During the first week of Advent, I rhapsodized about Taizé Prayer, the wonders of taking time away to sit in silence, stare at hundreds of candle flames on the altar, repeat chanted prayers over and over hypnotically. How self-satisfied was I, so peaceful — in contrast to the hysteria of the white-knuckled holiday season.
This week I went to Taizé Prayer again, just hours before The Big Day itself.
Think what a middle-aged, hysterical suburban mother looks like.
That was me.
Careening into the parish parking lot. Bulldozing down the center aisle, late, loud, discombobulated; shopping lists and gift receipts over-stuffing my wallet. I was “one plum pudding away from a yuletide meltdown,” to steal a caption from my favorite holiday napkin quipster, Anne Taintor.
A Christmas basket case, in other words, as far from the deeper meaning of the season as Bethlehem is from Best Buy.
But then that’s all the more reason to pick up Barbara Mahany’s beautiful new book, “Slowing Time: Seeing the Sacred Outside Your Kitchen Door.” It’s a collection of essays, prayers, poems, and even recipes which, taken together, becomes a prescription for battling the high anxiety of this or any season, for calming down, savoring, appreciating, paying attention, a mindfulness for the soul.
“Trying to find that holy poetry in life, to realize that it’s right here in the words our children whisper to us as we’re tucking them in, in what we see outside our kitchen door,” Mahany explained in an interview from her home near Chicago’s Lake Michigan.
“Here’s a radical thought” for Christmastime or any time, she writes. “Live sacramentally; lift even the most ordinary moments into holiness. Weave the liturgical into the everyday.”
Sit down to a dinner table set with intention and purpose. Light candles. “Light the Advent wreath,” she says. “And if you’re Jewish, blaze the menorah. If you’re Jewish and Catholic, as my family is, well bring on the fire battalion, we’re lighting every which flame.”
A dear friend, she says, calls himself a person of “smells and bells,” which means an attachment to the candles of home and church, the incense, and chiming of carillons. It all “sets off a deep-down stirring in a Catholic or an Anglican of certain age, it echoes of our not-so-distant past,” reminding us “that deep in the heart of our spiritual DNA, we are hard-wired to respond to the liturgical, to pulse with reverence at a life lived sacramentally, slowly, marveling at the magnificence, yes, at each and every turn.”
You’ve heard much of this sort of thing before, I realize. Stop, look, listen. Stay awake. But Mahany offers her perspective in a way that leaves you thinking, yes, this could work for me, too.
For nearly 30 years, Barbara Mahany wrote for the Chicago Tribune, once documenting hunger all across America. Before that she was a pediatric oncology nurse, sitting with mothers and fathers whose children did not always survive. Her compassion flies off the page.
Mahany says the book comes out of the blog she started in 2006, “Pull Up A Chair,” writing almost daily about her family, her faith, the minute details in the world around her.
Here’s more of what she writes about drab, dark December:
“It might be my ancient Celtic roots, or maybe it’s my monastic inclinations, but give me a gray day, a day shrouded in mist and peekaboo light. Give me a shadowed nook to slip into, and I wrap myself in the cloak of utter contentment … the God-given ebb and the flow of darkness and light. It’s poetry, the rise and the fall of incandescence and shadow, measured in lumens per square foot …
“It’s there every night: the stars and the moon, waxing or waning, a night-after-night lesson in fractions. Lesson in wonder.”