructed to not move, not lift so much as a pair of scissors for fear of fate tap-tapping at their wintry windowpanes.
quite frankly, i’ve found it hard to breathe at various twists and turns in this wildly unspooling narrative. i was reportedly circling room-to-room-to-room the other afternoon, muttering, “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph!” in more exclamatory than prayerful tones. (and i was not previewing the Christmas story.)
a mere week ago, i was finding episodic solace in simple kitchen tasks — slicing onions, plucking cloves. this week, that all went whirling out the window, and i could not have cared less if we swallowed air for breakfast, lunch, or dinner.
there is only so much adrenaline one’s itty-bitty fight-or-flight pump can spurt and swoosh through veins. and i’m about to call a truce, to leave my shaky nerves stranded on some unassuming island. which is where the archipelago — or interrupted line of splintered refuge — comes in.
cling is the more appropriate verb in describing my posture when, amid hyperventilation or dizzying projections down the pot-holed road ahead, i catch my breath via one of my ever-shrinking litany of soothing balms. (hot bath; hot bath; hot bath.)
we humans do seem to have a godly bottomline default, a trapeze net for those stretches of our lives when all hell seems to be breaking from the quiet room where we try to keep it handcuffed to the chairs. in those rare quiet spells, when i might be sitting in the dark watching the dance of the candle flame, or folding one lone shirt from the dryer, or glancing toward the moon while taking out the trash, i find my inner gyroscope settling still. i manage an in and out breath. i might even think of something that makes me laugh. (gallows humor is a saving grace; brother 3 mentioned in a text from the ICU that, after a weekend conversation about Faulkner, he’d requested “As I Lay Dying,” from his local library. and then he drolly mentioned “it awaits me now,” fully acknowledging said gallows. God bless his never-ceasing wit.)
the reprieves were short, so short, the fractions of a minute when breath was caught, when fog of fear fugaciously lifted. the rocky seas between made it seem i might not ever get there. might be swallowed whole by swirling waters, pulled down by stubborn riptides.
i’ll get through this tight passage, as we always have before. but, oh my, this december at the start of the twenty-first century’s third decade…it’s a doozy.
here’s hoping we return soon to more quotidian rumblings round the chair.
i mean not a word of this lightly, and fact is, the palpitations just beneath my ribs have not yet quelled. i seem to have twisted myself into a knot of nerves that, as the author of a tome on stillness, is making me feel a wee bit silly. i am employing all my stillnesses, and for the momentary peace they bring, i am deeply deeply grateful. my brothers and i are deeply blessed to be so close, to march through life (especially of late) arms locked and bent into whatever winds we face.
all i need now is for child No. 2 to turn in the last of his string of finals, to prowl the Christmas tree yard for the humblest branches on the lot, and to await the word that things are taking turns for all that’s good and blessed and ripe with hope.
i wish the same for you.
when you’re at wits end, what wraps you in a cloak of calm?
As the black velvet wintry curtain settles on the world outside my kitchen window, I am grounding myself in the rhythms I know nearly by heart. In the teeny stumps of clove, in the slicing of the onions, in the bay leaf pressed against the slab of beast.
When the not-yet-winter light, the stretched-thin light of middle December, slants in, it’s brisket weather once again. And this year, more than most, I am leaning into whatever is familiar, whatever might bring me a sense of rootedness in this sudden state of disorientation in which I find myself.
My brother, my just-younger brother, the one I’ve been sidling up to ever since his birth two years after mine, awoke a week ago with a lump the size of a grape on his neck. When it ballooned, within hours, to avocado-sized, he drove straight to the ER, a room we’ve visited far too often this long autumn. Before lunchtime, he’d been zapped through the CT see-through machine, and told he needed to run not walk to an oncologist, a noun that makes your insides shake like jelly, a noun that shoots you through with shivers you cannot shake, no matter how many sweaters you wrap around your shoulders, no matter how many hot baths you soak in.
He’s now seen the oncologist, he’s had the needle slid into his neck, the cells extracted and sent off to the lab where someone whose brilliance in all things pathological I am so grateful for, I am counting on, where someone we will never know will peer into a scope and spell out the cold, hard science of all that lies ahead.
We’ve been through a lot, this brother and me, over the decades (trust me, that’s one short string of words packed with understatement, profound understatement). While my other brothers have tales of shared soapbox-derby cars, and U-Hauling trailers across the Wild West, of sleeping bags under stars, and criss-crossing the country for concerts of The Who, the adventures I have had with my brother are ones across and into the deep caverns of the heart, back alleys of the soul.
Ever since we were little, when I used to tiptoe down the hall at night, perch myself on the end of his twin bed, listen to the baseball games on his staticky transistor, pull back the curtains and count the stars, we’ve shared a certain fluency, spoken in our own form of brother-sister secret code. Whether it was knowing kicks under the dinner table (an art that comes in handy with five kidlets and a wordsmithy dad sardined around the oval kitchen slab), or the shared whispers in the way back of the station wagon as it rolled across the countryside, en route from our grandma’s Cincinnati to our Chicago, the only two points on the family map that shone with honest-to-goodness incandescence.
In short order, we’ve shouldered each other through the same grade school, high school and college campuses (though his years in Milwaukee were far more animated than mine; say, the night he decided to direct traffic on the city’s main east-west boulevard with the stop sign he up and lifted from the sidewalk), we’ve borne each other’s griefs as we first buried our father, and later my brother’s first wife, who’d died of a melanoma gone ugly wild. And I’ve leapt on more last-minute flights — with tickets grabbed and paid for while sprinting down the concourse — for him than for anyone else in my life. Every single time, it turned out to be — for both of us — something of a life raft.
For reasons that nearly escaped us this past spring, on the Sunday after Easter, as COVID reached its vernal apex, and all things actual turned virtual, my piano-teaching brother (with perhaps the biggest heart known to humankind) left behind the high desert of Arizona after 35 years, and moved home to the house where we all grew up, the house where he and my mama have waited out the loneliness of this awful isolated siege. He filled her house, and her heart, with days and nights of music, of simple conversation, and with his signature brand of serendipities and joy rides. Hot dogs and fries at 3 in the afternoon, who says you can’t so indulge? Making video recordings as she rode her “red convertible” tractor mower, hiked the woods, or pressed the wrinkles from the church’s altar cloths, her weekly spin through priestly laundry, who says those treasures don’t belong in the family archives? Oh, he kept her laughing, all right. Kept her on her toes. And praying. Especially when she knew not what else to do.
And now, as this ugly awful “lower-case c” (his vernacular for the diagnosis at hand) creeps out of hiding, he is here, where once again — and emphatically — we can harbor him, and shoulder him, take him and his newly-moved-here beloved (whom we adore, by the way, for her unflappable capacity to bulldoze through any brick wall that stands between where they are and where they need to go, and for loving him in the way he’s long deserved), we can take them by the hand across the uncharted topography of ologists — oncologists and otherwise — and the cutting-edge arsenal they’ll employ to do the job, the holy job of zapping chaotic trouble-making cells, to kick them clear into oblivion, so help us God.
While we wait and wonder, wait and worry, wait and pound the heavens with our ceaseless prayer, I am straining to ground myself in the familiar, in the kindling of the winter’s lights in this season of unexpected shadow.
I am reaching for those rare few things that remind me of years and seasons past, when the darkness was not so thick.
As the kitchen fills with updrafts of clove and peppercorn and bay leaf, as the sinew of the brisket beast gives way to succulence, and the house swirls with the scents and sounds of Hanukkah, a festival of light if ever we needed one, I inscribe my prayer and my heart into each one of the words I’ve typed here. My heart, it seems, prays best against the percussions of the keys as I press my finger pads up and down the alphabet.
So consider this my prayer, my love song to my Michael, and with each word, may healing come. May burdens lift and be unloosed. May you swirl, dear M, in all the radiance you are, my blessed glorious brother whom I love. Whom I have loved since the beginning, our beginning, yours and mine entwined.
In an ordinary year, this post might have been about the birthday of the chair, 14 this year (tomorrow, in fact). But this is no ordinary anything, and the birthday ceded to my brother. The marking of time, though, the remembering back to why I first decided to pull up a chair, to invite you to do the same, brings to mind this one simple truth: it’s because I believed then and now that all our stories, the humdrum quotidian stories that unfold right here in the confines of our old familiar homes, they belong to all of us, they are all of ours. I unspool these ordinary tales from the files of my life because our stories, yours and mine, aren’t too too different, no matter where or who or when. The characters and setting might be all our own, but just beneath the surface we find the pulse beat of universal truths and narratives. We all have someone we love who will wake up one day with a diagnosis that takes our breath away. So when I tell these ordinary tales, my hope is that you might slide into the narrative, think of your own brother or sister, your own someone you love, think of your own times when you could not breathe for the fear pressing against up your chest. The hope, ultimately, is that we all share — and find each other — in the messy, gorgeous, never-ending human narrative….your story is my story, my story is yours. With a tweak here or there….
Bless you, each and every one, for being here, for pulling up a chair, a heart, and all the wisdom and goodness and gentle kindness you never fail to bring here. You have made this sacred quiet space everything I believed it might become. Thank you. Love, b.
Now, what are the rhythms that steady you, that ground you, when your world is hurling upside down?
maybe you read the newspaper every morning. maybe you even read the Chicago Tribune, the newspaper that birthed most of the most precious threads in my life. but chances are — reading the studies that come, one after a sad other, from the journalism think tanks — you don’t. the sound of the rolled-up sausage of a newspaper landing with a thwop on the front stoop is nearly obsolete. but this week, my old newspaper made room for a little essay i wrote, one birthed in the pages of Stillness, that beribboned little book that seems to be winging its way to armchairs and reading nooks in various vicinities around the countryside this december.
given the unlikelihood that you would have stumbled across this little essay — a variation on the opening essay, “December: Sacred Invitation,” in Stillness — and given that my little laptop has a crack-of-dawn doctor’s appointment at the genius bar, i figured i’d give the essay a whirl here. it comes with the hope that you find all sorts of ways to fill the december darkness with flickering flames, and tongues of fire that leap from the hearth. the ones in your home, or the ones in your heart.
Commentary: In December’s darkness, the prophets and poets guide us toward the light
By BARBARA MAHANY
December’s darkness is coming like never before.
Oh, sure, as the sun arcs into its wintry descent, as the night grows to its longest, and day after day a minute is shaved at the dawn and at dusk, the sunlight ebbs and the shadow grows. There’s that darkness.
But cloaking all of it this year is the darkness of knowing we can’t kindle the light in gathering kinship.
We will be more alone this winter, perhaps, than ever before.
But there is a bright side, or at least a blessed side.
I say, celebrate the darkness — landscape of discovery, of finding our way only by engaging, igniting, heightening our deeper senses, the senses of the heart and the soul, intellect and imagination.
Celebrate the quietude. The stillness that comes in the hours of solitude, that state of grace sought by the ancient mystics and saints, by Zen priests and the Desert Elders of Egypt, by Hildegard of Bingen and Henry David Thoreau, deep in the woods of Walden Pond, the ones who dialed down the noise and distraction, pressing their ears into the silence, awaiting the murmurings of the still small voice. As Meister Eckhart put it: “There is nothing so much like God as silence.”
The truth is: Stillness and darkness draw out our deep-down depths. Darkness is womb, is seed underground. Darkness is where birthing begins, incubator of unseen stirring, essential and fundamental growing.
Stillness, as all the enlightened have known, in the paradox that might be a Buddhist koan, is the fullness that comes only through emptiness.
This December, both will abound. We’d be wise to welcome them.
December, I like to think, is when God cloaks the world — or at least the northern half of the globe — in what amounts to a prayer shawl. December’s darkness invites us inward, the deepening spiral — paradoxical spiral — we deepen to ascend, we vault from new depths.
At nightfall in December, when the last seeds of illumination are scattered and the stars turn on — all at once as if the caretakers of wonder have flown through the heavens sparking the wicks — we, too, huddled in our kitchens or circled round our dining room tables, strike the match. We kindle the flame. We shatter darkness with all the light we can muster.
The liturgical calendar, prescriptive in its wisdoms, lights the way: It gives us Advent, season of anticipation, of awaiting, of holding our breath for spectacular coming. Season of dappling the darkness with candled crescendo.
And therein is the sacred instruction for the month: Make the light be from you. Deep within you.
Seize the month. Reclaim the days. Employ ardent counterculturalism, and do not succumb.
Abraham Joshua Heschel, the great Jewish scholar and one of my heroes, talks about Shabbat — every week’s holy Sabbath pause — as erecting the cathedral of time, the Jewish equivalent of sacred architecture, only for Jews it’s the sanctification of time, not space. Writes Heschel: “Learn how to consecrate sanctuaries that emerge from the magnificent stream of a year.” I say, build yourself a tucked-away chapel, a humble half-hour’s chamber of silence, of prayer, of deepening.
Here’s a radical thought, for December or otherwise: Live sacramentally — yes, always. But most emphatically in the month of December. Most especially this December.
What do I mean? To be sacramental is to lift even the most ordinary moments into Holiness. Weave the liturgical into the everyday.
Live sacramentally: Sit down to a dinner table — even dinner for one — set with intention. Embrace all that’s slow. And with purpose. Light candles at dinner. Light the Advent wreath. And if you’re Jewish, blaze the menorah. If you’re Jewish and Catholic, as my family is, well, bring on the fire battalion, we’re lighting every which flame.
Because this is our one chance at December this year — and who knows how many Decembers we might have.
December is invitation. Glance out the window. Behold the silence of the first snowfall. Stand under heaven’s dome and watch the star-stitched wonder: Orion, Polaris. Listen for the love songs of the great horned owl. Be dazzled. To be dazzled is a prayer.
Mary Oliver, the poet saint, tells us, “attentiveness is the root of all prayer.” And she reminds us that our one task as we walk the snow-crusted woods or startle to the night cry of the sky-crossing goose is “learning to be astonished.”
Renaissance scholar and poet Kimberly Johnson says, “I want to live my life in epiphany.”
So do I. Maybe, so do you.
December invites us be our most radiant selves. And we find that radiance deep down in the heart of the darkness, our chambered nautilus of prayer. The coiled depths to which we turn in silence, to await the still small voice that whispers the original love song. Chorus and refrain, inscribed by the One who breathed the first breath.
Barbara Mahany, a former Chicago Tribune staff writer, is the author of four books; her latest is “The Stillness of Winter: Sacred Blessings of the Season.”
so there’s the essay. and here is the question: how might you live sacramentally? how do you lift the ordinary into the sacred; those humdrum quotidian tasks of the everyday, how do you imbue them with intention and attention, raise them into the realm of the holy so that this one pass at december is lived in ways that awake us as never before?