When people ask me if I’m a Buddhist, I usually shrug my shoulders and say I don’t know. I do some Buddhist sorts of practices and I’m currently working in a Tibetan Buddhist Centre, but most Buddhists wouldn’t recognize me as one of their own. Still, I don’t fit in very well anymore back in the places where I came from.
Growing up very Catholic, I was never a big fan of Christmas and the accompanying hoopla. Perhaps even less so in recent, shall we say less Catholic, years. So this year it was more than a little surprising that I was genuinely excited when it arrived. Perhaps that was because it actually arrived in the last week or so of December, instead of the last week of October. Whatever the reason, I set my sights on Midnight Mass at Westminster Cathedral, preceeded by an excellent, if not exactly traditional, Indian dinner out and my very first look around central London, with Jill.
Our walking tour turned into a bit of a photo adventure, the running joke(s) being that I’ve been in London for more than six weeks now and have not managed to see any of these famous places, and now it’s too dark to see anything!
We got to the Cathedral, which somehow escaped photography, two hours early and joined the trickle of people that was appearing out of a totally deserted business district. The place is cavernous, of course, the ceiling black and invisible, giving the impression that it didn’t exist at all. We seemed surrounded by four marble walls under a vast winter sky.
Flipping through the program for the evening, I was disappointed to find it so unfamiliar, full of latin verses and missing favorite carols. I thought to leave. Then I looked around at the gathering crowd that seemed all too familiar, so I thought again to leave. I didn’t didn’t want to be stuck for a couple of hours in another flat, narrow, boring Christmas rote only to be dumped back into the deserted business district hours after the trains and buses had stopped running. Westminster Abbey (Church of England) was just up the street, and a real temptation.
As luck would have it, the place filled up, time ran out, the mass began… and it turned out to be a simple, elegant and beautiful little celebration. An intimate gathering of perhaps 3000 of us? When the time came for the Cardinal to give his sermon, he came way down the aisle, into the crowd, and climbed up into a pulpit balcony. Everybody turned sideways in their seats to listen and the whole place suddenly felt like we’d all gathered ’round for a story.
“I want to wish you all a Happy Christmas,” he says. “Now you all know about Christmas,” he continued, “but I want to talk to you tonight about being happy.” He goes on to give a brilliantly clear little sermon on the importance of making peace and being happy in one’s own heart, then one’s home and family, so that it will trickle out and add in small but important ways to peace in the world. “My God, I marvel, we’ve got a Buddhist Cardinal here!”
The choir and Latin chanting were gorgeous in that accoustic heaven, and the whole thing turned out perfectly. On the way out, we got a 2005 Cathedral calendar which made good fodder as the photo adventure continued. It was a long but surprisingly warm walk home, keeping watch of course for Santa, in the cold, clear, long-past midnight sky…
For the record book now, on Christmas Day I cooked my first turkey for a dinner that turned out to be every bit as surprisingly good as the mass the night before, shared with here with friends. Still working on the leftovers, two days later.
The Tibetans revere Bodhisattvas, beings who come to this world to help others, and they celebrate abundance in Tsok rituals that overflow in light and food offerings. This year, the Buddhist view seems more familiar, the Christmas rituals more spacious, and peace and compassion more important, than ever. Happy Christmas to you!