Happy Contemplative Birthday to You
Today is my birthday. Yes, three days before Christmas. Happy contemplative birthday!
The winter solstice has had special meaning for me my entire life, shaping me since the day I was born. My birthday is the first day of winter, the day with the longest night of the year.
My perceptions and memories grow out of my own inner life more than they are the product of what happens to me.
I do not remember the day I was born. People have told me I was born early on the first morning of winter in Wisconsin, a month before the day I was due. I spent that month, including my first Christmas, in the hospital.
My experience of my birthday has been shaped by its nearness to Christmas. As my parents’ oldest child and only son, I recognize the significance of expectations. I would not say my life has been one long competition with Jesus, but there have certainly been those moments.
The story of my birthday is marked by the disheartening idea of “one present for both.” It is full of people busy with holiday parties or heading out of town and “maybe we can do something after the holidays.”
My birthday comes when our days are jam-packed with festivities. In the short period of just over a week we celebrate the winter solstice, Christmas, New Year’s Day, and my birthday.
Living into a contemplative birthday helps me build a more healthy relationship to it. I take time to remember and reflect, time for my birthday experiences, and my expectations, to fall into place.
Celebrating a contemplative birthday gives us an opportunity to listen and reflect on how our birthdays shape us. We learn how to release our expectations and appreciate the birthdays we actually have.
Celebrating a Contemplative Birthday
A contemplative birthday is more than time to remember the presents I have received or the cake eaten through the years. Those may be steps in a contemplative direction, but birthdays demand more.
Sitting still and reflecting, there are some birthdays I can remember and some I cannot. My earliest birthdays tend to blend together, unless it was the year a blizzard canceled a planned party.
My birthdays in college and graduate school tend to be more distinct, and more memorable. Day trips to particular places and dinners with friends. There was one year during law school when people flew in for a party.
The first birthday after law school my mother had a cake delivered to the courthouse. My colleagues in the district attorneys office decided to surprise me with those candles which refuse to be blown out. We came close to burning down the courthouse which had stood for almost a century.
My 30th birthday was a particularly challenging one. It was graduation day for my Master’s degree and I did not know what I would do next. I was 30 years old and had not yet been elected governor. That winter was long and gray.
Ten years later was one of the happiest birthdays I have ever had. I chose three couples who had been particularly good friends to me and took them all out to dinner.
Each birthday, whether I remember the details or not, fuels remembering and reflection. Celebrating a contemplative birthday includes taking time to appreciate how the years have helped us grow and learn. Each one can take us a step closer to our true selves.
The years stretch and challenge us in unexpected ways. It can be a struggle for us to continue taking one step after another.
We may struggle to remember this is just the beginning.
Holding Tight on a Contemplative Birthday
Some of us hold tightly onto the knot at the end of our rope, at the end of our hope. Our fingers are stiff and sore. Our arms shake from holding on so tightly for so long. Every fiber of who we believe we are is focused on not letting go.
We wait, seemingly beyond hope, for light in the darkness.
We are not be able to hold on much longer, even to save ourselves. There is only one thing remaining within our power. As the rope holding us safe begins slipping from our fingers, we pray.
Ours is not a prayer of fancy words or complicated ideas. We do not pray as we think we are supposed to, we pray as we need to pray. We pray beyond words, with whimpering, with screams. Our prayer gives voice to the fears terrorizing us, the pain putting us in agony. We pray as our hold fails and we feel ourselves falling.
As we pray and sob, and begin to fall, we start to glimpse light in the darkness.
Our prayer appears to light a candle in the darkness, but it is only part of the truth. We have been paying so much attention to holding on we have ignored the spiritual light within us. Have we been concentrating so much effort on the darkness we have ignored the light?
We begin to see light in new ways and realize we are not falling, but soaring.
Sharing My Contemplative Birthday
Thank you for sharing my contemplative birthday with me. Please join me in celebrating, remembering, and reflecting.
I hope you have opportunities to join me in contemplation today. Take some time to sit still, breathe deeply, and listen to stillness. Yes, it is a busy time of year. I know, but I did not choose my own birthday. Maybe we have more time during the long night than during the short daylight hours.
Today is a day lit by hundreds of candles, filled with many cakes, and celebrated in many parties. I enjoy a good party. Each day, whether it is my birthday or not, requires a little time for contemplation and stillness.
Every birthday reawakens our memories and our lessons from the years before.
When will we demonstrate our appreciation for a contemplative birthday today?
How will we share in celebrating my contemplative birthday?
[Image by jessica.diamond]
Greg Richardson is a spiritual director in Southern California. He is a recovering assistant district attorney and associate university professor, and is a lay Oblate with New Camaldoli Hermitage near Big Sur, California. Greg’s email address is StrategicMonk@gmail.com.