I was raised in a liberal Protestant household.
In the small Massachusetts town in which I lived there were quite a few Jewish families but those were the only non-Christians that I or anyone else knew of. Even with a noticeable minority of Jews, it seemed to my youthful eyes that generally Christmas was a universal holiday. Certainly in the stores and town squares everywhere you went there were Christmas decorations. Everyone I knew was Christian and everyone I knew celebrated Christmas.
Christmas happened every year and pretty much in the same way every year. Christmas carols, Christmas cards, Christmas trees, and above all Christmas Eve and Christmas Morning with stockings and presents piled under the tree, even for a poor family such as ours.
Throughout childhood, adolescence, and into the years when my own child was young, Christmas continued to be one of the major events, if not the major event, of every year.
On a parallel track, in my late teen years, I became aware of Buddhism and Hinduism as eastern meditation became more widely known in America in the late 60’s and early 70’s. In truth I was strongly influenced by both.
I also began studying Nietzsche during my late teens and early 20’s. Generally, I felt the violent cruelty and injustice of the world along with the suffering caused by disease, natural disasters, and poverty “proved” that many of the traditional Christian teachings were woefully inadequate.
Still Christmas proceeded year and after year and I continued to sing Christmas carols year after year. And, the Christmas tree, stockings, gift wrapping, and presents continued to occur on schedule every year.
Generally in my mid-to late twenties, I began to really listen to Gregorian Chants and JS Bach’s Cantatas, motets, and masses. I realized that despite the trenchant critiques of Nietzsche, Voltaire, Marx and others that Christianity was far from disproved, even if many of the traditional dogmas were blown apart by the advent of modern critical thinking and science.
Christmas took on new meaning for me. I could sense the mystical dimensions and sacred beauty that form the river of truth beneath the dogmas of the churches.
In my mid-thirties I began a serious study of Catholic monastic tradition and practices as well as Theravada Buddhist meditation.
Again and again it was the music and some of the mysteriously profound lines in the liturgies and sacraments of the Catholic Church that drew me into a search for deeper faith. Supporting this search, year after year, was my own personal experiences of the mystery embedded in Christmas carols such as of “Angels We Have Heard on High” and “God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman” and “Silent Night” and all the other Christmas carols. The alternative lifestyle offered by Catholic monasteries and the ongoing witness of Catholic Workers and Liberation Theologians were other formative influences that shaped my personal, intuitive assent to Christian ways.
What continued to trouble me though was that I remained deeply conflicted about Christian and Jewish views of God’s love when that love and alleged care was juxtaposed to the suffering of the world. What could possibly resolve the jarring dissonance of the image of an all-loving, all-powerful, all-knowing God side by side with terrible suffering of many in the human and animal realms?
Through all this period, as a counterpoint, I continued to study Theravada Buddhist practice of meditation at places like Cambridge Insight Meditation Society and Insight Meditation Society in Barre, MA.
But the atheism of the Theravada Buddhists and the troubling aspects of such a heavy reliance on Reincarnation as a foundation of Buddhist beliefs left me just as nonplussed as certain Catholic dogmas.
Still, many years later in my late 50’s, and now at age 60, I have found the Theravada Buddhist meditation techniques help me to find deeper experiences of peace and healing than any other form of practice. I can generally see the way forward to significantly deeper insights and peace.
For all these reasons Christianity is different for me now. Christmas is different for me now. Theravada Buddhism is different for me now. I feel I have shaken off the confusing dogmas of both traditions. But I feel I am somewhat adrift being neither Christian nor Buddhist enough to really fit into either tradition. Given my heterodox beliefs, I could no more be ordained a Catholic priest than I could be certified to teach as an instructor in the Theravada Buddhist lineage. After all, I am not sure the atheist views of the Theravada Buddhists are true. In fact, if I had to venture and opinion, I am reasonably sure God does exist even if I can’t quite understand what God’s relationship to human suffering may be.
What I have learned is to not tense up at the confusion I feel or the uncertainty I experience about what to believe, or the sense of being isolated without an identifiable affiliation with an established tradition.
Rather I can mindfully be aware of any confusion, or uncertainty, or feelings of isolation I may be feeling and know that these feelings are also suitable subjects for mindfulness practice.
Fortunately I have learned that the practice of offering loving kindness to all who live is a practice that is at the center of both cultures. Fortunately, as prone as I am to anger and resentment along with feelings of aggressive retribution and judgment, I am now able to blow out the small fires of these emotions when they arise and freely and naturally offer love to all who live.
In this early winter, as the days have shortened and the winter nights have grown longer, as the quiet, wistful mystery of Advent leads gently to the winter solstice and to Christmas I can continue to offer love and kindness for my own life and for all others who live.
For the first time in my life, I have done no Christmas shopping. Neither do I bow to statues of the Buddha as do many I know. I no longer need to believe that Mary was a virgin to love her, or that Jesus is the “Cosmic Christ” to love him deeply. I do not need to believe that Buddha recalled all his past lives or floated through the air as the Pali Canon asserts in order to fully appreciate the profound dimensions of his teachings.
Yet the delicate sense of sacred peace and healing I have gained from a careful study of both traditions continues to deepen in my life and practice. I feel I have moved closer to being ready to help change the way priests, monks, nuns, students, and teachers are trained in the future.
And as for the poor man and woman settling in humble quarters for the birth of their first child, my feelings of solidarity and concern are ever more genuine.
In truth the pathos of what really happened is more profound to me now than are the mythological accretions others added later.
There were no wise men. There were no great events. There was no big coffee cake or church services. There was no Christmas tree or presents. There was no electricity or indoor plumbing.
There were only the usual cries and moans of a woman in labor, and the nervous anticipation of the man trying to comfort her as best he could. There was only the birth of another child in a world of both great beauty, peace, cruelty, and injustice.
There was only the story of a simple poor family trying to make their way in a world that generally was not favorable to the poor. There was only the fierce independence of that child as he grew to be a man and that of his mother who witnessed her son’s execution at the hands of state and church.
There was, and continues to be, a simple naked hope that there can be more justice in the world and that despite the cruelty that scars so much of the veil of nature, that within and beneath the veil there is something deeper, better, and grander.
Christians call this “something deeper” – “heaven”. Buddhists of various stripes call this “something deeper” – “nirvana”, or the “deathless”, or the “unconditioned”, or “original mind”, or “Buddha Nature”.
Perhaps those who are smarter or wiser than I may have valid ways to explain what these differences may be and why they have any importance to us now. But I can assure you I cannot.
Treasure that which is true of the ancient ways.
Shake off that which is no longer relevant from the ancient ways.
Treasure that which is true of the progressive reforms.
Shake off that which is no longer relevant from the progressive reforms.
Peace to you this holiday season.
Let me know what your story of Christmas and Christmas meditations have been like this year. All constructive comments will be posted.
Will Raymond Author of The Simple Path of Holiness” Host of Meditationpractice.com