“The mountains shall yield peace for the people, and the hills justice.” Psalm 72
The three ghosts of Christmas past, present and future visited Scrooge in Charles Dickens short story “A Christmas Carol.” I read this story over again this year sitting before a wood fire at our home in Walton, N.Y. while snow fell gently outside. By the end of the day, I had finished the story and we had a foot of snow. Perhaps, I thought, this would be a good time for me to slow down and open my heart to welcome such spirits into my own life.
“Albert Schweitzer recorded Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor on December 18th, 1935, at the Church of All Hallow by the Tower in London.” I read this line on the first page of the first chapter in a book called “Reinventing Bach” by Paul Elie, which I had just gotten from our local library for Christmas reading. Suddenly the ghost of Christmas past was sitting right next to me. The vision he brought me was Christmas morning at the Jesuit novitiate at Wernersville, PA, December 25th 1961. The novitiate building is situated on a knoll surrounded by rolling hills. That morning snow blanketed the scene. My fellow Jesuit novice, Jerry Huyett, was playing the house organ and echoes of the Bach Toccata in D reverberated through the chapel and the corridors of this huge seminary building calling us to join in the liturgical celebration of Christmas.
The image faded and the spirit left, but the memory remained. I shared this memory via e-mail listserv with fellow former and present Jesuits who had entered the Jesuit novitiate in 1961. They also shared other memories that helped us all recapture some of the passion, joy and yes, the loneliness we experienced at that time. Some forty four young men from that class had begun an Ignatian journey and struggled to find the presence of God in their lives and how their gifts could help meet the needs of the world.
This type of challenge continues often in new forms today. Over the last fifty years, organizations such as the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, the Ignatian Volunteer Corps and the Jesuit Refugee Service have offered challenging opportunities for individuals to deepen their experience of God through service for some of the most vulnerable in our society. It is not a solitary journey either. Companions appear when they are most needed.
A few guests came to Walton this year to help us celebrate the Christmas season. They needed a respite from their various volunteer commitments, including IVC. One of our visitors jointed me snowshoeing on a hill not too far from our house. We climbed this hill following deer tracks, pausing on occasion to listen to the silence and stare as the sunlight flooding the trees, casting long shadows as the afternoon lengthened. The next day was also sunny and this same friend helped me pile wood to feed our wood stove’s hunger. We then sat on the porch in old wicker chairs silently watching the sunset, the exertion of the exercise keeping us cozily warm.
In the evening I picked up an article by Walter Burghardt, S.J., called “Contemplation: A Long Loving Look at the Real” (in An Ignatian Spirituality Reader, George Traub, S.J., editor). Suddenly a long bony finger reached over my shoulder and traced a sentence in this article: “People, trees, lakes, mountains. You can study things, but unless you enter into intuitive communion with them, you can only know about them, you don’t know them.” The spirit of Christmas present had just visited me. It seems to me that all real change starts with these types of contemplative experiences.
My wife and I along with my sister celebrated Christmas Day at my brother’s house with his children and seven grandchildren ages eight and under. Lots of fun. At one point, I noticed a picture on a shelf of my Aunt Helen and my father playing music together, fiddle and piano. They had passed on many years ago.
You can imagine my surprise then when my Aunt Helen started speaking to me. I thought this only happened in Harry Potter movies. I won’t recount our long productive conversation but she said one thing that meant a lot to me. She pointed to all the little children and said her job now was to help look after them in the future. The loving support my sister, my brother and I had received from her and other of our relatives was alive and well and reaching into the next generations. My Aunt Helen this year was my spirit of the future.
My hope is that all of you will have such spirit visits this year during the long winter months to support and encourage you in your life’s work and journeys.
Jim Haggerty and his wife live in Walton, a small N.Y. rural town in the foothills of the Catskills. They are both retired. Jim is a former Jesuit who spent several years in the Society in studies and active in various apostolic works. He taught in a Jesuit high school and in a higher achievement program for children from the inner city, worked in prison ministry, and at Nativity Mission Center in New York City. After leaving the Society, Jim worked for the thirty years with Catholic Migration and Refugee Services, United States Catholic Conference and Catholic Legal Immigration Network, CLINIC in various positions. During this time he obtained a law degree. Before retiring he was director of special projects working on a national effort to assist immigrants and asylum seekers in detention centers across the country. In this effort he helped develop a partnership with the Society of Jesus to create law fellowships in Jesuit and Catholic law schools. Jim and his wife were also “support people” for Jesuit volunteer communities in N.Y.C. for several years. After retirement Jim served on the Board of the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) and more recently he serves on the Board of the Ignatian Volunteer Corps. (IVC) Jim and his wife are active in their local town. Some of Jim’s favorite community efforts are playing traditional Irish music in a weekly session and helping run a monthly “coffee house.” The “session” raises money for a soup kitchen. The monthly coffee house brings free music to Walton.