Living the Christmas mystery with The Hobbit

Making Jesus the centre of Christmas is an important and worthy endeavour, if also a challenge in our increasingly secular culture.

Putting Christ back into Christmas evokes St. Paul’s reminder of what it means to live as a follower of Christ. “Put on Christ,” he encourages us in his Letter to the Romans (Rom. 13:14).

The ways that we seek to focus on Jesus’ birth this Christmas can help us develop some spiritual practices to make Christ the centre of our everyday lives.

One of my guides this Advent has been Bilbo Baggins, the unlikely and humble hero of The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien. (I re-read this childhood favourite so that I could fully appreciate the film, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Adventure, currently playing in theatres.) Despite the lack of an overt Christmas theme, Bilbo’s adventures can offer some insight for our spiritual journey.

Christmas celebrations are full of great art — or at least imitations of great art. (We have all had occasion to shudder at an off-key rendition of our favourite Christmas hymn.) Great art — whether visual, literary, musical, cinematic or narrative — reminds us of our true human nature, as God created us. When a work of art expresses the best of what it means to be human, this goodness can be a starting point for dialogue with our secular culture. It can also become a doorway to spiritual awareness for the believer and non-believer.

Engaging with a great work of art becomes an adventure of the kind that Bilbo Baggins goes on. The newness of his experiences makes the little hobbit keenly sensitive to the beauties and dangers around him. His dwarf companions seek to regain lost treasure, but Bilbo goes on the journey for entirely different reasons. Ultimately, he is transformed — by the beauties he experiences, the goodness he witnesses in others, the dangers he faces and the choices he makes.

We can choose to engage our secular culture with a similar sensitivity: both to the seeds of the Gospel it contains and to its innate dangers. Especially at Christmas when the artistic expression is often clearly Christian, we can highlight the best of these expressions of faith. Instead of just listening to the radio, we can play a mix of religious hymns, letting their awe and wonder flood our hearts. We can look more closely at the masterpieces on our Christmas cards, even using them in our prayers as a way to meditate on the amazing mystery of the Incarnation.

Throughout the year, we can become like the magi, seeking Christ in the secular corners of our culture.

Gift-giving in a consumer culture easily becomes an exercise in impressing others, a way to “prove” our love by how much money we spend, or a way to “use” one another — gift-giving in the hopes of getting something back. Consumerism falsely fulfills our insecurities through the acquiring of more and more material things.

In The Hobbit, the dwarves’ attitudes toward the dazzling treasure are quite consumeristic. Bilbo is the one who sees the gold for what it is: useful only up to a certain point. His brushes with gold help him to see with a spiritual vision and to choose friendship over treasure, honesty over deception, justice over greed.

As Bilbo clearly saw, material things are gifts to be used and shared. We can strive to make our Christmas gifts more authentic expressions of love, more personal and meaningful: a homemade gift card for going out for ice cream together; a hand-crafted item; a favourite spiritual book. This personal approach shifts our focus from the gift to our relationship with the person receiving the gift. Gift-giving then takes its proper place as a celebration of God’s abundant love for us.

Throughout the year, we can continue to shift from our consumeristic, “gotta-have-it” attitude to a deepening perspective of gratitude. We can seek to share what we have received, giving of ourselves with greater love.

Christmas Mass is where we celebrate the ultimate gift: God’s coming to us. This coming of God is a mystery and a grace to be celebrated year-round with a humble and brave “hobbit-like” heart that views the spiritual life as a quest for a more abundant life. Every Mass — not just Christmas — becomes an invitation for us to cherish the coming of our God, to welcome Him, and to respond to His coming with love.

    The refreshing sound of silence

    A month-long retreat opens eyes to importance of sanctifying the mind

    How hard do you think it would be to give up all media for an entire month — no cellphone, no Internet, no reading, no radio or TV, no media at all except for a daily newspaper?

    Surprisingly, not that hard.

    In October, I made the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, an intense, month-long retreat during which I was encouraged not only to be silent but to “fast” from all electronic and digital media. That may seem daunting, but being offline and silent for a whole month is a lot easier than it sounds. (Really!) The change of pace and the silence refreshed me, and the joy of focusing exclusively on the most important relationship in my life is still bubbling inside me.

    The hundreds of e-mail messages waiting for me when I got back highlighted how much I engage digitally. Whether I go online for ministry, education, connection with friends and family or enjoyment, the digital experience is important to me. The steady flow of infotainment can empower us, forge connections between us that transcend geography, inspire us, remind us of important things, broaden our perspectives and stimulate our thinking and imagination. But it can also distract us, direct our minds and hearts in unhealthy or negative ways, depress us, confuse us and entice us to focus on the instant gratification that many advertisements and entertainments promise. We all try to filter out what is trivial or annoying but our filters need a higher standard, one to help us focus our use of apps and social media to serve the real of our lives.

    The founder of my community, media apostle Blessed James Alberione, used a phrase that seems particularly apt for those who seek to follow Christ in a digital world: “sanctification of the mind.” Sanctifying our mind, or loving God with our mind, is part of the greatest commandment: to love God with all our hearts, souls, minds and strength (Mark 12:30). Since our thoughts determine our choices, sanctifying our mind is essential for living a full life in Christ, as well as preparing for the vision of God in eternity. What we think about most often becomes what we care about most. According to Alberione, sanctifying our mind means paying attention to our thoughts and what we are feeding our minds with — our conversations, our reading and viewing.

    To sanctify our minds, Alberione offers this practical advice: 1) examine our thoughts in light of God’s Word, allowing God’s Word to direct our thoughts and to shape us on the deepest level, and 2) fill our minds with the Scriptures and with good reading and viewing that will help us to develop a Christian mentality — a way of thinking that is transformed by faith. Faith opens up our puny human perspective so we can glimpse, even if briefly, God’s point of view. Many saints, including Ignatius of Loyola, Augustine and Teresa of Avila, were greatly influenced by reading Scripture or the lives of the saints.

    Does sanctifying our mind mean we can only visit faith-driven Internet sites or only read Catholic newspapers? Not at all. But it is important to: evaluate what we feed our minds with; choose content that will nurture our faith; and balance what we take in and how much time we spend online.

    If we consistently view content that promotes values contrary to the Gospel (and it’s hard not to do that today), it’s important that we spend time reinforcing Jesus’ teaching in our lives. Negative influences can be both blatant and subtle. For example, I’ve enjoyed some currently popular post-apocalyptic, dystopian stories because of their social commentary on dangerous tendencies in our society today. But a steady diet of dystopian narratives makes me overly pessimistic about the future, forgetting that God is always with us, no matter what.

    Giving voice to our faith online, perhaps by responding to or avoiding digital media that is contrary to the Gospel, or by engaging respectfully in matters of faith, is another way to be digital followers of Christ.

    Most of us aren’t called to live “in retreat” from the digital world. Instead, we are to be salt that flavours it with faith, hope and love. Developing a Christian mentality by sanctifying our minds is critical for us to be both whole and holy people in today’s pluralistic and secular digital world.

      The best of both worlds

      What is our favourite TV show? Do we allow our children to read and watch The Hunger Games? What style of clothing do we choose? How much time do we spend online, and how do we spend it?

      Every day, we are influenced by a culture that was rooted in Christianity but is now shaped by a radical secularism and a need for instant gratification. How are we as Catholics called to live in a culture that has not only forgotten its evangelical roots but often denigrates or even opposes them?

      St. Kateri Tekakwitha offers valuable insights into this question by her intense commitment to Jesus Christ at a time when native cultures were confronted and often oppressed by European cultures.

      Born of an Algonquin mother and Mohawk father, Kateri courageously bridged the gap between her own First Nations cultures and French Catholicism, embracing the best of both. Even her name highlights this characteristic: “Kateri” is a Mohawk version of the French “Catherine.” In embracing both her native heritage and Christianity, Kateri discovered and lived fully her deepest identity, expressing it in her total commitment to the Person of Christ.

      Kateri’s intense love for Christ inspired her to follow Him wholeheartedly, both in prayer and in works of charity. But her ardour stirred up the animosity of many in her home village. Initially petty, the hostility escalated into real persecution — from children taunting her and throwing rocks, to her family refusing to allow her to eat on Sundays when she took extra time to pray, to death threats.

      Instead of scaring her into a compromise, Kateri’s Mohawk upbringing inclined her to regard bravery in suffering as a sign of spiritual strength. She didn’t just accept suffering as part of life, but embraced it, wanting to share in the Cross of Christ for the sake of her people. Only after repeated death threats did Kateri reluctantly decide to flee to where she could live her faith freely.

      Upon arriving at Sault St. Louis, the Christian native village in present day Kahnawake, Kateri’s fervour in prayer and generous kindness quickly made her a spiritual leader. She loved to pray in the Jesuit chapel, arriving first for Mass early in the morning, but she also prayed in the outdoor “chapel” she created by carving a cross into a tree trunk. Even the austere penances she practised were an expression of her love for Christ.

      Kateri’s intense love for Jesus led her to embrace the counter-cultural call to virginity. Marriage was such an important value in her native culture that both in her home village and in the Christian village, Kateri faced innumerable pressures to marry. (Even her Jesuit mentors did not initially encourage her.) Her inexplicable fidelity to virginal chastity can only be explained by a call from God.

      As her understanding of Christian life matured, Kateri’s desire for chastity flowered into a vow of virginity. Kateri is the first native woman of North America known to make this vow. Virginity was her vocation, her “way of love” in the world, and only in becoming a Catholic could Kateri discover and live the fullness of her vocation.

      Immersed in her own culture, but not enslaved by it, Kateri’s reception of Christ’s saving love enabled her to develop her deepest identity. Affirming her First Nations heritage kept her rooted in her own culture, but also helped her follow a personal call and make the courageous choices for Baptism and consecrated virginity.

      St. Kateri is a remarkable model for how we can engage in our culture today. She showed us how to claim our own heritage, embracing the values that strengthen our deepest identity and foster our commitment to Christ; how to discerningly engage with culture, aware that our unique identity is shaped by culture and also by God; and how to view every people and culture with the eyes of Christ, discovering common human values and the seeds of the Gospel even in the midst of conflict.

      St. Kateri Tekakwitha, saint of the New Evangelization, pray for us!

        Christ the true ‘Super Hero’

        I have been a secret fan of Superman all my life, enjoying almost every version that has lit up the screen. Now, my secret is out. This August, in front of all the guests celebrating my 25th anniversary of profession as a Daughter of St. Paul, my sister gave me Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman on DVD. Not a typical gift for a sister’s jubilee, but one I appreciated and will certainly enjoy.

        Superman has always appealed to me because of his selflessness. Although he is supposed to be indestructible, the best Superman episodes revolve around his vulnerabilities: his friendships, his compassion for humanity, the moral code that prevents him from using deadly force even in life-threatening situations, his unrequited love for Lois Lane, his loneliness, etc. Despite the many sacrifices he has already made, Superman repeatedly puts the well-being of others ahead of his own life and happiness. This is what keeps me glued to the screen.

        Self-sacrificing love has become something of a rarity in our culture. The “me-first” attitude is nothing new, but its current cool factor is. Selfishness — disguised as happiness — has snuck its way onto our roads, into our homes and through our relationships. It’s so prevalent that often we are expected “to take care of number one” and only after that, if we are feeling generous, worry about the good of others. We’re told that putting ourselves first is the thing to do. What a depressing, boring way to live.

        I’m not sure if the scarcity of true love is one of the symptoms or part of the cause of our “post- Christian” culture. But it certainly contributes to one of the huge misconceptions about Catholicism. Many people think that being Catholic is mostly about wearing a straitjacket of uncompromising moral laws that prevent happiness. The truth, instead, is that Catholicism is first and foremost about the saving love of Christ Jesus for us. Catholicism’s moral teachings — a consequence of our relationship with Christ, not the cause of it — point us towards real happiness, not the false happiness of selfishness. Blessed John Paul II captured this truth insightfully when he said that we become fully human only when we love to the point of sacrifice, to the point of giving ourselves away.

        Self-sacrificing love is a major theme in a surprising number of popular recent movies and novels. While many of these box-office giants (such as Twilight and The Hunger Games) have their problems, their protagonists, however flawed, consistently sacrifice themselves for their loved ones. Many of the popular comic book movies that came out this summer, from The Avengers to The Amazing Spider-Man, have this same theme of self-sacrifice.

        In The Dark Knight Rises, the third in the Batman trilogy that attempts to explore the horror of evil, Batman has been shattered by his heroism in the previous film. Yet he risks his life to save Gotham once again. Is this theme of self-sacrificing love one of the main reasons comic book movies are so popular with our young people? Perhaps youth have the purity of heart to be attracted to the godliness of self-sacrificing love.

        It’s striking that these self-sacrificing superheroes are so popular with young people immersed in and being formed by such a narcissistic culture. Perhaps one of the reasons many of us secretly love our superheroes is that they teach us about being human. “Super” doesn’t always mean “above.” It can also mean a degree of intensity.

        In Superman and other superheroes, we can recognize our vocation to truly love others, because true love always calls for self-sacrifice. Unlike our superheroes, we may not seem to have any “super powers” to help us to transcend our weaknesses. But, in actuality, the grace of God is the only super power we need.

        Received in Baptism and nurtured in the sacraments and in our prayer, our sharing in the life of God is what can enable us to go beyond ourselves, to seek to truly imitate Christ — the real Super Hero, who loves us and gave His life for us.

        Grace is the secret of the super-heroic Christian life, a heroism we are each called to live.