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.
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.
Yesterday was the winter solstice. During my sojourn in the Pagan community, this day that marks the return of the sun was my Yule--Dec. 21, not Dec. 25. I attended numerous solstice rituals, including one crazy cold night in the mountains of Tennessee that involved skinny-dipping and getting caught in a winter rainstorm!
Compared to those hijinks, my behavior this Dec. 21 seemed almost mundane, although hardly mainstream. I attended the morning Mass at the monastery near where I live. In the chilly church where most of the laypeople present huddled in their jackets the light seeped through the colorful stained-glass windows only gradually as the unaccompanied chanting of the monks rose and fell in rhythms that seemed centuries old, even though some of the music was entirely post-Vatican II. No mention was made, however, of the fact that this was the solstice. To these monastics steeped in their 16 centuries of liturgical tradition, this first day of winter received nary a nod of acknowledgment.Only in the reading from the Hebrew Bible could I detect some sense of connection to a season--but it seemed to be the wrong season. The reading came from the Song of Songs:
My lover speaks; he says to me, "Arise my beloved, my beautiful one, and come! For see, the winter is past, the rains are over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth, the time of pruning the vines has come, and the song of the dove is heard in our land. The fig tree puts forth its figs, and vines, in bloom, give forth fragrance. Arise my beloved, my beautiful one, and come!It's a passage so passionately rich with nature imagery that any Pagan could love it (indeed, some Neopagan scholars insist that the Song of Songs originated as poems of sacred love for the Goddess). But I couldn't get past the irony of a passage announcing the end of winter, read on the first day of winter (or, in the eyes of many Pagans, the mid-point of winter). It felt, well, out of synch. It seems to me this reading would have be more appropriate for Candlemas on February 2, which corresponds to the pagan festival of Imbolc, marking the beginning of spring. Still, I appreciated having at least some sense of acknowledging the wonder of nature on a day I once held as sacred.