Even in our more secular age, a faint scent of chaos wafts through the last days before Christmas. “I love Christmas,” says the woman squinting at her smartphone in the checkout line. “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 lie with the woman. While my own preparations have become simpler and less time-consuming over the years, occasionally I find myself thinking, I could stand some peace and quiet.
The season often reverberates with noise to the point of distraction. Mariah Carey or Brenda Lee blaring through the produce aisle can be more annoying than festive, and the the irony of Silent Night drowning out restaurant conversation speaks for itself.
Even the shores of sleep are washed by ebbing and flowing internal questions: What have I forgotten? Will someone be offended? Can we afford it? Will there be time? By Christmas Day, many are ready to throw out the tree with the wrapping paper and get on with it. Who needs twelve days of Christmas when only one day of Christmas culminates in exhaustion, disappointment, or boredom?
Seasonal excess aside, most people consider their Christmas pleasures — gathering with family and friends; experiencing the beauty of worship; enjoying the exchange of gifts — well worth the expenditure of time and energy they require.
What we rarely consider is that human celebrations of every sort take place in the context of a world far older than our customs and more expansive than our plans. The world in which we celebrate turns on an ageless axis, independent of human intent and purpose. Though hidden, that world can be searched out and surprised; occasionally, it reveals itself in unexpected ways.
The hidden world surprised me years ago, during a holiday in England. After a brief stop in London, I traveled on to Wiltshire, intending to celebrate Christmas at Salisbury Cathedral.
Arriving without reservations, I found an inn with an available room; before long, I’d met a few other guests and joined in their conversation. Soon, the innkeeper and his wife appeared; cheerful sorts, as bubbly and accomodating as keepers of inns ought to be, they were filled with practical advice for the holiday-makers under their roof.
Eventually, they discovered I hadn’t planned to trek to Stonehenge — ‘that pile of rocks in a pasture,’ as another guest put it. Aghast, they insisted. “But you must go to Stonehenge!” When I suggested the site might better be visited in summer, they exchanged a glance that in retrospect seemed to be saying, “Can you believe this poor, benighted American?”
After acknowledging that summer solstice celebrations were better publicized and more comfortable, they detailed the advantages of cold weather visits. With only a hint of a smile, the wife said, “For one thing, in the dead of winter there are far fewer tourists clogging up the roads.” In those years, that certainly was true.
Enticed by promises of unclogged roads and pleasant conversation, I agreed to make the trip and, as promised, my hosts unraveled strand after strand of solstice lore as we traveled.
While I already knew that the winter solstice marks the shortest day of the year, that time when the sun descends to its lowest point in the sky, I didn’t know that the word ‘solstice’ is derived from the Latin solstitium: a combination of ‘sun’ (sol) and ‘a stoppage’ (stitium).
According to one charming legend, more than the sun ‘stops’ at the time of solstice. In a silent place, anyone with a quiet mind and stilled heart may hear the earth herself take pause: catching her breath as she waits for the sun to turn, and move, and begin again his ageless journey toward the spring.
Charmed by the legend, I became increasingly eager to explore the old ‘pile of rocks in a pasture.’ When we arrived, any crowds that had gathered to celebrate the day 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 circle of stones a cold wind sighed, rocking the single bird soaring high above the plain.
Moving toward the stones in silence, a sense of presence, profound and palpable, gripped my heart. Suddenly anxious, no longer certain of our solitude, I turned as if to confront an assailant. I found no human presence; the rocks, the sky, and the hush of wind singing across Salisbury plain were my only companions.
Each year as darkness deepens, as days grow shorter and the sun hastens toward its solstice turn, I remember Salisbury plain: the stones, the silence, and the song. At the time, I hardly imagined that 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 mist-shrouded grove of redwoods; at a baby’s crib or a parent’s grave; in an empty classroom or in an overflowing church — its nature is unmistakable.
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, 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 the sun is lowering; the pause will come, and the solstice will arrive. Those who are wise will find a bit of space, a portion of emptiness, some moments of silence in the midst of an over-filled life to embrace its coming and its promise.
Preparing a room built of the very solitude and silent attentiveness that so often eludes us, we may find that, as surely as the sun stops and the earth breathes, the same wind singing over our world’s cold-singed plains will touch our hearts with its strange, vertiginous joy.