Many of the Christian mystics had ecstatic experiences of the Divine within their contemplations and meditations. To name just a few, these include Mother Julian of Norwich, whose visions as she lay on her (almost) death bed inspired her to write her book, Revelations of Divine Love; Hildegard of Bingham, who often turned her ecstatic visions into beautiful choral pieces; Teresa of Avila; and the poet Thomas Traherne. Even Blaise Pascal, the seventeenth-century mathematician, inventor, and physicist, had a two-hour ecstatic experience one night.
My son asked me long ago why as people get older they tend to get more religious. As an older person, 79 in a few months, I think I can now more adequately address that question. In my case, it is not so much that I am more religious in the sense of church attendance unless by church is meant the realm of Nature plus the actions of daily life, especially the latter.
I remember reading Frank Peretti’s novel This Present Darkness in the mid-1980s. The title for that novel came from the Scripture passage cited above, “our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against...the cosmic powers of this present darkness.” As an Amazon.com review describes it, “Nearly every page of the book describes sulfur-breathing, black-winged, slobbering demons battling with tall, handsome, angelic warriors on a level of reality that is just beyond the senses.” Looking back, the book seems maudlin; but when I first read it, Peritti’s Christian thriller provided a lens to view reality. Things happening in the world of the senses were linked with the doings of an unseen realm.
My Christmas tree this year is a beautiful Frasier fir, for which I paid a whopping $45 at Kodey’s Tree Farm on the first Sunday of December. It meets my late father’s minimum requirement that it scrapes the ceiling of my living room. But in honor of my Dad, there’s no way it could have come into the house until it was almost Christmas (my family followed a now-almost-extinct tradition that the tree did not go up until Christmas Eve because the preceding weeks of Advent were a time of spiritual preparation for the Big Day and very much NOT part of the Christmas Season).
Celebrating Christmas by spending money on all sorts of trinkets and gifts has been the norm for several generations. Not that there’s anything wrong or immoral about it. Giving gifts to those we love, to make others happy, or simply for the sheer joy of celebration are all good things. So is the yearly reminder of our yearning for a peaceful world that’s embedded in Christmas cards and the lyrics found in Christmas carols. But somewhere along the way, we’ve allowed ourselves to be distracted from the central meaning of this holy-day.
There is more to Christmas than just Christ’s birth. It serves as the beginning of epic, and Advent is the prologue whereby we prepare for the first spellbinding chapter. There’s a thread running through Christmas that ties into so many other Christological elements, including Christ as Divine Lover, in concert with the poetry of St. John of the Cross, whose feast aptly coincides with the Advent season on December 14.
The Advent season is a time of hope—but many of us are feeling as though our hopes have been trampled into the mud. It’s hard to hope for anything now. The future looks dark, terrifying. To continue to hope seems like whistling in the dark. It almost seems safer, less risky, to abandon all hope, batten the hatches, and prepare for the worst.
Gratitude leads to a transformed lifestyle. In gratitude for this good Earth, we are challenged to be stewards of our blessings. Thanksgiving inspires care for the Earth and reverence for its manifold diversity. It also inspires appreciation for our human companions. The Christian scriptures counsel, “Pray without ceasing” (I Thessalonians 5:17). Ceaseless gratitude brings forth light in you and in all creation.
The miracles Jesus performs in the Gospels may strain our modern credulity. The Celts, however, were quite comfortable with stories of the impossible being possible. They lived in a world where the Otherworld was so interwoven with this world that nothing surprised them. Another reality could easily overlap with everyday reality, causing all sorts of strange things to happen.
Thanksgiving is at the heart of the spiritual journey, whether you are a monk or a parent. Thanksgiving roots us in the graceful interdependence of life and reminds us that none of us ever makes it through life on our own. As a child, I learned the “A-C-T-S” formula for prayer—adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication. As an adult, I seek to cultivate the spirit of gratitude essential to my own well-being and to the well-being of my relationships with family members, congregants, colleagues, students, friends, and God.