I’ve been in a remarkably good mood in the last week or so. Is it recent events, and going out more, looking forward to going out, or Christmas? Christmas is something I dread in October and November, then start to feel as a sparkle in my fingers once December comes around. However imperfect the holiday is now, it was always magical when I was a child, and that’s what sticks.
It certainly wasn’t religious. My father was a Catholic-turned-atheist who would drive his visiting mother to church in his undershirt so she wouldn’t try to entice him inside. My mother taught her children “God is love,” and didn’t elaborate on that. She also taught us that on Christmas we would wake to hand-sewn red velvet stockings on our bed and a plenitude of gifts around an enormous tree. She imbued the house, in the weeks around the holiday, with a happy, serene spirit I have rarely seen, as an adult, in mothers of four small children.
When I was a little older I chafed at the vagueness of “God is love.” What did it say about the important questions: is God paying attention? Is the soul immortal? Now I realize that what it says is about experience, and mine hasn’t been so different from my mother’s. I’ve been loved deeply and have loved in return. Not much else matters. Of course some of the things I love are not human.
One of my colleagues at the Cathedral of St John the Divine said to me twice recently, “Isn’t it amazing that we have this cathedral?” Each time it was as we were leaving, walking through to check on something related to the current art exhibit. She was the one doing the checking; I was merely accompanying her, but I knew what she meant. It was the pleasure I used to feel putting my house to sleep at night. Caring for a building that cares for you is a special kind of love. Caring for a cathedral that cares for so many, that holds their gifts, their art, and the marks of their passage is a blessing that cannot easily be put in words. There’s nothing of ownership about it, though it contains the effect of responsibility that is rarely mentioned: the sense of inner order that follows when you have done what is needed. In addition, there’s what’s often lacking when you spend too much time in a cramped apartment, office or subway car: the feeling that it’s right and proper for mind and heart to stretch and open, for the body to remember its love of motion at the same time as your whole being delights in the knowledge of belonging.
I love the Cathedral when it is empty, or nearly so—the great pillars, the shadowy stone and the immense space providing me with an experience of sacredness I find most reliably in wild places. Much of this has to do with stone and air, but it’s also true that the sacred wildness of the Cathedral is the wildness of the relationship between people: the freedom to grow. When I speak to another person in the nave, in front of the altar, or in one of the chapels, our conversation is nourished by the building around us. Catty remarks are not unheard of but a certain depth of sourness is hard to reach. The Cathedral contains us.
Christmas intensifies this awareness of connection. It’s a cliché that the holiday has become too much about gifts. Events like the Black Friday pepper-spraying at Walmart make the case without need for elaboration. There is no doubt that finding presents for many people can be a chore, yet I’ve found that this demand sparks my imagination in a way that looking for a wedding or birthday gift doesn’t. It’s the feeling of loving everyone at once that makes each particular act of love, each choice of gift, so satisfying. It’s like the feeling of being in a packed cathedral.