There’s no escaping the scent of gentle chaos wafting through these last days before Christmas. “I loves me some Christmas,” says the woman to her companion in the checkout line, squinting at her notebook . “But I swear. If I never make another cookie it’ll be too soon.” I love cookies as much as the next person, but my sympathies are all with the woman. Even as I’ve pulled out angels and garlands, decorated trees, wrapped gifts, sent cards and done my own baking I’ve found myself thinking, “I could stand some peace and quiet.”
The quiet’s as important as the peace. The pressures of the Christmas to-do list are one thing, but the season can be noisy to the point of distraction. Grandma doesn’t go quietly when she gets run over by that reindeer, and hearing the Chipmunks’ version of Jingle Bell Rock piped through the produce aisle at full volume is more annoying than festive. While the carols and seasonal songs blare away, families squabble and impatient horns fill shopping mall parking lots with the honking of a thousand demented geese. The decible level of life rises perceptibly.
Even at night, the peace and quiet of hours meant for sleep is disturbed by the ebb and flow of incessant, internal questioning. “What have I forgotten?” “Who will be offended..?” “Can we afford..?” “Will there be time..?” If dawn brings nagging children and snappish adults, it’s little wonder that by Christmas Day many are ready to throw out the tree with the wrapping paper and get on with it. Twelve days of Christmas, stretching on to the Feast of the Epiphany, seem a horror. Who needs more Christmas when we already are exhausted and drained?
The Scrooges of the world, cynics and misanthropes alike, describe these seasonal excesses in terms that range from “pathetic” to “evil”. Obviously, they are neither. Gathering with family and friends, luxuriating in the beauty of worship and enjoying the exchange of gifts can be sheer delight. Most people find these Christmas pleasures to be well worth the time and energy they require. But as we anticipate our celebration, it’s worth pausing to remember we prepare in the context of a world far older than our customs and far larger than our plans. The world in which we celebrate Christmas travels an ages-old path and turns on an ageless axis with no regard for human intent and purpose. It is a hidden world, though imperfectly so. It can be searched out and surprised, and it reveals itself in unexpected ways.
I experienced that hidden world one Christmas holiday in England. After a stopover in London I traveled on to Wiltshire, intending to celebrate Christmas at Salisbury Cathedral. Arriving without reservations, I discovered a wonderful inn where I came to enjoy long conversations with the innkeeper and his wife. They were cheerful sorts, bubbly and accomodating, just as keepers of inns should be. Best of all, they were full of practical advice to make my English sojourn perfect.
Discovering I hadn’t planned to make the trek to Stonehenge (“that pile of rocks in a pasture”, as another guest put it), they were aghast. “But you must go to Stonehenge!”, they implored. Laughing, I asked if Stonehenge wasn’t better visited in summer. Giving me a look that clearly translated, “Now see what this poor, benighted American is saying”, they replied that while the summer solstice celebrations are more publicized, the winter solstice has its own good qualities. “For one thing”, they said with only a hint of a smile, “in the dead of winter there are far fewer tourists to clog up the roads.”
On the slightly ironic basis of there being fewer tourists about, I agreed to make the trip. As we traveled, they unraveled strands of solstice lore. I knew the basics – that the winter solstice marks the shortest day and the longest night of the year, with the sun descending to its lowest point in the sky. What I didn’t know was that the sun’s noontime elevation appears to be the same for several days before and after the event. The word itself, “solstice”, comes from the Latin solstitium, a combination of “sun” (sol) and “a stoppage” (stitium). According to my guides, legend has it that at the very moment of solstice, it is not only the sun that stops. If you are in a silent place, with a quiet mind and a stilled heart, you can hear the earth pause and catch her breath as she waits for the sun to turn and move, beginning his ageless journey toward the spring.
Charmed by the legend and intrigued by the science, I’d finally become truly interested in exploring the “pile of rocks in a pasture”. We arrived at Stonehenge not at the precise time of solstice, but on the day after. What crowds had gathered were gone. There were no ticket-takers, no vendors, no guides. There was only emptiness – a cold sun shining through high, thin clouds, cold gray rock and winter-singed grass dusted with snow. There was a wind that sighed, and a single bird, circling above the plain.
Moving away from my companions toward the stones, I found the silence so complete I could hear my heart beating in my ears. A sense of presence, profound and palpable, gripped my heart. Anxious, no longer certain of my solitude, I turned as if to confront an assailant. No one stood behind me, no one stood beside. There were only the rocks, the sky and the hush of wind, singing across Salisbury plain.
Each year as darkness deepens, as days grow shorter and the sun hastens his journey toward the solstice turn, I remember Salisbury Plain – the stones, the silence and the song. My first experience of that deep and richly textured silence was not to be my last. Blessedly, such experiences depend neither upon the stones of an ancient culture nor the shades of a people lost in time. A sense of presence, an experience of deep connection to the larger world in which we live seems intrinsic to life itself. It comes to us as birthright, although there is no predicting how or where it will appear.
When the mystery of connectedness surprises us – in a snowstorm-emptied New York street or a grove of Redwoods shrouded in mist, at a baby’s crib or a parent’s grave, in an empty classroom or an overflowing church, near a dawn-touched shoreline or in the fading shadows of a suburban yard, its nature is unmistakable, and the poet’s words apply:
If you came this way,
Taking any route, starting from anywhere,
At any time or at any season,
It would always be the same: you would have to put off
Sense and notion. You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more
Than an order of words, the conscious occupation
Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.
And what the dead had no speech for, when living,
They can tell you, being dead: the communication
Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.
T.S. Eliot ~ Little Gidding
There will be no Stonehenge in my travels this year, no moment of wonder in the emptiness of a windswept English plain. But still the sun lowers and still comes the pause, and once again Solstice has arrived. If we are wise, we will find a bit of space, a little emptiness, some moments of silence in the midst of our celebrations to embrace its coming and its promise. If we dare to stop – preparing for ourselves a room built of those moments of solitude and silent attentiveness that so often elude us – then as surely as the sun stops, and the earth breathes, and the cold wind sings over the silent plain, we will be graced with the vertiginous joy which connects us to creation.