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Category: christmas

something of a christmas-y diary (and a book for the soul)

church door

’twas the morn after the morn after the morn that was christmas. not a creature is stirring, ‘cept for me and the first flash of red at the seed trough. the so-called children are nestled all snug in their beds. and so is their papa.

christmas early morn

christmas quiet

i’m up early because, well, i always am. but amid the cacophony that is christmas, it’s the one sure anchor of silence amid the rivers of boys flowing in and out of the house, and the fridge, and the room in the basement they’ve since dubbed “the boy cave.” it’s a room where who-knows-what goes on by night. loud whoops of boy noise bellowed up through the vents last night, so much so that the young legal scholar (a mere four years out of college himself) wondered if perhaps we could do something to stifle the bellows. (i found this more than mildly ironic.) sounded to me like a vociferous round of ping-pong, albeit one that rattled the clanky old pipes in this rattled old house.

yorkshire puddin boys

yorkshire pudding elves

before i turn the page over to the latest in an ongoing and slow-paced series of books for the soul, all courtesy of their original appearance in the chicago tribune, my newspaper home for so many years, i thought i’d share a few entries from the christmas diary: i could tell you about the smoke alarm that bellowed for a good 8.2 minutes on christmas evening, as the young legal scholar “seared” (aka smoked) the long serpentine tenderloin of christmas-y beast. i could tell you how this greatly unnerved the grandmama of said searer, who was certain the beast was being charred to bits right before our wondering smoke-filled eyes (fast forward: it all worked out fine; delicious, in fact).

i could tell you how my heart is wobbling about inside my ribcage. how, on the one hand, it’s bursting with joy at the sweet sounds of falling asleep with the ones i most love all tucked under one roof. and yet, with an eye to the calendar swiftly zipping by, i already know that one of the two is leaving before the last of the leftover beast is snitched from the fridge. so much joy vacuum-packed into a short string of days, and then — poof! — like a flash on the lawn, there’s nothing left but the last blob of toothpaste clung to the sink.

i suppose i’m in the midst of learning to take my motherly joys in oversize gulps, trying hard not to glance forward to the hard edge of the precipice when the house goes quiet, the beds go unrumpled, and i long for a fat load of laundry to wash, fold, and ferry.

christmas chairthis must be yet another tutorial in the fine art of savoring, of pressing each hour deep against my heart, of tucking the textures deep into the crannies of wherever it is that we store those moments we’ll soon want to pull out, like prayer beads, to run our fingers — and hearts — over and over. and over again.

i know these days — and even these short strings of overabundant joy — are numbered. the more these boys grow up, the more criss-crossed the chance of fetching them home, both at the very same time. it’s now down to once, maybe twice, in a year — at very best.

christmas platesso for now, i’ll merrily dash again and again to the grocery, packing the old red wagon to the brim with cheeses and fruits, and meats by the multiple pounds. i’ll relish the chance to haul bulging sacks of recyclables out to the alley. i’ll marvel at the miracle of mounds of dirty clothes raining down the laundry chute, spilling out of the basket and onto the floor. i won’t even mind trying — over and over and over — to wrench one of the sleepyheads from bed so he gets to work on time these few winter days when he’s flipping burgers, slicing taters into fries, and delighting his boss at five guys (where he’s earning a wee bit of money for college adventures).

i’ll gulp down each of these hours. hold each in the palm of my hand, and press every last one hard against my heart. i’ll savor the joy of the here and the now. and i’ll whisper, amen, a word derived from hebrew, a word that means “certainty, truth, or verily.” amen. yes, amen.

here’s the latest book for the soul, one i truly loved, lugged around with me wherever i traipsed for a few days, because i did not want to put it down, not till the end of timothy egan’s “pilgrimage to eternity,” a trek through ancient monasteries, blister-riddled mountain trails and much of christian history, in search of an elusive certainty.

Timothy Egan’s stirring ‘Pilgrimage to Eternity’ searches for faith

pilgrimage cover

By BARBARA MAHANY

CHICAGO TRIBUNE |DEC 24, 2019 

In “A Pilgrimage to Eternity: From Canterbury to Rome in Search of a Faith,” Pulitzer Prize-winning author Timothy Egan offers a stirring account of his struggles with Catholicism. (Handout)

It’s not hard to imagine dead silence on the other end of the line when Timothy Egan, the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and author, dialed up his literary agent and sketched out his proposal for a book-length perambulation through time and the tumultuous terrain of Western Christianity, a months-long trek — by foot in the age of Uber! — from Canterbury to Rome, excavating tales of sinners and saints all along the way. Harder to imagine such a tome would prove impossible to put down.

Aha.

Mission Accomplished: “A Pilgrimage to Eternity” is, in fact, a glorious, laugh-out-loud, wipe-away-tears, blister-riddled, often rain-soaked, sometimes bone-chilled, desolate and desperate, quietly triumphant walk through church history — every last footfall in search of an elusive modern-day spiritual certitude.

Egan, an op-ed columnist for The New York Times, begins as a self-confessed skeptic, an Irish Catholic, who, like many, is “lapsed but listening.” He lays out the stakes of his 1,000-mile quest for any flicker of faith: One member of his family, he writes, “was nearly destroyed by religion,” another “made whole by religion,” after the murder of her teenage son. Rage, he writes, is mixed with redemption.

“Malnutrition of the soul is a plague of modern life,” Egan writes. His is a narrative driven by questions, not iron-clad answers, and one that confronts doubt head-on, never reaching for facile conclusions.

Propelled by truth-seeking, he takes to the Via Francigena, one of the oldest pilgrimage trails in the world that for centuries has led the devout and seekers alike toward Rome, coursing Alpine peaks and medieval monasteries tucked into the folds of storybook hamlets across France, Switzerland and Italy.

A storyteller at heart, Egan populates his trek with a quirky cast of fellow pilgrims, all of whom animate the adventure. He twists and turns from church history — never flinching from the good, the bad or the gruesome — into the deeply personal questions and quandaries that push him onward. His sister-in-law’s terminal cancer, his nephew’s murder, a dear friend’s suicide in the wake of priestly sexual abuse, his mother’s death, and, yes, the 2016 presidential election — all of which ratchet up his need to examine the bare threads of faith.

Egan proves himself to be a prime traveling companion. Someone with whom you’d gladly share your last blister-pak bandage for the sheer delight of his company, intelligence and curiosity.

That he happens to be a beautiful writer — describing Franciscan monks in their “cinnamon-colored robes,” quoting Dom Perignon’s “I am drinking the stars” — is what makes the 33 chapters unspool effortlessly. It’s nothing short of remarkable to find yourself itching to lug around the nearly 400-page book (indispensable appendix and annotated fold-out map included), in hopes of a swatch of time to inhale yet another chapter.

Shortly after telling the story of how his 17-year-old nephew was shot to death by a teenager, Egan sits down with a Benedictine monk in a centuries-old monastery in the Alps. Egan asks the black-robed priest if he believes in miracles, then circles in on a trickier question, one that vexes most anyone who thinks hard about faith: “Do you have doubts?” The priest answers: “About miracles? No. About my faith? Yes. Doubts are allowed by God. Reason can help you come to faith. It’s a bit like training for sports. If you only ride a bicycle with the wind at your back, that’s not going to help you. You need to ride your bike against the wind.”

And so Egan — and any other modern-day pilgrim searching for faith — puts his questions to the wind, walking through ice and snow and rain and brutal heat.

He never gives up. At last standing on a promontory overlooking the city of Rome, Egan beholds the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica. As a thunderclap rattles the sky, the pilgrim with whom we’ve shared the long road recalls Michelangelo’s life motto: “the greatest danger, he said, ‘is not that we aim too high and miss it, but that we aim too low and reach it.’ ”

Egan aimed high, and he reached it.

Barbara Mahany is the author of several books, including, “Slowing Time: Seeing the Sacred Outside Your Kitchen Door.”

‘A Pilgrimage to Eternity’

By Timothy Egan, Viking, 384 pages, $28

what one moment from your christmas is already pressed to your heart?

making room for the hallowed

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i know, because the calendar says so, that christmas is coming, christmas is truly upon us. christmas in my heart of hearts is that one whispered pause when i feel the whole world — the stars in the heavens, the murmur from the woods, even the hustle in the marketplace — swell up with the pulse of new birth. i imagine the whole world on its knees, holding its breath, bowed down to welcome the babe birthed in a tangle of straw in the dinge of a barn where sheep and cows and a goat, maybe even a brood of clucking hens, keep up their animal chorus. that’s the christmas i reach for, the one i make room for. the one where the quiet is soaked through with holy, the one where one flickering wick shatters the darkness of night.

only, up till this minute it’s been anything but calm and bright around here.

one kid is home with the freshman-year “crud,” a concoction of germs that has him wheezing and coughing and looking up symptoms of mono on the internet. he’s been writing papers all week, so we’ve mostly been making like we’re one big study hall, with lights on till the wee, wee hours, and fridges raided at two or three in the morning. the other kid is barreling toward his last law school exam of the semester, but he took a detour in an emergency room, and scared the living daylights out of me. (he’s fine; i’m the one still shaking off the “rattles.”) and then, because why not, i decided to have a double-dose (that’s back-to-back, as in two wretched days in a row) doctorly peek at the insides (aka not one but two colonoscopies) last week, and after night no. 2, when they made me drink four liters of drain-o, i thought i might die on the cold bathroom floor. meanwhile the so-called man of the house is trying to save a great american newspaper.

all of which is to say: we need a little christmas. and hanukkah too.

so, today it begins, today i begin to make room for the hallowed to come. i’m off to the butcher in a wee little bit to rustle up my six pounds of hanukkah beast. i’ll crank the oven and fill this old house with the incense that cannot be beat: clove and bayleaf and peppercorn, a splash of red wine, a jar or three of chili sauce, then hours and hours in a 325 oven. next up (soon as the soon-to-be lawyer steps off the plane midday tomorrow), it’s off to the tree yard, where we’ll stroll and peruse and put our critical architectural eye to good use; chances are we’ll snag the same old fraser fir we always seem to snag (one too fat and too tall, and more or less to everyone’s liking).

and then, soon, will come one of the holiest moments of the whole long year: i will be alone in my kitchen on christmas morn, and except for the hiss of the simmering spices on the stove and the old schoolhouse clock incessantly counting the minutes and hours, it will be so quiet i’ll hear the rustle of wings and the squawk of the jay out the window. it’ll be inky dark outside, the first crack of light infusing the eastern sky. a star or three might still be twinkling. and here comes the best part: i’ll know that one flight up the stairs and around the bed, two beds will be filled with the boys who will forever be my heart’s reasons for being.

i’ll remember that it all boils down to the simplest of blessings: as we rub the sleep from our eyes, see first thing the bed-wrinkled faces of the ones we so love, as we block out the noise of the world, inhale the long years of loving that brought us to this holy moment, all else will melt away. we will be wrapped in the true miracle of christmas, the love that’s guided us all along the way. the love learned well by paying attention. the love that began, once upon the ages ago, when a wee blessed babe let out a cry for all the earth, and the whole world listened.

i’ll remember: for christmas to come, i need to make room. need to clear out the noise, wrap my sweet soul in those few fine things that are everything: a love that won’t die, a light that can’t be extinguished, and a belief in the undying hope that peace might be just around the next bend, somehow always in reach.

***

and here’s a christmas-y gift for all of you, a poem from mary karr’s descending theology, that draws me deeply into that holiest first night: 

Descending Theology: The Nativity
Mary Karr

She bore no more than other women bore,
but in her belly’s globe that desert night the earth’s
full burden swayed.
Maybe she held it in her clasped hands as expecting women often do
or monks in prayer. Maybe at the womb’s first clutch
she briefly felt that star shine

as a blade point, but uttered no curses.
Then in the stable she writhed and heard
beasts stomp in their stalls,
their tails sweeping side to side
and between contractions, her skin flinched
with the thousand animal itches that plague
a standing beast’s sleep.

But in the muted womb-world with its glutinous liquid,
the child knew nothing
of its own fire. (No one ever does, though our names
are said to be writ down before
we come to be.) He came out a sticky grub, flailing
the load of his own limbs

and was bound in cloth, his cheek brushed
with fingertip touch
so his lolling head lurched, and the sloppy mouth
found that first fullness — her milk
spilled along his throat, while his pure being
flooded her. (Each

feeds the other.) Then he was
left in the grain bin. Some animal muzzle
against his swaddling perhaps breathed him warm
till sleep came pouring that first draught
of death, the one he’d wake from
(as we all do) screaming.

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merry blessed Christmas, and happy hanukkah too. may your brisket be mouth-watering and your Christmas dawn be filled with overwhelming peace. xoxox

it’s the whispered moments that speak to me…

the shoes of the boys i love, the shoes i’ve always filled before dawn on the sixth of december, the feast of st. nick, those shoes are hundreds of miles away this dawn. likely lined up like straight-back soldiers in one’s law school apartment, and in a dorm room half as far away, i’m guessing they’re jumbled, strewn under a desk or a bed, or a sweatshirt and socks heaped on the floor.

to grow up in this old house was to wake up to foil-wrapped chocolates and oranges and surely a candy cane stuffed in the wide-open maw of your boot or your slipper or sneakers, a pair that grew by the year (all the more room for more chocolates), and always was left by the bedroom door on the night of the fifth.

i’ve always made as much of a folderol over this “little christmas” as i have over the one that’s gotten so noisy.

it’s the quiet moments of christmas, the unexpected kindnesses, the silence on a star-stitched night that stir the holy in me. i enter into the season in whispers. find myself pulled into tide pools of unspoken wonder. thrill like a kid with her nose pressed to the windowpane when i find myself face-to-face with the modern-day version of an elf. if you keep watch, and i’d advise that you do, there are elves all around.

this time of year i do make a list. a list of the out-of-the-blue elves and dollops of kindness that have plopped into my lap:

*the gas station owner who piled his tools into a cardboard box and drove me the three blocks to where my own car wouldn’t start, where he proceeded to ping and tap-tap-tap to try to get the key in the ignition to turn (it would not). he charged not a penny, and did the whole thing with a serious smile and multiple insistences that this was not at all out of his way. (on a sunday morning no less.)

IMG_0681*the college roommate from long, long ago who sent me a shoebox bursting with the itty-bittiest gingerbread babies, each one iced and strewn with cinnamon hearts, each one dangling from a skinny red thread she’d take the time to tie in a loop.

*my brother who’s driving almost two hours (each way) to the snow-covered storybook village where our freshman in college is just about to start his first round of finals. the plan (hatched in the spontaneous joy of the moment) is to fetch the kid after his last exam, bring him back to cleveland for a friday night’s feast and a snooze on an airbed, then tuck him onto a greyhound bus for the long ride home, where he’ll finish his papers in the cozy quiet of home.

*the extraordinarily kind fellow from the birdseed store who’s offered to swing by my house to reconfigure the bird feeders that have suddenly been taken hostage by one wily (and insatiable) squirrel.

my list isn’t done; it’s just getting started. but i know from years and years of paying attention that those catch-you-by-surprise, take-your-breath-away moments are the ones when the christmas seeps in.

it’s something like watching water whirl down a drain; it’s a force you can’t stop, it’s a force you can’t really see. but you feel it. you know it. the moment pulls you right in, a sinkhole of joy, of wonder, of can-you-believe-such-kindness-exists? and suddenly, deep down inside, you’re inside a snow globe of heaven on earth.

christmas comes in certain spoonfuls, best swallowed all along the way, through the quiet you carve out of the noise. by the time the day itself arrives, you’ll already have savored its coming.

merry christmas-is-coming, st. nick is here.

gingerbabies

who are the elves on your list? what dollops of kindness have crept up and tapped you gently, certainly, at the core of your heart?

out of darkness, the first radiant light

prayer for new year

imagine, long before telescopes and science tomes, what must have rumbled through the minds of those keeping watch on the heavens. how a time came when each day was darker and darker. when the hours of midnight-blue-toward-black blanketed farther and wider across the landscape. imagine the terror it might have stirred. are we edging toward endless seamless darkness?

and then, one day, at the darkest hour, a stirring happened, a stillness barely noticed. the waxing darkness ceased, the light broke through, and day by day, minute by minute, there was more of it. ebb and flow. wax and wane. addition and subtraction. the arithmetic of heaven, earth, and all creation.

and into that cosmos of push and pull, the ones who felt the spirit, the ones who believed the heavens were stirred by the hand of the Creator, they infused the darkness with the Christmas story. they made this the time of year when the Great Scripture opened in Nativity. a babe was born. in quietest, cast-aside manger. it’s a narrative whose shining light begins on the margins, celebrates the marginal. it is in every way the antithesis of splendor. it’s a straw bed where the moans and cries of labor are punctuated with the mews and bellows of the barnyard flock. where sheep and ox kept time.

it is a story that turns everything — darkness, splendor — on its head. the holiest one is born in a barn. there’s no room at the inn, not even for the one who brings the light. it’s a tale whose tropes never ever fade. year after year, they permeate hope. year after year, the dark hours before the solstice serve to quiet us. draw us in. invite us to explore the unlocked chambers of our hearts, the ones we sometimes never notice.

i’ve come to wrap myself in the little-noticed threads of Christmas, the quiet threads. the ones lost in the folderol and rump-a-pum-pum. the Christmas i love is all but invisible. you can’t unwrap it. it unfolds all on its own, deep in the stillest places in my heart. i do everything i can to amplify the quiet. i tiptoe down the stairs earlier and earlier. i make a point of opening the back door and stepping into the dawn. i shlep my tin can of birdseed across the frozen grass, under star-stitched dome, and thrill to the spilling song of all that sunflower and safflower funneling into the feeder. i simmer orange peel and cinnamon stick, clove and bay leaf, star anise too; my kitchen’s incense, calling me to quiet prayer.

on mornings like this one, i listen for the muffled thud of three distinct footfalls. it’s a sound that now comes but once a year. it’s a sound that means three beds — not two — are filled in this old house. i want nothing more than the sound of those footsteps, and the long day’s cacophony that follows. i want the whispered conversations at the kitchen table. and the hilarious ones that might punctuate hours round the Christmas tree. i want the sleepy-eyed listening in on the words weaving back and forth between two boys who call themselves brothers, and live and breathe that alliance as if it’s forged in titanium. i want to feed them, and make them laugh. i want to reach across wherever it is we are sitting and squeeze the flesh of their now-grown hands. i want to catch the glimmer in their eye when we pull to a stoplight in the night, and the street lamps catch the animation i can’t see across the long-distance-telephone miles.

if Christmas is the time when radiant light breaks through winter’s darkest night, i want to wrap myself in all its threads. if Christmas is love born anew, if it’s quiet — as quiet as the first one truly was — then all i want for Christmas is what burns bright and still inside me. and my prayer then would be to hold that light, to carry it long beyond the Christmastide. to animate my every day, to hold the stillness, the quiet, the kindled inextinguishable flame, and let its lumens fall across my winding path, illuminating my every hour.

for that, i beg the heavens. amen.

may your Christmas be blessed, and as quiet or as rambunctious as you wish. may your solstice hour carry you across the threshold from dark to first inkling of light. 

how do you make Christmas in the quiet of your blessed heart?

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my christmas captured: two mugs, not one, awaiting morning’s coffee. my sweet boy’s home…and these mugs are invitation to a long morning’s reverie….

season of stillness

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not so many years ago, my writing room at this time of year took on north-pole proportions: spools of ribbon, bags of this and that to slip inside other bags or boxes, layers and layers of tissue papers, itty-bitty cards. lists abounded. i was a walking-talking maker and checker of lists.

not so much these days. and not because i’m scrooge.

simply because the sanctity of stillness is what i’m after in this season of deepening darkness. i punctate the night — the shroud of black that grows with every passing whirl around the sun — with my litany of sacramental simplicities.

the dawn is longer, blessedly, giving me more time to stitch those hours with the fine few invitations to bring in what’s hushed, what’s holy. i scoop my old tin coffee can with fat black seed, slide my toes into clunky boots, my arms in puffy sleeves. as the shock of morning cold splashes up against me, i fill my lungs with one quick gulp. then i march across the frozen stiff blades of grass, the mud that’s now succumbed into icy form, and perk my ears to hear the flutter of a wing, the rustling of a bough. i pause to scan the heavens, count the stars, spy the fraction of the moon. i’ve written a thousand times of how i make like i’m a farmer filling my trough, as i pour the seed in the feeder high above my head, stretching my arm far as it will stretch, raising up on tippy-toes, too. i’ve come to realize that the rush of pouring seed must be a call to all the birds, akin to “coffee’s on, come and get it!”

on the stillest mornings, the holiest ones, a cardinal or a junco might flutter in before i’ve stepped away. as if the gentle creature knows we’re in communion here.

perhaps i’ve learned, in my years — now three decades — of braiding jewish threads with catholic ones, to sanctify time, even more than place. abraham joshua heschel, whom i count among my constellation of north stars, writes: “judaism teaches us to be attached to holiness in time, to be attached to sacred events, to learn how to consecrate sanctuaries that emerge from the magnificent stream of a year.” he goes on to draw out that point: “the Sabbaths are our great cathedrals; and our Holy of Holies is a shrine that neither the romans nor the germans were able to burn; a shrine that even apostasy cannot easily obliterate…”

point, well taken. point, deeply taken.

i consecrate the holy hours — the ones of dawn and dusk and deepest night.

and so, this season is no longer a mad dash, but a countercultural adventure in stitching in stillness. in simply kindling light, one by one, an arithmetic of brightening, night after night, as both menorah and advent wreath burn against the darkness. our house is not filled with shiny boxes. santa’s list is not an annual exercise in accumulation. hanukkah at our house is brisket + latkes + jelly-filled donuts on the first night, candles and dreidels each night after that.

year by year, i dial down the noise, and amplify the hush that ushers in the stillness.

how do you consecrate your holy hours?

all i wanted for Christmas

sugarplum visions

the children were nestled all snug in their beds, while visions of sugarplums danced in their heads….

and downstairs, in the inky edge of night, the mama, tapping away at her keyboard, heard a sigh go up from her heart: the one thing she wanted for Christmas, beds filled with sleeping lumps, and the souls who animate those lumps, they were all there.

indeed, the floors of those sleeping rooms, they are strewn with piles of things not normally there, and the fridge seems to have been attached to an invisible magnet, one that sucks out all the contents on a near hourly basis. juice that i swore was just there is now nowhere in sight, only a bottle drained of all but a sip (why does no one ever dare to take the very last sip?) perched on the shelf, lonely and wanting.

i can’t yet claim hours of conversation, for those unspool only in my imagination. the fact of the matter is that the so-called legal scholar (aka kid who just finished his first semester of law school and the mega exams entailed), he is sleeping as if there’s no tomorrow (and no daylight worth knowing). why, i think he’s been zapped with a wand that makes him allergic to daylight, curled up like a ball till the sun sets, then rising and hungry for breakfast. and then, without pause, lunch, followed by dinner….and into the night. (see paragraph above, the one referring to refrigerator magnet).

the little one (aka high schooler, who likely doesn’t take too kindly to being called “little” anymore, so let us anoint him “kid brother”), he is just wrapping up his last days of school for the calendar year, yet to partake of the hibernation behavior, though i fear it’s just around the bend.

thus, i might well need to own up to the reality here, and dash away all these visions of bonbons passed around the keeping room, while the logs crackle in the hearth, and i in my kerchief sate my hungers with hours and hours of huddled merriment.

so far, it’s been me alone in the kitchen, baking up a storm for a whole phalanx of teachers and friends up and down the block. oh, and there’s the last-minute clicking for Christmas, that early-21st-century ritual in which one scrolls the pages of amazon prime for just the right gift to arrive, yea, in the St. Nick of time (all because no one remembered to churn out their Christmasy wish list till you got on your knees and begged).

despite the aforementioned obstacles and roadblocks to poetic visions, still it seems that Christmas has seeped in through the cracks.

my heart is filled with the swirl of hopes and dreams and wishes that annually descend. i want so very little. just that rare touch of magic to remind me that we’ve something to do with the magic-making in our wee little lives. ours is the heart with the dial we can turn. we can go quiet, go deep. or we can be distracted, knocked off our course. we can get stuck in the ditch. throw up our hands in surrender. or we can quietly, decidedly, stitch our days with those rare few things that point us toward the heavenly pin lights, that open our ears to the morning song of the red bird, and the haunting cry of the owl in the night.

Christmas, indeed, comes most deeply in the cavernous vessel, the heart, where once we launched our long-ago wishes, and now we kindle wisps of dreams come tumbling true. it’s the room that is ours alone, the place where we stash our hopes and our prayers. it’s the quiet place, the place that sometimes can go still enough that we hear the sacred whisper. the one that births love. the one that puts breath to holy murmur.

Christmas, when we truly still and truly partake of the silence, it’s as close as i come to tiptoeing into the manger, huddling off to the side, beholding the newborn babe, the mother who cradles him, the carpenter and the shepherds who stand guard, and the heavenly light that illuminates all.

and that’s the magic i yearn for in the deepest heart of Christmas.

merry blessed Christmas. may your holy night be filled with deep still silence, deep enough to stir your prayers, and fill your soul with heavenly hope.

what’s on your wishlist this Christmas?

and, before i go, a few books for the soul, Yuletide or otherwise….(pasted below, in case you’re too tired to click on over….) 

books for the soul Yuletide 2017

New reads bearing Yuletide joy

By Barbara Mahany/Chicago Tribune

The assignment, “pluck books that stir the soul, and tell us how they do so,” is one that only gets richer, the bookshelves more crowded. And yet, the very definition of the soul — ineffable, always — is ever shifting. Certainly, it’s the catch-basin for all that’s sacred, a place of countless entry points. Vladimir Nabokov once instructed that “a wise reader reads the book of genius not with his heart, not so much with his brain, but with his spine. It is there,” he wrote, “that occurs the telltale tingle.”

For Christmas, here’s a special installment of our regular roundup of spiritual books.

“Joy: 100 Poems,” edited by Christian Wiman, Yale University, 232 pages, $25

Amid the darkness of this season — nay, this moment in history — this book of poems is certainly prescriptive, the antidote to deepening psychic ails. As the soul, perhaps, is gasping for breath, along comes Christian Wiman to settle us down for a tutorial in joy.

Wiman, best known for meditations on mortality (“My Bright Abyss”), once editor of Poetry magazine, and now professor of the practice of religion and literature at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music, is not one to come lazily or loosely to so imperative a subject.

Wiman’s own history of mortal sufferings — diagnosed at 39 with a rare, painful and incurable cancer — makes him a sharp-eyed explorer, on vigilant watch for those shimmering shards of joy along the circuitous climb.
In this anthology of poetry and prose drawn from the 20th century until now, Wiman asks what joy is. Rather than laying down a solid definition, he provides proof of joy’s existence in poems that offer that jolt of knowing: Joy is here. And here. And here.

Often, joy limns the border of spiritual ecstasy, and so the poetry here weaves from secular to sacred. The ordinary — pond frogs in song at dusk, the peeling of a grapefruit, a beloved poised at the kitchen sink — erupts into the extraordinary.

In an introduction worthy of memorization, Wiman writes: “Joy is the only inoculation against the despair to which any sane person is prone.”

“Christmas: A Biography” by Judith Flanders, Dunne, 256 pages, $24.99

Biographies of inanimate objects — or is a holiday animate, especially one so exploited by commercial pressures? — pique particular interest. And so, with the season in full overdrive, British journalist and social historian Judith Flanders has published “Christmas: A Biography,” an encyclopedic exploration that drills down on the Victorian period and mines the centuries to trace the roots of Yuletide tradition, tossing in ample dollops of esoterica along the way. (St. Francis of Assisi is credited with building the first Christmas stable, complete with manger, ox and ass, in 1223; the first decorated indoor tree appears in 1605 in Strasbourg, France.)

While born of Roman and pagan roots, it didn’t take long for Christmas to find firm anchor in religion. And though its secular underpinnings are indisputable, Flanders — and much of history — comes to this conclusion: “Whatever was happening in the world that was wrong … Christmas would bring it to a halt for a period of peace and companionship.”

Christmas, Flanders writes, offers a wonderful “illusion of stability, of long-established communities, a way to believe in an imagined past … while unconsciously omitting the less desirable parts of those times.”

Amid this many-chaptered history, deep in the consideration of Christmas, its historical and societal implications, there arises a sharp-edged silhouette of its quieter sacred pull. As so often happens when confronting truths, the chaff falls away, and we are left seeing more clearly what is worth holding onto.

“Here We Are” by Oliver Jeffers, Philomel, 48 pages, $19.99

Imagine the father of a newborn child, bent over his drawing table, putting words and color to the page, explaining to his infant son, through the medium he knows best, the ways of the globe on which the babe has just arrived. A manifesto, really, laying out the few fine things the father believes in: kindness, tolerance, care for the planet.

Now, imagine that father is a deeply beloved children’s book author and illustrator. “Here We Are: Notes for Living on Planet Earth” is in fact the latest treasure from Oliver Jeffers, the Belfast-bred creator of the best-seller “The Day the Crayons Quit.”

Something of a user’s guide to being alive and to life on Earth, Jeffers brilliantly uses pen and paintbrush to explore profound and puzzling questions, establishing straight off that the wisdom imparted here is wisdom for us all. You needn’t be a tot to profit from a gentle nudge like this one: “(U)se your time well. It will be gone before you know it.”

Or this, on a purple-soaked page depicting Earth amid the stars, a page that rightly situates our teeny dot against a vast universe: “It looks big, Earth. But there are lots of us on here (7,327,450,667 and counting) so be kind. There is enough for everyone.”

Barbara Mahany’s latest book, “Motherprayer: Lessons in Loving,” was published in April.

burrowing into december, month of miracles and searching

breakfast in bed

this is the month, they tell us, of miracles. “a miracle happened here.” so say the hanukkah refrains. it’s the month, too, of searching for a room, searching for room in your heart. so say the stories of christmas.

amid the month of darkness, miracles await in the nooks and the crannies. amid the month of december, there’s searching to do. deep-down searching.

here’s a secret: sometimes, you’re wise to approach the days with a deep-down quiet. that’s how you come to hear the whispers, and the cries that haven’t the oomph to rise to deafening decibels. that’s how you just might stumble into a miracle, sometimes find room in the cave of your heart.

the three, it seems, belong together: the quiet, the miracle, the room.

december for plenty of folks is a month of tight passages, and tangled adventures in forward motion. december is a month that grabs some by the ankles, tugs at them, tries to topple them, steepens the climb.

december, when you turn down the noise, unspool the days in whispers, tiptoe rather than race, is when you just might hear the scratch at the door of your heart. you are awake to the muffled cries that come in from the cold. and, often, that’s how you find yourself in the company of miracles, and discover a few extra inches in the capacity of your heart.

in recent days, i’ve tumbled into one or two souls in shadow. souls who couldn’t for the life of them see the light. certainly not their own. i wonder if i’d been racing through the days, a list of to-do’s blaring in my ears, if i would have heard quite how deeply they were hurting.

thank God, i heard.

i paused. i took a breath. shoved aside what the day had intended for me to do. instead, i climbed into the trench where each one found him or herself. i sidled up beside the soul in shadow; i said little. i spoke in actions. because sometimes only in doing can we really truly speak. i made breakfast, plopped it on a tray, ferried it to the someone whose soul was hurting. i unfurled blankets, and we sat side-by-side. i listened, all day.

the magic of loving is this: it works both ways at once. have you ever noticed that in your moments of deeply loving, as you lavish kindness and gentleness, as you exercise dashes of creativity to give your love some oomph, your own heart is growing right alongside the one you’re working so hard to love?

tonight a friend i love is coming for dinner. she’s a friend whose world has shrunk quite dramatically of late. the moment i imagined inviting her for dinner, imagined the candles i’d light, the napkins i’d lay out, imagined the plates piled with deliciousness, imagined the hours of uninterrupted conversation, i felt my own heart grow.

it is in giving love that we find it. that’s neither radical or new. it’s an old recycled truth. but when we live it, especially in the month of december, month of darkness and miracle and making room inside our hearts, it takes on a radiance all its own.

i’ll kindle lights tonight. i’ll aim to kindle light each and every day. i’ll keep my ears tuned for whispers and for cries. i’m making room. i’m tumbling into miracles.

those are the stories, the truths, of december, blessed holy month.

first night candles

how bout you? are you tumbling into miracles, making room?

the measures of our years: 11

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we mark time, this species Homo sapiens, to measure. to take measure. and so, in the gauzy moonlight of this cold december morning, i think back to that first dark morning, 11 years ago. when i awoke determined. uncharted, to be sure. the night before, a boy i love, a boy to whom i owe volumes of accumulated wisdoms and the double-size of my heart, that boy had been dilly-dallying, putting off homework, as he was wont to do. rather than attending to some eighth-grade math, he decided he’d build me a “website,” whatever that was, on my brand-new hand-me-up laptop (his old one bequeathed to me). i was only toe-deep into this endeavor until he asked me what its name might be, and as with so many of the fine things in life, the words popped out before i’d really had a moment to measure: “pull up a chair.”

i loved the notion, right away, the idea of wise souls and kindred spirits pulling up mismatched wooden chairs to the old scarred maple slab that is my kitchen table, one that holds the hieroglyphics of childhoods (my own amid a flock of five, and, now, my boys’, a pair), i loved the notion of a steamy kitchen, where the kettle always whistled, and the oven always cranked, and where the door was never locked.  i loved the notion of putting out a few simple words each morning, words that served as telescopes and magnifying lenses, as we tried to see and sense and sift for depths and heights otherwise unnoticed in the passing day to day. i particularly loved the notion that this might be a collective, a gathering place for poetry and plainspeak, prayer and commonsense, for wisdom and for joy. a place where heartache always, always found shelter, where shoulders were offered, tears dried, and where we’d hold each other up through whatever darkness came.

i never knew that there might come a day, 11 years down the road, when we’d all sit back on the hind legs of our chairs, tip warmed mugs to our lips, and ponder all that had passed during our close watch. intermittent watch for some, those who’ve come and gone, sometimes come again. at least two — my mother and my mother-in-law — have been — and are — regular as clockwork, sure to stop by, but not too inclined to say a word. sadly, heartbreakingly, some who first gathered at the table are gone now, but their spirits animate each and every day, each and every sentence typed. and in my own small life, two boys have grown — one was five, the other 13, when this all began. so they’ve grown up across these posts. two grade-school graduations, one high school, one college, and if i keep it up for two more years, we’ll rack another high school and law school, too.

the twists and turns and snippets of their lives that i’ve caught here, they’re priceless to me. they’ve been, more often than not, the launch pad for my deepest thoughts, the ones that mattered most to me. they taught me how to love, those two boys did. all of you, the ones who pulled a rickety chair up to the table, who added your hearts, your stories, your poetries and prayers to the mix, you did too. you taught me love. you proved that quiet whispers belong in a world where the shouting never stops.

so here we are, 11 years from the start. a second decade is chugging along. what began as a writing promise — i would write every single weekday for a year, see what sifted by — soon turned into a sacred vessel, an anchor to my heart and soul, a place where i knew i’d find priceless precious company, those tender souls who live and breathe gentle loving care, who might be speechless, or might need to holler out the upstairs window, when the world gets too cockamamie upside-down and twisted. books have been born from this little cranny of my heart. three books, now. (the newest one coming in the spring, just in time for the bursting forth of mama earth after a long winter’s curling deep within.) precious priceless friends have been made here and sealed with love that does not die.

i was scared to trembling the first time i hit the “publish” button, but i did it anyway. life does that. it shakes you to your bones, and then it rises up to scaffold you, to carry you to heights and summits you would not have known, or imagined in quite the depth and texture you now know.

bless each and every one of you for reaching out your hand, your heart, your whole, and whispering in unison: there is a world of tender loving care, a world that looks for poetry and wisdom all along the way. a world that believes in taking time, and paying attention, close attention, exuberant attention. there is a world of everyday devotions. and we are all the richer for the sound of each other’s footsteps marching, together, to the mountaintop.

thank you.

love, bam

IMG_0230because i promised to circle back to the book i’m carrying through this advent, and maybe every advent to come, “All Creation Waits: The Advent Mystery of New Beginnings,” by Gayle Boss, illustrated by David G. Klein, i thought i’d share just one passage from one of this week’s readings (every day’s is a breathtakingly poetic and poignant parable of woodland creatures in winter, all metaphors for the practice of Advent, the mystery of life that springs forth from what looks like death). 

chickadee (day 4): “As they swirl and hop at my feeder, they seem a flock of St. Francises. Like the saint wed to Lady Poverty, every day the question of their existence is open: Will there be enough of what they need to take them through the dark night, into tomorrow? Beyond reason, like the saint, they act as if the question is truly an opening, a freedom, a joy.” 

may your each and every day of deepening darkness be filled with flickerings of light. thank you for the gift of your presence here, week after week, year after year. 

where do you find light in the deepening of december?

the holy pause is upon us…

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i feel it, coming in like the draft through the cracks in my old wobbly windows. i feel it, as if a soft finger tapping me on the shoulder. i feel it beginning to swirl here in the kitchen, where cupboards are stacked with tins. i feel it when i plug in the lights on the tree. i feel it when i step out the back door, step under the great dome of dawn, shlep through the snow with my banged-up tin spilling with seed for my birds.

i feel it settling down in my heart and my soul. i feel the pure exchange of breath as i exhale the tired old air of these weeks of discombobulation and worry and fear, and breathe in the newborn air that will always be Christmas for me.

it is the holiest pause of the year for me, the birth of new light, just after the longest, darkest night. the quiet that comes, i imagine, just as it came in the manger, long long ago. i imagine the mother with child. i imagine her belly, hard, ready to birth. i imagine the cows lowing, and the sheep, the soft sounds of a barn, mixed with the muffled wail of pain from a mother in labor. then stillness. holy stillness. silent night. and then, at last, that cry from the deep, from the newborn lungs of the babe, the sound of God shattering the night. the first sound, a cry.

it’s a story that draws me deep into the folds of its threads. it’s a story that startles me, tenders me, year after year. it’s a story i need in double doses this year. and so i will tell myself the story over and over. i will stand at the edge of my creche and marvel at the newborn tenderness. i will marvel at the courage and strength of the mother who birthed her firstborn, her one and only, in the dim chill of a barn, surrounded by the murmurations of those beasts of burden. i will imagine the night sky, jet black, stitched with shimmering knots of pure light.

i will take hold of that tenderness, that courage and strength, and make it mine. or try, anyway. i will scoop up the seed that is Christmas, and tuck it deep in my heart. i will breathe into it, allow it to grow, to blossom, to spill beyond these few short days when the pause, holy pause, is upon us.

the holy pause is the most blessed gift of Christmas.

these are the days when the quiet comes, when we’ve ticked to the bottom of all the to-do lists, when we can shut the door on the cold winds outside. when we huddle with only the ones we love the most dearly. the ones our life depends upon.

at our house, the logs are piled high, ready to submit to the flame. thank you, old birch trees, old pine trees. the cupboards are full. the blankets are stacked in the old wicker basket. my firstborn, the one whose first cry long ago broke the silence, he’ll be home tonight. and the anticipation of his arrival is stoking the Christmas in my heart. it’s been a long autumn. and, in good measure, that’s what makes the Christmas miracle all the more blessed. especially this year.

and so, as is my way of keeping Christmas, i will bow my head at the dawn, and i will whisper my litany of prayerfulness. it’s the essence of Christmas to me: to weave the strands of petition into a whole and mighty salutation to the God who looks to us to uphold tenderness, mercy, and most of all justice. the God who begs us to keep peace here on this most blessed globe, the one of mountains and majesty, fragile bog and feathered flock. the God who gave us this gift with the undying hope that we’d hold it close to our hearts, and never let it shatter.

here is my prayer, or at least the first draft of it:

a christmas morning prayer…..

(the more insistent the prayer, the earlier i seem to rise. and so this morning, the heavens are star-stitched still, the edge of the dome is soaked still in inky black. the cardinals haven’t yet stirred from wherever it is they sleep.

and yet, my heart is bubbling. my prayers rise up from deep inside. they can’t wait to take flight, to be put to the airborne parabola, the one that puts wings to their breath.)

i pray for the mothers who have buried a child, the mothers for whom christmas will never be whole, will ever be hollow. i pray and pray for peace, just a thread of it, to come to them, to wrap for a moment around their aching heart. i pray for one moment’s relief from the stinging emptiness that will not be staunched.

i pray for the children who’ve lost their mother, two in particular i know and love, and countless others i’ve read about, countless others who cling to the margins of all the merriment, knowing it’s a country to which they no longer belong. for children without a mother on christmas, there is no peace, no everlasting peace.

i pray for Aleppo. i pray for the children hovering in the cold. i pray for the bodies of the babies unentombed from the rubble, the dust of hatred dropped from the skies. i pray for the mothers and fathers, i pray for the men and the women — cold, hopeless, hungry. i pray for the masses left to die, awaiting the words — any words — that tell them the world is listening, has heard their cries, awaiting the word that the world is coming, hope is coming to save them.

i pray for world leaders courageous enough to have opened their borders, to let in the rivers of refugees, disgorged from their homes, from their histories, from any shred of a sense that they’re safe.

i pray for the weary souls i see lying under puffy-layered sleeping bags, on cold hard sidewalks, under viaducts, against the grates at the base of shimmering downtown towers.

i pray for my children. i pray that in their hours of darkness, the light comes. that they see how brilliantly they shimmer in the landscape of my heart and my soul. i pray that someday they understand just how wholly they filled me, how they put purpose to my being alive. that each and every day we try and try again to teach each other: this is how you love. 

i pray for all of us who, more often than not of late, feel hollowed. feel jarred and broken by the hatred spewing all around. i pray for our tender hearts and fragile spirits. i pray that we don’t topple. and if we do, i pray for someone strong to come along, to reach out a hand, to whisper hope, and pull us to our feet.

i pray for those who haven’t a clue how deeply they teach me each and every day — be it a story on the news, or one passing by in the social media whirl. or someone i bump into at the grocery store, or riding on the el, or shivering in the cold as i shuffle down the sidewalk.

i pray for the ones i love who come to this table. who leave behind a trace, or not even a whisper. i pray for the ones i love who never come here, who share in the depths of my life but never stop by here, never hear the deepest voice i know, the one i found here, buoyed by courage and love.

i pray for the ones we’ve lost this year, the ones whose words rumble through my head, through my heart, each and every day. i pray especially for my friend who wrote these words: “wake up every morning acknowledging just how much beauty is in your world. pay attention to it, honor it and keep your heart and your eyes wide open. you won’t regret it,” she promised.

i pray for the poets and wordsmiths and makers of art in every form — in clay, in thread, in wood, in every hue under the sun and the moon. i pray for those words that catch against my heart, and work their way into prayer. those words that leap from my soul into the heavens.

i pray for the God who catches them, who catches the words of the prayer, who catches us all.

more mightily than any prayer i pray of late, i beg Holy God to not abandon us now. to not leave us to our sins and our shattered promises. i promise to love a little bit harder, to live a little bit better, more true to the blessing i was made to be.

and this is the prayer i pray most mightily: i promise to love, God, and i beg You to show us — show me, show every single lost and hungry one of us — the way. the holy, certain way…

thank you.

amen.

may your pause for the blessings of Christmas — and Hanukkah, the great festival of light that begins tomorrow — be gentle, and tender, and stitched with wonder and breathtaking marvel.

for what do you pray in this pause filled with holiness?

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my littlest manger

hark!

hark

arms wide-open, it’s the dawn that follows the silent night. night of awe. dawn of darkness lifting. the dawn, i pray for you, when the outlines of all your blessings come sharply, crisply, indelibly into focus.

when, perhaps, you find yourself all alone, nestled inside the flutterings of your heart and your soul, and all the Christmases of all the years before come tumbling softly, and this particular one, perhaps, leaps out from the pile because this is the Christmas when you’ve unwrapped a particular glimmering knowing from under your tree.

maybe it’s the simmering of newfound love. maybe it’s the weight finally shrugged off your shoulders. maybe, after all the hours of darkness, you’ve found your way to the flickering light off in the distance, and you’re home now, finally home.

maybe it’s that the story of Christmas — the blessed virgin mother and holy child, the newborn babe laid in the straw, the star of wonder lighting the heavens, the beasts of the pasture poking their noses into the barn, drawn by all of the stirrings — maybe the story of Christmas this year awakens a place deep inside you that’s too long been numb to the hope, and the light, that nativity brings. that nativity lays quietly at the cusp of your heart.

come, open the gift. open the possibility of wonder. of glistening light. wrap yourself, for even just this one sacred hour, in the hush and the whisper of peace. peace on earth, please. but peace in your very own kingdom — you can make that happen if you take hold of wonder, if you chase out the noise, if you close your eyes (or open them wider than ever), and open your heart. breathe deep. inhale the Divine, animator of all that’s wonder-filled, that’s breathtaking.

that’s what i pray you find this blessed morning, under your tree, tucked in your heart. may this dawn of quiet at last, this day-breaking hour of stillness, seep deep into your every channel of wonder, into the depth and breadth and whole of your soul, and fill you with Christmas at its holiest.

amen. and merry blessed Christmas.

here’s one last little wintery blessing, from the pages of slowing time….

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may yours be a sumptuous, most heavenly day…..