As Mary-Anne and I made our way to the only Starbucks open at this ungodly hour the morning after Christmas, we cut through a back alley behind one of the many condos casting its shadow over our little Victorian house in Toronto’s city core. And then amongst the “urban tumbleweed”—that accumulated mix of condom wrappers, needles, and random pieces of clothing—we caught sight of an abandoned Christmas tree, which only a few hours before had been decorated and aglow, yet now sat wedged beside a back doorway in the dimly lit alley.
Seeing that tree brought back a flood of memories of the first Christmas after my mother had left. All day long my dad had stoically managed to reign in his emotions and bury his shame, but as soon as we got up from the dinner table, my dad roared into the living room, grabbed ahold of the Christmas tree, stand and all, and tossed it out onto a snowbank, leaving a trail of tinsel and colourful bobbles in its wake. To this day, I can still hear the sound of my dad sobbing behind the closed door to his bedroom, as he faced the reality that his wife of 30 years, the mother to his children, was spending Christmas in the arms of another man. Now here I am, over 40 years later, and I, like my father before me, battle those same demons every year at this time, as I long for the comfort of a family that used to be, a family that more than likely never was.
The Welsh have a word for this melancholic feeling, “Hiraeth”, which loosely translates as “homesick”, yet the Welsh word encompasses a breadth and depth of emotion far more nuanced than its English counterpart. Hiraeth is a deep longing to reconnect to the place where your soul resides, an insurmountable heart sickness to somehow find that place that no longer exists, a place that perhaps, never really existed at all.
The closest I can come to recreating this ethereal place of warmth and belonging is to recall the afternoons I spent alone with my nana in her little brownstone apartment, just down the street from my elementary school. As we shared sugary cups of milky tea and warm bowls of soup, my nana would smother me with love and speak to me in her soft Scottish brogue. Alzheimer’s had already taken hold of her by this point, but in addition to stealing her memories, the disease magically stripped away any pretence and awkwardness, so all that was left was the purest unadorned love. It wouldn’t be long before my nana would be forcibly removed from her apartment to spend her remaining days behind a locked door in an institution. As I visited my nana in the nursing home each week, her cloudy blue eyes betrayed that her body would far outlive her mind.
We all grow up learning that Christmas is a time to reconnect with family and friends and with the things that ground us to our life. But for many people, like me, those who for whatever reason have grown apart from family, this is a season of deep sadness and regret. Over the years, I have learned to find refuge from this darkness by surrounding myself with the people who may defy the traditional definition of family, but who have become my family, nonetheless. And when it comes to defining what family really means, what better role model than Jesus himself, someone who betrayed by his own community, sought out the company of sinners, thieves, and the forgotten, those living on the margins of society.
One can hardly be blamed for being sidetracked, or in some cases sideswiped, by family drama during this holiday season; however, it is also a healthy reminder that Christmas is a time of abundant blessings. It's also a reminder that to be blessed has little to do with happiness, for happiness is far too trivial a word to use when we talk of blessings. To speak of blessings is to evoke a degree of fulfilment and the simplicity of grace. Once again I’m reminded that some of us are blessed in that we get to take our family along with us on this journey, while others are equally blessed in that they have come to realize that sometimes family must be left behind in order to open our hearts to the arrival of others. And so, I believe the Welsh have indeed landed on the perfect word—hiraeth—to describe that place of longing that recedes further and further away from us with each passing day. Wherever you find yourself this holiday season, I wish you comfort in the blessings of the family and friends who grace your life.
The season of joy is upon us. . . if only we could slow down long enough to witness its birthing. I’ve always thought it was no coincidence that the diminishing daylight in the days leading up to Christmas framed a perfect metaphor to the darkness that envelops us during this supposedly, joyous time. It’s also the time of the year when I’m reminded of how the circumstances of my life have left me adrift of my birth family, leaving me longing for the type of nostalgic childhood portrayed in our popular culture. It’s no wonder I see myself in need of a compass, very much a vagabond traveler desperate to quiet the vestiges of emotional disconnect.
But the gospels of this season also remind me that Advent is the time that God calls upon the blessing of the wretched, the disenfranchised, and the wandering. And it is within that disconnect between what we strive to become and where we are found, that we arrive at the place in which we start to perceive the echoes of a soul for which we can holdfast. The Advent season is meant not as a time of fretful anticipation, but instead, one of joyous expectation. It’s a time to immerse in, and savour the hope of becoming. This type of quiet waiting seems to be at such odds with the way we live our lives today—as we go about fashioning a life of extrinsic validation, an accelerated path of accumulation devoid of faithful meaning.
I’m discovering that all the inadequacy that the Christmas season roils up inside me is not something to be ashamed up, but rather something to unwrap and discover. When we fall with gentle surrender into those times of deep uncertainty and fear, we start to divest ourselves of that immense weight of unworthiness that binds us to an aching sadness. And within that lifting, we are bestowed with a degree of certainty of what truly matters. These moments of clarity serve to align us with our soul’s “North Star”. It brings to mind what Mark Nepo says about our collective addiction to the pervasive noise of destruction and of all things falling apart, an addiction that is very much fed by the 24-hour news cycle that permeates our lives. The key, according to Nepo, is recognizing that just as many things come together as fall apart, except, it all takes place at a much quieter level, one that often escapes our perception. I believe there is a beauty in that stillness and a divine grace in that gentle awakening.
Christmas reminds us that God meets us where we are, be that upon the matted hay of a manger, or on the frightening precipice of a new and uncertain path in life, or even in the soul-shattering silence of depression. Christmas is a time of reflection that invites each of us to consider who is worthy of witnessing the “birthing” of our purest and most radiant becoming. What would we take with us of our former life into this new beginning? Because when we are awakened to our soul, we become attuned to divine grace gradually being coaxed forth within us. The mystery of grace is that it gives us the courage and the strength to be fully present to the lives of others, as invariably, we begin to see the echoes of our own story being told in the voices and through the actions of those we fully witness around us.
And so once again, I invite you to think of this Christmas season, not as a time of commitments and of comparing, but as a time of joy, understanding, and affinity. A time to gather and distill the meaningful. A time to bring together those who bear witness to our own rebirth, ever reminding us that to will the goodness and love of another, is the greatest of all blessings we can bestow.
With a news cycle replete with environmental and geo-political crises, it’s hard not to feel as though the world we live in is broken and spiraling to ruin. And ‘yes’, that is a choice you can make. You can choose despair over hope, resignation over faith. Yet, it is also the season of spiritual renewal, a time in which we celebrate the juxtaposition of the frailty of the newborn, one with whom such vast hope and forgiveness lies.
Much of the fear we project onto the world today stems from our inability to contend with the brokenness and insecurities we each carry inside of us. We live in a time in which individual autonomy is sacrosanct, and with that, a belief that vulnerability and perceived difference is to be buried and shuttered away. In part, this fraud has been perpetrated by social media, a platform that has failed to deliver the authentic connection we so desperately long for. To make matters worse, during this holiday season, a time when sanitized-picture-perfect family posts fill our social media feeds, that sense of disconnection is further exacerbated. Those feelings of inadequacy are heightened as we compare our “low-lights” to the highlights of others. But what if we were to step back for a moment? What if we were to actively choose to sit with that discomfort bubbling up inside us?
Our physical and spiritual wounds—those parts of us we choose to forget—are in fact, sacred places of remembering. We so seldom open ourselves to lessons held within those places of discomfort because to rest within their echoes, requires a tacit agreement that some wounds are too deep to be healed, too resonant to be silenced, and too unwieldy to be neatly tidied away and forgotten.
I’m reminded of the work of Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen, someone who has spent much of her medical career counseling individuals living with chronic and terminal illness. In much of her writings, Rachel draws upon the wisdom she learned from her grandfather, an Orthodox rabbi and scholar, a deeply devout man who taught his young granddaughter that the joys, sorrows, and wounds endemic to our life are the very things that inevitably come to be woven into the blessings and graces that serve to support us through our shared humanity. “Sometimes”, according to Rachel, “a wound is a place where we encounter life for the first time, where we come to know its power and its ways. Wounded, we may find a wisdom that will enable us to live better than any knowledge and glimpse a view of ourselves and of life that is both true and unexpected.”
And so, it’s as though each of us reaches a moment of reckoning, an arrival to a threshold, a liminal place rife with uncertainty, yet brimming with possibility. By entrusting ourselves to those brave individuals who have passed through this fragile space before us, we become awakened to the grace of self-forgiveness, a process whereby we begin to fully inhabit our life accepting that it is our vulnerabilities that make us whole. And perhaps it is our wholehearted embrace of our imperfection that binds us to a greater story that we are all very much a part of. To heal individually requires we reach outward towards the spiritual and physical wounds of others, and in so doing, bear witness to life’s divine purpose—the act of becoming.
As we move along in this holiday season, I invite you to revisit those liminal places within you, the spiritual and emotional wounds that continue to rumble and ache. So often in our quest to be resilient, we have chosen to ignore and forget, whereas in order to be radiantly resilient, we ought to revisit, embrace, and awaken to the vulnerability each of us covers in darkness. Our capacity to bless one another’s wounds with grace is the most sacred gift of this season.