a time for every purpose under the sun.
A time to be born and a time to die;
a time to plant and a time to pluck up that which is planted;
a time to kill and a time to heal...
a time to weep and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn and a time to dance... Ecclesiastes 3:1-4
Christmas is the embodiment of pure joy for me. It has always been my favorite time of year, and I love every single tradition and custom that goes along with it, from Christmas caroling to Christmas cards and everything in between. No matter how old I am, I am still the first one awake to celebrate Christmas-even beating my young nieces to the Christmas tree-because I am so excited I can't sleep.
During my volunteer year, however, my Christmas was very different from the norm. I was volunteering in Lewiston, Maine, creating youth and parental education programs for Somali refugee families. My work was incredibly fulfilling, but I had never felt so alone. I worked long hours, so other than a few people from church, I didn't know any people outside of my work situation. My co-workers were busy with their own lives, and while I had and still have deep and meaningful bonds with the youth and parents I worked with, I was serving and supporting them and couldn't rely on them to do the same for me. For the first time in my life, I was a long plane flight away from everyone who truly cared about me, and sometimes I really, really needed them.
That year as an AmeriCorps volunteer, I didn't have the time off or the funds to pay for that plane ticket home for Christmas, so I stayed in Maine to spend my very first Christmas alone. My family sent me a large package full of gifts and holiday candy, but presents somehow didn't matter much without the people who mattered to me. I spent that Christmas day curled up on my bed crying and wishing I could be with people I love.
That Christmas was part of months of loneliness and sadness, and for me-perhaps because it was a day that traditionally means so much to me-it was the culmination of my complete and utter aloneness. At the time, I felt such frustration with God that he would allow me to feel so alone.
What I couldn't see then was that my lonely Christmas was part of a season of loneliness when God strengthened and shaped me. I am lucky enough to have a strong community of family and friends that I have always been able to count on, and while they were only a phone call away, my lack of a physical community taught me to create community with God. During that season of loneliness, I learned to rely on the Lord. I learned how to argue with God, yell, cry, praise, thank, and love him in a whole new way. I learned to trust the Lord through all circumstances-even through seasons of pain and sadness. In addition, that season of loneliness taught me to deeply appreciate my family, my friends, and the importance of community. And, perhaps most importantly, it taught me that the seasons of life are only seasons. The painful seasons and even the joyous seasons don't last, but the joy of a trusting relationship with God always does.
I now think that my season of loneliness was preparing me for what I would face in the future. After finishing AmeriCorps, I faced many painful trials that I never could have expected. During this time I felt God's presence stronger than I have ever felt before or since. This presence lasted for weeks throughout the worst chapter of my life, and it was so incredible that I often miss how close I felt to the Lord during that time. I honestly think that I wouldn't have known how to let the Lord support me through my pain without having learned to rely on him in my season of loneliness.
I didn't realize it at the time of course, but that season of loneliness-while not exactly gift-wrapped and underneath the Christmas tree-was the best gift I received that year. Unlike many gifts, which may break or get used up, this gift has only compounded itself into a deeper relationship with the Lord and a greater sense of who I am made to be.
Christmas has always been about community and joy for me, but during my year of service I learned that it is not only a time to honor the birth of Jesus but also a time to draw him close. What he most desires is a relationship with us, and I think that each and every human being desires the same relationship with God. Because of my gift of loneliness and all that it taught me, Christmas will not only be a time to celebrate Jesus but also a time to reflect on my relationship with him.
This year, for the first time since my season of loneliness in Maine, I will once again spend Christmas alone. I am having the adventure of a lifetime backpacking through Southeast Asia, so I don't even know where I will be for Christmas or who I might be with. What I do know is that no matter where I end up, God will be there with me, guiding me through any season I might be experiencing.
In 2010 Cassie DeFillipo served as an Americorps Vista volunteer in Lewiston, Maine, working at a low-income housing development with a large number of East African refugee residents. She graduated in 2012 with her Master's Degree from Clark University in International Development and Social Change. Cassie currently interns with Eureka Child Foundation, which empowers local local communities through projects in the fields of education, health, and livelihood.