Many of us, when charting the timeline of our lives, can point to a moment when a story or poem happened. It happened the way an accident or a record-breaking snowfall happened: it was perhaps expected, perhaps not. One moment we were performing the usual routine—pouring cereal, say, or opening the mail—and the next moment we sat motionless with a book in our hands, eyes unfocused, a wave of words washing over us as relentlessly as a newsreel. When we look back and narrate our life, we will remember precisely where we were sitting, what we were wearing, the way the eaves dripped in the fog. Ever after, when we hear dripping eaves, we will remember. The story, the poem, will come back to us like the voice of long-dead grandfather, sharply, as if there has been no time or distance in between. It doesn’t matter who wrote it, or why. What matters is that it changed us.
That is the gift of great literature, a gift that comes to us even at Christmas when so much good art is effortlessly shoved aside in favor of the flashy, the cheap, the temporal. Finding the timeless literature of novelists and poets such as Christiana Rossetti, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Kathleen Norris, Oscar Hijuelos, and Li-Young Lee—people of faith whose works you may never see in a “Christian” bookstore—is like lighting one candle after another. Flame upon flame, light upon light, until the hallowed sanctuary of our quiet devotion becomes something of a shrine.
Winter in the Northern Hemisphere is particularly suited for such encounters and likewise suited to prayer and reflection. We find ourselves more and more indoors, ever in shadow, our bodies slowing to the rhythm of the sleeping woodlands. Silence is not hard to find. And yet crashing into the midwinter quiet comes the most frantic event of the cultural year. Perhaps it is our fear of stillness, of quiet, that drives us to anything but the “silent night” of Christmas: we do not want to know what we might discover in reflection. More likely, it is a consumer economy that thrives on a relentless pace: slow and contemplative people are not shopping people; silence does not sell.
So, the one time of year that we are given to pause and seek the One who seeks us becomes the one time of year that drives us nearly to self-extinction. And, it is this season, of any, when we are least likely to pick up a book and read. Who has time for that? But it is a Word that has come to us, and words that tell the story of that Word from generation to generation. We risk, in our time, losing the words that truly have meaning, the stories and works of substance. What has been said before is said again, in ever more sentimental or sensational fashion—and set to pop music besides, which over time makes us immune.
As I write early on this December morning, snow lies deep in my garden. Night retreats westward; stars slowly start to fade. Two small boys sleep across the hall, resting in the grace-filled inertia of the very young. Many, many things must be done today, not only to sustain a household but also to navigate the cultural expectations surrounding the coming holidays. But I will choose—if you do—to sit. I will choose to breathe in the words of others. Here in the dark, I will seek points of light that cannot be extinguished, no matter how frenetic the world.
Excerpted and adapted from Light Upon Light: A Literary Guide to Prayer for Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany (Paraclete Press, 2014), by Sarah Arthur.