The month before Christmas is busy enough. Who in their right mind – to use one of my mother’s favorite expressions – adds an Advent wreath to the December to-do list? My mother balked one Christmas season when I insisted on finally lighting some candles that had been given her as a gift several years earlier. Candles were décor to her thinking, and I had just marred her setting of candles, intact wicks ready for a hostess to light before the arrival of her guests. It’s how Better Homes and Gardens must have instructed her.
The idea of an Advent wreath whose four tapers had to be lit every night for almost four weeks would have affronted my mother’s sense of home safety and economy and cleanliness. Let the sisters in the local parish school light as many candles as they wanted to, both in their convent chapel and in their classrooms. The well-heeled ladies of the parish who played the role of rectory groupies might boast of the family devotions they orchestrated in their houses as well. Matches were for lighting the gas heater in the bathroom wall of our New Orleans home and for jumpstarting the gas range when the pilot light went out.
I would have loved occasionally lighting a votive candle before the statue of the Blessed Mother on the dresser in my parents’ bedroom. The David and Ann series of grammar school readers used in my parochial school had an illustration of a frightened child waking up in the darkness of her bedroom; through the open door, however, she can glimpse her parents saying the evening rosary, standing before a home shrine with its statue and votive lights.
I knew I would not be able to talk about that picture to my parents or to my brothers. Despite the devout upbringing we all received, the idea of a family devotion that might aid family communication in ordinary times of difficulty and stress was a foreign one.
So I was drawn to it even more.
A home with religious devotion as a way to feel close to the other members of your family must happen somewhere. A home where people talk about the hopes for their lives could not be impossible – a home where the mystery of our individual lives and the decision to confront that mystery together in the presence of God could be a reality.
Deep down I had hoped for that kind of home when I entered religious life in my early twenties.
The hunger for other aspects of home life, however, made it difficult for me ultimately to feel “at home” with the vows and the kind of community they created.
Last Saturday evening I had an experience that reminded me of what I had wanted during some of those early Decembers of my life. I had a friend who went with me to the Christmas tree lot a mile from home and picked out a wreath with me for my kitchen table. Then I drove with him to the nearby Whole Foods and purchased four clear-glass votive holders.
The remarkable thing was that his interest in each aspect of the trip was as keen as mine. When we had assembled everything back at home, I lit the first votive candle. No other light in the room, we each took a seat at the kitchen table. We settled ourselves before the light of the wreath and began to talk about the times in our lives when we had watched other Advent wreaths. We talked about the people long ago who had communicated their delight in this winter devotion and made us each want to welcome it into our homes as adults.
Suddenly I knew that I had not been mistaken earlier in my life. A home with religious devotion as a way to feel close to other people can happen – a home where the mystery of our individual lives and the decision to confront that mystery together in the presence of God can be a reality.
That was an Advent grace worth waiting for.
Photo by David Ennis