There is something about December, all right. And I call it a gift.
It might be my ancient Celtic roots, or maybe it’s my monastic inclinations, but give me a gray day, a day shrouded in mist and peekaboo light. Give me a shadowed nook to slip into, and I wrap myself in the cloak of utter contentment.
It’s dark all right, come December, month of the longest night, when minute by minute our dot on the globe is darkening. Today, December 21st, darkness shrouds all but nine hours — give or take a few minutes and seconds — of mainland America’s hustle and bustle.
Yet darkness to me is alluring; it calls me to turn inside, to be hushed, to pay attention. And mine is a lonely outpost.
December, most everyone else complains, is unbroken darkness. And they’re grinding their teeth when they say it. The way I see it, though, maybe the saddest thing is, we’ve blinded ourselves to the darkness. Cut ourselves off from the God-given ebb and the flow of darkness and light. It’s poetry, the rise and the fall of incandescence and shadow, measured in lumens per square foot. But, mostly, it’s lost on us — bright lights, big city.
Fact is, we live in a lightbulb world: LED, CFL, halogen, fluorescent — blaring, glaring, blinking 24/7, especially in modern-day December. When’s the last time you tiptoed out your kitchen door, or onto a fire escape, and took in the sky show? It’s there every night: the stars and the moon, waxing or waning, a night-after-night lesson in fractions. Lesson in wonder.
I say, celebrate the darkness — landscape of discovery, of finding our way only by engaging, igniting, heightening our deeper senses, the senses of the heart and the soul, the intellect and the imagination.
Consider how attuned you are to sound and touch and danger when it’s late at night and you can’t find the light switch, and you’re groping your way up an unfamiliar staircase. Or, you’re out in the woods trying to clomp from sleeping bag to gosh-darned outhouse without falling into the brambles — or the icy-cold creek.
The truth is: Darkness draws out our deep-down depths. Darkness is womb, is seed underground. Darkness is where birthing begins, incubator of unseen stirring, essential and fundamental growing.
December, I like to think, is when God cloaks the world — or at least the northern half of the globe — in what amounts to a prayer shawl. December’s darkness invites us inward, the deepening spiral — paradoxical spiral — we deepen to ascend, we vault from new depths.
At nightfall in December, at that blessed in-between hour, when the last seeds of illumination are scattered, and the stars turn on — all at once as if the caretakers of wonder have flown through the heavens sparking the wicks — we too, huddled in our kitchens or circled ‘round our dining room tables, we strike the match. We kindle the flame. We shatter darkness with all the light we can muster.
The liturgical calendar, prescriptive in its wisdoms, lights the way: It gives us Advent, season of anticipation, of awaiting, of holding our breath for spectacular coming. Season of dappling the darkness with candled crescendo.
And therein is the sacred instruction for the month: Make the light be from you. Deep within you.
Seize the month. Reclaim the days. Employ ardent counter-culturism, and do not succumb.
Plug your ears the next time you hear Muzak Jingle Bells. Instead, fill your iPhone with Gregorian Chant or the 12th century symphonia of mystic and abbess Hildegard of Bingen. Be in the cave. Away from the crowd.
Abraham Joshua Heschel, the great Jewish thinker and one of my heroes, talks about Shabbat — every week’s holy Sabbath pause — as erecting the cathedral of time, the Jewish equivalent of sacred architecture, only for Jews it’s the sanctification of time, not space. Writes Heschel: “Learn how to consecrate sanctuaries that emerge from the magnificent stream of a year.” I say, build yourself a tucked-away chapel, a humble half hour’s chamber of silence, of prayer, of deepening.
Here’s a radical thought, for December or otherwise: Live sacramentally — yes, always. But most emphatically in the month of December.
What do I mean? To be sacramental is to lift even the most ordinary moments into Holiness. Weave the liturgical into the everyday. Look to Jesus, for starters. Bread and wine, everyday agrarian foodstuffs, he made into the most sacred sacramental feast.
Live sacramentally: Sit down to a dinner table — even dinner for one — set with intention. Ditch fast food. Embrace all that’s slow. And with purpose. Light candles at dinner. Light the Advent wreath. And if you’re Jewish, blaze the menorah. If you’re Jewish and Catholic, as my family is, well bring on the fire battalion, we’re lighting every which flame.
A dear friend of mine laughs about being a person of “smells and bells,” and by that he means a certain affinity for the burning of incense and chiming of carillons. The candle, the tintinnabulation of the bells, it sets off a deep-down stirring in a Catholic or an Anglican of certain age, it echoes of our not-so-distant past. And what I love about the coining of that phrase, “the smells and the bells,” when I pause and really think about it, is that it reminds me that deep in the heart of our spiritual DNA, we are hard-wired to respond to the liturgical, to pulse with reverence at a life lived sacramentally, slowly, marveling at the magnificence, yes, at each and every turn.
Maybe we’re most purely and purposefully alive when we turn our backs to — press against — a guzzled-down life that pays no attention, that goes with the flow, that “kills a few hours,” that takes it — all of it, any of it — for granted.
And why? Why are we screeching the brakes, dialing down all the noise? Why are we ardently not joining in on a December punctuated by office-party folderol, and speed-dial shopping, and holiday cards canon-balled out of the printer, without so much as a touch of the human hand?
Because this is our one chance at December this year — and who knows how many Decembers we might have.
December is invitation. December is God whispering, “Please. Come. Closer.” Discover abundance within. Marvel at the gifts I’ve bestowed. Listen for the pulsing questions within, the ones that beg — finally —to be asked, to be answered. Am I doing what I love? Am I living the life I was so meant to live? Am I savoring, or simply slogging along?
December is invitation. Glance out the window. Behold the silence of the first snowfall. Stand under heaven’s dome and watch the star-stitched wonder: Orion, Polaris. Listen for the love songs of the Great Horned Owl. Be dazzled. To be dazzled is a prayer.
Mary Oliver, the poet saint, tells us, “attentiveness is the root of all prayer.” And reminds us that our one task as we walk the snow-crusted woods or startle to the night cry of the sky-crossing goose is “learning to be astonished.”
Renaissance scholar and poet Kimberly Johnson says, “I want to live my life in epiphany.”
So do I.
Maybe, so do you.
And December, at the cusp of winter, season of fury and stillness, December demands our attention. It is a month draped in myth and legend. It is a month that rings with the power of the simplest story, the one we wait for — childlike, rapt, noses pressed to the window, scanning the heavens for bright and shining light.
December invites us be our most radiant selves. And we find that radiance deep down in the heart of the darkness. The darkness, our chambered nautilus of prayer. The coiled depths in which we turn in silence, to await the still small voice that whispers the original love song. Chorus and refrain, inscribed by the One who Breathed the First Breath.