Every Christmas, my thoughts turn to my friend Raymond Levesque. Along with our friends Dan, Jan, and Suzanne, Raymond and I have a long-standing conversation about “the gifts that are not under the tree.” This expression goes back to an article that appeared one December in New Covenant. While the magazine is no longer in print, during its run, New Covenant offered a fresh orthodox perspective on Catholic spirituality.
Struggling to Discover a Catholic Identity
Raymond and I first met through our local Latin Mass community. I was a teenager who had been catechized during the late seventies and early eighties. Thus in addition to the usual angst of adolescence, I was struggling to discover my identity as a Catholic.
Raymond was a high-school language teacher approaching retirement. He was also a founding member of the local Latin Mass community and an old salt within the Catholic charismatic renewal. The Holy Spirit had blessed him with an almost supernatural patience and he had a gift for working with teenaged boys who came from a difficult family background. In fact, he had taken several young men into his home throughout the years and straightened them up as best he could.
Because of the depth of Raymond’s experiences, our parish priest asked him to take me under his wing and help me discover the riches of Catholic faith. Raymond agreed to Father’s request. We subsequently spent countless evenings listening to Gregorian Chant and discussing the adventures of St. Francis of Assisi. Raymond opened my eyes to the Eastern Catholic Churches and the beauty of the Byzantine liturgy. He introduced me to Western monasticism and together we visited the Benedictine Monastery of St. Benoit du Lac so that I could experience my first silent retreat.
A Mutual Source of God’s Grace
What Raymond shared cannot be found under a Christmas tree. First he gave me the gift of Christian friendship. Second, he shared the gift of true zeal for the Catholic faith. Third, he showed me the virtues of Catholic manhood.
Let us begin with the gift of friendship. Acquaintances are common in today’s world, but friends are rare. Like most folks, I socialize with a great many people. Yet only a friend like Raymond shows genuine interest in my relationship with our Lord Jesus Christ.
Raymond taught me that friendship is a mutual source of God’s grace. Through our friendship we help each other come closer to our Lord. Eternity is a long time and the saints tell us that many souls will be lost to the fires of hell. As a true friend, Raymond wants me to spend eternity in our Lord’s presence. Thus he often inquires about my prayer life as well as other things affecting the state of my soul. Like St. Paul, Raymond encourages me when I remain steadfast in Christ and he admonishes me whenever I deviate from Church teaching. Thus Raymond’s concern for my spiritual well-being is the gift of a true friend.
Secondly, Raymond taught me true zeal for the Catholic faith. Prior to knowing Raymond, I found Catholicism both stuffy and boring. I knew what I was supposed to do as a Catholic, but I never understood the why. Raymond answered many of my questions about the Catholic faith. He explained to me each action performed during the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, how it came about, and why it was vital to our understanding of this Most Holy Sacrament.
Raymond evangelized and catechized with a warmth and enthusiasm that everyone around him found contagious. “God save us from sorrowful saints,” he often quoted from St. Theresa of Avila. He also encouraged me to evangelize others, so that they too would come to love the Catholic faith. Raymond’s zeal for the Catholic faith is another valuable gift one does not find under the tree.
Neither Barbarians or Effetes
Lastly, Raymond gave me the gift of Catholic manhood. In today’s emasculated culture, young men often find themselves divided into barbarians or effetes. The former find their maleness confusing, whereas the latter are ashamed by it. Such a state of affairs among young men of my generation is one of feminism’s most bitter fruits.
Raymond helped me to understand the meaning of Catholic manhood. More importantly, however, he taught me that it is OK to be a man. “We need to rediscover Christian manliness,” Raymond reminded me during a recent conversation. “A Catholic man is neither a macho animalistic bully nor an effeminate wimp. He uses his strength to assist orphans and widows. He has the courage to live by his convictions even when under fire. He does not seek conflict, but he does not shy away from it whenever it becomes necessary. Rather, he follows Christ to the Cross and is willing to lay down his life for the Truth.” Although one will never find it gift-wrapped under a tree, understanding Catholic manhood is one of the most valuable gifts one can offer a young man.
My wife and I will probably spend this Christmas with my folks. While visiting my hometown, I hope to meet up with Raymond. Of course we have purchased a small gift for one another like we do each Christmas. Nevertheless, it is the gifts not under the tree that I most look forward to exchanging. Therefore, as you gather with your loved ones to celebrate the birth of our Lord, I pray that you, too, may be blessed with the gifts not found under the tree.
It is urgent that we strive to re-Christianize holidays and popular customs. It is urgent to keep the public from being faced with the dilemma: either overpious or pagan.
Ask our Lord to provide laborers for this urgent work which could be called the "holiday apostolate.” (St. Josemaria Escriva, The Way, 975).
- Pete Vere is a canon lawyer and a Catholic author. He recently co-authored Surprised by Canon Law: 150 Questions Catholics Ask About Canon Law (Servant Books) with Michael Trueman and More Catholic Than the Pope (Our Sunday Visitor) with Patrick Madrid. He lives with his wife and two daughters in Sault Ste. Marie, Canada.
This article originally appeared in Challenge magazine and is used by permission of the author.