These are my o Antiphons. My own chants leading me into Christmas.
They’ve been on my heart since I took a few days in solitude earlier this month at a nearby hermitage. A practice that’s become my custom in Advent.
Time for solitude and silence. To slow it right down during a season when most of us are speeding it all up.
The spiritual gifts and graces I receive during those days away are invaluable. But this time was especially rich.
This time I took with me a quote from Jacob Boehme — one of the mystics we read in Living School– to reflect on: “God’s spirit acts only in resigned humility, which neither seeks nor desires itself.”
And I asked myself, what would it take for me to let go of everything I think I am?
Over those three days, I came to an overwhelming awareness of Infinite Love manifesting itself in finite time and space in the miracle of Christmas. And of the kind of humble surrender it took — and continues to take — for that love to incarnate.
For God needs a dark and joyful womb to create something new.
In a few nights I will gather with nearly 200 Annunciation House volunteers and their friends and family to celebrate Las Posadas. It’s true we all have experienced a dark and very challenging year in which we’ve witnessed and accompanied so many suffering people.
But it’s also true that despite the evidence in this world of confusion, fear, prejudice, violence, and greed, Love Incarnate prevails.
This gathering will be an example of that love. It will be an example of the joy that is born from serving the Holy. Of the hope that is born out of darkness.
And it will show me, once again, what extravagant love looks like when it is poured out in the flesh. And how God can act in ” resigned humility, which neither seeks nor desires itself.”
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?
As the darkest day of the year approaches, I’m finding hope in the darkness.
My own darkness, that is.
I’ve been silent because it’s been hard to put words on a page. Hard to express what I’ve been experiencing.
A couple of months ago I entered a darkness, a place where I felt hopelessly negative and stuck. And it was painful.
Despite the pain, I recognized it as an invitation from Spirit. Draw near. Delve deeper. There’s more to discover. More that hinders you from fully realizing all that you are in Me.
So, I reached out for help.
I’ve no idea where this will take me, but I’m willing to go deeper. I’m willing because I believe my faithfulness in saying yes to this invitation will allow the manifestation of what longs to be born in me.
“The birth of the Word in the soul,” as my Living School teacher Jim Finley puts it. Through our fidelity to these yeses, to what shows up unexpectedly in our lives, Christ is incarnate in the world, he says.
But, for now, I sit in the Advent season of expectant darkness.
I sit in the silence and wait. I wait because there is nowhere else to go. I wait with hopefulness, with the courage and trust it takes to say yes. To accept what is before me. And I wait with an awareness that infinite Love is loving me in this place. And a recognition that this, too, is part of my spiritual journey.
I know I’m not the only one who’s experienced this. Each of us has our own moments of waiting in darkness. Sometimes it’s dealing with a chronic illness. Emotional pain. An unexpected medical diagnosis. The death of a loved one. Separation from one’s children.
Here at the border we’ve been getting more asylum seekers lately. We’re especially seeing an increase in refugees from African countries like Ghana, Ethiopia, and Cameroon, where violence has caused many to flee. I’ve begun visiting a few of these young men detained in the El Paso detention facility while they await their court date. They are not much older than my own son. Every one of them has had life-threatening experiences to get here. And every one of them has been separated from their families. If they are sent back, they will be killed.
I wonder how they remain hopeful. How they say yes to the darkness.
One young man I visit tells me his mother knows nothing about where he is. She doesn’t know if he’s safe, or even alive. I think of what that must be like for her – waiting for news. Wondering and worrying. Is she able to say yes to this darkness? To accept this part of her journey?
I think of Finley’s words: “… your ongoing yes is the incarnation.”
And then I recall a very young woman so many years ago. Her willingness to say yes with courage and trust to what presented itself in the silent darkness led to the incarnation. The birth of Christ in the world.
In the silent darkness of the night, no matter how dark, no matter how uncertain, God speaks the Word in the soul.
Like Mary, fidelity to that yes is my journey, too. It is changing my life.
Life’s water flows from darkness. Search the darkness, don’t run from it. Night travelers are full of light, and you are, too; don’t leave this companionship.
It hasn’t escaped me — the parallel between what’s happening in my life and this current season of Advent. Both are marked by expectant waiting and preparation. Of hope and anticipation in the darkness.
But my experience seems to be lasting a lot longer than one season!
Since my last post, I’ve made it back to El Paso. With a writing assignment waiting for me at the Columban Missions’ border ministry, I didn’t want to “wait it out” any longer at my cousin’s until housing for volunteers became available. So, I decided to make a couple of calls. An El Paso friend took me in for two nights, and then I moved back temporarily with the School Sisters of St. Francis, where I lived when I started this journey at the beginning of the year. It may sound funny, but I’ve slept in so many places over these past several months, it’s been hard to keep track.
Guess it’s not unusual I’d be feeling displaced, uprooted, unsettled. Yet again.
And I’d not anticipated the sadness I’d feel upon leaving Incarnate Word Missionaries and the deep connections I’ve made there. Sometimes I think I’m too old for all this uprooting and moving around. This lack of routine and daily schedules. This inability to anticipate what’s ahead on the path. Even in the slightest next step. It requires a keen watchfulness. An attentiveness to the clues — signs visible only to my spiritual senses.
Seeing as it’s Advent, I was reflecting on another journey: the journey of a couple who, many years ago, also found themselves uprooted, displaced, and wandering. The young wife, pregnant with her first child, traveling away from home, her mother, her midwife, all that was familiar, was guided only by her new husband and the hope of a promise, which, to tell the truth, hadn’t been laid out very clearly. All she knew was her willingness to respond to a call she didn’t fully understand.
That’s really the metaphor for Mary’s life, isn’t it? How one’s willingness to say yes to the unknown, to something that doesn’t make sense in a logistical, material world, gives birth to something well beyond our expectations? Something that can only be envisioned in the imagination. The place where Spirit is experienced, and born.
Still…I think Mary must have been at least a little scared and unsure. Did she question her decision? Did she wonder what she had said yes to?
I know I often have.
Franciscan Richard Rohr’s reflections this week have been on “Presence.” He’s been reminding me exactly what I need to be aware of — the Presence in this moment I am living. Not in the moment I am waiting for around the next bend when everything, hopefully, will become clearer.
“The key to all spirituality,” Rohr writes, is to be conscious, to be awake, to be alert, to be alive.”
To know that I have everything I need in this moment.
I had one of those “a-ha” awakening moments a few weeks ago while staying at Alison’s house in the suburbs of San Antonio — yet another temporary abode. One morning, as I searched among my half-unpacked belongings for something to wear, feeling frustrated over the constant moving and trying to find a place to land, I said aloud, “This can’t be my life!”
It felt so crazy.
But then I paused. And a new thought slipped right in.
“But this is my life! And it’s OK! It’s perfectly fine just as it is. I don’t need to wait for it to be anything different. I’m serving my purpose right where I am.”
Just for a moment I felt as though I had awakened. It’s not that I won’t go back to sleep. I need reminders. Be alert! Stay awake! Be present to your own life!
And know that it is good, just as it is, however it shows up. Because that’s where God is.
Sure, I’d like to have more clarity about where I’m going. Assurance that I’m making the right decisions. But even more, I want a deeper awareness of this abiding Presence. An awareness of this Love guiding all my choices.
Rohr says, “This is what it means to be awake: to be constantly willing to say that God could even be coming to me in this! Even in this!”
Even in the things I don’t like or don’t understand. Even in what I would prefer to change. Or at least be able to anticipate.
Like Mary, can I recognize and hope in the Presence that abides in me? In the here and now? As I wonder and I wait?