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Well, I just hate Christmas, and nearly always did, ever since the faith was broken. I hear how kids wise up to the Santa Claus routine but pretend otherwise because the goods seem connected to keeping their parents' fantasies flowing. I've seen the parents trying to pretend for the same reason—not because otherwise the gifts stop, but to maintain the innocence a little longer—even when both sides know the other side knows.
I didn't know. Maybe in the fourth grade somebody at school recess took a survey of who did and who didn't believe in Santa Claus. The idea of not believing had never occurred to me before that survey. "Of course there's a Santa Claus," I said in absolute disgust. The survey-taker yelled to her friends, "Okay, that's two for Santa!" and took off to find another kid to question. What a dope, I thought. Her disbelief would get her into trouble. And the incident completely left my mind.
Until my mother took me aside the following year and said, "Hey, listen. About Santa ..."
I was horrified at the revelation. It made no sense to me. How could some obnoxious creep at recess have the inside goods, the real truth about something this big and my own parents were in on the scam?
It took me three days of chewing on this new world order before I came back and asked, "Then where do the presents come from?" The sharpest crayon in the box I have never been.
"From us," my mother said. "Don't tell your sister. She's too young to know."
My sister already knew. The wise kids at recess had filled everybody in, including the kids in kindergarten and first grade. It was a matter of who believed and who didn't. All Christmas Day that year, my mother or father would say, "And see what else Santa brought you!" I would look guilty and stammer, while my sister would mutter, "There isn't any Santa Claus, ..." under her breath so they didn't hear.
The fraud was exposed, and it wasn't about Santa. It was about an entire culture coercing themselves into the experience of wide-eyed faith. After that, all bets were off. Why believe any of them?
And why buy into Christmas at all? For me, Christmas was a solo affair, as I rushed off alone to sing at the 10:00 A.M. service at St. Luke's Episcopal Church. My parents had already gone to the Christmas Eve service and slept late on Christmas Day, so the presents were barely opened when I set out on the half-mile walk to church, carrying my freshly starched robe to stiffen even further in the chill. With the junior choir, I would sing to a half-filled church devoid of anybody I knew, and then walk back home alone. By then it was already Christmas noon, and relatives were arriving, and the food smells were starting to win over the pine spray on the artificial tree. Without knowing it, I knew when I got back to the house that the Christmas moment had already come and gone—and once again had left me hanging.
So it was only fitting that in my college years as a music major I took the solo nature of Christmas and turned it into a profit-making gig. The organist at my church was ill one year so I played all the services and ran home for a turkey sandwich in between. Another year, when the senior choir director gave me the solo parts to sing, I preempted the elderly soprano who'd always done the solos and created hard feelings and a few resignations. The joke in college was that "old sopranos never die; they just sound that way." But poor Bella was a wounded soul cast away after years of faithful service for a younger, fancier, flash-in-the-pan. Our college joke did not allow her humanity.
By my junior year in college, I had moved my Christmas to other church gigs, ones that paid, leaving behind my parents' more parsimonious parish. Bella returned to her faithful role as soprano soloist at St. Luke's while I hop-skipped to all the paying jobs I could round up. One Christmas Eve, I sang soprano solos from the Messiah for a radio broadcast the Methodist Church recorded at 6:00 P.M. in downtown Providence, got picked up outside in the icy cold to haul butt to an Episcopal service at 8:00 P.M. in Fall River (more Messiah), and made it back to Providence in time for midnight Mass at the Catholic cathedral as a member of the Peloquin Chorale. My parents heard the radio broadcast of the Messiah, went to their own Christmas Eve service, and caught up with me on television for the midnight Mass. It was great fun, but it didn't have much to do with the simple Gospel story, with the enormity of Mary's perfect obedience and God's incredible gift.
My last year of college was also my last year of Christmas gigs. A music professor got me a lucrative job as a soloist in a Presbyterian Church near the college campus. It meant an hour's drive from home each way on roads that turned mean with frozen ruts, but the money was great. So was the novelty of solo work with orchestra.
It wasn't only the roads that turned mean and rutty either. My vocal chords did, too. What started as a bit of hoarseness and a slight cough turned into laryngitis by Christmas Eve day.
"You have to manage," said the music director when I called and croaked at him. "It's too late to get anybody else, and we've spent too much money on the orchestra to start cutting back the music."
So even though I could barely say Presbyterian, I bundled up, drove alone on Christmas Eve to sing in front of a church full of Presbyterians who didn't know me or have a clue how sick I felt. I learned that even with laryngitis you can push out a half-decent sound by the second or third beat. When I was done, I was finished. I couldn't even whisper. It took a January in bed to get over a case of pneumonia.
Christmas and its magical moment! I was pretty sure there was one such moment every Christmas when everything suddenly hushed and you stood on the sacred ground called Christmas. But it always escaped me, even in my blind faith that such a moment actually existed.
The church of my childhood did not accompany me into adulthood. The faith of the child cracked and splintered under the weight of a searching, restless, half-mad adult. When I moved to San Diego, I lost even the external clues that led to Christmas as I had known it. ("So what do people do about Christmas dinner here? Really? Shrimp on the barbecue? How very interesting ...") We had our house up for sale in Massachusetts, so Felix and I lived in a two-room cabana (a motel room with cooking space) in Pacific Beach that first year. The Charlie Brown Christmas special came on even there, and when I heard there was "no room at the inn," for the first time I really got being unwanted in a strange place and went on a major crying jag. Felix decided we would drive to Tucson to visit his family. We spent Christmas Eve that first year in San Diego driving the great desert wasteland east of San Diego for 400 miles to Tucson, listening to a "Jews for Jesus" broadcast coming out of a Mexico radio station—the only station we could get in the wastelands. Having established a precedent, we were expected in Tucson every Christmas thereafter. It wasn't my Christmas moment, but who knew that it even existed after all these years of waiting?
Twice in fifteen years I returned to Rhode Island to spend Christmas with my parents. The first time, the temperature dropped below zero by the Christmas Eve service, and I threw style to the winds and burrowed in anybody's extra winter clothing to listen to endless songs, a spin by the bell choir, and a sermon that lasted more than half an hour. As we left the service, my father started to introduce me to the minister, who seemed to have other, worldlier concerns that Christmas Eve. "Say, Al, would you consider heading up the church capital campaign in January?"
I hadn't been inside a church for a while, but I realized that this wasn't the Christmas moment I was looking for either.
I came back to Rhode Island one more time for Christmas. By then I was a Roman Catholic and a regular church-goer, and Christmas is one of the holidays they say you have to do, so the church is always packed with strangers, not only to each other, but to the liturgy as well. By now, in the month since he'd gotten strangely, seriously sick, and still a few weeks from being diagnosed with cancer, it was clear that my father was dying. He was sixty-five years old, and the suddenness of it terrified him. Once in a while, his big blue eyes would fill with tears, and he'd make a horrible gasping sound like he couldn't breathe. But he could breathe. The sound was his sobbing.
In the middle of that horror, Christ was born and the angels sang alleluia at a Catholic Church near my parents' home. Christmas was still a lonely solo affair, but this time the priest sang the most radiant music I had ever heard, and everybody in the congregation was lifted up by his enormous, determined caring. It became Christmas then, because of his gift. There had never been anything under the tree I really wanted, from Santa, or my parents, or Felix. But this lovely, lonely, singular priest in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, was singing like his heart would break for joy at Christmas.
My heart broke, too.
Old habits die hard, and hating Christmas has been one of my oldest habits. There was that one Christmas of terrible beauty with the lovely priestly voice singing, but the rest were the awful ones, the forgotten ones, the adulthood ones of standing outside smoking alone listening to people inside fight over which TV show to watch and thinking, "There's a real Christmas going on somewhere else. Not here, but somewhere it's a real Christmas." Not in the jingle-jangle lane of the mall, or in the lite-jazz radio version of "chestnuts roasting on an open fire." Not here. But somewhere.
While I was waiting for the real Christmas moment to find me, Felix suggested, "Maybe you'd like Christmas better if you had a Christmas tree and decorated the house. Maybe you'd like the season better if you participated in it."
I wanted to snarl out a few choice remarks: how all my years of marathon Christmas services hadn't done the trick, and how Christmas trees were pretty secular after all. Should I get a picture taken with Santa Claus at Nordstrom's while I'm at it?
But this amazing thing happened. What I heard him say inside his words, almost wistfully was, "I sure would like Christmas better if we had a tree. I sure would like a few decorations, a little participation, a little spirit of the season."
Poor Felix has traveled all these years of exile from anything resembling Christmas with me because of me. Never a tree, or a gracious word about spending the holidays with his family, or a twinkle of fa-la-la-la—just me, hoping that if we shut our eyes, maybe the whole thing would go away. Even Charlie Brown finds the answer every year as the multitude of the heavenly host sing, "Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace...." I could have sung those words every year, too, when I sang the Messiah. But that was the chorus section, and I only knew the solo parts.
Christmas—how could I not know this?—is not about me. It is a celebration of that breathless moment in time—for all time—when God entered into the story and became a character, not just the author. It is that moment I loved when I was on a ski lift in New England, when the world seemed to drop away behind me and a hush settled on my shoulders as light as snowflakes. It is the yes moment, the moment of total commitment between God and his people, when he becomes one of us to free us.
Isn't that the Christmas moment I've been waiting for all these years? Suddenly it was mine when I heard another voice and listened to another heart's need and figured out that Christmas is all about duets and quartets and even the occasional full-bodied chorus.
So I got a tree and put out a crèche. Felix put wreaths on the doors. As he strung the lights around the tree, he began taking a look at the ornaments.
"Where did this one come from?" he asked.
"The one that's a heart that says, 'Our First Year'? Open it; our pictures are in it. My mom made it and gave it to us the year we got married."
"Oh." He smiled at the young skinny kids pictured inside. "This one?"
"Cape Cod, the year Jennifer got married."
"Who stitched this one? You?"
"No. My mom, when we moved to Encinitas."
"Okay. What about the shiny ones?"
"My sister, my mother, and I used to make an ornament at Christmas. We bought kits with styrofoam balls, sequins, and pins, and stuck that styrofoam until we didn't have any fingerprints left. Mom divvied them up between the sisters a few years ago."
"You made me buy it at St. Benedict's Church on the Big Island the last time we were there."
"I made you buy?"
"Made. You did, even though you said we'd never had a tree and probably never would. You wanted it anyway, just in case."
"Well, I did good," he said virtuously, spearing the stuffed dove of peace onto the top of the tree. "You have a nice memory for your tree now that you've got a tree." He stood back to survey the effect. "Actually, you've got a lot of memories on the tree." He began to sound a little indignant. "For somebody who's never wanted a Christmas tree and never decorated and never liked Christmas, you sure have a lot of special ornaments here. What were you saving them for?"
Oh, Christmas, I guess. A Christmas moment, maybe. I'd lugged them from Rhode Island to Boston to San Diego to Encinitas, and now to Lake San Marcos. They've been packed and waiting, as I've been packed and waiting for Christmas. And now, for whatever reason, and undoubtedly in God's own season, my time, too, is at hand ...
Step 1: Obedience to All God's Commandments
I joined Felix for one of his many business trips to Korea and out of the overwhelming foreignness to my eyes, one detail consistently caught my attention: the buildings that weren't done yet, complete in nearly every detail, but missing one feature, most often the front stairs. The door, sitting three or four feet from the ground, would be unanchored by stairs.
Felix had noticed this phenomenon, too. He suspected cultural and financial operatives: the philosophy of work-in-progress versus a Western "done-and-get- on-to-the-next-thing" mentality, or the bad luck of actually completing something, or the desire to forestall taxes until the building was really finished.
I would look at those houses and office buildings, with a door sticking somewhere in the middle of nowhere and say, "but that first step is a killer."
So it is with Benedict's first step of humility. Later steps rate a sentence or two with little or no explanation, but Step 1, beginning with the command to keep the fear of God always before his eyes is a doozy. It's a door three feet up, a killer first step that continues for twenty-one verses, dense in language (Benedict's) and scriptural references (God's).
Humility is off to a rough start. It's like the slogan that shows up sometimes on the marquis in front of the community church I drive by every week: "God didn't give us the ten suggestions."
Well, no, but there certainly are a lot of commands in the Bible, and the Church surely added a few that God missed. How am I supposed to even round them all up, let alone obey them, and fear God for good measure?
The fear part gets easier by the minute. If this is on the final exam, where was I on the day of the lecture? The step itself says very simply, obey all God's commands and fear God, and adds the following, like bulleted items in a Power Point presentation:
* keep your thoughts on God,
* do not do your own will,
* do not follow the desires of the body, and
* be vigilant.
Not that I'm counting, but that seems to add up to more than just one step.
Alcoholics Anonymous introduced me to steps and to humility. The twelve steps of AA not only keep you sober, but also transform you from a "dry drunk"—the same person you were drinking, only now not-drinking—to somebody entirely different, someone who has reached a state of serenity. That's why we loved the Serenity Prayer so much. Even the word had a soothing, edgeless quality that we edgy perfectionists found appealing—and impossible. For Benedict, though, the ultimate achievement is not serenity but humility. It's a state that conjures up images of downcast eyes and meekness, and it doesn't seem nearly as appealing as the floating, angelic sound of serenity.
One of the founders of AA, Bill W., doesn't mention humility until you get to his Step 7: Humbly ask Him to remove our short-comings. Like Benedict's obedience to God's commands, Bill W. knows self-reliance isn't the answer no matter how our culture exalts it. "As long as we placed self-reliance first, a genuine reliance upon a Higher Power was out of the question," he writes. "That basic ingredient of all humility, a desire to seek and do God's will, was missing."
Although my fling with AA only lasted four years, it turned out to be invaluable preparation for becoming a Benedictine oblate. The AA twelve steps introduced a dedicated, isolated loner like me to the idea of community, gave me a set of rules to follow and steps to take, and perhaps, most importantly, showed me that humility was not humiliation dressed for takeout. Humiliation, Bill W. suggested, comes to us unwanted. Humility, on the other hand, is something we should embrace. "It was only by repeated humiliations that we were forced to learn something about humility," he suggests. But from force to embrace, he becomes lyrical:
We enjoy moments in which there is something like real peace of mind.... Where humility had formerly stood for a forced feeding on humble pie; it now begins to mean the nourishing ingredient which can give us serenity.
Excerpted from Humble Pie by CAROL BONOMO. Copyright © 2003 by Carol Bonomo. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
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|Prelude: The Preparation|
|The Ladder of Humility||4|
|Step 1||Obedience to All God's Commandments||15|
|Step 2||Following God's Will||33|
|Step 3||Obedience to Earthly Superiors||50|
|Interlude: The Passing of our Blessed Father Benedict (Solemnity)||61|
|Step 4||Perseverance (continued)||87|
|Holy Saturday of Our Lord's Rest||92|
|Interlude: Safe Place||151|
|St. Benedict, Feast||154|
|Step 8||Following a Spiritual Guide||160|
|St. Benedict, Feast||166|
|Step 9||Practicing Silence||175|
|St. Matthew, Apostle, Feast||185|
|St. Matthew, Apostle, Feast||196|
|Dedication of the Abbey Church, Solemnity||201|
|Anniversary of the Dedication of the Abbey Church, Solemnity||212|
|All Saints, Solemnity||220|
|Coda: The Summit||233|