Although the Lord was later to lead me to the sacrament of holy matrimony, I spent some of the most formative years of my young adulthood in the seminary. Among the many traditions that marked those years, one that always brings joy to my memory is the “Christmas room.” During the season of Advent, a team of seminarians was selected to design and build a near-life-size version of the Nativity scene. The large statues of the principal figures remained the same every year, but the theme of the room was always new. It is amazing what some paper rolls, paint, moss, bark and—who knows what else—can do! One year the entire room was transformed into an ornate gothic cathedral, whereas on another occasion it was simply a poor, humble cave.
The theme of the Christmas room was guarded tightly – secret from those who were not involved in the preparations. It was only after Midnight Mass, when everyone would enter in together singing Christmas carols, that its beauty was first beheld. Fittingly, the carols would end with “Silent Night,” whose last note would begin the period of total silence until the morning’s prayers. One could remain there as long as desired, contemplating in the silence of the night, the birth of Our Savior, Divine love incarnate, the mystery of the Word made flesh. These were moments in which God could speak silence and yet it be understood; or, in the words of St. John of the Cross, “The Father spoke one Word, which was His Son, and this Word He always speaks in eternal silence, and in silence must It be heard by the soul.”
These moments would also take me back to my childhood. I remember on occasions slipping out of my room late at night, while my parents and two younger sisters slept, and sitting cross-legged contemplating the motionless figures of the Nativity scene that rested on the carpet below the evergreen limbs of the Christmas tree. Once my eyes adjusted to the dark, the faces of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph could be made out perfectly, illumined as they were by the multi-colored Christmas lights. Such peace! With only an occasional crackle from the fireplace to break the still of the night.
In the day-to-day rush and noise of life (which only seems to augment during this holy season), how good it is to recall moments of sacred silence, of contemplative mystery! All too often, I tend to get wrapped up in the busyness of “stuff.” Or, when I do finally get a moment of quiet time, how frequently I catch myself filling it with aimless distraction on my phone! In his book, “The Power of Silence,” Cardinal Sarah states, “If our intellects can no longer close their eyes, if we no longer know how to be quiet, then we will be deprived of mystery, of its light, which is beyond darkness, of its beauty, which is beyond all beauty. Without mystery, we are reduced to the banality of earthly things.”
There are still a few days before Christmas. I may not be able to transform an entire room of my house into a Christmas room (every inch has been meticulously calculated and set aside for airbeds for visiting family), but I do pray that I am able to prepare a room in my heart. I am not even sure how much opportunity there will be for exterior silence, although I will do my best to put my phone down and be present to whatever God has in store. In any case, in the silence of my heart, I will be praying that for all of us the words of the hymn may ring through, “Silent night… Holy night.”