I write these reflections a week in advance and so I began writing this on Sunday, December 5th, the day that would be my father’s 73rd birthday had he not died 30 years ago. My father loved the month of December season leading up to and including Christmas. One of my favorite memories at Christmas is of standing eagerly on our stairway—mother, brothers, and I—as my father crept to the living room to check to see if Santa had arrived. He’d quietly turn Christmas music on the record player (usually Luciano Pavarotti) and fill the darkened room with light from the Christmas tree, pretending all the while that these were the “signs” left by Santa for our morning.
That was a long time ago, but my longing to remember remains. On this December 5th, my family and I did what we do every year and honored my father’s beloved birthday tradition of decorating and lighting up our Christmas tree.
The night before I wrote this, I witnessed another kind of light. Because my father in law was here from Rhode Island, we waited an hour on the side of the road by Antietam Battlefield before driving slowly, reverently through the winding roads of the battlefield to witness 23,110 luminaries lining the fields. One candle placed for every casualty of the battle at Antietam. It is known as the single bloodiest day in the history of this country.
As we drove, the candles seemed endless. Each time we passed another section and thought we’d seen as many as there could possibly be, another field ablaze with flickering light appeared. Throughout the fields of light, reenactors stood guard or huddled around campfires, holding themselves and their rifles as true soldiers charged to protect something precious.
Recalling the night, I pondered the war that necessitated this battle, a country divided by such hatred and confusion. That is a simplification I know, but, I thought, how many have died now because of a similar spirit, rife with division?
And so we drove through history in the present. As we did it was not division and war that hung in my mind and imagination. It was hope. Thousands of candles, all the volunteers placing them by hand, the reenactors steadfast in their posts—such extravagant acts, all. There is surely hope in this extravagance.
That word extravagant means to “wander outside.” Before we reimagined this word as a way of describing something that costs a lot of money, it meant “unusual” or “outside the norm.” Gregory Boyle, writer, speaker, and founder of Homeboy Industries, writes about extravagance in his book The Whole Language, The Power of Extravagant Tenderness: “The extravagant gesture doesn’t hold back nor show restraint. It has ‘wandered outside,’ beyond our expectations…outside of anything we know. It hobbles us a bit as we feel unworthy in the face of such largesse.”
The extravagance of all those candles, all that effort, was a true “wandering outside” the norm, and awoke in me a tender-hearted sense that if we could honor what once was, we might also live better in what is. Could it take 23,110 candles illuminating the night to remember how sacred life is? There is a tenderness that arises in pausing to experience that kind of largesse and as Boyle reflects, “Because tenderness begets tenderness, we insist on extravagance, which liberates our hearts. The view is wider and the container more spacious. Saint Francis writes, ‘No obstacles in my heart—everything a frail-boned kindness.’ We find rest in this.”
And so I pause. These are holy days after all and finding rest is essential. This day, December 5th, I’m illuminating my home with my family. Candles and lights will decorate the mantle and tree. I love the image of soft light in the darkness. I don’t love that darkness has gotten a bad rap in so many of the metaphors and images that we propagate. Especially since darkness is not the problem—not on that battlefield and not in our homes. In fact, so much wisdom can only be known in the quiet solitude of the interior darkness.
I settle in. These days are filled with both literal darkness and a kind of gloom that walking a long journey through so much that is broken in humanity creates. Where might we look to remember the sacredness of these days as holy, to find extravagant tenderness that offers hope that flickers like a field of bagged candles? Perhaps to a space within where we might eagerly look to illuminate a kind of heart that can hold, as Boyle describes, the “whole language” of humanity—the death, the grief, the rebirth, the joy. To leave nothing out such that we may light up all that divides. I am hopeful that my broken heart has been made wider in order to hold more, and that, as Boyle says, by not ignoring the wound I also won’t ignore the wounded.
Going inward, I remember something important. I don’t often enough see with the eyes of a child these days. When I pause, though, my heart can feel the space of wonder just before my father reappeared through our living room door to say, “He’s been here!” What I remember best now isn’t the gifts that came after, but the extravagance of his love for this time and the pause that took us outside time. I remember rounding the corner into something sacred, a space created to honor something precious. The language of all that is human was there in that room, held in a soft glow of light between us.
Why do lit Christmas trees or battlefields matter? The extravagant turning from the norm awakens in me some “frail-boned kindness,” a tenderness in which I seek to find rest. And hope.
Join me for class in the Harmony Studio of Shepherdstown or Live Online via Zoom
Friday, December 17
This will be the final class for 2021!
This class will blend yoga movement, contemplation, meditation, and conversation for a new way to explore our practice in community.
A live in-person and online experience. Covid vaccinations required for in-person practice. Online practice via Zoom. Register soon as in person spots are limited to 8 guests. Video recording sent to all registered guests.
Reserve your spot via text to 401-440-0279. Advance payment required to Venmo or Paypal.
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