Silent Night, Holy Night

In September 1914, British soldiers headed for the front lines in France and Belgium said they’d be home by Christmas.

The German attack through Belgium into France was thwarted outside Paris by French and British troops at the Battle of the Marne in September 1914. In the subsequent Battle of the Aisne, the Allied forces were unable to push through the German line. Each side dug trenches and the fighting quickly sank into a stalemate.

As the first Christmas of World War I approached, a hundred British suffragettes wrote an open Christmas letter to the women of Germany and Austria pleading for peace and the return of husbands, sons, and brothers on both sides of the conflict. On December 7, 1914, Pope Benedict XV asked that guns fall silent at least on the night upon which the angels sang – Christmas Eve.

There were many spontaneous truces throughout World War I, but the most notable armistice of that conflict started on Christmas Eve 1914. German troops decorated the area around their trenches in the region of Ypres, Belgium and particularly in Saint-Yves with Christmas trees and candles. By all accounts, the night was bitter cold, the air crisp with a thick, white frost. After dusk the Germans started shouting ‘Merry Christmas, Englishmen’ to the British troops. The British men returned the Christmas greetings of the Germans and then both sides left their trenches, unarmed, and exchanged food and souvenirs, like buttons from uniforms, in no man’s land. There were joint burial ceremonies, prisoner swaps, carol-singing and football matches.

Roughly 100,000 British and German troops were involved in the unofficial cessation of hostility along the Western Front. Indeed, not a single shot was fired. The truce continued until St. Stephen’s Day at which time the men were ordered to return to their trenches and pick up their weapons. The silence ended and the killing resumed. One soldier reported that the Christmas Truce of 1914 was a short peace in a terrible war. Many of the men present described that Christmas Day as the most extraordinary Christmas Day imaginable.

The December 1914 Christmas Truce remains the most vivid example of non-co-operation with the spirit of war. The Bible says, “When a man’s ways please the Lord he maketh even his enemies to be at peace with him.” Men on both sides refused to fight that Christmas Eve. For the remainder of the war, unofficial truces continued to break out along the front lines as did mutinies, strikes, and peace protests.

I often wonder how different the world would be today had those 100,000 troops refused to pick up their rifles again once ordered to do so and simply left the front lines and went home. The total number of military and civilian casualties in WWI was more than 41 million: there were over 18 million deaths and 23 million wounded, ranking it among the deadliest conflicts in human history.

President Kennedy famously remarked that world peace was possible because all men inhabit this small planet, breathe the same air, cherish their children’s future, and are mortal. The Christmas Truce proves that human beings, though ordered to be hostile, chose instead to be tender. Mankind is capable of the most heinous acts imaginable, but so too is it adept in performing the highest acts of human decency. Humanity can lift up the lowliest amongst us with Christ’s grace and love.

War is manmade. The solution to all conflict also resides within man. The right to live without the devastation of war is a basic human right.

Let us pray for an end to conflict everywhere this Remembrance Day, so that all may live in peace.

 

Hallowe’en Has Its Roots in Pagan Celtic Tradition

When I was a child growing up in London, Ontario, the neighbourhood streets were packed on Hallowe’en with costumed children seeking sugary treats. When I bought a house in London, Ontario as an adult, I noticed that the streets were empty of trick-or-treaters on October 31st resulting in me having far too much leftover candy.

Hallowe’en has its roots in a Celtic pagan festival called Samhain (Irish pronunciation sow-in). Traditionally, Samhain is celebrated from sunset on October 31st to sunset on November 1st, halfway between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice.

When converting Celtic pagans to Christianity, the Church used pre-existing festivals to lessen the changes in the lives of its converts. After Christianity was introduced, Samhain was replaced with All Saints’ Day celebrated on November 1st, while November 2nd became All Souls’ Day. Over time, Samhain and All Saints’/All Souls’ merged to create the modern Hallowe’en, a contraction of All Hallows’ Evening.

Samhain was seen as a time when the boundary between this world and the Otherworld could more easily be crossed. Spirits more readily visited the physical world. Feasts were had, at which the souls of dead kin were beckoned to attend and a place was set for them at the family table.

Samhain also involved people going door-to-door in costume or disguise, often reciting verses in exchange for food. The costumes were a way of imitating or disguising oneself from spirits. Guising is recorded in Scotland at Hallowe’en in 1895 where masqueraders in disguise carrying lanterns made out of scooped out turnips (the forerunner to jack-o-lanterns), visited homes to be rewarded with cakes, fruit and money.

In Britain, from the medieval period up until the 1930s, people practiced the Christian custom of souling on Hallowe’en, which involved groups of soulers, both Protestant and Catholic, going from parish to parish, begging the rich for soul cakes, in exchange for praying for the souls of the givers and their friends. Souling then, the custom of baking and sharing soul cakes for christened souls, is the origin of trick-or-treating. Allhallowtide soul cakes were often marked with a cross, resembling contemporary hot-cross buns, indicating that they were baked as alms.

With mass Irish and Scottish immigration in the 19th century, Halloween became a major holiday in North America. It was assimilated into mainstream society by the first decade of the 20th century. The practice of guising at Hallowe’en in North America is first recorded in 1911, where a newspaper in Kingston, Ontario reported children going guising around the neighborhood. The earliest known use in print of the term trick-or-treat appears in 1927, in the Blackie Herald in Alberta, Canada.

In parts of Britain, these customs came under attack during the Reformation. Protestants did not believe that the returning souls were journeying from Purgatory on their way to Heaven, as Catholics frequently believed. Instead, the Protestants believed that the so-called ghosts were evil spirits to be feared.

The modern imagery of Hallowe’en comes from many sources, including Christian traditions, national customs, works of Gothic and horror literature such as the novels Frankenstein and Dracula, and classic horror films such as Frankenstein and The Mummy. Imagery of the skull, a reference to Golgotha in the Christian tradition, serves as a reminder of death and the transitory quality of human life. Elements of the autumn harvest, such as pumpkins, corn husks and scarecrows, are also prevalent. Homes are often decorated with these types of symbols around Hallowe’en. Black, orange, and sometimes purple are Hallowe’en’s traditional colours.

Happy Hallowe’en! Happy Trick-or-Treating!

 

Vocation of a Catholic Educator

I was privileged to attend and graduate from a wonderful Catholic high school. Though I loved the Catholic high school of my youth, like many Catholic teens I argued with my parents when they forced me to go to Mass on Sunday, but I never won those arguments. I am grateful for that today. I attended Mass each week and on Holy Days of Obligation. Though I may have resisted going to Mass, I never questioned my belief in God, and while I was in university, my faith became central to my life. 

When I went to teacher’s college in 1990 in Glasgow, Scotland, I chose to specialize in secondary as opposed to primary education, and requested that at least one of my four teaching practicums be within a Catholic high school. I was there to become a Catholic high school teacher because I wanted to teach in a school like the one I had been privileged to attend as a teen. I wanted to share with other Catholic teens my own faith journey and inspire them to open their hearts to our Catholic faith. I knew then how important my faith was to me. It alone sustained me in times of struggle, and lifted me higher in times of joy. I wanted to inspire other Catholic teens to rest in their own faith because I knew that my faith had been the one thing that had sustained me throughout my adolescence. 

At the Catholic high school where I am privileged to teach in Yellowknife, École Saint Patrick High School, morning prayer sets the tone of respect and community for the day. Not every student and staff member at École Saint Patrick High School is Catholic; however, the École Saint Patrick High School community – staff, students and parents – value a system of education that nurtures the whole child – body, mind and spirit. 

It  has been my experience in these thirty years as a Catholic educator, that students want to believe in miracles and infinite power. Catholic educators are there to impart to their students a sense of that magnificence. We’re there to help them become men and women of integrity, to give them a sense of the commissioning of their entire selves.

What is there to cling to if one never has that rock of Christ to rest upon in times of crisis or to look to as an example of true character? How do we know what to return to as a point of grace when we have been blown off course if no one ever gave us a moral compass in the first place? If to be in existential crisis is to be ‘separated from God’, at least those of us who have met Him can find our way back to His loving embrace.

Catholic education lays an important foundation of faith. Faith provides children with a compass of hope sorely needed for their future. Faith is trusting in a support that is unconditional and unwavering. That faith in a higher power always translates into a belief in oneself. Many students don’t have that faith in themselves so sorely needed, and faith alone encourages a devout love of God, a true love of self and an abiding love of others.

When the formal expression of their faith does not appeal to youth, I urge them never to let anything stand between themselves and God. Their Catholic faith is a gift from God, always there for them to draw upon. As they become men and women, they must decide to adopt their faith in a unique and personal way. When times are dark and they feel abandoned by humanity, they will grow to realize that their faith alone will sustain them, and they will come to see that in fact, they are never alone. Christ walks with them and He carries them when they fall. In my own life, it was the realization that I could turn to God for the love and approval for which I had longed craved that allowed me to truly live. 

My parents placed me in God’s care on the morning of my baptism in Scotland’s St. Stephen’s Church on St. Valentine’s Day 1965, when I was precisely two weeks old. My Catholic faith is the greatest gift my parents have given me. It has proven to be a life force that anchors me. My feet have rested firmly on that rock that is Christ and I have survived because of Him and my Blessed Mother. It is this that I wish to share with my students as a Catholic educator. 

I have learned that one cannot insist that another come to a sense of faith or celebration of that faith. One cannot give faith to another. God alone stirs men’s hearts; however, we can share our faith stories with the young, and then trust that those seeds of faith once planted, will blossom in the beautiful hearts of God’s children, our children, in God’s good time. Be assured that if you lay a strong foundation of Catholic faith when they are young, children will rest in Christ as adults, and that is the most important thing. 

 

 

 

        

 

            

Apple of My Eye

My Grade 5 teacher picked on me, encouraged my friends to turn away from my leadership, and even accused me of cheating when I continued to excel in school. I started to hate school. My older sister, only 2.5 years my elder, refused to share a room with me and so I was put in a room with my baby sister, five years my junior. My little sister coughed, wheezed and snored all night because she suffered from terrible allergies, and I couldn’t sleep because of those noises. This lack of sleep exacerbated stress at school in that already horrible Grade 5 year.

Nightly, once everyone in the house was asleep, I’d take my blanket from my bed and creep into the living-room to sleep. One night, my dad found me there and nudged me awake.

“Come on, hen. Back tae yer bed.”

Taking my hand, he escorted me to my room where the wheezing, snoring and coughing of my sleeping sister prevailed.

“It’s her allergies, Dad,” I sobbed. “I can’t sleep.” I cried in frustration and was shocked to see that my dad too had tears in his eyes.

“Ye know yer th’ apple o’ ma eye, don’t ye?” my father said, patting my hand.

His lower lip quivered, and he looked away from me discomfited by this rare show of emotion. I stared at my dad’s handsome face. I hadn’t known that. How could I? He never said it or even told me that he loved me. I felt deeply loved by my dad in that moment.

I didn’t know then, as a child, that the phrase ‘apple of my eye’ refers to something or someone that one cherishes above all others. It appears in the Bible on at least four occasions. “Keep me as the apple of the eye; Hide me in the shadow of Your wings” (Psalm 17:8). “For… he who touches you, touches the apple of His eye’” (Zechariah 2:8). “He guarded him as the pupil of His eye” (Deuteronomy 32:10). “Keep…my teaching as the apple of your eye” (Proverbs 7:2).

My dad and I fought when I was a teen. My dad saw an angry, rebellious teen take the place of his beloved daughter. I went from being a real Daddy’s girl to being a shutdown teen. He never understood why. When I was late for curfew in high school or when it was obvious to him that I’d been out partying as a teen, he’d brutally strike me the moment I walked through the door. There was anger between us for years.

The night my father died, I was writing the law school entrance exam at the University of Toronto. Inexplicably, I suddenly felt surrounded by my father’s love the way I had that night he told me that I was the apple of his eye. I felt that he could see me and was proud of me. I didn’t yet know that he’d passed, but I felt his presence. He was there with me and I felt his love.

Once I confided to my dad that I couldn’t sleep in that room with my younger sister, my dad made me a bedroom in the basement. I chose lavender floral wallpaper and a lilac carpet to finish it off, and it became my haven, somewhere I had peace and quiet.

My APPLEOFEYE license plate is for my earthly dad but also for my Heavenly Father; I’m the cherished daughter of two beloved kings.

Wingspan

In 1966 Scotland, Catholics must indicate religion on job applications, thwarting another work opportunity for them in Presbyterian Scotland. Billboard, radio and television advertisements invite worker Scots to go to Canada. In Glasgow’s Canada House, my father enquires about this place: Canada. A tall man with a soft Canadian accent rolls a map of Canada before my father and asks him where he wants to live and what sort of work he would like to do. Scotland has no place for him while Canada is a Proverbs’ bride offering hope, prosperity, and the optimistic future that has been denied him in his sectarian homeland because of his religion.

We live in newly constructed apartments on Hamilton Road in London, Ontario. A Dominion grocery store stands behind the apartments, its neon-lit red maple leaf brandishing its mocha-colored brick, and the Thames River flows nearby. At Easter, as I hunt for chocolate eggs, I find a bird trapped in the gold draperies over the glass patio doors. It swoops above my head and I feel air on my face from its frantic wingspan. I yelp and run down the hallway to my parents’ bedroom, my tiny feet padding the cold linoleum. I sneak to my father’s side of the bed, and poke at his bare shoulder. My dad opens his big eyes and wants to know what’s wrang. I tell him there’s a bird trapped in the house.

“Och,” he says. “That’s a wee birdie yer mammy brought hame way her last night, hen. It has a broken wing.”

“Its wings are working now,” I tell him.

My dad climbs from his bed, and takes my small hand in his hard palm as we walk together into the living-room. The bird careens at a rapid speed above our heads.

“See, Dad?”

“Aye, pet. I see right enough.”

My dad opens the patio door.

“Fly away, little bird,” I say.

“The wee thing’s frightened, darlin’. He’ll f’un his way oot when he’s ready tae gae.”

The cold air from outside invades the apartment and I shiver in need of a pee. My dad asks if I want cereal, and I say ‘yes’. He pulls a small, blue plastic bowl from the cupboard and fills it with Cornflakes, sugar and ice cold milk.

“Sit up here, pet-lamb,” he says.

I climb onto the stool next to the countertop. On the chipped formica lies a shoe box, holes pierced in its lid. Inside the shoebox is a terry facecloth. I want to know what the box is for.

“Yer mammy made the wee birdie a bed.”

My dad asks me if I managed to find any Easter eggs, and I shake my head no. I look up at the bird as I eat my cereal. He flies too fast for me to get a good look at him. I don’t want to be afraid, but I cover my head with my hands each time he plunges past.

“Och, he’ll no hurt you, hen,” my dad says. “He’s a harmless, wee sparrow.”

The bird finally finds an opening through the gold drapes and escapes into the April sky pregnant with the promise of an icy, Easter morning rain.

“That’s him away,” my dad says.

“Where to?” I ask, relieved the bird is gone.

“He’s away back hame,” my father says, following the bird’s flight with his bright, blue eyes. My dad turns, winks at me and smiles.

We’re home already, I know. Canada gave us the life denied us in Scotland.

 

 

Bounty

The Prayer of Jabez

And Jabez called on the God of Israel saying,
“Oh, that You would bless me indeed,
and enlarge my territory,
that Your hand would be with me.
So God granted him what he requested.

[1 Chronicles 4:10]

At Thanksgiving, we are reminded to express gratitude for our many blessings. Living in a land of such beauty and abundance, that is easy to do for most Canadians. Mark 11:24 tells us, “Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.” This means that instead of praying, “God. Please provide for me and my family” one should pray, “I praise you God for your provision.” Pray with gratitude as though it has already been given unto you, and you will receive it. This leap of faith requires the childlike faith that Jesus told us we must have.

Of course, it is God’s nature to bless. Only we limit his bounty with an imperfect faith. In the first nine chapters of 1 Chronicles, the descendants of the Hebrew tribes are introduced, beginning with Adam. In Chapter 4, one meets Jabez. He is a descendent of Judah.

The name Jabez means, “Because I bore him in pain.” His mother chose his name because his was a particularly painful childbirth. It is written that Jabez was more honourable than his brothers, yet still he was cursed with an unfortunate name. In Biblical times a man’s name prophesied his future. Jabez chose to disregard his pain-filled name and ask for God’s blessing. “Oh, that You would bless me indeed.” His direct request to God changed his once-ordinary life and left a permanent mark on the history books of Israel. He died an extraordinary man.

When was the last time you asked God to bless you? Is it presumptuous to ask God to bless us? Jabez also asked that God enlarge his territory. “…and enlarge my territory…” When one asks God to enlarge his or her territory the influence he or she can have on the lives of others for God will expand. God will entrust that individual with a greater territory for Christ’s work if only that person asks.

Of course, Jabez knew he couldn’t do anything without God’s presence and influence. “…that Your hand would be with me…” The touch of God comforts people when life expands just as Jabez needed God’s grace in his life as things began to change for him.

Was it because Jabez asked to be blessed and challenged by God that he was? I believe so, yes. God favours those who ask. He holds back nothing from those who are willing to walk with Him and who earnestly want what He wants. Perhaps then, it matters not how one asks but only that one has the faith and the courage to ask.

It is said that when one prays the Prayer of Jabez one finds that he or she will live a life marked with God’s blessings, supernatural provisions, and divine providence at the precise moment they are needed. It may just be worth a try.

I wish all a blessed and bountiful Thanksgiving in this great land of ours.

God’s Time

Autumn is my favourite season. I love the chill in the morning or evening air just as I love to be surprised by the unexpected but always welcome warmth of an afternoon autumn sun. I love the earth’s colours in fall mirrored in cozy fall fashion. I love the ease with which one can daily function in temperate fall climates. Indeed, the movement of life seems somehow easier in the fall. Of course, life is not always if ever truly easy. Life ebbs and flows. There are gains and losses in life, joys and sorrows. One quickly learns that the light of dawn cannot exist without the dark of night.

Seasonally, fall is a time of death. Farmers harvest crops that they have brought to fruition throughout the year. Trees shed leaves. Plump, green grasses wither, turn brown and die as the earth’s mantle awaits its cloak of white snow that will incubate new life. When the timing is perfect, that new life will spring forth from the rejuvenated soils. Ironically, it is in dying that the earth restores itself so that it can be reborn.

Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 addresses the seasons of an individual’s life as it explores the meaning of life:

There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under the heavens:

    a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,
    a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build,
    a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance,
    a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
    a time to search and a time to give up,
a time to keep and a time to throw away,
    a time to tear and a time to mend,
a time to be silent and a time to speak,
    a time to love and a time to hate,
a time for war and a time for peace.

Each season in nature brings with it unique pursuits that are allotted by God. So too the seasons in a man’s life are determined by God. The passage says, “He has made everything beautiful in its time” (Ecclesiastes 3:11). God has an overall plan for each of our lives. God brings about His purpose in His own time.

Though at times it is difficult to do so, we are called to acknowledge each day as a gift from God. We are to accept that God has a reason for all things, and His timing is perfect unto heaven. We are ignorant of God’s timing, just as we are unaware of God’s plan for each of our lives, but we are called to trust in God’s sovereignty. In fact, a life only has meaning when one relies on God’s wisdom, timing, and goodness.

Though everyone desires to be happy and sets about seeking happiness, securing happiness on our own is as elusive as the wind. Instead of pursuing pleasure, we should allow God’s peace and joy to take up residence in our hearts. Instead of chasing the things that we feel will make us cheerful, we need to find contentment in God’s love despite any intangible circumstances.

It is time to do so.