Struggling to Find the "True Spirit of Christmas"

A psalm for ordinary times

So here we are again, deep in December and prey to all manner of seasonal hazards. Santa sweaters. Office parties. Shrinking bank balances. Credit card bills guaranteed to send Suze Orman into orbit. Canned carols. Fake snow. The nagging notion that we are just one new iPhone or flat-screen TV away from personal happiness.

On top of all this, there's the True Spirit of Christmas. Apparently, it's supposed to sneak up on us in a candlelit Hallmark moment, silence the din, and slot worldly concerns into instant perspective. Cue angel choirs.

Maybe it's the biggest holiday hazard of all, the idea that the spiritual life is a kind of last minute add-on. It's presented as an exaggerated posture, like a ballet pose, that we hold for a while and then relax. Peace on earth. Good will towards men. Love thy neighbor. Check. Exhale.

We are spiritual beings having a human experience, wrote philosopher Teilhard de Chardin. So why does it so often feel like it's the other way around?

Maybe it's because we live our lives in compartments, neatly cordoned-off spaces where neatly planned activities occur. Work. Leisure. Family. Success. Failure. Virtue. Sin. These rooms are separated by walls we perceive as impenetrable, until one day the virtue threshold slides over into the sin room, or the rustling noise from the failure wing starts drowning out those nice, round tones of achievement. Nothing stays put.

My Advent reading has taken me back to the psalms, whose writers seemed to understand this overlap very well. For them, the spiritual life was just plain life, with all its ambiguities, injustices, and small triumphs. One day, you are an owl haunting the desert ruins, a dish that is broken. Another day, you're set high upon a rock, borne up on eagle's wings. Some days, you lament. Some days, you exult. Every day, you acknowledge something greater than yourself.

What would they write about today, I wonder. Would it be so different from their long-ago glimpses of war and disaster, victory and defeat, loneliness and streams of running water? Sometimes, driving down the road or sitting in the winter dusk, I find myself thinking about how the modern version of these ancient songs might sound.

The psalmists had a penchant for occasional whining, so there might be some of that.

It's hard here, did you notice? Everywhere I turn, there is more to bear. More loss. More want. More indifference. More confusion. Where is the smooth path? Where is the light?

And they had no problem with forthright requests, either.

I need a sign. And please don't tell me it's right here in front of me. Please don't tell me it's today, now, this pattern of stark branches against the pale winter sky, that smile from a stranger in the bank line. Please don't ask me to believe that the smell of coffee, the harsh word withheld, the simple duty daily done could add up to anything approaching grace. Grace is huge, transcendent, pyrotechnic. I have to be in the ordained place, at the appointed time. I have to be clothed in the garment of righteousness. I have to be holding the correct pose. I have to be ready.

Or not.