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. While it’s true this year’s preparations have been less time-consuming than usual because of my mother’s death some months ago, I still find myself pulling trays from the oven or standing at the post office thinking, I could stand some peace and quiet.
Especially, some quiet. The pressures of the Christmas to-do list are one thing, but this season reverberates with noise to the point of distraction. Hearing the Chipmunks’ version of Jingle Bell Rock piped through the produce aisle is more annoying than festive, and the irony of Silent Night drowning out conversation speaks for itself. While carols and seasonal songs blare away, children nag, parents fuss and impatient drivers fill shopping mall parking lots with the honking of a thousand demented geese.
Even at night, hours meant for sleep are disturbed by the ebb and flow of incessant, internal questioning. What have I forgotten? Who will be offended? Can we afford it? Will there be time? It’s little wonder 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? It seems a horror. Who needs more Christmas when we already are exhausted and drained?
Seasonal excess can be an easy target for the Scrooges of the world. Still, most people consider their Christmas pleasures – gathering with family and friends, experiencing the beauty of worship and enjoying the exchange of gifts – to be well worth the time and energy they require. What is rarely considered – by believer or cynic alike – is that we prepare in the context of a world far older than our customs, more expansive than our plans. The world in which we celebrate Christmas 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 some years ago, while on 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 for making my English sojourn perfect.
When they discovered 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 the site wasn’t better visited in summer. Giving me a look that seemed to translate, “Now see what this poor, benighted American is saying”, they agreed summer solstice celebrations are more publicized, but added that 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.”
With the promise of an unclogged road to lure me on, I agreed to make the trip with them. As we traveled and chatted, they unraveled strands of solstice lore. I knew some basics – for example, that the winter solstice marks the shortest day and the longest night of the year, and that the sun descends on that day 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 solstice itself comes from the Latin solstitium, which combines “sun” (sol) and “a stoppage” (stitium). According to legend, at the moment of solstice it is not only the sun that stops. If you are in a silent place, with a quiet mind and stilled heart, you may 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 became increasingly eager to explore the “pile of rocks in a pasture”. When we arrived at Stonehenge, on the day after the solstice, what crowds had gathered were gone. There were no ticket-takers, no vendors, no guides. There was only a strange and forlorn emptiness: a cold sun shining through high, thin clouds, a tumble of implacable cold gray rock and winter-singed grass dusted with snow. Around the circled rock a cold wind sighed, rocking a single bird circling high above the plain.
Moving toward the stones, I found the silence so complete I could hear my heart’s blood 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. There was no one. There were only the rocks, the sky and a hush of wind, singing across Salisbury plain.
Each year as the 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.
Wherever the mystery of connectedness surprises us – in a snowstorm-emptied New York street or a grove of mist-shrouded Redwoods, 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 wind sings silence over the cold-singed plain, we may yet discover that same vertiginous joy.