Go Where Your Faith is Most Alive
“The mountains were his masters. They rimmed in life. They were the cup of reality, beyond growth, beyond struggle and death. They were his absolute unity in the midst of eternal change.” -Thomas Wolfe, Look Homeward Angel
We’ve done this before.
We actually spent our first Christmas together as a married couple — one week after we got married — on our honeymoon in New York City. We spent Christmas Eve watching The Phantom of the Opera at the Majestic Theater, Davis Gaines in the title role, the man who had the unenviable task of following Michael Crawford as the second person to play the Phantom, and we were completely blown away.
On Christmas morning, we got up and walked a few blocks from our hotel, The Gorham (now named the Blakely) to the historic Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church. Not because we were Presbyterian, but because we were told it would be a nice church at which to attend Christmas morning services. And the concierge was right.
We were warmly greeted as guests and took our seats as the organ music began sounding a familiar hymn. We listened in rapt attention as the pastor delivered a brief, but powerful story perfectly apt for the day.
A priest was trying to finish his Christmas sermon the night before Christmas Eve. His week had been full of interruptions and commitments which had fragmented his time and left him just a bit frazzled. He no sooner got settled after one such interruption when a nun from the orphanage came and asked if he could get a child out from under one of the beds. Apparently, the boy had crawled under one of them after supper and refused to come out.
When the priest got to the bedside, he sat down and began to talk conversationally to the child about the evening; about Christmas coming up; about the songs they would sing at church the next night. After several minutes of this, there was no response from the child. So the priest peaked under the bed to see if he could see anything. Sure enough, he could see the boy laying there under his bed.
So the priest laid down on the floor next to the bed and continued his monologue. But after several minutes, there was still no response from the young boy.
The priest was now getting frustrated. He had a sermon to write, and it wasn’t going to happen with him talking to a boy hiding under the bed. So the priest decided to crawl under the bed and lay right next to the boy.
So he did, and he continued to talk about everyday sorts of things. About a half an hour passed this way. And then, the priest suddenly noticed that the boy had slipped his small hand into the priest’s larger one. For a while, they continued to lay there holding hands, not saying much of anything.
Finally, the priest said that it was a bit crowded under the bed, and couldn’t they go someplace where there was a little more room. In this way, he coaxed the little boy out from under the bed.
As he reflected on this encounter, the priest realized that he had just finished his sermon while laying under the bed with the little boy. He realized that children and adults live their lives stuck “under the bed” — confined by the limitations which result from our circumstances, our choices, our human nature, and our own free will. Try as we might, we cannot get out from under our “bed.” And so God meets us there. God took on human flesh and lived with us so that we could be released from our confines.
When the service was over, we were filled, in more ways than one.
Christmas night we saw Les Miserables, still in the middle of its original 16-year run of 6,680 performances on Broadway, at the Imperial Theater. Even though the run time was nearly three hours, we were so energized afterward we had trouble winding down, and in the city that never sleeps, it was even more difficult.
The next morning we got up early and walked a few blocks to the original Tiffany’s and recreated two scenes from the movie, Breakfast at Tiffany’s. At the time we met, and to this day, it is my wife’s favorite movie, and after watching it with her so many times, it has become one of mine.
Among many other things, it’s about two young people, struggling to make their way in the world and doing it in different ways, who meet and fall in love. And although they keep letting other people and events get in the way, there’s a climactic scene at the end in which Paul Varjak tells Holly Golightly, “Okay, life’s a fact, people do fall in love, people do belong to each other, because that’s the only chance anybody’s got for real happiness.”
The first scene we recreated was Holly getting out of a cab and having breakfast while looking at the window displays. We then went inside and recreated the scene in which Paul and Holly visit Tiffany’s to make a purchase, and since he can’t afford anything else, Paul ends up having a ring from a box of Cracker Jack engraved as a present for Holly. (Which is essentially what I was able to afford when my wife and I got married). On our own visit, the one thing I was able to afford was some Tiffany embossed stationary. I don’t even remember what we did with it.
We returned home a day later. I went back to work and my wife went back to clerking for a law firm while she waited for the second semester of her last year in law school to begin.
Each Christmas after that for several years was spent in the more “traditional” fashion, with trees, presents, big meals, and so on. We attended the candle light services. We’ve always known the true meaning of Christmas and done our level best to observe it. But sometimes that gets swallowed up in what I call the culture of Christmas. The culture of Christmas actually begins way back before Thanksgiving and builds day after day, week after week, until Christmas day and then all of a sudden, Christmas is over.
But the culture of Christmas continues. Everything goes on sale. People are returning gifts they don’t like and still buying, up through New Year’s. Indeed, the culture of Christmas has completely overrun Christmas itself. And when that happens, it can become difficult to remember what it’s all about. And so you find different ways to get outside the culture to get back to what’s important.
Some people don’t feel the presence of God by putting up a shiny tree and throwing a bunch of presents underneath. They look beyond the “traditions.” And they do something different; they go elsewhere. They open their minds.
John Muir once observed, “I’d rather be in the mountains thinking about God, than in a church thinking about the mountains.” John Muir was a very wise man.
So this year, like all those times before, we’re doing something “non-traditional.”
To be continued.
Glen Hines is the author of the Anthology Trilogy of books — Document, Cloudbreak, and Crossroads — and the highly regarded Bring in the Gladiators, Observations From a Former College Football Player Who Was Never Able to Become a Fan, all available at Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble. His writing has also been featured in Sports Illustrated, Task & Purpose, and the Human Development Project.