I have always loved St. Teresa of Avila, especially because she had a quick wit and was nobody’s fool. She was a mystic who possessed an array of spiritual gifts, yet was still a practical, down-to-earth woman who led the Discalced Carmelites for many years. In the 16th century women were not allowed much influence and yet Teresa obtained land and built multiple convents as she reformed the Carmelites from a lax lifestyle to one which was far more rigorous and true to the original intent of their founders. She skillfully governed the order, taught her sisters about prayer through her many writings, and simultaneously expanded the Carmelites all over Spain. One of my favorite vignettes from her life concerns a feast at the conclusion of a penitential season, which at that time meant fasting from all meat.* A gift of partridges had been offered for their holiday feast and St. Teresa accepted them gratefully. During the meal a visitor observed the expensive partridges being served and chided her for such behavior given the Carmelites commitment to simple living. In true Teresa fashion she quipped, “When we fast, we fast. When we eat partridge, we eat partridge!” As humorous as this scene was, she had in fact responded with great wisdom, implying that we should give our full focus to what is at hand in the present, attending to both the toil of work and the joy of celebration whole-heartedly. When we fast, we do not long for celebration or we will miss the gifts that are to be found in the midst of our efforts, and when we celebrate we are not to ‘feel guilty’ about it lest we lose the joy that we are meant to have; rather, we do both with gusto.
As we prepare for the upcoming holiday season let us be attentive to the gift of each day and beware of getting sucked into all the commercialism which can become burdensome. The spirit of festivity, creativity, family, friends, and neighbors is indeed a good thing, but it is important to keep our holidays in the perspective and order in which they come. It seems more and more like Thanksgiving is relegated to the status of a mere stepping stone, accentuating a huge meal and the shopping frenzy to follow. And worse, there is no thought or mention of Advent at all: the focus goes straight to Christmas, emphasizing the material and not the spiritual. Perhaps this is because gratitude and the Advent virtue of waiting patiently are not as highly prized in our society as they should be. Festivity is always attractive, but it has much deeper meaning and brings far greater joy when it is infused with gratitude and when each moment is slowly savored. That means that we must be attentive to each day, recognizing our call to keep things in perspective, not omitting the end of one season for the sake of the one to come. We can ‘eat partridge,’ but not without first placing our gratitude before the Lord and patiently toiling in preparation until the time is nigh for feasting. And remember, while the Thanksgiving holiday is not a liturgical celebration, giving thanks is at the heart of our Christian spirituality: our entire liturgy is imbued with giving thanks to God for His redeeming Love.
There is no reason that we should enter into the holiday season without enjoying the process. If decorating with gusto is fun, do it! If you enjoy lots of lights, gatherings, and cooking up a storm; if gift-giving with all the preparing, wrapping, and exchanging makes you and everyone around you happy, by all means do it. However, our preparation should not outweigh the feast for which we are getting ready: there must be a balance between our merrymaking and the richness of Advent followed by Christmas. The Scriptures for Mass in these last weeks of the liturgical year shed light on the importance of preparation, as does a passage near the end of Matthew’s gospel. In it, Jesus said that generously serving others is how we must make our preparation for His return. He told a parable of virgins preparing for the groom’s arrival to his wedding, a joyous occasion that included a banquet, but only the wise, prepared ones were given entry. A few verses later Jesus made it clear what we must do when He concluded “What you do for the least of your brothers and sisters, you do for me.” (Matthew 25) Therefore, if we keep Jesus central as we enjoy the season, remembering both the family and friends we have and the least among us, (that is, the poor, lonely, ill, or stranger), then we are celebrating the season exactly as it is intended.
The holiday season should be a time of joy and making merry, something especially needed during these times in which things seem out of kilter. Preparing, feasting, and sharing the ‘partridge’ we have been given is something we should enjoy, made all the more rich when done with gratitude and a spirit of love, rather than as obligatory or burdensome.** To keep everything in perspective, it would be good to pray with Matthew 25 or with the Scripture for the liturgy of each day, incorporating whatever stands out into our efforts to prepare. No matter how we handle our tasks, no matter what we have or do not have, or what we can or cannot do, we can offer each day of our preparation and celebration to the Lord so that He remains in the center of everything.
May we ask the intercession of St. Teresa of Avila to inspire us in keeping balance and perspective! May we take the time of preparation to wait upon the Lord, listening for His presence in our prayer! And may we give thanks, accepting the ‘gift of partridge’ given by the Lord, enjoying it with gusto! Let us meet around the banquet table of the Lord! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
* Until relatively recently, Advent and Lent were both penitential seasons. Thus, fasting and abstinence were undertaken in preparation for Christmas and not just before Easter. This is why in an Italian household like the one in which I grew up, we always ate seafood on Christmas Eve. It was symbolic of the fasting before Christmas festivities. Many strict religious orders like the Discalced Carmelites fasted from meat every day of the entire penitential season, and so on Christmas and Easter it was not uncommon to have meat.
** St. Teresa was most practical when teaching her Sisters to pray, saying that they should strive for contemplation, but that if this was not something they could do, rather than being discouraged, they should pray in whatever way brought them close to God. She said, “Pray as you can, not as you can’t.” Therefore, I think she would agree with a paraphrase of that when it comes to our holiday preparation; we should ‘do what we can, not what we can’t’… and enjoy it all without any worry or regret.
1. Icon, St. Teresa of Avila by Fr. William Hart McNichols. You can purchase this icon in one of a variety of mediums at https://fineartamerica.com/featured/st-teresa-of-avila-177-william-hart-mcnichols.html
2. Print of a painting, Cornucopia.
3. Russian icon of The Wise Virgins and the Wedding Banquet from Matthew 25.
4. My photo of antipasto taken during the first course of a meal we had while at an "agriturismo" farmhouse near Noto, Sicily, Italy. (Talk about a feast: there were four equally generous courses after this one, too!)
5. Clip Art print, Partridge in a Pear Tree. I could not resist.
Note: In compliance with GDPR rules, I wish to make it clear that I do not gather any information on any of my readers at any time.
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