I turned in a tiny, twin bed to see the digital clock: 4:30 a.m. I accept with a groan the realization that in less than an hour, I could be dressed and in church, praying alongside Benedictine monks as part of a retreat. My intent was to sleep past this day’s vigils and lauds, but apparently my flesh was willing while my soul was weak.
Next dawned a second revelation—the date: December 22. Any lingering temptation to languish was summarily banished by my hard-won perspective that days leading up to Christmas are less about wonder, miracle births, and beauty than they are about real-life struggle, just as they were for the first-century family celebrated at the culmination of every Advent.
More than 20 years earlier, likely to the minute, I kept vigil on a very different December morning. I was alone in a twin bed then as well, preparing for Christ’s nativity, sure, but also for an arrival more eagerly anticipated. Then I watched a glowing clock count down and confirm. Yes, pangs and pressure stretched across my middle predictably, a little more than three minutes apart. Time to wake my husband, I remember thinking, but dreading. In the middle of the night, I had decided to manage alone what I guessed was labor for our first child. I worried that in the event I was wrong, resulting in an unnecessary trip to the hospital, I would suffer repeated recriminations until, and even after, the real birthday arrived. The calculus of leaving silently a bed shared with someone who had been drinking heavily, in favor of one in a spare room, was swift and sure, as were almost all my deviations toward deprivation in hopes of pacifying my unpredictable partner.
That’s the thorniest reality of enmeshment with loved ones troubled by addiction. At first what seem small sacrifices are willingly made. But eventually the compromises accumulate, slowly, subtly, seductively, until judgement of what is reasonable becomes hopelessly distorted and rationalized. Staying loyal to such souls tightens a knot loosened only after escape from both the relationship and the delusion that such trade-offs are a fair price to pay for love.
That long-ago Advent was a time of waiting doubled in significance, yet my husband and I did not begin the half hour drive to the hospital until mid-morning. Even then, the soon-to-be-father stopped at the end of the driveway and ordered me to fetch his newspaper. “I want something to do in the delivery room,” he explained. “We could be there awhile.” Only in retrospect did my eagerness to comply seem remarkable. I opened the car door, stretched my right arm through it, straining to offset my girth’s top-heaviness with feet grounded on the rubber floormat, far to the left. Eventually my fingers touched, then clasped, the edges of the plastic-wrapped, wet bundle. Plopping the paper alongside my swollen ankles, I managed with effort to pull the door shut. Together we began the journey toward our own Bethlehem.
I thanked God later that day for the birth of a healthy daughter, especially once I realized how my waiting, alone, had unintended—and dangerous—consequences. A team of neonatologists stormed the delivery room soon after her arrival, evaluating whether my infant could breathe from a nose crushed to one side when her face pressed against the curve of my pelvis, and whether the hematoma on her skull would diminish without intervention. Denying myself expert care for hours after my water broke meant my girl-child became hopelessly engaged face-up in the birth canal. By the time her father was perusing his paper at the hospital, it was too late to turn her toward safe passage.
My extreme joy as a first-time mother that day was leavened with great guilt. As she nursed, my sweetheart struggled to breathe at the same time. She gasped and I sniffled, my tears staining her tiny, distorted cheeks and forehead. Instead of empathy, my husband offered an impatient opinion: “She’ll be fine,” he said before returning to reading. Her preciousness, and my love for both her and two sisters who would come along later, made such denial digestible.
My eldest did blossom into a beautiful, intelligent woman. But my waiting too long in a swirl of toxicity sentenced all my children to a lifetime of a father’s drink-fueled rages and dangerous driving, objects thrown at them, and worse, including passive-aggressive jabs disguised as teasing, genuine indifference hidden beneath the appearance of normalcy, and coercive control exerted just below the level of consciousness. My girls and I learned to ignore the undercurrent of fear and anxiety that always buzzed in our home. The man of the house was like a dying fluorescent lightbulb, threatening to either explode and electrocute or quit entirely, all between moments of brightness.
At some point I stopped waiting, stopped believing my family’s pain would be alleviated by my sacrifices alone, and stopped trying to fix someone who did not want to change. But when I left, my teen daughters stayed, with my oldest morphing into her father’s staunchest defender. On the day I took my first steps toward healing, she stepped into the shoes I abandoned, willing to invest what was left of her self-esteem in sacrifice for conditional love.
Soon after, the liminal time of Advent became Lenten for me. I sat in sadness, knowing that my adult children would resist celebrating Christmas with me. Instead of Joy to the World, I listened to Be Born in Me by Francesca Battistelli, on repeat. The melancholy violins and fulsome vocals about a virgin’s fear and vulnerability during maternal waiting synchronized with my soul’s strains of loss and longing. When I first heard the refrain “My heart is on its knees,” I fell to mine, both in anguish and understanding of the next line: “Holy is he, blessed am I….Make my heart a Bethlehem.”
I was no longer waiting for Christ, I realized. He was already present, filling the hole in my heart with a new motherhood. “What is uncertain is not the ‘coming’ of Christ,” Thomas Merton wrote in a reflection on Advent, “but our own reception of him, our own response to him, our own readiness and capacity to ‘go forth to meet him.’”
That is why every Advent I now go forth by going away, retreating alone to monasteries in silence and sacrifice.
This particular December 22, just before scurrying in the dark to the abbey church, I felt moved to mark the anniversary of my motherhood with a simple but sincere greeting to my first-born. As one “Happy Birthday” message love traveled at lightspeed to her sleeping phone hundreds of miles away, I hesitated, but decided to send another. With two thumbs, I typed “I will pray for you today.” Would she roll her eyes and join others in assuming this to be a pious, throw-away line? I wondered. But without time for regret, I hustled toward the bells and whisked passed the monastic porter as the last chime rang out. I genuflected in the simple sanctuary and offered my first supplication of the day. I prayed my daughter would know and accept how much she was loved.
Struggling to follow the rhythm and intonation of black-robed monks with my own morning voice, I couldn’t help but smile at the appropriateness of that day’s prayer: Psalm 84. Words of an Old Testament poet echoed an odd-couple of sentiments that were already singing in my soul on my mother’s day—love and lament. “The sparrow herself finds a home and the swallow a nest for her brood; she lays her young by your altars, Lord of hosts, my king and my God.”
Misguided by a distorted definition of love, for too long I endeavored to build—and repair—a comfortable nest for my brood. Eventually I had no choice but to accept the futility of shielding young adults from a danger they could not, or would not, recognize. My only option every Advent was placing their fate and future on the altar of their true Father. “Better one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere,” I intoned as the psalm concluded, as did others until it was time to return to my room.
After prayer, my steps toward the retreat house were slower, both intentional and sure, through the dark and towards the light. Just before going inside again, I checked the silenced cellphone stowed in a coat pocket. An alert glowed on the screen. I clicked. A three-word reply from my first-born pulsed with meaning in that moment. That Advent, one text was gift enough: “Thank you, Mommy.”
Image: Unsplash/Andrik Langfield