Christmas, find a quiet corner

The great thing about Christmas, someone said recently, is that it’s compulsory. Whether we like it or not, it’s just there. For some it’s about remembering the events around Bethlehem when God entered into human history; for others it’s about the practical implications for our faith of thousands of refugees from Syria, just over the road from where the Christ-child was born; for all of us it will mean accepting or rejecting the tried and tested rituals at the heart of the Christmas experience.
For some visiting the Crib after Christmas Mass brings them faith-fully and happily into the depths of Christian belief. For others, even for those who have let the rituals of faith slip into a distant memory, Christmas Mass is an essential rubric of Christmas time. Even for those who no longer believe, the pull of Christmas night is peculiarly insistent, the equivalent of a tide turning inside us, something that brings us to a place within ourselves that seeks, even demands our attention.
Christmas can be a strange time. It has a funny way of creating an empty space around us. Despite the hype, Christmas has a way of stripping our lives down to the essentials. In the midst of Christmas cheer, a small thin voice insists on posing a series of difficult questions: what does it all mean? Am I happy? what is my life for? how can I satisfy that itch within me? how can I satisfy that part of me that nothing seems to satisfy? how can I explain the wonder that I sometimes sense is at the heart of life? And we find ourselves, for a time, putting our lives under a microscope. Wondering.
It’s the equivalent of shuffling our way through a dense forest and then suddenly finding ourselves in a calm, silent clearance. And we get a calmer and more reflective view of where we are. Suddenly we have an opportunity to put things in perspective. It’s as if, in some peculiar way, we have been brought into our own presence.
As we walk around the shops, a sound or a sight or a smell suddenly re-awakens something within us. It could be an echo of a Christmas carol or a child’s face in the crowd or an old person shuffling along. And suddenly a memory comes flooding back. A seasonal wistfulness follows as we remember the faces and places of the Christmases of the past.
Then more reflectively we may begin to place our hopes and dreams in the context of where we are now. And as the harsh realities of life impinge, we may well feel the edge of regret and failure. Tread softly, Yeats wrote, because you tread on my dreams.
As we move through the Christmas season, powerful forces seem to stir within us. We feel at once elated and depressed, happy and sad. Something within us wants to open the great tabernacle of memories and hug them to bits. Something else wants us to close that tabernacle tight, to hold memory at a distance.
You see in the distance a couple embracing. You see people with children and without children. You watch an old man struggling to get across a street. You look at the intensity in the eyes of a child in a crowded shop and a memory of times past flutters within you. You think you’ve got a handle on something, that time or distraction have dulled the intensity of feeling and then you hear a snatch of a song on the radio or you bump into an old friend and the tears well up or a smile breaks out. Something reminds you of how happy or unhappy you are, how fractured and how fragile are the bits and pieces of yesteryear that come to us out of the shadows.
Life is like that. Loss too. And at Christmas, the clearance in our lives is such that the intensity returns and we sometimes wonder how we’ll manage, as the cliche puts it, to ‘get over the Christmas.’
Paul Durcan, in his poem, Christmas Day, described Christmas as the feast of St. Loneliness. In it he writes about watching a phone on St Stephen’s Day that never rings, capturing in that haunting image the sense that, for many, Christmas is a moody and melancholic time, a time when loss and unhappiness seem somehow intensified by the tinsel and glitter of the festive season.
Few of us would want to confront our demons so harshly. But at Christmas time, the memories slip through the sieve of life and the demons gather, demanding a space, searching for an audience. Christmas is that kind of time. Full of memories, good and bad but never indifferent. Memories that bring a warmth and a happiness with them and memories too that leave us desolate and cold. Hopes remembered, dreams relived, that middle ground between the possible and the actual re-tilled over and over until we begin to see the fruits of our lives scattered around our feet.
Make sure you take a bit of time off from Christmas. Let the water under your feet settle into a little puddle so that you can see a bit of yourself in it. Let the bustle fade into a silence. Find a clear space where you can hear what life is saying to you. Sit somewhere and look out at the world as it rages and races past. Find a quiet corner and let the ghosts of Christmases past come to the surface for yourself.
Christmas is another clearance and it’s always in the clearances that we find out what really matters.
May I wish all who read this column the blessings of the season.

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  1. Mary Vallely says:

    Brendan Hoban writes so beautifully at times. Christmas is indeed a season of wistfulness but also of wonder. I loved that image of memories as “that great tabernacle of memories” because those memories at Christmas time are so very precious to us particularly when loved ones are no longer around us to share in them and to inspire them.
    Sharing this little poem because it sums up for me the hope that Christmas also brings us, of the work we have to do and of the ‘reason for the season’ as it were:-)
    The Mood Of Christmas by Howard Thurman.
    When the song of the angels is stilled,
    When the star in the sky is gone,
    When the kings and princes are back home,
    When the shepherds are back with their flock,
    The work of Christmas begins.
    To find the lost,
    To heal the broken,
    To feed the hungry,
    To release the prisoner,
    To rebuild the nations,
    To bring peace among peoples,
    To make music in the heart.”
    The lost and broken and prisoner are also ourselves, of course, so Brendan’s advice in taking time off and just allowing ourselves TO BE is a wise one.

  2. Sandra Mc Sheaffrey says:

    Thank you Brendan for this eloquent reflection. Eloquence is not only soothing, according to its root meaning; it is clearly a gift, and you share it well.
    I look forward to many more examples in 2016.

  3. And a time for looking back… Pre-Vatican Two.
    The Formative Years…
    Novitiate… Student years… Ordination…
    Formative years?
    We were moulded in immaturity…

  4. “We were moulded in immaturity …..” How very, very true, Sean@3.
    And not just those who went through the stages to ordination that you mention but also people like myself who, thank God, did not experience 5 or 6 years of seminary malformation to cement in mental concrete the appalling notions we absorbed as “faith” in our young lives. In his last book, or at least the last one that I am aware of, “Notes from the underground: The spiritual journey of a secular priest”, Fr. Donald Cozzens makes a plea, a “cri de Coeur” that we could have a mature church in which we could all take part as mature adults. He wrote this pre-Francis, when there was not much chance of that becoming a reality. I am sure he will be a much more optimistic chap today.

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