Diary of a Former Pagan: Celebrating Advent as a Catholic
In honoring Mary's pregnancy, we are reminded of that most subversive of spiritual qualities: patience.
BY: Carl McColman
The short season of Advent has moved well into its second half. The change was marked on the third Sunday, Gaudete Sunday, when the priest exchanged his vestments of penitential purple for lighter-hearted pink. The Latin word "Gaudete" means "rejoice," and the priest at our Mass got everyone laughing with his self-deprecatory comments about how he thought he looked dressed up in pink. Still, I think the tone of these last two weeks is not so much one of levity as of quiet hope. It's still Advent-it's still a time of waiting, of fasting, of contemplation. It's just a reminder not to use this introspective time merely to berate ourselves for our sins and failings, but rather to count our blessings as well.
I have much to keep me pensive these days. Last week I celebrated my 45th birthday, and then on Dec. 14-the feast of St. John of the Cross, one of my favorite Catholic authors-my parents celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary. Normally these would be quite the milestones for rejoicing, but the celebrations had a bittersweet feel, for Mom had a stroke this past summer and subsequently was diagnosed with vascular dementia. These autumn months have been, not surprisingly, a chaotic time. My parents sold their condo and moved into a retirement community (my mother into assisted living). Talking to them on their anniversary, I could all too easily hear the stoic sadness in Dad's voice, and the deep tiredness in Mom's.
Still, even with Mom's challenges, they had plans to celebrate, my brothers taking them out to eat at their favorite seafood restaurant. I'm the youngest son, the family oddball (and the lone vegetarian among a carnivorous bunch), and I live 500 miles away. Hearing the now all-too-familiar listlessness in my Mom's voice, the miles felt so much more. I'm glad I'll be seeing them soon (I'm visiting them the day after Christmas).
Stroke survivors and people with dementia can live well for many years, so it is premature for me to speak of my mother's impending death. And yet, her sudden transition from independence to frailty has shaken that confidence that I've known since childhood: the comforting illusion that moms and dads will "always" be there. Now I sense that for her, the concept of waiting has a far different, more terrible tonality than the pleasure I'm taking in my new religion's rituals.
I can rejoice even in my mother's frailty. I can rejoice even though I have a sense of being neither fish nor fowl-not yet Catholic enough to feel unselfconsciously at home within the church, and yet keenly aware of how drastically-and irreversibly-my relationship with Paganism has changed. If I could personify my relationship with the Pagan community, right now I'd say it feels as though we're newly separated ex-lovers, very much at the stage where we're not sure how intimate we can be as "just friends."
But when I send an e-mail to a Pagan friend, I still sign it "Happy Solstice." Am I being inauthentic? Hardly. I may no longer be a Pagan myself-but I can still feel the wonder in the air as the longest night of the year. And then again, even during the years I practiced Paganism, I'd always greeted my Lutheran parents with "Merry Christmas." Waiting, with rejoicing. Even in the face of loss, of relationships ruptured, of deep uncertainty about the future. All this feels like what I suspect Advent is supposed to be.