So much STUFF

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I am sitting beside the tinsel tree, amongst paper ripped off presents. I feel the weight of the annual seasonal obligation to show my affection for loved ones by giving and receiving STUFF.

On Christmas Eve, I watched Nativity Play 2 with my kids, a story in which a poor school enters ‘A Song for Christmas’ competition. There are a lot of catchy songs, including one that goes something like, ‘this Christmas I don’t care about Peace on Earth; All I want is stuff.’

That song didn’t win, of course. I thought the film might just be another story of underdog wins music competition, but there was a plot twist. The posh school give up their chance to be on stage so that the down-on-their-luck school can perform their winning song, and in turn that school lets the posh school pick up the money prize. So maybe Christmas isn’t just about stuff, although it’s hard to keep sight of that in all the pressure of giving and receiving.

A time when there was less stuff

This Christmas, I am thinking back to a time when my life wasn’t so weighed down with things. In the BC (Before Children) era of our lives, my husband and I tried to walk lightly on the planet, leaving as small a footprint as possible. We cycled and recycled. When our contemporaries were scrambling onto the first rung of the housing ladder, we were more interested in travelling from place to place clocking up experiences.

During my first pregnancy, I took the Scottish superstition that you shouldn’t buy much before the child is born to an extreme. When our baby arrived, we had acquired a small basket for her to sleep in, one blanket, one towel, five sleeping suits (neutral colour), five vests, a changing mat and one pack of newborn-sized nappies.

In those first few days in hospital, I realised that we might need a few more things. The first outing with the newborn in a baby snuggly, was a walk into town to pick up a nappy bucket and other practical items, including the pram which we finally ordered two days before the birth.

Christmas adds to all the stuff

Quite a few years and several children later, we have acquired a house, a car and a lot more stuff. Sometimes Christmas seems like an exercise in weighing ourselves down with even more items. I have tried to mitigate it by buying useful things (socks) or educational things (books and learning games) as well as the toys and gadgets which they simply want. This year I even bought them a Cafod world gift. They scarcely looked at the card telling them that fruit trees had been given to a family on the other side of the world before ripping open the next present.

This year we have encountered the additional hazard of social media where kids post pictures of themselves with the latest electronic gadget or arty photos of the perfect Christmas scene. It’s an uphill battle telling my children that happiness isn’t to be found in things or images.

Happiness without much stuff

I look back many years and see myself walking along a street in a tatty pair of jeans and hideous trainers with bright pink soles. I didn’t have any money to buy new clothes because I was volunteering for a charity, living in very simple circumstances, and paid only a few pounds a week. However, as I walked along that street, I realised the lightness and liberation of not having much.  

I can’t give my children this kind of experience. Cancelling Santa at this stage in their lives would simply cause anguish. However, I hope and pray that even in this culture where there is a tremendous pressure to acquire and to be seen to have things, my children will learn that peace and happiness does not come through STUFF.

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More thoughts on Advent

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Calendars and chocolate

Every morning almost the first thing my children do is open their Advent Calendar and eat the chocolate. After this highlight has passed they have to wait another 24 hours before they can open the next door.

I think that my dog now understands the word Advent. While they are opening their chocolates, she sits patiently on the floor and follows every gesture until someone remembers to open the Doggie Advent Calendar and give her a thin, brown slab which looks very like chocolate. It’s okay. I checked. There’s no cocoa in it, just chocolate flavouring.

My dog has to do a lot of waiting. She lurks under the table while we are eating and waits to be fed afterwards. She waits to be taken out for walks. While we’re out at work, she sleeps and looks after the house and then almost turns inside out with joy when we return.

Waiting

I’m not very good at waiting. As I’ve already mentioned, I’m trying to do a new job which involves learning new skills. That’s a lot more difficult than acquiring knowledge.

Knowledge can be broken down into manageable steps. I can see how far I’ve gone and how far I’ve still to go. However, I don’t learn new skills easily. Although I try hard, I tend to be tense and worried and impatient with myself when I don’t make visible progress. It took me two years to learn to swim and four attempts to pass my driving test.

It’s hard for me to be patient in the situation of learning a new job. I have to be humble enough to accept my own failure; I make mistakes every day. Experience is only gained through trying, failing and trying again. Often I feel as if I am trying to climb an icy slope in skis; every time I make a little progress, I fall and slither back down again.

Caryll Houselander’s meditations on Advent

In the middle of this, I am reading Caryll Houselander’s ‘Reed of God’. The Reed of God refers to Mary’s emptiness and her willingness to be used by God, like a reed which is fashioned for breath and music. Our parish priest recommended it, because I am still struggling, as a Catholic convert, to understand the role of the Virgin Mary.

Three things have surprised me about Caryll Houselander’s writing. The first is the simple and direct way in which she writes, turning over what I thought were familiar ideas and showing them in a new light.

The second is the fact that I often forget that the meditations are on Mary, the Mother of God, because Christ is at the centre of them.

The third thing which has surprised me is relevant these meditations, written during the Second World War, are to my life at the moment.

Writing about Advent, Caryll Houselander says:

‘Advent is the season of the secret, the secret of the growth of Christ, of Divine Love growing in silence.

It is the season of humility, silence and growth.’

She writes about Christ growing within us unseen, like a baby in the womb, or a seed in the soil. In the darkness of winter, it looks as if nothing is happening, but hidden in the soil, a seed is beginning to sprout.

Just as the Mother of God waited for Christ to grow within her, a time of quietness and darkness is necessary for Christ to grow within our souls. Even if nothing seems to be happening, we must recognise by faith that Christ has taken root within us. If we do then we will learn to see that our lives are not insignificant, because where we go, Christ goes with us.

‘By His own will Christ was dependent on Mary during Advent: He was absolutely helpless; He could go nowhere but where she chose to take Him; He could not speak; her breathing was His breath; His heart beat in the beating of her heart.

To-day Christ is dependent upon men.’

Work, too, is a part of this process of waiting and growing. For Caryll Houselander it is something into which a person must patiently put the whole of themselves, whether it is in the creation of something which takes time, such as a sculpture, or something apparently ephemeral, such as sweeping the floor. She writes:

‘The permanency in it is in the generation of Christlife. That outlasts time itself. It is eternal.’

My own Advent

Reading ‘The Reed of God’ has helped me to recognise and accept my own season of Advent. It is a period when progress, if any, is slow and almost imperceptible. At a time when God’s presence is lighter than a breath, something so quiet and gentle that it is hard to recognise amongst the noise and business of my life, I must learn to nurture the life of Christ within. Caryll Houselander says, ‘We must fold our concentrated love on Him like earth, surrounding, holding and nourishing the seed.’

Growth can be painful. These words from ‘The Reed of God’ have given me encouragement to be patient:

‘If only those who suffer would be patient with their early humiliations and realise that Advent is not only the time of growth but also of darkness and hiding and waiting, they would trust, and trust rightly, that Christ is growing in their sorrow, and in due season all the fret and strain and tension of it will give way to a splendour of peace.’

Purple is for Advent

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I’m reblogging this post from the first Advent after I became Catholic. Although I didn’t admit it at the time, I wrote this piece just after making the embarrassing mistake of picking up the wrong colour of Mass book. I didn’t realise that New Year and a new mass book begins at the start of Advent. The post still reflects what I’m trying to understand about Advent. I’ll put up another one with new thoughts in the next week or so.

When I became Catholic, I had heard of Lent and giving up chocolate in the weeks before Easter. It was a not entirely pleasant surprise to find out that Advent is also a time of self examination and penance when Catholics prepare to celebrate the birth of Christ.

The reformed church in which I grew up did not recognise Christmas as a religious festival. Some people did not celebrate Christmas at all, and others kept it as a purely commercial festival for the sake of the kids. Christmas for me was a time of quietly counting Christmas trees glimpsed through open curtains, delving into stockings, unwrapping presents from gaudy paper and over-indulging in food. Although I knew the story of Christ’s birth, I was more likely to hear it in July than at Christmas time.

The idea that the time leading up to Christmas is one of self-restraint as Catholics prepare to celebrate the birth of Christ, came as a bit of a shock. I find it hard to reconcile what is going on inside and outside the church at this time of year.

Outside, shops are full of tinsel and bright Christmas displays. I brave packed department stores and queues at checkouts and leave with heavy bags and an empty feeling that I have somehow missed the point. Harried mothers exchange notes on how much shopping there is still left to do. I feel the burden of Christmas as an annual commercial ritual, which becomes more costly every year.

Inside, the church is quiet, waiting, the only decoration is the four candles in the Advent wreath. Extra time has been set aside for the Sacrament of Reconciliation. The readings from the prophets talk about God’s mercy, a people being redeemed and returning from exile, streams flowing in the desert dryness. The cry of John the Baptist from the wilderness echoes down the years.

The priest wears purple, just as in Lent. I always thought that purple was a royal colour, a sign of wealth, more suited to celebration than penance. I wondered, why purple was used, and in the liturgical year book for England and Wales for 2013-2014, I found this beautiful explanation. For those who don’t know, as I didn’t until recently, a new liturgical year begins at the start of Advent.

The year begins in darkness a deep purple darkness where we long for light and the bright shimmer of a star is a sign of hope and life. In the Liturgical Year, purple or violet is a colour of longing, renewal and expectation: in Advent and Lent, at funerals or in the Sacrament of Penance, purple should speak to us of that which we long and yearn for: like a deer longs for running streams, so we yearn for the living God to come to us, to heal us, to be with us. Our purple is a sign of all we long for: the presence of Christ, the washing clean of all sin, the resurrection of the dead.

Purple is also a sign of kingship and majesty the One who comes, the One who heals, the One who raises the dead is himself the King who reigns from the cross….The Church and the liturgy should be waiting not quite there yet, just around the corner….Advent is the unfilled glass polished and made ready speaking in its emptiness of what is to fill it.