I wrote this yesterday on my Facebook Page and it got a lot of “shares,” so I’m posting it here, too:
Now is the time to strategize the holidays so that you don’t get suckered into doing things or going places or spending time with people who make you miserable. Make a plan! Don’t feel weird skipping the traditional things if that’s not what you need right now. There are many reasons — emotional, financial, health — to bow out of customary obligations and make alternate plans, even just to stay quiet at home. Put things on your calendar that give you something you can look forward to: “day at the library” or “cook lunch for friend.” Call in support: ask now for someone to help you get through a particularly trying day or help you decompress after a stressful event that you can’t get out of. Communicate your plans clearly, honestly and firmly and let grown-ups have their own reaction. As long as you’re not unkind about any of this, everyone will survive your decisions. If they can’t deal, then isn’t it a good thing you’ve never taken sacred vows to please them all your life long?
When I first started being a minister, I didn’t realize yet that Christmas was forever shot to hell because of my vocational commitments. It probably isn’t really respectful to the Baby Jesus to say “shot to hell,” but I’m sure he’ll get over it.
I was in a parish internship in 1995 and my supervisor casually mentioned something in mid-October about planning the Christmas Eve service. My first reaction was to think, “Oh, right. I guess ministers have to work on Christmas Eve but not ME, LADY, because I’m not a minister yet and no thank you! You can have that one to yourself! I am going home and sipping cocoa in my jammies and looking at the tree and listening to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir sing! And in the morning I will open my stocking and have presents and eat fondue in the evening with my family!”
But I realized in a quiet moment of doom that I should not say that. I realized with a lump in my throat that I should nod and make a note in my calendar that I would be at church on Christmas Eve, way too far away from my mom’s to drive there the next morning in any reasonable time to share Christmas with my family, so I swallowed the lump in my throat and decided to make alternative plans. I wanted to do something dramatically different that would signal to my head and heart for all time that Christmas was never again going to be the way it had been. My life was different now. I was a minister now.
I had learned after my father died that to try to carry on old traditions under new and painful circumstances was a certain road to hurt and regret. And now I had this new career path/vocational commitment to factor in. So what I did was to call the closest monastery I could find that was taking reservations for Christmas retreatants, and I made a reservation for Christmas Eve. I certainly had never spent Christmas with nuns before.
It just so happened that the monastery I chose was operated by a silent order, the Cistercians. So there would be no chatty companionship on the way to prayers, in passing in the halls (if indeed I would be passing anyone in the halls) or at meals. The internet was barely newborn then and we didn’t have cell phones, so I was totally cut off. No one would even be able to phone to wish me a merry Christmas. It would just be me and God, silent meals, a long walk in crisp, cold air and a lot of Q & A with Jesus while sitting in the chapel.
What I learned during that retreat is that Jesus does not do Q & A with me. What he does is Q & Q. I still have my journal where I recorded our conversations, where I ask Jesus something and he responds with his own question for me.
Jesus is frustrating but it was still a really good thing to spend his birthday with him, and now I do that every year.
My silent Christmas retreat was emotionally and spiritually challenging but also lovely and memorable, and it bore lasting fruit in my life in the form of giving me the confidence to rip up old scripts as necessary in order to have meaningful and healthy holidays. It also gave me a Jesus-focused Christmas, which seems like a pretty fine thing for a minister to get to have.
Rip up a script. Make a plan. Let me know what you do and how it feels.