December has always been one of my favourite times of the year! The yellow leaves giving way to the first snowflakes, the bright lights illuminating the streets, the mugs of hot chocolate warming up my cold hands - all help to create an atmosphere of recollection and profound joy.
But there is something about this month that truly scares me: how can days be so short? Where does the sun go after 3pm?
When I was younger and liked to party, I could spend a whole December weekend without seeing the light of the day. It does sound quite fun, but it is also frightening. In the darkness I feel vulnerable, frail and exposed to the worst thoughts and threats.
‘Advent helps us look into the darkness’.
These were the words of Hilde Kieboom, Vice-President of Sant’Egidio, who visited our Community in London on 10th December 2023, 2nd Sunday of Advent. At a time struck by violence, war and division, when darkness seems even darker, Hilde accompanied our reflection in understanding how to build and nourish hope through uniting our community in prayer, building peace and sharing our lives with the poor.
Praying for peace
The war in Ukraine has shaken our hearts and minds for almost two years now. Images of families fleeing death and destruction in the easternmost regions, or of women, children and elderly people trying to survive without water and electricity under the bombings in the bigger cities, keep on appearing in the news and do not seem to be stopping.
But even in a land of despair, glimpses of hope can appear.
During the whole duration of the conflict, the Communities of Sant’Egidio in Ukraine have continued meeting to pray for peace. These meetings strengthened courage among the communities’ members and this courage led to action: thanks to the network of solidarity built by our friends in Ukraine, Sant’Egidio was able to open four humanitarian aid centres in Lviv, Ivano-Frankivsk and Kiev and distribute friendship and comfort to those in need.
This incredible story teaches us never to give up, never to stop believing that peace is possible. As Sant’Egidio founder Andrea Ricciardi reminded us this year at the International Meeting for Peace in Berlin ‘In this difficult situation, we need audacity, which leads us beyond the wall of the impossible’. The bloody conflict in Gaza as well as the protracted tensions in the Sahel show the need for a stronger and united message of peace, a message which does not look at the victory of one side over the other, but which conveys a dream of common good for all people.
‘Don’t resign, keep the possibility of peace alive, and pray for peace’ - these are the ingredients Hilde encouraged us to use in our recipe to become real peace makers.
Living in solidarity
Faced with these horrible conflicts, sometimes I have the feeling of being powerless. What could I actually do to stop such atrocities from happening? This feeling of powerlessness has been preventing me from taking action. Who am I to tackle such systemic injustices? - I often thought. Well, I suppose the question was ill-posed: it is not about changing the world here - very few people have actually managed to do it, and not always with positive consequences - but rather about how we change ourselves and our lives to make a difference.
Being part of the Community of Sant’Egidio in London made me understand that we can all be bearers of peace, starting from our homes, our streets and our communities. Every week we meet in Central London to prepare and bring food to our friends living in the streets. Now it is cold outside, but the smiles and the little words of gratitude we receive in return are more than enough to keep our hearts warm. As Hilde reminded us, it is important that ‘we all, together, become transformed in a life of solidarity and love’. By helping the others, we keep them (and ourselves) alive and we find a way to nourish our common hopes.
Building a way together
Thus, we do not need to look far to find those who need our help the most. Sometimes, one of the greatest illnesses of our time - loneliness - can affect members of our families or closest friendship circles. I have heard elderly people saying they feel they are ‘dying from being alone’, while the youngest ones seem to be trapped in an intricate labyrinth from which they cannot find an easy exit. It is in their eyes, in their desperate and silent shout for help that we find the greater expectations of people who can still dream despite all the difficulties. These expectations give us and our communities the necessary strength to build a way - not a labyrinth - together.
Christmas is often the time where loneliness is felt the most. This is why, every Christmas, we host a dinner in St. Cuthbert’s Church in Earl's Court, providing home-cooked meals, gifts, and friendly company to over 100 homeless, older and poor people who come through our doors. We do this because we truly believe that ‘there is more joy in giving than in receiving’ (Acts 20:35).
So help us build a way together this Christmas, a way in which unconditional help takes the place of conflict and division and the expectations and hopes of those struggling the most become the light that can help us see through the darkness.