Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Keeping the Peace This Christmas: Overcoming Holiday Temptations with St. Jerome

Mothers are rightly known as being the heart of the family. As a deeply introverted melancholic with frequent temptations to anger and despair, however, my God-given place within my family seems ill-advised at best. Nevertheless it’s up to me to make sure that the Christmas spirit is burning brightly in my home this holiday season—God help us all.

My dad used to say that if the mother isn’t happy, no one’s happy, and I think he’s right. I know all-too-well how quickly my bad mood can affect my husband, my children, and a whole room of relatives if I’m not careful. Even if I don’t say what’s on my mind, my foul mood is usually written all over my face, and I feel peace and joy seep away from me and those around me who can’t help but notice my body language.

So just what is it that can blacken my mood, make me totally forget about the beauty of the day of celebration over the birth of Our Lord and Savior faster than stuffing can burn to the bottom of the pan? Burnt stuffing, anxiety over an unexpected guest and a dirty bathroom, different parenting styles, my own overstimulated, out-of-sorts children, jokes given or received in the wrong spirit, a snide comment made by myself or others, and plain old jealousy over a sister’s many recent accomplishments can all quickly stoke the fires of pride, envy, anger, and despair in me, hollowing me out from the inside even as I try to do my best to be festive. If I could see myself I know that I would look a little like someone had stuck a knife in my back on the way to the buffet. And if the offending thoughts have been entertained long enough, it’ll take me weeks after the event to sort out the garbage of my thoughts to figure out where I went wrong and why.

So, what to do about the myriad offending thoughts that are sure to come this holiday season as we’re reunited with family and friends? I think we would do well to look to St. Jerome, a master of self-mastery, for help.

In a letter he wrote to his friend Eustochium many years after the experience, St. Jerome details the kind of intense temptation that he faced during a voluntary stay in the desert—a challenge that he’d pursued in order to better submit his faculties to Christ—and how he ultimately overcame the temptation:

In the remotest part of a wild and stony desert burnt up with the heat of the sun, so scorching that it frightens even the monks who live there, I seemed to myself to be in the midst of the delights and crowds of Rome.... In this exile and prison to which through fear of Hell I had voluntarily condemned myself, with no other company but scorpions and wild beasts, I many times imagined myself watching the dancing of Roman maidens as if I had been in the midst of them. My face was pallid with fasting, yet my will felt the assaults of desire. In my cold body and my parched flesh, which seemed dead before its death, passion was still able to live. Alone with the enemy, I threw myself in spirit at the feet of Jesus, watering them with my tears, and tamed my flesh by fasting whole weeks.

So what would this look like at Christmas dinner? Let’s imagine that your cousin Julie, a staunch supporter of the opposing political party, makes a snarky comment while in the buffet line. The familiar surge of anger begins to swirl within. What do you do?

First, call a spade a spade. That irresistible urge to retaliate? Could it really be the voice of God encouraging you to put your cousin in her place once and for all? No. It’s just a big temptation.

Second, now that you’ve labeled that urge, what do you do with it? As you watch your cousin reach for the mashed potatoes and all kinds of devastating condemnations swirl in your mind, you grab St. Jerome by his tunic and beg him to pray with you to Our Lord to help you hold your tongue. You say a genuine prayer for your cousin, too, and not just that she come to her senses and change political parties.

It’ll be intense, that’s undeniable. But it is our duty as Christians, especially as moms, to be the sowers of peace, especially during this season. We are tasked with being the heart of our families and it’s our job to remain focused on making sure that everyone under our care feels God’s love. So let’s stay united in the good fight, in the struggle to keep our thoughts holy and pure, so that we might enjoy over our New Year’s coffee the fruits of our labor, most notably the peace of God’s love in our homes, and also a holy pride. Because while St. Jerome might’ve fasted for weeks in the desert, even he didn’t host Christmas dinner.

“From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and men of violence take it by force.” Mt. 11:12