12 Dec What Light and Love Really Mean in the Holiday Season
I love the holiday lights festooning windows and yards and the Christmas trees shining from inside which can be seen as I drive along the city roads and rural byways. Indeed, this is my favorite time of the year because of the earth-based traditions now so long associated with Christianity. In part, it is due to the fact that my mother and father created a magical time at Christmas for us kids. It wasn’t just all about getting presents; it was about light, love, warmth, and comfort. And while my mom and dad were not strictly devout Christians, they attended the Episcopal Church until I was 10 years old. So it was when I was a child that on Christmas Eve before bed, they read to us the hopeful story of the birth of a baby in a manger who was to bring light and hope to the world.
Now that I am adult, I know how hard it can be to get through the cold, short days and long nights of midwinter. Even in Virginia here in the U.S., where the weather is more temperate and not so prolonged as in locales further North on the American continent, we have to bundle up and, some days, our breath comes out as fog. We even get snow. The lights and the beautiful tree in my living room help me stay out of the winter blues. I enjoy the yearly pleasure of sitting in the evening in the dark with a fire glowing in the woodstove and gazing at the sparkling ornaments. I feel peace and contentment. I recognize in this festival of lights, a common, perennial human desire to invoke in a time of darkness the love and spirit enlivening all things. In the Jewish faith, during Hanukkah, the 9 lights of the menorah are meant to shine outward to the world as a reminder of the legend of the single oil lamp which, despite only being enough for one day, burned for 8 days after the Maccabeen Jews recovered their temple from its invasion and desecration by the Greek King of the Seleucid empire, Antiochus IV. Injustice is responded to, sovereignty of belief and culture is restored. Light endures. In these rituals, by whatever name, generosity and abundance are keynotes. In many cultures previous to the Christianization of the peoples of Europe, where there were months of long, cold days coupled with dwindling food supplies, festivals were held at the mid-point. Sacred fires were built and tended, the richest food supplies–saved for just this time–were broken out, and ceremonies made reminding the people that the sun would shine warm again, and, until then, invoking the deep, warm fire of the spirit within. Gifts and words of caring were exchanged. Whether these traditions are called “pagan,” a Roman, and eventually, Christian term used to devalue the old ways and its peoples, or simply indigenous, the spirit of all was to enlighten the heart and mind with a resonant vibration of love.
I know from personal experience that this love, when called upon consciously in prayer or ritual, or spontaneously appearing (as it sometimes does), feels real, warming, true, and profoundly comforting. We are inspired to rise up and out of our mundane worries and concerns, or even out of the hardest suffering, and know ourselves to be held and whole, at peace and interconnected with all that is.
But I must take this reflection a step further from what can be received as merely a platitude.
What exactly is love in this context of the holiday season?
What does it mean on practical levels that there is light within everything?
There is as much confusion about these concepts, as there is a misunderstanding about the motivations behind the holiday season in our consumerist society. I myself have wrestled with these oft-used words, so laden with meaning, and so burdened with misinformation.
How many of us are anticipating spending the holiday with family where these has been a lack of love, or even abuse? Or who have felt the need to stay away from family–and others–where there has been hurt or pain? How many of us recognize the absolute lack of love in the actions of so many who pillage and plunder this world and its people? How many of us experience the stark contrast between words of love and the actions in others–and even in ourselves?
I myself do not stand on high ground. As I have shared here and in my blog written in the aftermath of the white supremacist marches in my hometown of Charlottesville, Virginia, on August 12, 2017, I can as easily as anyone, hurtle down into anger and even hatred when harm has been done. I have had to work hard on forgiving those who have hurt me. I have hurt others.
As I reflect on what love means this Solstice season, I remember how I came to understand the love light of creation on more than an intellectual level.
Many years ago, I had a neighbor, whom I will call Jesse, whose dog, Jake, was neglected and abused. Jake thus preferred to hang out with my family and our dog, Lily. One day, this neighbor threatened to kill Jake in retribution, he said, for our “theft” of his dog. This was the day before I was to leave for a 10-day silent, Buddhist meditation retreat. I did leave, frightened for Jake’s and Lily’s safety, and angry at–even hating–my neighbor. What a dire state with which to enter the blessed silence! What did I do? I took it all with me into that sacred space, and, as per the instructions given by the teacher, sent aspirations of loving kindness to my neighbor, to myself, to these harsh feelings.
For days, I silently in my mind intoned the words: “May Jesse be filled with loving kindness, may he be happy, healthy, peaceful, and free. May I be filled with loving kindness, may I be happy, healthy, peaceful, and free. May my fear and anger be filled with loving kindness. May they be happy, healthy, peaceful, and free. May Jesse’s anger, hatred and fear be filled with loving kindness…” For hours, I repeated these wishes on the cushion and in walking meditation in the center and out in the woods behind it.
One day, I decided to sit in a small gazebo behind the building. It was a sweet spot surrounded by the trees of the forest. Whether or not I believed what I was saying, I diligently continued the practice of loving kindness, as I had for days. My teacher said: “Just do it! Even if you don’t feel it!” Trust the power of the aspiration to break down the barriers which block the true nature of mind and heart.
Suddenly, I heard a rustling noise coming from the leaves beneath the treeline. I opened my eyes and saw a squirrel rummaging busily for acorns. For reasons which I still do not understand, this simple moment broke open my angry, grieving heart. Love and light poured out of me. I felt it like an animating, healing force touching every cell of my body. It flowed out towards the forest, the retreat center, the people there, and the whole world. And….I felt deep forgiveness and compassion for Jesse…and for myself.
Though I still did not condone his mistreatment of Jake, nor his threat of violence, for a moment, I broke free of my conditioned response to respond to the threat of violence and hatred with the same-even if only in my mind. I found a deeper place which mourns the radical separation of the heart and mind from love, while embracing it with kind and loving attention.
We human beings must not ever forget this truth: there is always light and love even at the very heart of darkness–no matter how long and hard the winter may be, no matter how pain, hurt, betrayal and abandonment we experience in our lives, and no matter how much poverty, war, threat of war, and despair there is in the world. As I watch leaders of my own country feeding the fires of confusion, greed and hatred, I am challenged to find again the spirit of compassion which was sparked for a time on that day in the forest gazebo for my troubled neighbor, Jesse.
So again, I ask, what does invoking light and love in the holiday season really mean? I recently discovered this definition of love offered in Bell Hooks’ book, All About Love, from M. Scott Peck, from his book The Road Less Traveled, published in 1978. She quotes him as saying that “love is an act of will–namely, both an intention and an action. Will also implies choice. We do not have to love. We choose to love.”
His words cause me to return to the practice of loving kindness–the action of stoking the fire–the light of love–in the heart. As I do this practice and simultaneously seek a way to return to love even in the face of injustice and harm, I am choosing to refuse to allow darkness to prevail. Even when it is necessary to stay away from others whose actions are not loving, nor caring, I choose to turn on the light in the darkness to remind myself that in every breath I breathe, there is the possibility, the hope for the light to spread, for love to prevail.
So it is that when I put up my Christmas tree during the darkest days of the year, I am holding onto the hope that the spirit within every human being–within the very fabric of creation–will, in the end, conquer the deepest ignorance and confusion in all of us human beings.
I say here this deep prayer of aspiration. Speak it daily. Speak it more than one time/day:
May we be filled with loving kindness. May we be happy, healthy, peaceful and free. May the lights of the season remind us that we have the will to keep the fire of light and love burning, even as the world itself seems on the brink of despair and destruction.
I send light to warm your heart, to soothe the mind, and to inspire and support your every wish for abundance, peace and love for yourself and all beings. May it be so. Aho. Wado. Amen.