I hate to admit it, but I’m not too much of a Christmas person. Advent, with all its minor key hymns and tiny flames of light breaking through the darkness, is much more my speed, and when Christmas comes, I usually find myself a little underwhelmed. It just doesn’t feel like the long-awaited Emmanuel really comes on Christmas.
This year was not particularly an exception. I went to midnight Mass in my hometown, and got my annual chills at the soaring notes of “O Holy Night,” but spent the rest of the holiday kind of slumping around, teasing my younger brother that he should hurry up and get married and have kids so that our family Christmases can have some excitement and magic again.
But things started to shift a little bit the day after Christmas, when I hopped on a plane bound for Finland, on my way to a friend’s wedding in Helsinki. I’m here for a week, through the start of the new year, and it has been such a good experience. I’ve been sweating out the stresses and worries and staleness of the old year in saunas, hiking around hilly, icy islands, and sitting in cafes, watching Finnish people spoon-feed yogurt to their little babies, who are so blond they’re practically transparent.
I’ve hardly been reading, and despite my best intentions to catch up on my blog and my journal, I haven’t been writing much, either. It’s just been a pretty wordless few days here––the city itself is so quiet, and Finnish people are known for keeping to themselves. I say hello and thank you in Finnish to shop clerks, and have had a few incredible experiences with other wedding guests and the brides’ families, but have hardly had to interact with anyone else. People passing on the street avoid making eye contact with each other; the Helsinki airport was more hushed than many American libraries I’ve been in; and a Finnish wedding guest, describing the culture of quiet, said that she vividly remembers how embarrassing it was when, on one occasion, she laughed out loud in a bus terminal and disturbed the silence of other passengers. I think it would be hard to live here, but for a week-long visit it’s perfect for me.
In the middle of the downtown shopping district, there’s a small, non-denominational chapel, where I’ve been taking myself each day for some individual morning prayer. A minister and a social worker are always on duty there, available to people who need support, but the chapel itself, an oblong, high-ceilinged space made entirely out of wood, is silent. It’s almost completely undecorated except for two candles and a vase with one or two roses in it, and you can sit either in a pew or on the floor, on a cushion that looks like a slate pebble. But, because it’s Christmas time, there’s one exception to the sparseness, which pulled me in as soon as I stepped inside.
It’s a big glass box, probably three feet by three feet by three feet, and inside there’s this colorful, busy, elaborate scene. Tiny figurines are in a town square, complete with a fountain and shops and people haggling over scarves, bakers at their ovens, children scuffling over a ball. After I’d stared into this for a few minutes, I noticed that the back wall was covered in a starry drape, with an angel pinned up in the middle of the sky. And now, with my eyes primed, I looked back at the scene and saw, nestled off-center, among all the other people and buildings, a little Nativity scene, complete with a glittery shooting star suspended above the roof of the stable. An awed father. An adoring mother. A perfect, divine, human baby, arms stretched out wide. I had never seen a creche like this, a Nativity set that showed so vividly that the Christ Child comes to us and comes among us, not sectioned off in some private chapel, accessible only to a few.
This glass box in a chapel in Helsinki showed me the truth of those lines from the readings on Gaudete Sunday: “God is near.” The holy presence is, actually, so close at hand that we can overlook it, miss it entirely, distracted by a swirl of activity, by the urge to buy something, by the longing that we have for things to be different. God really is near. God really is right here. We just have to open our eyes. We have to be ready to see. That’s the task; that’s the challenge.
Do you remember this Anthony de Mello story: The seeker goes to the holy one and says, “Is there anything I can do to become enlightened?” The holy one says, “As little as you can do to make the sun rise in the morning.” The seeker, maybe shocked, maybe disillusioned, says, “Then why do we do so many spiritual exercises?” And the holy one says, “To make sure that you are not asleep at sunrise.” I think I’m starting to understand that story, maybe a little bit. So much lies in being able to open our eyes to what we already have.
2019 starts tomorrow. I’m not much of one for resolutions, but January 1 is my birthday as well as New Years, so it does feel like a natural point to take stock of things, to notice how I might steer my life a little bit differently. Maybe—fingers crossed—this year I’ll start to see things more clearly, to notice what is here, close to me.
Wishing you all a happy, healthy, peaceful year.
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A blog by Jacqueline Small
What happens when a woman in her mid-twenties begins to work, pray, and share life with a community of Benedictine sisters? What questions arise and what wisdom emerges? This blog will offer peeks into one young seeker’s experiences. Jacqueline is a staff member of Monasteries of the Heart and an oblate of Mount Saint Benedict Monastery. She holds a Bachelors degree in Sociology from Swarthmore College, a Masters in Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary, and a Masters in Social Work from Rutgers University.