Call me crazy but I love this season of quiet waiting in darkness.
It beckons me to be still. To sit for a long while in the silence and listen deeply. If I am wise enough, I heed that call, as I did earlier this month when I gifted myself with a three-day silent retreat at a nearby hermitage.
Some wonder, why do you need time in silence when you live alone? Believe me, it’s not the same. At home there’s the pull of ever-present concerns in my surroundings, the to-do list sitting on my desk, my phone’s popping messages that distract even when it’s silenced. Case in point – since returning from my retreat, it’s taken me weeks to be able to sit down to write about the experience!
But that has only given me more opportunities to “see” more deeply the powerful gift I was given.
At the hermitage I unplugged from everything. Let go of the daily text messages and continuous needs of our refugee hospitality shelters. Let myself simply “be.” And, eventually, I was able to silence the inner voices. My hope was that, like Mary, I could even be silent enough and present enough to fully receive what the Spirit offered. And surrender to it.
As soon as I entered the hermitage, it struck me. A large reproduction of Rembrandt’s “Prodigal Son” – the same painting Henri Nouwen used on the cover of his book, The Return of the Prodigal Son – hung squarely on the wall facing me. It’s my favorite Nouwen book, one that speaks to all the parts of myself that need accepting and embracing.
Clearly this was no coincidence.
The painting begged for reflection. I knew I’d have to comply.
But it wasn’t until my third and final day that I received the real gift. The day I decided to pull the rocking chair up close and finally contemplate the painting.
It didn’t take long for me to see myself in all of the “faces” of the painting, from the self-righteous brother to the humbled younger brother soaking in parental love. Similar to Henri Nouwen’s experience, I was aware of myself in all of these “characters.”
But I waited, open and surrendered, to see what else might emerge. In the upper, far left-hand corner, I began to notice the outline of a figure I’d not seen before. Barely visible in the painting’s dark hues. So faint, it could be easily missed.
The outline appeared unmistakably feminine. Its invisible face positioned high enough to “oversee” and encompass all the figures.
So insignificant. And yet…
The longer I sat, the more I saw in this mysterious image the dark and nurturing safety of a womb large enough and sacred enough to have room for all these “parts” of myself. A loving refuge, like God’s “Holy Womb.”
But could it be that I was this womb, too? This loving, nurturing “Holy Womb”?
I often think of myself as insignificant. And yet….
After returning home, a friend sent me a beautiful Advent/Posada message related to our ministry of hospitality here in El Paso. She noted that “genuine hospitality requires an openness of space, time, and hearts to those others have rejected – or find insignificant. Mary seemed like an insignificant woman and Bethlehem like an insignificant town. But we know God places great value in what can seem to many insignificant.”
My friend’s words stirred something familiar. What had at first gone unnoticed about the painting now became powerfully significant. The revelation of the Word made flesh happened in such a dark and loving Holy Womb as this.
Mary, who seemed so insignificant – young, poor, traveling on the margins – revealed herself to be the Holy Womb that births the greatest love the world has ever known.
Could it not also be that I am pregnant with God? Just like Mary. That all of us are? Including the refugees we serve? These people who travel on the margins, unknown to most of us, despicable to some of us. They seem insignificant. And yet…
In the days and weeks that followed my time at the hermitage, I have come to recognize how, like Mary, I have listened deeply, with the desire to say yes to the truest within me. I have been “obedient” to the deepest voices within me. How else would I have wound up here, in the desert? So far away from my dear Virginia home.
Like Mary, I have said “yes” without worrying about the consequences. Isn’t this how the Holy Womb gives birth? In me? In you? In the least among us?
Isn’t this how the greatest love the world has known is born? Again and again?