Not feeling jolly?
A psychologist friend of mine likes to say that the holidays push people to their limits. Christmas is particularly painful. ‘Tis the season to be jolly, right? Often, it’s not. We want to feel jolly, but even the expectation to feel joy can be an added burden. Why? Because Christmas and gift-giving point to the delights of heaven — delights we crave. So when things fall short — and they always do — we feel disappointed. Still, every year brings fresh hope. “Will this be the best Christmas ever? Will I find the present that hits the spot for my loved one? Will I get that special gift?” That’s a lot to live up to!
Beyond the garlands and gifts, there’s the family gatherings. Uncle Fred notes that you must be eating really well. Aunt Mary’s eyes dart right to the stain on your shirt that you thought you got out. Your brother rolls his eyes when your child spills juice and smirks, “just like his dad!” Your dad presses about that dead-end job. You think, “I don’t need this!”
These family patterns are painful. You feel shoved into old ruts — ruts you’ve avoided … well, since the last family gathering. Even though you’ve grown, your family doesn’t seem to give you credit for it. Of course it hurts. It’s like being dressed up in clothes that are two sizes too small. “Can’t you see these don’t fit me anymore?”
Truth is, they can’t see who you are now because they’re really not looking. They’re not looking because they themselves haven’t really been seen. And that’s where you have an in.
A new way of gift giving
Let’s get theological for a moment. When people report life-after-death experiences, there is one word often used to explain the feeling of being in God’s presence: cherished. They feel so deeply, intimately cherished that it consumes them, and they never want it to end. Since you’re made for God, his delightful, cherishing gaze is not only enrapturing, it’s literally heaven. You will behold him, and he will behold you face to face in an eternal exchange of love that will delight you beyond your wildest imaginings. Sweet, huh?
If you know that, then you have some inkling of the power of really being seen. Appreciated. Loved. In fact, one of the highest compliments people paid to St. Mother Teresa was that she looked right at them and spoke to them like they were uniquely important to her. That cherishing gaze of St. Teresa, and of God, is yours to give as well.
With your family this Christmas, and frankly all year long, give the gift of a cherishing gaze. Look for the good in them. Look harder. Ask God to help you not only see it but rejoice in it and gracefully point it out to them. Frankly, it’s fun. It is like being on a treasure hunt. Like the five loaves and two fishes, when you find the treasure and share it, it grows. And something almost miraculous happens. When people are seen — seen lovingly for their goodness, their gifts and for their goof-ups — they are put at ease. They can lay down their camouflage, their self-protecting armor that consumes their attention and blocks their vision. And then they begin to see … you.
St. John of the Cross put it this way: “Where there is no love, put love and you will draw out love.” Give the gift of love that is the cherishing gaze, and you will see each other anew.
Good advice? Let’s do one better.
OK, sounds like good advice, but what if I’m just not feeling it? Like, let’s be real: Sometimes I’m really annoyed, even repulsed by particular family members. And, frankly, I seem to feel it more intensely during the holidays. What then?
Well, you’ve hit on a deeper reality than just interpersonal relationships. When your repugnance for others increases during the holidays, it is often because they are “holy days.” Seriously? Yes! The Church teaches that holy days are times of tremendous graces. God is pouring out his love and mercy superabundantly during the major feasts of the year. St. Faustina Kowalska, the saint of Divine Mercy, explains that before every major grace, her soul would undergo a test of patience. The greater the grace, the greater the test.
So, why does God allow these hardships?
There was a time when St. Faustina decided to help a priest by offering to take on the sufferings and afflictions that he would undergo that very day. Immediately, all sorts of difficulties and adversities sprung up out of nowhere. Seeing the unusual flurry of problems that had suddenly descended upon Faustina, one of the sisters noted that surely God must have had his hand in it. Next, Faustina was seized by depression and an aversion toward the sisters in her community. Uncertainty took hold of her, and she couldn’t recollect herself. Finally, a pain in her soul overwhelmed her. She began to weep. Our Lord spoke to her: “Why do you weep? You offered to undertake these sufferings. Know that what you have taken upon yourself for that soul is only a small portion. He is suffering much more.”
Shocked, she asked why he treated the priest in this way. Our Lord then gave her a vision of the tremendous glory that was going to be his in heaven. Instantly, Faustina’s soul was flooded with great joy. She declared with astonishment, “All sufferings are nothing compared to what awaits us in heaven!” She then praised God for the grace of learning how God treats those he intends to have close to himself.
So why does God allow you to face hardships? He directly answers that question through Faustina. “I permit these adversities in order to increase merit. I do not reward for good results but for the patience and hardship undergone for my sake.”
Wow! So there is meaning behind every difficulty we face. Just like birth pains are productive and prepare for new life, hardships open our souls more to God’s graces and raise us to greater spiritual heights. And the greater the difficulty, the more meritorious the reward for enduring it with trust.
OK, suffering has meaning, but I need relief!
You are not alone. In fact, according to St. Ignatius, God permits desolations so that you will turn trustingly to him for relief and receive his consolations. God even promises his consolations throughout Scripture:
- “For I know well the plans I have in mind for you … plans for your welfare and not for woe, so as to give you a future of hope” (Jer 29:11).
- “For I will slake the thirst of the faint; the appetite of all the weary I will satisfy” (Jer 31:25).
- “They that hope in the Lord will renew their strength, they will soar on eagles’ wings” (Is 40:31).
So God promises relief, but what can I do practically?
Here are three things:
1. Trust: Yes, trust is doing something. It is turning your interior gaze from yourself to the one who heals and comforts. St. Faustina tells us that one act of trust at moments of great suffering “gives greater glory to God than whole hours passed in prayer filled with consolations!”
- “Many are the troubles of the righteous, but the Lord delivers him from them all” (Ps 34:20).
- “Wait for the Lord, take courage; be stouthearted, wait for the Lord!” (Ps 27:14).
- “Blessed are those who trust in the Lord” (Jer 17:7).
2. Read Scripture: Literally reading and reciting God’s word brings you relief.
- “My soul clings to the dust; give me life in accord with your word” (Ps 119:25).
- “It was good for me to be afflicted, in order to learn your statutes” (Ps 119:71).
3. Surrender Novena: Do you have 60 seconds? It’s that easy. Pray this little surrender novena every day. You will begin to relish the words: “Jesus, I surrender to you, take care of everything!”
Our Lord told St. Faustina, “You give me pleasure if you hand over to me all of your troubles and griefs. I shall heap upon you the treasures of my grace.”
So, If you are struggling with the holidays, that is a sign of predilection that God has much in store for you! Give the gift of a cherishing gaze and know the greater your repulsion, the greater the coming grace. Turn with trust toward Our Lord expecting his promised relief, read or recite Scripture and, like a little child, tell Jesus, “You take care of everything!”
Michael O’Rourke is a father of 10 and founder of StrongCatholicDad.com. He hosts the weekly Strong Catholic Dad Podcast and publishes weekly online guides for dads to teach the Faith to their kids.