Dear Peregrinus (4:30 PM, Tuesday in the Fourth Week of Advent):
Good to hear from you. I had not expected that I would because Christmas is now so close, and, to be honest, I myself did not think that I would be able to write back to you because of many commitments before me to meet between now and Christmas.
However, I remind myself that for me to pause, to let go of other concerns, and to bring my whole attention towards you, is my way of praying for you, by keeping you during this time of writing at the center of my prayerful awareness.
Every year in Advent people talk to me about the complexity they feel building in them as they – each in his or her own way – prepare to be with their family (and families) during the holidays. And though the “complexity” to which I am referring has its source in the personalities of particular people in each family, I find myself thinking about a complexity whose source is in us who have expectations about what our family should be like.
What exactly is an “expectation”? The English word is constructed from Latin: the preposition ex– meaning “out of” and the verb spectare meaning “to look at.” However, that preposition ex– when used to make a compound word in Latin may mean that one is supposed to take the meaning of the verb – in this case “to look at” – and intensify it: in this case, “to look at something with comprehensive attention, or intently.” When one fixates on an object to this extent, one may make himself or herself unable to pay attention to anything else.
I believe that an “expectation” is formed in us when we in our imagination fix on an image of what a “good” Christmas is supposed to look like – think of the beguiling sweetness of a Norman Rockwell painting. We desire that image to become real outside of our imagination to such a degree – “looking at it intently” – that a person may completely miss the actual graces appearing in his or her actual family this year. I think of that wise word of Fr. Anthony de Mello, SJ: “You see persons and things not as they are, but as you are.”
We have become wiser when we have learned how to discipline cherished expectations that we have of our family at Christmas by, instead, contemplating the family we have, and who are gathered this year at Christmas.
When we contemplate, we forget ourselves, and our expectations, and we abide in the other as other. As a Carmelite monk once wrote, to contemplate means to exercise “a long, loving look at the real.” The Oxford Dictionary defines the verb “to contemplate” as “to look at with continued attention, to gaze upon, to view, to observe.” Or again, Fr. Anthony de Mello, SJ: “the greatest learning of the ages lies in accepting life exactly as it comes to us.”
In short, our expectations, on the one hand, look at ideal people and circumstances – what we wish were the case with them or those – and so we end up tolerating the people that we are commanded to learn how to love. Our contemplation, on the other hand, beholds actual people and circumstances and accepts them because they are real, and in actually perceiving them, each and all, we gain the means to love them actually.
John 13:35 – Now I am giving you a new command—love one another. Just as I have loved you, so you must love one another. This is how all men will know that you are my disciples, because you have such love for one another.”
To put this in another way, a person who cannot let go of his or her expectations of others is left with only the capacity to respect them, while a person with a capacity to contemplate people as they are can go far beyond merely respecting others to loving them. I think of that line from Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, “Respect was invented to cover the empty place where love should be.” Exactly.
The evening has grown upon the afternoon, and I am now due back to my Jesuit Community for Mass and then social time and then dinner. It is our pre-Christmas celebration tonight before all of us head away from the Community for our own Christmas adventures. And so I leave you for now.
Merry Christmas to you, old friend. Please pray for me.
Your good friend in Christ,
 J.B. Phillips New Testament (PHILLIPS) – The New Testament in Modern English by J.B Philips copyright © 1960, 1972 J. B. Phillips. Administered by The Archbishops’ Council of the Church of England. Used by Permission.