This week, I have felt slightly deflated each time I walk into my apartment. It’s the same living room that it always is, full of assorted plants, knick-knacks, books and clutter. Yet despite the bright colours (we eschew neutrals), it feels a little flat, a trifle boring. It’s easy to recall the room decked out with all the Christmas decorations – the glittering ornaments, the garlands and the shining lights – and without them, life seems just a bit more ordinary.
I often feel conflicted in January. I love the richness of Advent and Christmas. Everything is rich – the food (Butter tarts! Shortbread cookies!), the extravagant decorations, the evenings full of company, the lovely gifts, the glorious music, and even the language of our worship. It seems, for a time, the days and nights are burnished with an extra lustre.
Then January comes and I find myself both sad and grateful. I miss the dazzle of December, but I also crave the empty quiet. I am reminded of the opening lines of a Patrick Kavanagh poem, “We have tested and tasted too much, lover-/Through a chink too wide there comes in no wonder.” Most of us are delighted by times of richness, but after a while, we can grow accustomed to them, even lose our delight in them.
I can see this pattern clearly in relation to food. Consider the Christmas goodie. When the first treats begin to appear at the end of November, each shortbread cookie is a treat, every chocolate is savoured and deliberated over. By the time New Year’s rolls around, however, there is no more deliberation and dessert is the expectation and the rule. My taste buds have been so glutted that the same shortbread cookie brings with it very little of the wonder that Kavanagh desires.
And so January comes with a dessert embargo, fewer treats and more vegetables. Despite craving some chocolate every day by mid-afternoon, it feels good to be measured, to look forward to something that is not immediately fulfilled. In one of my favourite books, An Offering of Uncles, the priest and cook Robert Farrar Capon considers how we understand times of restraint. While he is discussing fasting instead of just taking a more measured approach, I like his perspective. He puts it like this: “And there is the secret. Fasting is an offering, too. The dieter says: Sweets are bad; I cannot have them ever. The faster says: Sweets are good; I will not take them now. The dieter is condemned to bitter bondage, to a life which dares not let food in. But the faster is a man preparing for a feast.”
So the challenge is to be as joyful, as thankful, and as open to wonder during our ordinary days as we are during the festive ones.
This understanding should colour all the things we enjoy with abandon in times of celebration and holiday. One can go overboard with the yearly cycle of feast and fast, but it’s been valuable for me to consider the pattern that is at work. Times of restraint are valuable in order to fully enjoy our seasons of celebration and, in understanding this, we can offer up just as much gratitude for the absence of things as we can offer up for their presence.
Even more than the necessary movement between feast and fast, I have been learning to be as thankful for the humdrum of life as I am for the more glittering moments. It’s easy to be thankful when we are in the midst of excitement, but God is teaching me, as Kavanagh writes, to see his care and presence “wherever life pours ordinary plenty” and to see again the “newness that was in every stale thing.”
The message of the Christmas feast itself is far beyond our normal imagining. God has come to earth. The choirs of angels! The shepherds! The Magi! All of creation paused in awe and worship! How can we consider this and not be moved, not be filled to overflowing with gratitude and joy?
In my life, however, it is far more difficult to be grateful as I get up each morning and go to school. As I grade papers and plan meals, as I try to budget my time and my money wisely, as I go about the work of maintaining relationships and overcome the large and small disappointments that are part of the fabric of every life. In these moments, in the dreary gray afternoons that are unlit by Christmas lights, it is the discipline of seeing and seeking God that deepens our faith.
So the challenge is to be as joyful, as thankful, and as open to wonder during our ordinary days as we are during the festive ones. In these dark mornings, as I yawn over my teacup and read through the Daily Offices, I pray with hope that our eyes will see God’s loving presence as life pours ordinary plenty and that our hearts will be grateful in these small moments.
“O Lord God, who makes light shine out of darkness, and who again has awakened us to praise you for your goodness and to ask for your grace: accept the offering of our worship and thanksgiving.”
Even in these ordinary days.
Especially in these ordinary days.