This is Utah SHRM Legal-mail no. 2012-24 prepared for Salt Lake SHRM, the Human Resources Association of Central Utah (HRACU), the Northern Utah Human Resources Association (NUHRA), the Color Country Human Resources Association (CCHRA), the Bridgerland Society for Human Resource Management and Utah at-large members of the national Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM).
Hopefully at this time of the year, you will forgive me if I veer away from the usual employment law content and take a moment to reflect on something just a bit more profound...A MIDNIGHT CLEAR.
Forty years ago, give or take a year or two, my mother, sister and I found ourselves stuck in our car in a deep snowbank on the side of a mountain on a quiet and lonely road. A major snowstorm had just ended and the skies were as clear as a freshly-cleaned window. It was beautiful. It was treacherous. And it was nearing midnight.
We should never have been out on such a road on such a night, but I recollect it was Christmas Eve. Seems like it was anyway, but now that I am older the days and events of my youth seems to mush all up together. On Christmas Eve, we almost always went to Midnight Mass at Abbey of Our Lady of the Holy Trinity, a Trappist monastery just outside of Huntsville, Utah.
Mom had found hope and solace at the Monastery as she picked up the pieces of her life after a devastating event for a devout Irish Catholic girl- an unwanted and unpleasant divorce. I usually was along for the ride, but the monks had befriended me and let me do things boys like to do, such as drive a tractor, chase runaway calves (it took me forty minutes to corral the dang thing) and gather fresh eggs. So I kept going there too.
On the wintry night of four decades ago, we had felt compelled to try to attend Midnight Mass again despite the big storm. So we started the long drive from our apartment and up the narrow, two-lane road through Ogden Canyon towards Huntsville thinking, "How bad can it be?"
Forty years ago Huntsville was rural, and in the Winter, cold. Heck, I even remember some cold Summer mornings in Huntsville. In many ways it was the perfect place of solitude for the Trappists, who live a stern and spartan life. They are vegetarian, up at three a.m., and their days consist of long periods of silence, lots of hard work, and lots of contemplation and prayer about things bigger than you and me. One of the most famous of the Trappist monks, author Thomas Merton, once said, “Happiness is not a matter of intensity but of balance, order, rhythm and harmony.” Trappist liturgies have a simple beauty, especially at midnight on a snowy Christmas Eve.
But we were far from that order and harmony, stuck in a mountainside snowbank, overlooking a frozen and foreboding Pineview reservoir. In fact, had our car slid the other way, we'd possibly be in that icy lake.
I was not much help in this situation. A self-absorbed teenager, I was annoyed just to have to leave the warmth of our golden Ford Maverick to try to kick some snow away from the back of the car to see if we could get moving again. I probably berated my sister (who had been behind the wheel) with a not-so-helpful comment like, "what kind of driving was that?"
At about that same moment, two headlights appeared out of the darkness. They belonged to an old pickup truck, which in turn belonged to what I am sure was an old Huntsville rancher. A voice with a distinctly Western twang called out, "You gals need some help?" Self conscious (and male) teenager that I was, I hoped he was talking to my sister and mother and not to me.
Through the mist of the passing years, I recall that the rancher had a rugged face and wore weathered leather gloves. Of course, he had on a Cowboy hat. I do not remember his name or if he even told us that information. He obviously was much better prepared for this moment than we gals.
He quickly pulled two snow shovels from his truck and kindly said, "Your boy can help me." I was relieved to hear that gender recognition comment. We both shoveled away at the embankment of snow. His snow flew further and faster than mine, no doubt because I was in church shoes and he wore Western boots. He also put his back into the task. He got us out of the fix remarkably quickly.
My mother thanked him- and tried to pay him- for his help. He politely declined, wished us well and left almost as quickly as he had appeared. I'd like to say he tipped his hat as he departed, but I don't remember whether he did or not. We drove on to the Monastery and even made it in time for Midnight Mass, which as you no doubt have figured out by now, starts at midnight.
The monks delivered their usually simple but impressive Christmas service. I am pretty certain the readings included Isaiah's wonderful lines about the “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace,” and Luke's lovely Gospel narrative of the Nativity. At the end of mass, the thirty or so monks raised their tenor and baritone voices in two or three verses of the classic carol "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear." This song is based on a poem written in 1849 by Edmund Sears, who was pastor of the Unitarian Church in Wayland, Massachusetts. You know the words:
It came upon the midnight clear,
That glorious song of old,
From angels bending near the earth,
To touch their harps of gold:
"Peace on the earth, goodwill to men
From heavens all gracious King!"
The world in solemn stillness lay
To hear the angels sing.
It turned out to be a nice night. However, I probably only understood the significance of these events years later, when I grew out of my teenage funk. Whether you celebrate its Christian religious meaning or not, the meaning of Christmas is that some two thousand years ago, a force for peace, goodness and joy was re-introduced into the world. It is our task to recognize and incarnate that force and give it tangible meaning in the lives of our family, our friends and, as Charles Dickens once put it, our "fellow passengers to the grave."
Forty years ago- give or take a year- on Christmas Eve in Huntsville, Utah, I think the Christ child did indeed come to my mother, sister and me. Instead of swaddling clothes and a manger, he arrived in leather gloves, cowboy boots and an old pickup truck. And yes, He Came Upon a Midnight Clear.
Happy Holidays, Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Happy Kwanzaa and Happy New Year!