At this time last year, I had just arrived in India. I vividly remember the first breakfast I had after waking up in a small guesthouse in Chennai (Swami Saradananda had ordered breakfast for me the night before, pretty sure that I'd be awake early): pongol and chai spiced coffee. It was so sweet and delicious, the smells and flavors of cardamom and black pepper in the morning was new, exotic, and instantly captivated me. I was thrilled to be starting my small adventure of spiritual exploration and cultural immersion; far away from busy sidewalks dressed in holiday style - at least the holiday style to which I'd always been accustomed.
Last Christmas eve I visited St. Thomas Basilica, a cathedral that is built over the site where St. Thomas is believed to be interred. For me the holiday was quiet, reflective, personal - all very different from the Christmases I'd spent before. More than a small part of me is wishing I could be having a similar experience this year.
This Christmas eve I'll be going into a locked detox ward of a hospital. I'm going in there to hopefully share a message of hope and recovery with some folks who are probably going to be feeling pretty lousy having to spend their Christmas in a place like that - a lucky few might realize the auspicious gift they've been given, but the majority will most probably be sad, resentful, frustrated, even indignant. I'm looking forward to it; it's the part of my holiday plans this year where I can most easily focus on the spirit of giving and the brotherhood of man. The other stuff, the family stuff, is always more difficult for me - and I'll be doing some of that a few days after Christmas.
In previous years I always brought a big bundle of fabulous gifts; all sparkly and well thought out, hoping to impress with the most well-suited and best gifts - I didn't have to necessarily do anything - I could let the gifts speak for me. I didn't have the luxury of doing that this year. This year, the challenge for me will be to try and bring the same spirit of love, service, and open-mindedness to my often deranged family as to the sick and suffering people in the locked ward. Practicing the principles of honesty, faith, tolerance, patience, love, humility, and forgiveness is easier in theory than it is in practice. Even if I'm willing enough to try, I'll be doing better than I have before. If I can add to those principles a glimpse of the quiet, reflective, and personal Christmas experience I had last year in India, then maybe I can even be a demonstration of good will.