The Red Bottle of Perfume: A Christmas Story

On Christmas day 1990 my mother was released from the hospital. Not because she was healed, but because there was nothing left to do. Her long battle against cancer had been fought. She was dying.

That day was the last full one we had with her – on December 26, she said her final goodbyes and allowed herself to lapse into a coma. Her body kept itself going for 11 more days, but she was no longer with us. On January 6 – the Feast of the Epiphany – shortly after our family had returned from Mass, she quietly passed away.

There is a picture from that last Christmas we had with her. It’s one that I can hardly bear to look at because it always makes me cry.  Partly because of how sick she looks in it – and she was so sick – but also because in this picture, she is holding a bright red bottle of cheap drugstore perfume. It was my present to her that year.

I still remember buying it from the drugstore down the road from my house. I picked it because I liked how shiny the bottle was; it had smoothly curved lines and looked, to an 11-year-old, very sophisticated.

On some level, I must have known it was the last gift I would ever give my mother. It was clear that she was ill beyond the point recovery. But I don’t remember ever thinking that way. In my mind, I was buying her a Christmas gift that she would get the chance to use.

In a sense, this is one of the most heart-breaking memories of my life, thinking about how incapable I was of understanding the fact that she was dying. It is painful to relive the disbelief – shock, almost– that you feel in the moment of the death of a loved one. It seems like death, even when you have watched it slowly approach, is rarely easy to accept. Certainly, at 11 going on 12, I couldn’t accept it. I held on to hope all the way through to the very last moment.


On the other hand, what a miracle. What a miracle that spark of hope was.

This ability to hang on to hope, to grasp tightly to our chests the belief that all will be well, through even the most hopeless of situations is one of the best aspects of our humanity.

It’s also part of what makes the celebration of Christmas so enduring, and so endearing. The human spirit gravitates toward hope, and hope is what was born on what we remember as Christmas night.

In our modern Christian dialogue, we refer to Christmas as the birth of a Savior. But that isn’t what we see in the nativity as we know it. In our nativity story, a baby is born in the lowliest of circumstances to a homeless couple with no political, economic, or social standing. This baby has come to us through miraculous means, but he enters the world as powerless as a person can possibly be.

And yet, in this baby, a latent potential is already recognized. In him, the stories tell us, the hope of a nation rests. In him, the prospect of salvation lives.


Hope is the essence of our Christmas story. It is what allows us to believe that in a helpless

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The One Thing I Can Say

If you are currently alive with at least a moderate amount of functioning brain cells and you have access to media of any kind, you are aware that there is a lot of injustice in our world.

There is injustice in Syria and in Iraq and in the Holy Land. There is injustice in every community where people live without food or shelter and in every city where violence rules the streets. There is injustice in our work places and in our schools an in our homes. There is injustice in our justice system.

There is injustice everywhere, all the time. But I think we go through cycles when the injustice is quiet, there but unobtrusive, demanding our attention only periodically. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that we go through phases of contentment with our world, when we are able to believe that, on balance, there is more justice than injustice. To be honest, I don’t think we could survive any other way.

But then something, some instance of injustice impossible to explain away, bursts through our complacency, and the injustice that is always there suddenly dominates the landscape.

That’s where we are right now. Or at least, that is where I am right now. Because I can’t seem to stop thinking about how unjust our society is.

I’ve been reading a lot of articles and blog posts about what is happening in our own country, on a street in Missouri, on a sidewalk in New York, in a park in Ohio – in every part of our country where people’s rights seem to be determined more by the color of their skin than by their inherent humanity. I have been reading about racism and about poverty and crime. I’ve read facts and opinions, transcripts and OpEds. And I’ve read the comments. (I should never read the comments.)

Every time I read something I get angry and upset. In fact, I get overwhelmed. And I feel like I need to write about what I am thinking, because there are so many thoughts racing through my mind and writing has always helped me to make sense of things that seem incomprehensible.

But when I try to write my thoughts out, I can’t. There just isn’t enough of me left at the end of the day to deal with the magnitude of what is happening in our country and everywhere else in the world. I feel so small, so inadequate in the face of our problems. So I walk away from my computer in frustration, with nothing to say.

But I need to write something. I can’t stay silent. If the magnitude of injustice is so great that it leaves me feeling like I don’t have the words to talk about it, then it is far too great for me to bury in the silence of my heart.

* * *

So I will say one thing, the only thing I feel like I can say: that we, individually and as a society, need to find our compassion.

We need to remind ourselves that there is dignity inherent to all human life. And we need to remember that our own dignity — and the dignity of those who are like us — never trumps the dignity of anyone else. Not ever.

Above all, we need to care. The intrinsic worth of people who are different from us has to matter.

A wise man once asked his followers to love strangers as well as their neighbors, and to love their neighbors as well as they loved themselves. In America today, this advice is worth taking.

* * *


Questions of Faith

Book2Last night, a neighbor of mine invited me to her house to participate in a group discussion led by author and activist Kelly Bean on her new book, “How to Be a Christian without Going to Church: The Unofficial Guide to Alternative Forms of Christian Community.”

Going into the event, I had no idea what to expect. I hadn’t read the book, and I was unsure of what I could contribute to the conversation.  But I was intrigued, because my neighbor happens to be a Christian pastor and the fact that she was hosting a discussion on a book that seemed, essentially, to serve as a guide for people who wish to leave the church without losing their faith excited my curiosity.

Also, the title of the book suggested an experiment in faith with results that were very different from my own personal experience. As I have said before on this blog, I am Catholic to my backbone. My Catholic identity is rooted in the deepest core of my soul, and I know this to be true because there were times in my life when I was disappointed enough in the Church that I tried tear it out of me. But as I explored other faith communities — and even tried for a time to live my faith without any institutional connections — I discovered that no matter what I did or where I went, I could not experience faith in any capacity without feeling the pull of its ties to my intrinsic Catholicism.

Kelly’s book is, essentially, the story of people who went through an experience similar to mine, but who ended up with a completely different spiritual result.

So I went to the gathering feeling curious and, as often happens when our minds are opened up to new thoughts, I came home feeling even more curious.  Because in discussing how people connect to a community of faith, our conversation touched on a topic that, I think, is of central importance to modern religion: the question of how we live our spirituality within the numerous layers of community that make up the fabric of our lives as individuals and, ultimately, as citizens of a broader world.

This is a question with many faces. Most basically, it asks people of faith, whether they are deeply connected to an established and structured religious organization or whether they are flying on their own wings, how they live their beliefs. Is our faith something internal, which provides us with hope or inspiration but which isn’t a part of our outward lives? Is it a ritual, or a routine, that shapes how we spend our time more than the person we are? Is it something we share with others by simply participating mutually in liturgy, or is it something that enables us to form powerful spiritual bonds with others?

But this question also forces us to consider what our spiritual life means in the more extensive context of our existence in this world. On the simplest level, does our faith make us better people? Does it empower us to live gently, in service to others? And more esoterically, how does it affect the way that we participate as citizens of our larger non-faith communities? In a heterogeneous world, how do our beliefs affect those who don’t share them? How do we know when the expression of our faith hurts others, and where do we draw the line between living our faith and living in a group in which there are those who feel that their freedoms are curtailed by our beliefs?

This may come as a shock, but I don’t have the answers to any of these questions. Many of them weren’t even formed in my mind until last night, and there are many more brewing beneath the surface. But I think reading Kelly’s book is a good way to start thinking about what is at the heart of our faith, what inspires us to celebrate it, and how we can be more aware of the way our faith communities affect both the individuals who comprise them and the greater world around them.