Not long ago, while thinking about upcoming Christmas festivities, I tossed on a sweater and headed outside for some fresh air to calm my nerves. I was steeling myself for an influx of people I love but don’t like very much — one relative in particular.
How different this all was from my teenage daydreams. Back then, at this same family home, I’d stay up late in Mom’s old rocker, the lights out except for the twinkles of the Christmas tree. I would imagine romantic cuddles with a future Prince Charming, and a wholesome scene of little ones crowded around a piano — my someday children as picturesque as the von Trapps and only slightly less musical.
Instead, here I was. Married with children, yes – and forever grateful for those blessings – but ever discovering that the vocation to “image the Trinity” with my husband is more about daily sacrifices than daily cuddles, and that my four little ones are more likely to be bickering than singing around a piano (which no one knows how to play anyway).
On top of these regular family stressors, the thought of entertaining difficult-to-like extended family was almost enough to make me wish we could skip Christmas. This was the holiday bliss that everyone sings carols about and decorates for?
In the midst of my frustrated tramp tramp tramping outdoors, the voice in my soul finally managed to make itself heard above my grumbling. Lean into this, child. This is the longing you’re supposed to feel for something bigger and better. You so often forget that you’re on a journey … not yet home.
Lean in. Take the difficulties with relatives and the disappointments of the holidays as opportunities to grow in love, in longing for what’s infinite. Lean in. Give up the expectation that things on earth will have the harmony and unity found only in heaven, and understand that you’re on a journey and not at the point of arrival. Lean in. Accept. Embrace. And yes, even enjoy.
“Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me?” That’s the question asked by the psalmist (42). But my soul could answer from the same psalm: Lord, it’s because “my soul thirsts for you, for the living God. When shall I come and behold the face of God?” When will we be freed from this mountain of little frustrations — bickering kids and bothersome relatives and dashed daydreams? When, O Lord?
When you get Home, he tells me.
Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton understood this truth, even as a young woman, when the struggles that would define her life were only just beginning. When she was twenty-three, in a letter to her dearest friend Julianna Scott, Elizabeth Ann wrote,
“[Y]ou remember the day we rode as far as Hornbrooks on the East River? When we had ascended the hill and were viewing the delightful scenery in every direction, I told you that this world would always be good enough for me, that I could willingly consent to be here forever. But now, Julia, since that short space of time, so thoroughly is my mind changed that nothing in this world, were all its best pleasures combined, would not tempt me to be otherwise that what I am — a passenger.”
Those are the youthful words of a future saint. For the rest of us, such simple wisdom usually comes with age. When we’re young and all is rosy, and “responsibility” means nothing more than setting the table or taking out the trash, this world can seem “always good enough.” But it doesn’t take long before the frustrations start to grow, and eventually they can feel overwhelming.
That’s when we must remember that we’re passengers in this life, as Mother Seton put it, or pilgrims, as other spiritual writers have described it. And that change in perspective places our daily struggles and frustrations in a new light.
My children are young yet, so car rides are … well, for me, they’re just this side of torture, with a few moments of peace sprinkled in. It’s bliss when all of us are strapped within the same small space, cozy and together. For about five minutes. And then someone starts complaining about something and the yelling starts.
In those moments we must try to live by the words of Servant of God Dorothy Day: “All the way to heaven is heaven.” That only becomes possible when we realize that a car ride is a means to an end. We crawl into the car because we have a destination in mind, one that’s worth the car seats and the snack cups and the port-a-potties and the motion sickness. And if the destination is exciting enough, the car ride is transfigured – we may even experience some moments of bliss.
That’s exactly what this life is, child. A car ride to somewhere exciting. Lean into the frustrations because they are miles earned on the journey to the destination. Lean into the dissatisfaction. Let it cause yearning to grow in you.
Advent and Christmas are the perfect times to let this yearning in us grow, because they’re so often filled with stress, as well as dismay that what should be practically perfect – according to the greeting cards and commercials – simply isn’t.
This longing for eternity is also what we experience in the liturgy during these seasons. Our anticipation of Christ’s birth helps us to anticipate his Second Coming. The Mass readings and prayers direct our thoughts to our ultimate home, where lions will lie down with lambs and bothersome relatives won’t be bothersome anymore. And maybe my kids will be singing around some angelic piano!
Mother Seton has more to say about these frustrations of life, the “mere nothings”:
“Eternity — in what light shall we view it, if we think of such trifles, in the company of God and the choirs of the blessed. What will we think of the trials and cares, pains and sorrows we had once upon earth? Oh what a mere nothing. Let then they who weep be as though they wept not, they who rejoice, as though they rejoice not. They who obtain as though they possess not. This world passes away — Eternity! That Voice to be everywhere understood. Eternity! To love and serve Him only who is to be loved and eternally served and praised in heaven.”
His Kingdom is all … nothing else for our thoughts. Let us dwell on that this Christmas.
KATHLEEN N. HATTRUP is the Spirituality and Church News editor for the online publication Aleteia. She has been working in Catholic media as an editor and translator for 15 years, and writes for the National Catholic Register, Catholic Digest, and other publications.