Kathleen Hirsch | Reality and illusion
Writing and musings by author Kathleen Hirsch.
kathleen hirsch, writer, spiritual director, boston, ma, spiritual writing
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Reality and illusion

Advent Is Up for Sale

If you haven’t yet purchased your Advent calendar, you may be pleased to know that Advent has gone high market.  You can buy a calendar with daily “treats” ranging from marijuana to whiskey, beef jerky, hand-tied flies for your fishing expeditions, Legos characters, or, for a mere $495, a daily pair of cashmere socks.

Why wait for Christmas for the stampede of commercialization to begin, when you can do it now?

Or, consider this.  On Sunday, I will join thousands of other households around the world when I light the first of four candles on my Advent wreath, to mark the start of a sacred season in the Christian calendar.

Wreath traditions descend from the earliest peasant communities of Europe.  When the light seemed to abandon them after the harvest, they brought boughs indoors, fixed them to wagon wheels, and hung them from the rafters.  These wreaths were a symbol of hope that the sun would return in spring to nurture the crops they needed to survive.

Their form, and the meaning behind them, hasn’t changed much to observant Christians.  Advent is a journey through darkness, in faith that at the end of it, God will “return.”  Goodness will assume the form of a human being, so that we who so easily lose sight of it can see for ourselves what it looks like to live with compassion, routinely practice forgiveness, and do what we can to heal the world’s innumerable wounds.

Advent is about anticipation.  This, of course, makes the immediate gratification offered by the Advent-for-sale market absurd, as crass as so much of what passes for “culture” in our land today.

I came to an appreciation of Advent somewhat late.  In my twenties, I distained the deeper resonances and meanings of the season — already jaded by Christmas catalogs that filled my mail box before Thanksgiving.  I balked at repeating medieval hymns, and wearied of what seemed worn-out re-enactments that I deemed to be fairy tales.  But by the time I arrived at my mid-thirties, I’d discovered that intelligence, and even worldly success, didn’t go the distance.  Life could advance, but then be sent spinning backwards so fast you could stop breathing for months. Trustworthy friends became shameless exploiters.  People who appeared to be getting their lives together actually took their lives.  Virtue and talent were not, inevitably, their own reward.

In other words, life became life — as full of darkness and grief as it is of light.  I needed more than knowledge.  I needed deep sources of wisdom.

There was no boxed set for this.  It turned out that those ancient sources – the psalms and rituals and humble practices of reflection — were the best go-tos for understanding how evil behaves, and what goodness looks like in the face of abuse, violence, cruelty and grinding despair.

This is what Advent is all about.  When we make room for the vivid realities that dwell beyond commerce, politics, and endless news bites (note, well: beyond the realm of empire) — when we light a candle and allow ourselves to sit in the darkness of all that we don’t know and can’t fix or control, we eventually discover a bit of insight and a new metric of value.  Sitting with the still small voice within, we can learn where we need to go.

Advent isn’t for sale, and never was.  We can forgo the gaudy calendars altogether this year.  There is another way to do this.  Here’s my recommendation: release a bit of random kindness into each day.  For the 24 leading up to Christmas, act as if goodness is something free.  Compliment someone you dislike.  Forgive an obnoxious relation.  Feed the birds.  Send a gift to a foster home.  Tape chocolate bits to the cars in a local parking lot.  Christmas carol door to door (remember that)?

In a very dark time, lend the world around you a bit of your own light, and watch it grow.





Remembering What Matters

The velocity of events in our public life feels like a low-grade form of violence some days.  I notice this when I am alone, in the early morning, on walks in my neighborhood or writing in my journal.  Then, I become aware of how defended I am, ready for the next blow. Without my wishing or willing it, my better, deeper capacities for empathy and insight have gone into hiding.

How much of our life is lived like this?

Last Sunday was a time to look again.  It had snowed during the night.  The roads were wet, the skies low and very dark, when I set out.  Crows darted out of trees, sharing a secret.

The week had delivered its payload of appalling accusations, rebuffs, and retreats on the part of our so-called leaders, with no sign of any accountability in sight.

As I walked, I began to think about how this works on us.  What seems to happen is that moral repugnance festers.  It takes on a life of its own.  We get caught up in argument, labyrinths of justification.  The urge to have the last word.  And reaction robs the essential self of its freedom.

The price is a blindness to my own heart, a total white-out of what’s Real, what is right before my eyes.

It wasn’t yet 7.  I walked past the local hospital, down a street of few structures, a farm, and a nursing home. I enjoy walking the grounds of the nursing home – the “Independent Living Facility” — because they back into woods, and sometimes I see deer, or rabbits, or hawks and remember the existence of all that doesn’t participate in our sorry human constructs.

This morning, I happened to look up at the five-story high complex, where the residents’ windows were still dark and sleep still held peaceful sway.  Directly in front of me, on the fourth floor, a reading lamp was on. By its light, I saw an old man, alone, bent over a book.

I wanted to believe that he was reading Scripture, or poetry. His intent gaze and bent head had something of reverence to it.  In a grey dawn, in his dwindling days, he sat studying the mystery of his life’s journey.  Its wonder and magnitude.

There is, still, this, I realized. This is still available to us. Reverence, wonder, a kindness of the self to the self.  How could I have forgotten so completely that it is this that we most profoundly need?

Then I noticed the black women who were driving round to the back of the facility. Women who had left their families on a Sunday morning to start their work days, tending to these frail lives. They park at the rear and enter through the service door. They prepare to be the face of kindness and hope for another day.

We need these glimpses of our better selves, every day, not just on Sundays.  Especially now.  Go out and look for crows.  Embrace rainy mornings.  Take solitary walks.  Thank your chances to be with children, and to observe the slow unfolding of the daffodils.








Stringing Up Lights in August

Fog greets me these mid-August mornings, the first birch leaves shiver into weary lavender.  Long after the torrid nights of summer’s barbecues, I am stringing strands of lights from the garage to my deck.

Anyone looking in would conclude that I’ve lost the almanac, so terribly out of sync as the good times are about to end.  But I have my reasons.



Humility in the In-Between Times

The pansy’s party dresses were crushed earlier this week, the birds bunkered, as baffled as we by April snow three days after the thermostat read 70.

Fat flakes fell, and a pair of Lenten roses occupying a vase on my desk bowed their heads.

Seeing them, I understood.  This is the in-between time, a season of illusions.  It is dangerous for early bloomers to expose themselves the way the true roses will in a month or so, perfumed and proud in their silks and pearls.