Thoughts From Dr. Joe: Black Monday, 'Silent Night'

It was black Monday; Penelope's was closed. But every cloud has a silver lining, so I anticipated a cup of black tea at Starbucks. I love the kids who work there. Their smiles make dismal rainy mornings brighter. Talin served up a cup of Earl Grey and reminded me that I take two packets of honey. How did she remember?

Immediately I went to work on my fourth rewrite of the great American novel. The din of a busy Starbucks morning did not inhibit my concentration, as I've been known to tune out a 122mm rocket attack.

I was flying through the paragraphs but began to feel the presence of a different message, a low audible tune that gradually became profound, overcoming my concentration. It was a Christmas carol, "Silent Night," sung by Annie Lennox. It was as though I had taken a drug and thereby had fallen into a coma of reflection. My eyes left the keyboard and I stared toward a different dimension.

It was a flashback. I was whirled into a vortex of time and space. I was back in Vietnam. It was Christmas Eve, 1970, and old memories had resurfaced in vivid color. I saw myself sitting in a chopper, the engines straining to maintain altitude. We were returning from a mission near the Laotian border and our CH-53 was filled to the brim with men and equipment.

Although I was half asleep, I felt us descend and land on the dusty red landscape of Khe Shan. We dragged our equipment and ourselves to the makeshift bunkers and the troops began cleaning weapons and taking cold showers. I sat with Sgt. Liehue writing our after-action report and discussing what we did right and what we did wrong. My commanding officer was a stickler for detail, so my focus was intense as I crafted the details of the last 24 hours. But I began to feel a different presence with a message unlike our current reality. I was overtaken by a sense of calm and peace, which was non-existent in this hellhole called Vietnam. It was a Christmas carol, "Silent Night," sung by Bing Crosby.

As the radio played, the Marines began to lift their heads, absorbing the magic of the moment. They ceased their countless tasks of war, and calm and silence remained. We had found a significance that we thought non-existent. "Son of God, love's pure light, Radiant beams from thy holy face…" were words that brought us home.

As we listened to the tender words and the peaceful tune, we could see the Madonna in her heavenly radiance and the child sleeping in heavenly peace. Amidst the insanity of war, we found an oasis of peace and for a brief moment, all was calm and all was bright.

On Christmas Eve, 1818, Father Joseph Mohr, an Austrian priest, was pondering a poem he had written. The words continued to run through his head. Silent night, Holy night, all is calm; all is bright…. "I need a tune," he must have thought. "I wonder if Franz can help me?"

He hurried to visit his friend, Franz Gruber, a local schoolteacher and musician. "Franz, remember that poem I told you about, Silent Night?" Mohr asked. "Can you put a tune to it? I want to sing it tonight for Christmas Eve."

Franz Gruber went to work and that evening, in Oberndorf, Austria, "Silent Night" was first introduced to the world.

Listening to "Silent Night" in Vietnam on Christmas Eve brought such peace. I don't believe I'll ever feel that way again. I contemplated then, and I still do, this question: "What is the significance of this birth? What is Christmas about, really?"

"Silent Night" is venerated because it reminds us of the perpetual truth, which changes everything: "Christ, the Savior is born!"

JOE PUGLIA is a practicing counselor, a professor of education at Glendale Community College and a former officer in the Marines. Reach him at

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