Our refectory is beautiful at this time of the year. There is a magnificent tree, adorned with ornaments and lit by small, brilliant LED lights. Patti, our retreat house secretary, told me that she can see the lights of the tree as she drives down our driveway going to work in the morning.
The light is diffused to a soft, white glow that can be seen from a distance. It is the brightest light that can be seen on a dark post Christmas morning. There are candles on the window sills and cards that are strung across the same windows. I am told that there are fewer cards than last year.
Friends of the monks sent pastries and candy and the monks who received them shared them. Some of these goodies are on a table near the entrance to the room. The joy of Christmas lingers and brightly burns. The refectory offers a place where the gift that is Christmas can be read, shared, consumed, even seen from a good distance in the darkness of a dawning day.
Yet, in this octave of Christmas, we hear Gospel readings that tell of murder. The blessed arrival of the Infant Messiah would be followed by bloodshed. Innocence would pay an exacting and ultimate price for being too close to the Light.
These days should stir some uncomfortable memories within us. The Lord has come, the world rejoices, yet there is the senseless destruction of human life. There are gruesome accounts on the radio every morning.
There is something within us that cannot fully realize the import of Christmas. We may sing and rejoice but cannot absorb the invitation from God to be like Him. We must wait and in the course of that waiting suffer the consequences of being human, being estranged from God and ourselves.
But yet there are bright lights and gifts yet to be opened, and beautiful cards that adorn our windows, and a woman who can see light from a distance.
There is reason to hope, to rejoice, and struggle to be lives of light in a darkened world.
I once knew a woman who suffered from self-inflicted injuries. I saw the cigarette burns on her arms, the bandages on her legs and hands where she had cut herself with razor blades.
We were sitting at a table in her kitchen and she told me that it was the only way she could feel anything. What should have come to her in the natural course of human life was somehow short-circuited.
But she needed to feel, and feel deeply, and so the cuts were deep. The burns hurt but heightened her awareness, like, I suppose, a drug.
There were twins. Little girls, who were toddlers. They had red hair. Their older brother was hit by a bus and in a coma in a Jersey City hospital. Their parents were anguished, their marriage frayed. They had no money, lived in a tiny apartment and the tension was explosive.
The twins could feel it but were too young to understand. So they pulled out their beautiful red hair — I would see clumps and strands of it on the floor. The parents were good people but were overwhelmed by fear, by despair.
The boy eventually recovered, but with lifelong aftereffects. The parents divorced. The twins’ hair grew back. But a kind of innocence that should have been shared by them all was lost.
There are no such things as personal problems. The pain we go through is collateral. But so is kindness. So is charity.
For there were others. People reached out to the young woman with the scars and the burns. The family of the twins received help and support from the parish. Never perfect solutions, but there never are.
We are called to do the best we can to ease the damage that we can and do inflict on ourselves and each other. That may mean looking to the distance as we drive through life, and seeing that light that is still burning and so beautiful, and believing that it will never be extinguished no matter how dark and cold the morning.
Father James Stephen (Jeff) Behrens, O.C.S.O., serves at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit, 2625 Ga. Highway 212 S.W., Conyers. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.