Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Advent Silence

The 14th century Dominican mystic, John Tauler, explains the gift of Zechariah's silence like this: “God cannot leave things empty; that would be to contradict his own nature and justice. Therefore, you must be silent. Then the Word of this birth can be spoken in you and you will be able to hear him. But be certain of this: if you try to speak then He must be silent. There is no better way of serving the Word than in being silent and listening. So if you come out of yourself completely, God will wholly enter in; to the degree you come out, to that degree will he enter, neither more nor less.”

~ found here

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Time for My Favorite Painting

Henry Ossawa Tanner's Annunciation

Last year it was that uncompromising pillar of light that drew me in.

This year, it's the rumpled and perplexed young woman. I'm not young anymore, but I am most certainly rumpled and perplexed.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

John O'Donohue

I have not, obviously, kept up with this blog at all this year. I've found Advent to be very rough going, much more difficult in an inexplicable kind of way than I had anticipated. I don't feel brave or hopeful or anticipatory at all.

But I read this, here, this morning. Words like courage and plenitude seem as foreign to me as Hebrew and Greek have been over the past two years of study, but I am not completely immune to the prospect of new beginnings and rhythms.

For a New Beginning

In out-of-the-way places of the heart,
Where your thoughts never think to wander,
This beginning has been quietly forming,
Waiting until you were ready to emerge.

For a long time it has watched your desire,
Feeling the emptiness growing inside you,
Noticing how you willed yourself on,
Still unable to leave what you had outgrown.

It watched you play with the seduction of safety
And the gray promises that sameness whispered,
Heard the waves of turmoil rise and relent,
Wondered would you always live like this.

Then the delight, when your courage kindled,
And out you stepped onto new ground,
Your eyes young again with energy and dream,
A path of plenitude opening before you.

Though your destination is not yet clear
You can trust the promise of this opening;
Unfurl yourself into the grace of beginning
That is at one with your life's desire.

Awaken your spirit to adventure;
Hold nothing back, learn to find ease in risk;
Soon you will be home in a new rhythm,
For your soul senses the world that awaits you.

~ John O'Donohue ~

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Make Straight a Path Throught the Desert

Today is the day in the church year on which we read about John the Baptist, that seemingly deranged cousin of Jesus, he of the animal skin attire and the crunchy locust meals, out in the desert crying for the path of the Lord to be made straight, for valleys to be filled and mountains leveled.

I have always been mystified by John's obsession with the destruction of some of the most beautiful of our planet's geographical features. Year after year I have listened to this text and wondered: What would you do away with? The Pacific Crest Trail? The valleys in which the lochs of Scotland lie? The Tetons? What kind of a proclamation is this?

This year, I think, I am starting to get it, for the first time ever. I wonder whether I would ever have had a glimpse of what it means had I not been stumbling around in another dimension for the past fifteen months.

I have used so many geographical and geological metaphors to describe this journey, a journey that I would run from as fast as possible if that option were open to me. Relentless tsumani. Insurmountable mountain. Rock-strewn trail. Impenetrable wilderness. And, of course, desert. Endless, dry, empty, lonely desert.

None of them is a road back to the light. None of them is a road to hope.

It seems that they must all be navigated. There is no other sound option; we have to swim, climb, and walk through the terrain of grief, inhospitable as it is, or we will not reach that juncture at which it becomes not merely agonizing but transformative. We don't get to dispense with the wild craziness that makes the aftermath of loss so intolerable; we don't get to pretend that we're all right or that it never happened.

But ~ and this is what I think John the Baptist is talking about ~ we do have to find the way out. We have to reach, with our eyes open, the place where the swells of water become gentler, where the density of the forest begins to recede, where the desert seems to offer something other than parched wasteland.

I don't think God wants us to level the Alps. In fact, Jesus always found God in places like mountaintops, deserts, and valleys ~ the story is quite clear on that point. But what he found there is a transparency of vision that we so often lack. That most of us, I think, lack completely when we are plunged into the darkness that follows the death of a child.

And so the invitation, perhaps, is to go to the places he went but also to see as he did, with clarity and gratitude, rather than with eyes clouded by tears and a mind crumbling under a weight almost too great to bear.

I have, of course, no idea at all what I am talking about. I was moved to write this post by the words of this father, who lost his nine-year-old son to a malignant tumor several years ago, and who I found via my friend and fellow traveler Karen, mother of beautiful Katie. He is much farther along the road to gratitude than I am. But as I skimmed his essay again, I couldn't help but notice how many allusions he makes to things which have appeared in my own thoughts and writings: the suffering of other parents, the Holocaust, the omnipotence or lack thereof of God, the compassion ~ or not ~ of God, what prayer is and isn't. And even the Wizard of Oz.

Oh, for that elusive pair of ruby slippers.

We have to find clarity without them.

And so: Advent.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Perhaps what we modern people need most is to be genuinely shaken, so that where life is grounded, we would feel its stability; and where life is unstable and uncertain, immoral and unprincipled, we would know that, also, and endure it. Perhaps that is the ultimate answer to the question of why God has sent us into this time . . . we have stood here on the earth with a totally false and inauthentic sense of security. So now, God lets the earth resound . . . to teach us one thing again: how to be moved in spirit.

Alfred Delp, S.J.
Homily for the First Sunday of Advent
Preached in Munich
November 30, 1941

Friday, December 4, 2009

Advent Year Two

I don't remember much about last year's Advent, other than it being part of a long continuum of awfulness. This year feels transitional, though. As if we aren't somewhere else yet, but we could be.

We're going away again, this time to Islamorada in the Middle Florida Keys, on Christmas Day. I'll be in my internship church on Christmas Eve and then perhaps, go ot a midnight service somewhere . . . and then leave at 3:30 am (!) for the airport. Gregarious Son will fly with me; the Quiet Husband and The Lovely Daughter, who have enough time off, will have already left to drive, and will pick us up at the West Palm Beach airport later Christmas Day.

Such a convoluted effort of avoidance!

Last year, our Christmas Dinner consisted of grilled seafood shish-ka-bobs, just the four of us relaxing on the deck on a warm Key West evening. It was a far cry from the raucous and joyful Christmas Dinners in our home over the previous two decades, in which nine or ten families had gathered every year, but it was for us a quiet experience of healing.

This year ~ I don't know. I find myself poised between wanted to hibernate again and wanting to move back out into the world ~ but differently. I have completely lost interest in the traditional gathering at home, and find that I am thinking much more about the vast brokenness manifest in this world at Christmas.

Maybe we will hang out with the homeless next year. Or maybe I will be doing a chaplain residency at Famous Giant Hospital and be more than willing to sign up for a Christmas shift ~ which could mean spending the day with a Muslim here from Saudi Arabia for heart surgery.

I'm not quite ready for any of that this year. I can tell by how much of Christmas I am avoiding: by how we haven't even talked about whether we want a tree, by how I have been walking out of chapel services and classes where Advent hymns are sung ~ music being the most problematic aspect of the whole season, given its evocative nature. I can tell by how my stomach twists everytime I read another piece of writing about the hopefulness of the season ~ and I wrote one of them myself a couple of days ago, in the form of the Prayer of Confession for Sunday's regular worship service.

So no, I'm not ready yet to accompany anyone else through a difficult Advent season. I'm ready for blue sea and blue sky. But I can imagine, albeit faintly, other possibilities.

Spiral ~ or ~ Nebula? (RevGals Virtual Retreat)

I would venture that, like most processes which we are so inclined to structure in linear and hierarchical ways, our relationship with God also might be better understood as a spiral.

Elizabeth Kobler-Ross's work on five stages of grief ~ certainly refined today into an understanding of a process more akin to a spiral. Or, as I recently read as the advice given to another suicide survivor by her counselor: a house, a house with many rooms which one visits in no particular order and with no limit set on time of stay or repetitions.

John Newton's idea of our spiritual journey as movement from desire to conflict to contemplation and peace ~ also, I think, better understood as a spiral, or as a houseful of rooms. Walter Bruggemann's century-later understanding of the Psalms as a journey from orientation to dis-orientation to new orientation ~ the same. And Brueggemann sees in the Pslams a framework for understanding the journey of Jesus.

Does Jesus' journey also spiral?

Truthfully, I am not so convinced of the spiral metaphor any longer, or the house metaphor either. I am thinking more in terms of nebulae. I don't actually know a thing about nebulae other than what I've just read in wikipedia, but the photographs I've seen of them must be well-embedded in my brain because: when I think back over the journey of the last 15 months, the image of a nebula is what comes to mind. When I think of God's creation: there it is, in beginning forms. When I imagine Jesus' journey and his effect on us: perhaps a similar pattern. And when I imagine the Holy Spirit: yes, a nebula.

Chaotic swirls of matter, mixing life and death, forming clusters that break apart and reform, perhaps coalescing someday into stars and light.


Thursday, December 3, 2009

Sorting (RevGals Advent Retreat II)

I don't think of sorting wheat from chaff in terms of sorting people into groups, those included and those not, those who get it and those who don't, those who are elect and those who are not. But I do think of it as something we can address in our own lives, whether interiorly or in community.

This second reflection reminded me of a couple of things. First, some months ago, one of the Jesuits in my life reminded me of the parable of the sower, and told me that it is about tending my own inner garden as well. He has been gently, and sometimes not so gently, challenging me for months to find alternative pathways through my grief. I am a very slow and laborious gardener. Manure abounds.

Secondly, in my Church and Sacraments class, we spent some time last month talking over what the Ten Commandments mean and how to look at them in light of Scripture and the Reformed Confessions. The pattern which more or less holds is to look at each one expansively, interiorly, and then in a positive sense. So, in very brief, as I wrote with respect to "Do not steal" on my final exam, one might also understand that particular commandment to mean "Do not steal the limelight (an expansion of the original), do not envy someone else her achievements (a reference to interior stealing), give generously wherever you can (a positive take)."

So. Sorting wheat from chaff.

In the grieving process: How might one pursue healthy ways of grieving that give expression to genuine sorrow as opposed to repressive ways that damage one for life, or obsessive ways that trap one in unresolvable quagmires? In community, whatever those communities may be? Alone, in prayer? In giving, something out of nothing?