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  • Writer's pictureDavid Carlson

December 30, 2023: There is a sacredness in every season of the year

Saturday, December 30, 2023: There is a sacredness in every season of the year

Announcement from Therese Mugganam:

Dear Friends,

The genocide in Gaza continues. More U.S. bombs are sent again to Israel.

No words can describe pictures we all see of the devastation. And the children - the children ... Imagine the pain of those little ones. It is unimaginable. We will stand in solidarity and grief again and again, until the madness stops. Please join us and bring others if you can.


May 2024 bring a brighter future for all humanity. May the war on Palestinians end. May Peace prevail on earth, a peace based on justice and equality for every human being on this planet, no exception. May it be so.

THE NEXT STEP: a reflection by Brother Toby

There is a sacredness in every season of the year. During the winter it is essential to be mindful of that. Winter has always been a difficult time for many people. The fear and despair of ancient ancestors who faced this season is still in our emotional genes somewhere.

Plus it is still a hard time. Birds die in the snow. More elderly people succumb. Death and suffering go with winter. Although we have learned ways to distract ourselves from unpleasant realities, they are only temporary comforts.

We all need hope, and that means becoming aware of the often-unnoticed spiritual aspects of the life around us.

Growing up in the Depression years, I didn't need a book to tell me life was hard. In those troubled early years, my life included a small Catholic chapel where life was orderly, peaceful, and secure. I learned to assume that a sacred element would always be available to me.

It need not be in a chapel. It was often at a hearth-side, in a coffee house, or at a concert hall. It didn't have to be connected to a place at all. There were friends and people I loved who provided a welcome transcendence. There were also strangers and little ordinary things. Somehow, hope was at hand no matter what I was experiencing. I have often celebrated winter festivals amid personal turbulence.

As I mentioned before, both my father and my mother died, years apart, on the night before Christmas. My son David's first Christmas was my mother's last Christmas. Dreams can fade. Disappointments can overwhelm us. Unforeseen turns in life do happen.

The German artist Albrecht Altdorfer (1480-1538), against all tradition, painted a nativity scene showing a destroyed house, which for all the world resembles a bombed-out dwelling. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph are almost hidden in the shadows of the basement.

I think Altdorfer was pointing out that it is in the dark that a divine spark shines best.

I first learned about this painting when reading a letter Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) wrote to his parents from prison. Bonhoeffer was a German pastor and a member of the Nazi resistance. He was hanged on Hitler's order a few days before Allied forces liberated the prison. In his letter he reflected on Christmas in good times and bad times:

"For years you have given us such perfectly lovely Christmases that our grateful recollection of them is strong enough to put a darker one into the background. It is not till such times as these that we realize what it means to possess a past and a spiritual inheritance independent of changes of time and circumstance."

What I take away from that letter is an obligation to make the best of the season in order to help provide a "spiritual inheritance" for ourselves in challenging times and, even more important, for those who will follow us in this story of life.

Sometimes the hope that we all need will be found in a great moment, an epiphany. More often, for me, it is in very common parts of life: a leaf, the stars, raindrops, lights, birds, a train.

There is much to help me put my life in perspective within the Christian cultures that have nourished me, but there is also much I have to learn from the experiences of those who were nurtured in other spiritual traditions.

Winter weather tends to isolate me, but it also makes me value the very diverse community in which we live. My winter quests ultimately come down to noticing the life experiences of ordinary people. We all encounter joys and sorrows that make each of our stories rich, worth sharing, and helpful.

My thoughts frequently go to Mary, Joseph, and Jesus. Not only because of my cultural background but because they were a human family. How did they get through that first Christmas? We will never know, but it was undoubtedly more challenging than anything I will ever face. They have, in some way, given to me and to everyone, no matter what spiritual path we walk, "a spiritual inheritance independent of changes of time and circumstance" to be drawn upon at this season of the year. OK, maybe Jesus wasn't born in Bethlehem, but he was born somewhere to a mother who was little more than a child herself.

A first birth was a risky matter in those days. Mary might well have died in the process. Joseph was a peasant, which was hard enough. He had no reserves. A birth might ultimately be a joy to him, but he had to go through hell first. I also think often of those other Jewish families throughout history who had their own winter terrors yet produced wonderful stories of encouragement. There is suffering, says the First Noble Truth of Buddhism, and there is also peace to be found under the Bodhi tree.

There certainly are times of darkness but, as the small lamps of Diwali remind us, there is always light as well. During Ramadan, our Muslim neighbors recall the desert when they fast during the day. They feast in the evening with renewed awareness of the importance of community. All religious and cultural traditions can teach us facets of the need for love and respect. Or, as the Quakers put it, the need to find something of God in each of us.

These are some of the lessons I want to learn on my meandering winter guests for renewal. My teachers are any people who are using their spiritual inheritance to enrich their daily lives. Jesus was asked, "Who is my neighbor?" He answered with the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), which urges us to transcend issues that divide us and simply show compassion to each other. There is no "them," only "us.”

Most of us primarily find the sacred within the circle of those we love and find holy ground in our own backyard. Remember the Buddhist monks who go on a three-month retreat during the rainy season? It must be dramatic for them when the retreat ends. For a long time they have been confined to a temple, with strict instructions to destroy no new life. They carefully watch where they put their feet lest they trample a sprout of grass pushing through the cold earth. Then comes the day the retreat ends and they leave. They are given new robes. At the gate they take their final step out of the temple and their first step into a sunny meadow. It is the same step.

In our own backyards, the leaves may be gone and the tree limbs bare. But tiny new buds are beginning to swell. A time will come soon to step between two seasons. Just as with the monks, it is one step. From holy ground to holy ground.

Brother Toby

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