Saturday, February 02, 2008

Christmas in the hotel and in the stable

Dec. 25, 2007, is long past. Just as I thought I'd get a chance to jot down my yearly reminiscences early this time, a series of unfortunate events occurred. The first event was a small fire on my dining room table on the 4th Sunday of Advent, three days before Christmas. I lit the four candles on my Advent wreath, said a few prayers, and then left the wreath unattended when I went off to sing with the choir. After my son woke up three hours later, he found the front rooms of the house pitch black with soot. He couldn’t see anything, and it was broad daylight! He found the source of the smoke and extinguished it. When he got over the shock of how close he came to possibly dying of smoke inhalation, he took photos, which show the soot damage throughout the house. Above is a photo of what was left of the Advent wreath.

I thank God my son didn’t get hurt, and that the house didn’t burn down. The dining room table is the only thing that actually burned.

Liberty's room had two closed doors between it and the smoldering fire, so his room was livable, while my room, which is just off the dining room, was not. A few days later, a fabric restoration company took my clothing, curtains, and bedding for cleaning, an electronics restoration company took my electronics, a fire clean-up company started washing the structure, and I moved into a hotel.

As a result of my pleading about what I really wanted for Christmas, Liberty joined me at Midnight Mass and sang with the choir. We came back to the house around 2 a.m. and opened stockings together, sampled some of the traditionally weird foods I’d picked up as stocking stuffers (gummy rats, for one), played with a little blue wind-up penguin and laughed. I went back to the hotel around 3. I sang again at noon Mass on Christmas Day.

Then I got the sad news a few days later that my Uncle Raymond had died. Uncle Ray was my father’s sister Agnes’s husband, and Ray was the closest I ever came to having a father after my own father died when I was two. I am very grateful for the home he and my aunt and my grandmother provided for us. While my aunt worked nights, he helped us with our homework. I especially remember his sailor stories, that he taught me how to draw perspective and how to swim. Liberty and I flew to Boston for his wake on New Year’s Eve and funeral Mass the next day. We attended with my sister, Joe-anne, two of her daughters, and four of their children.

When we returned, I moved back into the same hotel.

Last Monday, the 14th, I moved back into my house after the fabric restoration company returned my bedding and clothing. Painting and wallpapering and carpet and curtain replacements still need to be arranged. The disorder is getting to me. I miss the order of hotel living, and the heated pool, which I had pretty much to myself as I swam laps every night before bed.

After this litany of really good reasons why I didn’t write anything yet this year, I need to finish up this letter before the official end to the Christmas season occurs in a few minutes at the end of Candlemas.

My pre-Christmas meditations were mostly about the stable. The one that Christ was born into. The one that He lives in, in my heart.

These meditations were partly fueled by a story that was sent to me before Christmas by Hilary Rojo. (Hilary and her husband Mac organized the pilgrimage I took to Israel three years ago.)

Hilary's story was about the couple's experiences as they went to Bethlehem to attend Midnight Mass one unspecified Christmas Eve. They had gotten tickets months in advance, and they looked forward to the chance to celebrate one of the holiest nights of the year in one of the holiest spots in the world.

As I had found out when I was there, Bethlehem is Palestinian controlled. Our Israeli-driven bus had to be parked in a garage on one side of the border. Then we had to walk down a street and through a security checkpoint in a building where rifle-armed guards strolled on open catwalks over our heads. When we exited the building, we were in Bethlehem. We had to get into a Palestinian-driven bus and continue our journey to the Church of the Nativity.

When the Rojos got to Manger Square in front of the Church of the Nativity that Christmas Eve, the din was hellish. As more and more people poured into the square, the press of bodies was so intense, it sometimes was hard to breathe. The way Hilary told it, the Palestinian soldiers who provided security stood by and laughed among themselves at the tourists as they pushed and shoved each other trying to get to the head of the line. A flying wedge of Germans elbowed by them. Young Palestinian children pushed into the crowd to pick pockets.

The Rojos were dismayed even further when then they saw the soldiers only allowed dignitaries and their entourages to enter the church doors. The Rojos stuck it out, mostly because there was no escape, and no place else to go. Their tour bus was locked in a garage. After a long wait, it seemed their persistence had been rewarded when they got as far as the church door. They were briefly relieved, until the guards suddenly announced, “The church is full, go away!” and BANG, the big wooden doors slammed shut.

Just as suddenly they spotted another opening, the famous Door of Humility, which some say was bricked over at the top and one side to keep the Crusaders from riding their horses into the church. In any case, the door keeps you humble because you must bow your head to enter.

Below: Door of humility
The Rojos rushed over to the door, and suddenly Hilary recognized Mahmoud Abass, the former president of the Fatah movement. She looked him in the eye, and then she and Mac got in line and drafted through the door on his figurative coattails.

Abass and his entourage were escorted to a reserved seating area in the adjacent church of St. Catherine of Alexandria, while the Rojos melted into the crowd somewhere behind him in a press of bodies that was as packed as the square outside had been. They couldn’t even see the altar. People began to faint and throw up all around them. Chunks were actually flying through the air. In the heat and unpleasantness, the stench and the fear, Hilary complained to God, “Is this what Christmas is all about in Bethlehem? Is this what I get for coming half way around the world to honor your Son?””

She went on to write that as soon as she had finished her lamentations, “the room became mysteriously quiet for me. I suddenly felt at peace and then felt a warmth encircle me. A thought/voice questioned me in a soft and loving tone, `What do you think it was like 2,000 years ago? Didn’t you want to experience the birth?’”

During my visit with my spiritual director, Carmelite Fr. Donald Kinney, in December, I had been telling him about my struggles. As we attempt to grow closer to God, the areas in which we fall short of His perfection become disgustingly vivid to us in the illumination of His Light. Fr. Kinney said in consolation that Christ is with us even then. After all, "Christ was born in a stable," I told him Hilary's story. He nodded, yes that's it.

"It's not a pretty sight, Father!" True, but He is with us any way.

When we create our little manger scenes, we leave out the manure and the flies. But these were surely part of that first Christmas night. City folks may not have experienced a stable first hand, so they don't know. Where you have asses and oxen--and humans--you have excrement.

The spot where Christ was born is covered by marble and a silver star now. You get to it now by going down a narrow stairway under the basilica. Two stone mangers were excavated there in the past frew years, so there really was a stable in that cave.

I remember the shock of my first visit as an adult to my Uncle Ralph and Aunt Irene's dairy farm in Wisconsin. The reek of cow urine permeated even the farmhouses. And as I gradually came to realize, much of the dairy farmers' energy is devoted to shoveling out the manure. Beside most barns in the country in winter is a manure pile sometimes as high as the roof, which will be spread on the fields in the upcoming spring as fertilizer.

While we were still sinners, Christ was born for us, lived with us and died for us. And He resides with us still, in the stables of our hearts, even if the best we can give him for a welcome is a bed in a manger full of hay and a modicum of warmth from a mix of animal breath and steaming manure.

It helps to be reminded of this from time to time, He is with us no matter how high and deep the pile is. Dare I hope that a composting is happening and that spring will bring the time when all that rich composted stuff will be plowed under to prepare the soil for the seed time and the harvest to come?


After I wrote the previous meditation, I was struck more than even before by the Gospel on January 30, which was the parable about how the sower went out to sow the seed. At first, I saw myself in the image of the seed that fell among thorns:

"Some seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it and it produced no grain." As Jesus said, "Those sown among thorns are another sort. They are the people who hear the word, but worldly anxiety, the lure of riches, and the craving for other things intrude and choke the word, and it bears no fruit."

But then I thought, if my little vision of God's composting comes true, I can also see my future self in this:

"And some seed fell on rich soil and produced fruit. It came up and grew and yielded thirty, sixty, and a hundredfold.” As Jesus said, "But those sown on rich soil are the ones who hear the word and accept it and bear fruit thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.”

If the composting is going on the way I think it is, then the soil is being prepared for the next time the sower comes by. His mercy is never ending.

All who struggle for years with slavery to sin, don't give up the struggle as Luther and James Joyce and many others have done because it is so hard and seems to be impossible. To give up is to be proud, to believe ourselves to be so bad that we are outside the capacious mercy of God. The truth is the God can use all of it, even the sinfulness, the struggles, the fallings and the risings and turn it all into good.

Speaking more about fallings and risings, my son and I both got laid off recently, Liberty in November, me just last week. A bit overwhelmed by the disruption in our home, it is hard to deal with our job losses, but we bounce from one necessity to another with many digressions, and we manage to make small but steady progress in all areas.

Highlights of the past year:

Six Days of Musical Heaven - the Church Music Association colloquium at Catholic University of America, Washington D.C. in June was six days of practicing and singing chant and polyphonic music in liturgies at the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception and at St. Mary's Church in Chinatown with140 singers, composers, and musicians. Words for once fail me except to say that it was one of the best experiences of my life.

I continued my monthly meetings with the lay Carmelites (OCDS) at the Monastery of the Infant Jesus in Santa Clara. I had the privilege of attending the wedding of two fellow OCDS, the ordination of a Carmelite priest, and the funerals of another priest and of an OCDS. Also, I continued to sing with the St. Ann choir. I took a musicology class for choir members, and then was lucky enough to take singing lessons and Latin lessons that have been offered free by choir members. I started to sing when needed in the choir at the Oratory of Our Mother of Perpetual Help in Santa Clara, at their traditional rite High Masses. I continued with more freelance journalism too. Articles and photos by me were published locally in the Santa Clara weekly and nationally in the National Catholic Register. A photo of me appeared in articles about the choir in the Stanford Report and in the San Francisco Chronicle, and I was quoted in the second article.

On a business visit to Alabama last year, during a side trip to the Shrine of the Blessed Sacrament, I met the EWTN vice president, a very dear man who is a Tennessee lawyer and great supporter of Mother Angelica's work, Deacon Bill Steltemeier. I mention that meeting because it bore fruit this year when Deacon Bill followed through on my suggestion that they program an interview Prof. Mahrt, our choir director. The EWTN Live show on which he was interviewed was on Dec. 12. This was my biggest PR coup ever. I was happy to see the word is getting out about the importance of the Gregorian chant and sacred music in reverent worship in the Catholic Church.

Lauren is happy in a nanny job in Philadelphia.

It’s been another good year of Our Lord, under the mantle of Our Lady of Mount Carmel.