Merry Christmas

I read today that the Christmas shopping season was off. The writer, or his sources, blamed Sandy: Hurricane Sandy and Sandy Hook. Retailers said that shoppers weren’t very jolly. They were serious or worried or distracted. Hurried, as if they didn’t want to be out too long.

Manger

I thought of my parents and others at the Christmas of 1941. Americans had endured a decade of economic depression that the planners were impotent to correct. After the years of privation, then, Japan attacked the US at Pearl Harbor and, then, the Philippines.  Congress had approved a unanimous declaration of war. The young men who’d been deprived the childhood their parents’ planned for them would also be deprived young adulthood, limbs, and life.

Of course, in 1941, we didn’t have as much time to worry about ourselves as we do today. There was life to get on with. People certainly worried, but did it ruin their Christmas? Here’s what Winston Churchill told us on Christmas Eve, even as London was in the midst of the bombing:

This is a strange Christmas Eve. Almost the whole world is locked in deadly struggle, and, with the most terrible weapons which science can devise, the nations advance upon each other. Let the children have their night of fun and laughter. Let the gifts of Father Christmas delight their play. Let us grown-ups share to the full in their unstinted pleasures before we turn again to the stern task and formidable years that lie before us, resolved that, by our sacrifice and daring, these same children shall not be robbed of their inheritance or denied their right to live in a free and decent world.

When was the last time you heard a “leader” speak of daring?

The victims of Sandy and the survivors of Sandy Hook feel no less sorrow today than did the families of Americans killed at Pearl Harbor or the survivors of Hitler’s heinous, relentless bombing of London. They deserve our respect and prayers and help as much as our ancestors of 1941. Their sorrows are real and pitiable. Their losses painful to everyone with a heart and soul.

Yet, today, it seems, we give ourselves and our society permission to wallow and gnash our teeth. We don’t dare to live. We seek “solutions” to insanity—solutions that deprive the sane their freedom. I fear that we would meet the next Hitler or Hirohito, not with resistance or appeasement, but with assistance. Civilization today seems unwilling to accept tension and suffering, as if our birthright denies their existence.

But that’s foolish. God became flesh and walked among us, not to eliminate tension and suffering, but become the poster-child of them. His birth at Bethlehem was the beginning of His march to the cross, not the end of human suffering. 

Victor Frankl reminds us that “Dostoevski [sic] said once: “There is only one thing that I dread: not to be worthy of my sufferings.” Dostoyevsky’s words should serve as a warning to us all: if we succeed in eliminating suffering, we will have also succeed in becoming worthless. 

Living in the horrors of a Nazi prison camp, Frankl and his fellows found moments of joy and insight. Weighing half his former weight, living daily on a few ounces of bread and a small cup of watery soup, using his surgeon’s hands to dig water pipe ditches in the frozen dirt surrounding the Auschwitz death camp, Frankl received this revelation:

The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved.

That passage struck home with me. I’ve been a rude husband and thoughtless, absent, distracted father. I’ve been a bad friend. I am not “above” the weaknesses of our civilization. I, too, ignored much of Advent. I, too, worried more about avoiding sufferings than about living the life Christ died that I might know. I, too, failed to appreciate the joy of suffering, the humanity of pain, and the necessity of tension.

But I have 24 hours to do something about it. The stores are closed. The presents bought—or not. Doesn’t matter. I am  here. 

My weak Christmas pledge: I will try, for the next 24 hours, to live up to Victor Frankl’s imperative: “Live as if you were living already for the second time and as if you had acted the first time as wrongly as you are about to act now!”

Isn’t that the plot of It’s A Wonderful Life? 

Merry Christmas my love, Angela, Amie, Jack, Ben, Samantha, Patrick, and Jordan.

Merry Christmas Mom and Dad, Tee and Sue, Mickey, Scotty, Hank and John, JoAnn, Virginia and Carrie.

Merry Christmas Carol and Bill.

Merry Christmas Michelle and Ben.

Merry Christmas you wonderful old Building and Loan!

Merry Christmas to all who’ve reminded me tonight that joy is in me all the time if I’d only get over myself and let it work.

Merry Christmas to you. God bless you.

Christmas on Sunday

When I was a kid, I loved Christmas on Sundays. What I hated were the years before and after the Sunday Christmas.  Our_Mother_of_Perpetual_Help[1]

My problem was I didn’t want to go to Mass two days in a row.

To give some background, I grew up in a Catholic home.  Very Catholic.  My dad went to Epiphany. My mom’s Catholic, and her dad converted very late in life.  Two of my dad’s cousins were Monsignors. Our most treasured piece of art was a Mother of Perpetual Help painting by my aunt Mame.  Before every meal we said, in unison:

Bless us, oh Lord, and these thy gifts, which we are about to receive from thy bounty. Through Christ, our Lord. Amen.

Every meal.

Despite all this great Catholic upbringing, daily Mass—even two days out of seven—seemed like punishment.

In this, I believe, I was the perfect American male.

True or not, our cultural image of the Wild West involves lawless, wild men tamed by Bible-beating women. Not that American men are bad by nature, but left to our own devices, we’ll build a saloon and a house for women who go well with whiskey before we build a church and recruit a preacher.

But when the women folk show up, preacher in tow, we heel.  And we heal.

In our wildness, we wound ourselves and others.  Perhaps not physically, but wounds we open.

Years later, we appreciate the civilizing effect of church.

At 48, I no longer dread Mass.  I look forward to Midnight Mass this year, and I’ll try to talk the family into making the trek to St. Francis de Sales for its heavenly Midnight Mass.

Though I’m no better a person now than I was when two Masses in one week tortured me, I’ve come to understand that God’s inconveniences are not obstacles but express ways: the pain perfects us.

This year, Christmas is on a Sunday.  I’m not sure how I feel about that.

Merry Christmas!

The MangerChristmas is the holiday about humility. The humility of the immortal and all powerful and all knowing stooping to become a mere human being.

The humility of God and king to live among the humblest and poorest--a carpenter's son.

The humility of belonging to a race so broken that our Creator sent his only Son to redeem us.

For me, the humblest part of this season is what I'm doing right now.  Flashing through my mind are hundreds of memories of my own rampant lack of humility just from this past year.

Christ's humility--infinitely greater than the combined humility of every human being living and dead--reminds me that the line for heaven will see me at the very end.  If at all.

Humility is a tough thing.  We earn humility, most of us, with pain and suffering.  I get on winning streaks now and then (usually then). It's hard to believe I can do anything wrong during these streaks.  That thinking sets me up for great pain. Which is why I'm reluctant to ask that humble Christ-child to teach me humility.

Humility hurts.  But, ultimately, we can't live without it.

God bless you.

May you have a wonderful Christmas.

2 Ways to Make Christmas Season Happier

Is it better to give or to receive?

Before you answer, let’s look at some of the science behind giving. Then let’s look a little deeper.

Dr. Barbara Fredrickson studies the psychology of happiness. About a decade ago, Dr. Fredrickson announced a formula for creating an “upward spiral” of happiness.  In other words, she identified what it takes to have happiness breed happiness.  The formula applies to individuals, families, groups, and even companies.

The baseline formula requires three good experiences to every bad experience.  If three-fourths of your interactions with a spouse are positive, your marriage will last. If less, it will fail.  If your best employees have more than three positive experiences at work for every bad experience, they will stay. Otherwise, they will leave.  Same for your customers.

Once you’ve established that baseline, there are things you can do start the upward spiral.  Yes, you can intentionally drive up the happiness index in your life.  First, though, let’s look at a simple way to get to that 3 to 1 baseline.

Writing down three things you’re grateful for every day, and an account for who or what is responsible, will elevate your happiness, according to several studies.  I heard about these studies from Dr. Shawn Achor who led positive psychology studies at Harvard until very recently.  If you’d like to use a convenient online journal for this, try www.thankfulfor.com.  It even lets you share your gratitude with the world on facebook or twitter if you choose.

The reason writing down gratitudes works to elevate your happiness is because it forces you to be on the lookout for positive experiences.  In other words, there are good things happening to you or around you all the time, but culture and work and school have trained us to ignore good things and look for problems to fix or complain about. 

Write down three things you’re grateful for five days a week for three weeks.  See if you don’t start noticing more and more positive things in your life.

This practice alone, though, probably won’t kick off the upward spiral.  That’s because being kind to others is far more powerful than having kindness done to us.  What’s more important than doing good works, though, is acknowledging them. 

The next step in the upward spiral, then, is to add two acts of kindness to your gratitude journal.  These are two acts of kindness you did for others that day. 

You can see what’s happening here, can’t you?  The gratitude exercises forces you to stop and take note of the good things in your life without ignoring the problems.  The kindness journaling requires that you actually perform two acts of kindness at least five days a week.  (If you want to be a self-serving jerk on weekends, go right ahead.)

The whole exercise takes about three minutes a day.  If you start today and continue these exercises through Christmas, the positive effects will last to Independence Day 2011. That’s according to research that has been replicated by Dr. Martin Seligman of Pennsylvania University’s Positive Psychology department. 

Finally, one of my gratitudes today:  I am thankful that you read my blog and will try this fun and happy exercise. 

Merry Christmas!

Father Corapi's Christmas Message

I'm terrible at holiday posts, so I turn to America's greatest Catholic preacher since Fulton Sheen: The blessed and joyous time of Christmas is here again. So, I’ll just take the opportunity to thank all of our viewing and listening family for allowing us into your homes. I don’t take that for granted. I am honestly grateful to you for allowing us to serve you in that way.

As I look out the windows of my home in Montana it sure is “beginning to look a lot like Christmas.” We have about a foot of snow and it’s been below zero for about ten days. Two of my dogs are under my desk with their heads resting on my feet--looking like those big fuzzy slippers that little kids sometimes wear.

Christmas is, of course, the best time to recall that Jesus, the Son of God, in fact was born in a poor stable or cave on a cold night—“for us men, and for our salvation.” Amidst the escalating uncertainty and chaos of the modern world we must sit still for a moment and remember what really matters.

In recent years major corporations have been vaporized in the twinkling of an eye. It’s a sign of the times, but recall that what really matters is that it was the twinkling of a star that led shepherds and wise men to the One who is the Light of the world.

In recent years the biggest accounting firm in the world ceased to be over night. They don’t account for anything today, but it honestly doesn’t matter. What really matters is that on a cold night two millennia ago the God who loves us was born in Bethlehem and laid in a manger by the Mother who loves Him.

In recent years the unthinkable has happened--major banks and financial institutions have ceased to be. That doesn’t matter either because the truly unthinkable happened on the first Christmas Eve long ago when the God who always was and will never cease to be came to show us the depth and breadth of His love.

In recent years I have been accused of being a “prophet of doom, and a pessimist.” I can understand this criticism, but it really isn’t true. I am a realist, and as a priest and Catholic/Christian of necessity must share in the prophetic dimension of Christ. The United States, and the entire world for the most part, is in many ways precipitating its own demise. That matters, and we must do all we can to “fight the good fight,” but what truly matters is the state of your soul and mine because in the end that will determine how we live forever, and compared to that nothing else really matters.

Things may go from bad to worse. It may well go from uncomfortable to dangerous to live your Catholic/Christian faith in a world unraveling rapidly due to one bad moral choice after the other. Remember that it will not be the first time if Christians are persecuted, even imprisoned and executed. “The blood of martyrs is the seed of Christians.” The Western world is too fat and lazy, in the secular order and even in the religious. Perhaps a jolly good persecution may be what it takes for people to decide to live their faith, rather than go along with what they know to be a sick society.

In any event, don’t let it get you down. Whatever happens, stay close to Jesus and Mary. Remember that our God is not against you. He is for you, and He will be with you through all of the ups and downs of life. He will be with you in sickness and in health; in good times and in bad; and when death comes knocking at your door He will be there to comfort you and lead you safely home. Having fought the good fight and run the race to the finish line, you will surely hear those beautiful words:

“WELL DONE MY GOOD AND FAITHFUL SERVANT! NOW AT LAST ENTER INTO THE JOY OF YOUR MASTER’S HOUSE.”

A most blessed and merry Christmas and a holy, happy, and healthy New Year to each and all of you!

Fr. John Corapi