Although Christmas and the New Year bring families and friends together – a celebration of joy and happiness – it can also be a time of high stress and anxiety. Brendan McManus SJ, author of Finding God in the Mess and Deeper into the Mess, offers ten tips for keeping balance and good mental health over the festive season, drawing on the wisdom of the founder of the Jesuits, St Ignatius of Loyola.
AN IGNATIAN GUIDE TO SURVIVING CHRISTMAS
Ignatius Loyola is often stereotyped as a gloomy ascetic whose strictness ruled out having any fun at all. People find it hard to believe the story about Ignatius breaking into a Basque jig in order to cheer up a sad Jesuit, or alternatively Ignatius promoting wellbeing, laughter, and cheerfulness. Ignatius would say live Christmas to the full, make it rich and meaningful, and let God’s light shine! Essentially practical as usual, this is the application of Ignatian wisdom to Christmas. Here, the advice is formulated in terms of 10 simple guidelines (Ignatian points in brackets): Have a happy and holy Christmas, recover the sense fo wonder and genuine joy at the heart of it!
- It’s all about Christ. This should be self-evident but unfortunately, it has been sidetracked such that Santa Claus is now the main (fictitious) character, or worse, Christmas is reduced to some sentimental feeling linked to having certain products, fuelled totally by advertising. Christ is God coming into our world and darkness in order that we might live in love and be light. (the incarnation is God becoming human in order that we might live transformed)
- It’s about a ‘gift that keeps on giving’, but its nothing to do with commercialism. We have been given a present of immeasurable worth, a line to heaven, and this requires seeing to the heart of things and being present. The ego gets in the way however, as selfishly, it thinks about acquiring things and building up superficial self-reliance and pride. Real joy, however, consists in being free of things and living our divine nature, God working through us to mend the world. (spiritual freedom is about letting go and letting God; it brings real, lasting joy)
- ‘Made in a mess’. The Christmas story is about a baby born in less than ideal circumstances, in a cowshed, amidst the straw and the mess. Therein lies our hope; God is present to the mess and clutter of our lives. It is miraculous and a thing of wonder, a ‘silent and holy night’. No matter who you are or what you’ve done, Christ is with you. (God is present in the experience and lived reality of our lives)
- The central image is light in the darkness. We need to be tuned to our own darkness and that of the world, in order to appreciate the wonder of light. It transforms everything and gives us new sight. Let’s stop pretending and do an honest stocktake of our light and shadows; real prayer will transform our lives with purpose and direction. There is always a new beginning and a new start offered, make sure you take it. (prayer is being real with God, transforming empty lives and making good choices)
- Keep yourself in balance. Christmas is often a fraught time with plenty of excess and tension, things can easily blow up or get out of control. It is just another day, however, and our job is to keep ourselves in good shape as much as possible, appreciating the gifts of family, friends, meals, drinks, movies, etc., but avoiding the downsides of these.
- Too much of a good thing is a bad thing. There is often a point where things start to go from good to bad, and we need to recognise these when they happen and take steps to keep our light shining. Knowing what you need to do or avoid to stay well and happy can be a great help; decide in advance. (keep yourself in balance before all the things of the world; use them insofar as they bring us to God/Light)
- Give people the benefit of the doubt. An important Ignatian principle is to put the best interpretation on people’s behaviour, works, and deeds. This can be particularly challenging at Christmas, a time of heightened emotion and drama, where tensions can erupt. Not jumping to conclusions or getting swept up in strong emotions can help alleviate many unnecessary dramas. (put the est interpretation on people’s intentions, actions, and words)
- Lower your expectations. Being clear about what you want or desire is key in Ignatian spirituality. Seeking after the wrong things, e.g. unlimited happiness or a blissful time free of problems is setting yourself up for failure. Instead, focus on others and how you might contribute, you will never go wrong with that. (God is present in our deepest desires, not the superficial ones)
- Think of those less well off. It’s a bit of a truism but Christmas is about helping others, giving from an open heart and getting out of your comfort zone. Join some of the many voluntary and charitable works to shift the focus outwards. Better still, think of someone that you need to be reconciled with, make an effort to include someone who is suffering or invite someone who has no-one. There is no shortage of people in need; real happiness is in giving away, not accumulating. (love shows itself more in deeds than in words; love consists of a mutual sharing of gifts)
- Christ has a message for you specifically. St Ignatius says that God is always trying to reach us, has a very specific message for us and is present in unexpected ways. What could God be saying to you this Christmas? What do you have to listen for? Where are the spaces in your life for prayer and reflection? What would it mean to listen, engage and live differently from love this Christmas? Make it real, just do it! (God communicates with each of us directly and individually)
- What is your life about? Christmas marks the ending of the year, the time of greatest darkness in the northern hemisphere. Take some time to look back over the last year. What are you grateful for, what do you regret, what forgiveness do you ask, how could you live the next year differently? (reflect back over your experience in order to make better future decisions)