Tennessee Handmaids gather for a Christmas photo.

A Monastery Christmas

A Handmaid News

The nine foot tree needed a twelve foot ladder, and multiple attempts, to decorate it.

The nine foot tree needed a twelve foot ladder, and multiple attempts, to decorate it.

Merry Christmas!

Perhaps you are looking at the dry remnants of your Christmas tree in your growing, backyard burn pile or still brushing the unending pieces of glitter off your window sills and vacuuming your carpet. Perhaps credit card receipts and shopping debts are all that remind you of the Christmas season just completed. Completed? Well, not really. Yes, it is STILL Christmas! While Ordinary time begins on the Liturgical Calendar with the Feast of the Lord’s Baptism, it is the custom in some places to keep Christmas trees and Creches up until the Feast of the Presentation on February 2nd. This is to prolong the time needed (in fact, a lifetime) to contemplate the mystery of the Incarnation sometimes too readily accepted as ‘understood’ when we glance at a plastic figurine in a Nativity Scene. Our inability to really fathom this demands the season of Advent just to help us slow down. Then in a flash of less than 24 hectic, secular hours it seems over. Was that it? It’s over? Is there any other way to celebrate this event? We NEED more.

Try Christmas monastically. We would like to share just a little glimpse of the season at Cor Jesu Monastery. Although our final building is yet to be constructed, we still engaged in a monastic Advent and Christmas as much as construction and other surprises would allow. We invite all, nun or not, to keep the season going within, even beyond February 2nd. Not a false exercise in artificial happiness and worldly holiday spirit dragged out to avoid the return to ordinary schedules and our duties and responsibilities. But rather, build a little monastery cell inside yourself. Keep a little room in your heart, in your soul for the fragile Babe who desires only your companionship forever. When you give him, the King of Kings, freedom to reign in your soul and captivate you entirely, much as a helpless infant tends to do, it will be he, that Divine Babe whose birth we just celebrated, who transforms your holiday happenings into deep, abiding joy all LIFE long.

Step One: Before Christmas comes, keep Advent Advent. Don’t lean too far forward unless you are leaning down to kneel. Put off decorating until just before the 25th and make spaces a little more spartan and conducive to silence.

Our simple, practical Advent Wreath

Our simple, practical Advent Wreath

How did we do this this year? Trying to do this in a construction zone is a little tricky but we were tremendously blessed to be able to time our yearly eight day retreat so that it not only occurred during Advent, but coincided nicely with vacation time for the contractors and their families. So after disconnecting from outside stimuli like email floods and disconnecting the electricity to the power tools and clearing the porch of lumber, saw horses, sanders, and stain; we enjoyed an expressed silence with extra time for individual Eucharistic adoration. The contrast of that blessed silence with the return of saws-alls and shop vacs in the kitchen immediately following is spiritually informative. We need the silence to prepare not only for welcoming Christ, but to strengthen us against the onslaught of necessary noise that life entails. Even monasteries (especially when under construction) can be loud places.

Step Two: Don’t look forward to delighting in all the things you are going to get. Bask gratefully instead in all you have already been given.

Receiving the blessing of the Infant King at Midnight.

Receiving the blessing of the Infant King at Midnight.

For us this year, when only last Christmas we hadn’t even heard of the town of New Market and never would have dreamed of moving again, has been one of astounding graces, blessings, and surprises. We can bask in so many but find by far at Christmas, the greatest gift is Christ himself, especially in the Eucharist. This was very powerful for us this year which served as another reminder that without priests, there is no Eucharist. So many priests brought us Jesus for Christmas this year that we are overwhelmed by their generosity. For one, we enjoyed the special privilege of Midnight Mass together in our own home for the first time as a religious family since December 2012 in New Mexico. In a pleasant and generous surprise, our former chaplain from Christ, Prince of Peace Retreat Center, Father Jerry Daniels volunteered to drive well over an hour in the rain to join us for Christmas carols, Benediction, and Midnight Mass in our own Chapel. We were thrilled and marked another important milestone in settling here in New Market. To wrap a concluding parenthesis around the unique day that is Christmas, Father Pontian Kiyimba, A.J. celebrated the Mass of Christmas Day. This joyous priest, whom we met immediately after arriving in the Diocese when he was also a newcomer, has shared our experiences of welcoming and settling and has been a wonderful witness of joy in the priesthood. A host of priests have sacrificed to serve our sacramental needs and we have been blessed to have their ministry even at this most busy time of year. Our regular chaplains for Mass in New Market; Father Patrick Resen, Father Antonio Giraldo, and Father John Dowling have made our first Christmas in New Market beautiful with regular daily Mass. Others, like Father Ronald Franco and Father Patrick Brownell also came during the season to say Mass or visit our Chapel briefly. Our confessor Father Randy Stice continues to make long treks to bring Christ to us most strikingly in this Year of Mercy in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. All around, we are entirely blessed by the witnesses of these priests of God. Thank you Bishop Stika for giving us these priests.

Step Three: Start Christmas on time. [And celebrate all the way through.]

Christmas doesn’t start on Black Friday, a phenomena we happily are spared within the enclosure. But Holiday creep does manifest itself as people wish us Merry Christmas before the 25th but not after and Christmas vanishes like a football game. We actively cultivate the Christmas spirit by decorating the monastery in such a way that the Incarnation and its joyful implications are stressed. Workmen returning to continue repairs and renovations are deliberately greeted with “Merry Christmas!” in January and when we are queried how our Christmas “went” we politely reply in the present tense, “It’s still going wonderfully!” and they enjoy still seeing our tree and nativity sets. In New Mexico we kept the creches up until February 2nd.

Step Four: Go all out. This is celebrating the Incarnation in a special way. Enjoy the decorations and special appointments.

Blue Monstrance Clipped 72Finally being in our home this year meant a long missed treasure could be carefully unpackaged, cleaned, and reassembled. Not used for every day, we usually reserve using Our Lady’s Blue Monstrance for Solemnities and Marian Feasts. The stem is Our Lady and her crown and the sunburst pattern around the luna are deep blue with the Latin words “ECCE PANIS ANGELORUM FACTUS CIBUS VIATORUM”. [Behold, the Bread of Angels made food for the journey.] Having Our Lord exposed on the altar in that monstrance was like seeing an old friend who helps us get closer to the Lord.

Step Five: Relax and Enjoy the Surprises God has already orchestrated. 

We are always grateful to our friends and benefactors who kindly provide for our needs or send us items from our wish list. After a couple of occasions of needing jumper cables, we requested them and quickly had the three needed sets. Not long after, the first touches of cold weather killed the battery in our oldest car and we found ourselves calmly thanking God for the donor who provided just what we needed in an emergency. Deo Gratias!

We were almost to Ordinary time again before we received an unexpected gift: a huge pile of mail that had been sent to our old address in Benton for Christmas. Those of us who may have been tempted to think family and friends had forgotten us were relieved. Those needing to answer the belated mail and thank the generous donors were slightly aghast at the delay. Other gifts, like the decorations we were able to obtain thanks to large hearted benefactors, came earlier and we gladly enjoyed, again for the first time since Christmas 2012, having trees and garland and balls and lights. On Christmas night we gathered around the tree and opened the wrapped presents others had sent to us. As individuals, we do not receive personal gifts. Jesus is THE personal gift. But as a community we understand the desire of others to celebrate with us by sending various and sundry items large and small, edible and not. This year the cat joined us and had a blast with the wrapping paper, thereby encouraging notorious ‘paper savers’ who painstakingly unwrap boxes to rip off the paper and make a ball for her to play with. She quickly chose a favorite pattern and disdained other papers for that.

We really enjoyed a family style dinner with Bishop Stika and Dr. Elijah Martin after Mass during the Christmas season. Most of all we could be grateful for their friendship and company. To help us celebrate better the Jubilee Year of Mercy, Bishop Stika presented us with a statue of Saint Faustina holding the Divine Mercy image. It is now placed just outside the door of our Christ the Teacher Oratory to remind us to ask Our Lord to teach all of us to be more merciful this year. One spiritual work of mercy is praying for the living and the dead which we apply to priests in a special way as our charism in the Church. Don’t forget the priests who need your merciful prayers and sacrifices for them this year.

It has been an awesome Christmas. It is an awesome Christmas. It will always be an awesome Christmas. We can kneel before the creche and long ponder the significance of a little plastic figurine, “Thank you Jesus for coming. Thank you Jesus for being born. Thank you Jesus for dying to save me. Thank you Jesus for rising and defeating death. Thank you Jesus for loving me today.”

We share a gallery of photos from just some of our Christmas season at Cor Jesu Monastery. Have a blessed New Year, the glorious Year of Mercy!