I bought a new book for Christmas, which unfortunately means you will be poisoned by extracts from Rowan Williams Luminaries: Twenty Lives that illuminate the Christian way.
One such life, Augustine, has been given a bad press through the centuries. Saint Augustine lived life to its extremes, indulging in every pleasure possible, as he searched for happiness. For Augustine was a man of passion, who couldn’t eat or drink enough of life. Like many of us today, Augustine was a tormented soul, who wanted to experience everything which life could offer. From his own Confessions, it’s fair to suggest Augustine successfully dedicated his time and energy to searching for happiness and discovered most of these experiences to be fleeting and unsatisfying. Reflecting over the Christmas period, I feel I could have given Augustine a run for his money. Not that I would be able to run very far or very quickly, after my overeating during the festive celebrations.
Recalling George Mackay’s Brown’s ‘The Laird’s Son’ I appreciated the contrast between the simple Islanders profound rituals revolving around Christmas and the Puritans who refused to celebrate Christmas. In their simplicity, the Island families performed purification rituals involving the whole family on the Eve of Christmas. At the dawn’s first light the animals in the barn where blessed, reminiscent of the manger scene in our cribs. While in the homestead, candles were lit from the hearth as the cottage became illuminated with a multitude of small filtering flames, similar to our advent wreaths. These small ceremonies carried a world of significance, breaking the glumness and the dreariness of the short winter days and long dark nights. These timeless rites handed down from one generation to another, faithfully passed on through family and community tradition, spoke with a profundity when contrasted by the starkness of their daily lives. What do the rituals which characterise our celebrations of Christmas, reveal of our lives?
If we are fed up with Christmas, if we can’t wait to get back to the routine of our daily lives, maybe this is revealing of our celebrations and the nature of our festivities. As we continue to mark the season of Christmas, has what we experienced in our homes and our hearts brought a little light or a little darkness into our lives and the lives of others. To return to Saint Augustine, especially Rowan Williams reflections upon a life, which grabbled with understanding the mystery of the human person in relation to God. Augustine believed we never truly know ourselves; we aren’t fully transparent. To be a person is to be in search of oneself, daily caught up in the continuous challenge of wondering about ourselves. For all our searching, we need to accept the limits of being creatures, learning to accept the fact that hunger and restlessness are a part of who we are. If we accept Williams understanding of Augustine, we are never going to feel cosily at one with ourselves, having all desires gratified, and all our longings met.
Thus, we must make friends with our limitations, accepting that our discipleship will always have about it some ache of absence and loss. We will never possess or own God, yet He is active in the heart of our memory.