There are two questions that cause me to recoil inside like garlic presented to a vampire: What are you doing this weekend, and, Are you ready for Christmas? Now the latter question has an entirely different meaning when it is posed to me by my friends in the Catholic circles in which I travel but it means something else altogether when put to me by those who scoff at any thing religious. And most of the time this question is presented to me, it's by the latter. Every year, I get a little lazier in putting up the decorations. The folks down the street have their decorations up by the end of the day on Thanksgiving. I manage to find the Nativity scene and place it in the front window, and then everything else just sort of happens.
What does it mean to be ready for Christmas? It means if the end of my life should suddenly come today, I'm as ready as I can be spiritually to make an accounting of my life. That begins with silent contemplation, frequent reception of the sacraments of confession and Holy Communion and a sincere desire for a change of heart. For the past few years, I've done my best to get to the Silent Retreat at the Carmelite Monastery. I go to confession the night before, and then I spend as much time as I possibly can before the Blessed Sacrament. I have never come away from that day without having some sort of Epiphany about myself. I leave feeling strengthened to take on the enemy, or at least be prepared for his attacks. And usually, a day or two later, I fall flat on my face.
The first time it happened, I was caught completely and totally off-guard. A person who could best be described as a pagan asked me what I had done the day before, and when I told her how I'd spent my day, she launched into a vitriolic attack on my religion. This is a person who is well-aware of where I stand on both her beliefs and mine and I'd made the conscious decision to tell her how spiritually-fulfilling the retreat was for me, out of a perhaps misguided desire to defend the faith. I simply wasn't prepared for what was spewed at me. I did the best I could to withstand the attack and then I avoided any conversation with this person for as long as I oould (hard to do when you work someone).
When I relayed what happened to the friend who had invited me to the retreat, she was incredulous that I didn't see it coming. My late grandmother had a saying: the devil sits on monastery walls. I didn't know how true that was, that those striving for holiness are prime targets, but my friend apparently did. She advised me that while it was too late to be on guard this year, next year I could try to do a better job. "You need to prepare to be attacked next time. What are you going to do next time? That's what you have to figure out". In subsequent years, I think I did a better job of withstanding the assaults. Then this year rolled around.
Saturday, a day of great personal progress in my spiritual life. Sunday, on guard. Provoked a bit here and there but nothing major. I'm safe I thought. Silly me. Walked into work on Monday morning and faced a constant barrage of attacks to the point that by 10 am, I had my head on my desk in tears. And the most shameful part of it all is tnat I never once asked for the Lord's help in fending off the attackers. I've had other Mondays where I knew it was going to be an ugly day, but I spent considerable time in prayer beforehand and told Jesus I needed to place everything in His hands because I was incapable of dealing with it. Did I do that this time? No, and worse, I stupidly thought that because I had survived the day after the retreat, that it would be clear sailing from then on.
At Christmas, we hear a lot about peace and joy. What does that mean? Is it sensible, or felt, joy? Not always. It's more of a contentment knowing that whatever happens in the world, there is a better one to come. And we have inner-peace because despite the insanity going on around us - outright greed amid a lack of attention to Jesus, we have Him and we always will. But don't forget, as I seemed to have, that even Our Lord was faced with temptation. Desire to achieve union with Him means undergoing trials. An endless number of silent retreats can't change that. But they can strengthen our resolve to be like Him and to always place our entire trust in Him.