Sunday, December 18, 2011

O Wisdom! Teenage Christmases

Yesterday's O Antiphon hailed Christ as Wisdom.

As I was rummaging back through Christmases past, it occurred to me that the teenage years are not themselves generally viewed as a period of wisdom, at least not in contemporary western culture.  And yet, isn't much of the foundation for what will, one hopes, become a mature understanding laid in those chaotic years?

When I think of Advent seasons during those years, I discover that I was, indeed, becoming more aware of the world around me and of the reality that I was not ~ surprise! ~ at its center. 

The Ursuline nuns who ran the boarding school I attended during my middle school years endeavored to ensure that we understand we were responsible for more than our own little world in part by taking us deeper into the Appalachian countryside to deliver Christmas packages.  One house in particular still stands out in my memory: nestled into gentle hills, its interior walls were entirely covered in newspaper.  I was baffled at the time; now, I suppose it was a matter of insulation.

We all (yes, even I) sang a Christmas concert each year just before our vacation began.  One year when several of us were behaving rather badly, the imposing Sister Miriam, who was in charge of our musical efforts, waved her finger magisterially in the air.  "For many in our audience, this is the one respite of music and cheer that they will experience all winter!  Now pull yourselves together!"

Music flowed through my life in those years, all of it an invitation to something far grandeur than anything I could imagine on my own.  My second boarding school boasted an impressive music program.  Possessing limited abilities, I participated only on the fringes, but two nights, both from December of my senior year, stand out in my memory even today.

The first was an all-school Messiah sing.  I had no idea what Handel's Messiah was, but a friend dragged me out to the event.  Despite my six boarding school years of religious classes and observances,  I had no interest in the God whom I perceived to be an imaginary figure.  The music that poured out of the old auditorium building that evening, into the dark and across the snow, was the first intimation that I might be wrong.

We, too, presented a Christmas concert the night before we all departed for our homes. That particular year, as the magnificent choruses were concluded and we all burst out of the chapel into a snowstorm, one of my best friends, a girl from Arizona, cried out, "I'm so glad that I go to boarding school in New England!"

Most of the time, neither of us were glad of any such thing.  But there is something about the music of the season, something in the generosity of those who share their traditions of service and song with a new generation, something transcendent that hints at the potential for wisdom to emerge . . . someday.

Online Images: 1983 Christmas Vespers at Northfield School's Sage Chapel


  1. Robin - for the last three years I have gone to the Monastery of the Holy Spirit during the first week of Advent. There is a small, gentle retreat called "Christmas Stories" led by two monks (Fr. James and Br. Mark) on Monday through Thursday.

    The first year I thought it would be a great time to work on a short story, some fiction that I'd like to write. I was very wrong. In fact, it turned out to be a great time to learn about sitting still, and allowing small nuggets of the truth of my life to glow enough to be seen. By me.

    The second year I went with Great Expectations to have all kinds of repressed and forgotten memories emerge. I prepared for the flood. I took many yellow pads and waited expectantly. Nothing. Not a word. Well, not a word about my childhood or Christmases or anything. Fortunately, instead of being disappointed I was cradled in love and God and humanity and came home feeling mysteriously whole-er than I was when I went.

    The third year I was asked to lead two of the sessions. Humbled I sat and listened as people shared their Christmas snippets. These were small diamonds and golden shards chiseled out of the rock of experience. I felt illuminated.

    This year I was too sick to go. And yet, I come here to your blog and once again I am illuminated, cradled and joined with my fellow humans on an extraordinary journey.

    I'm going to make my belated retreat in January - and will carry with me many of your stories and your presence. :) God in all things. When I'm able to be still, I can just about see Him.

  2. It's surprising, isn't it? We think we are repeating the same season, year after year, and yet we aren't, not at all.

  3. I'm still longing for an Advent that feels like Advents past, it's good to remember repetition isn't like a Xerox machine....