part three: an advent circle of grace

the third light: wonder

One December a few years ago, during my lunch break, I decided to visit a beautiful Adoration chapel close to work. It being the most wonderful and busy! time of the year, I found myself having great difficulty finding focus. Lists of things ran through my head, from last-minute shopping, to incomplete tasks left behind at the office, to memories of Christmases past and how I would miss being in Michigan with my family that year.

The altar at the St Isaac Jogues’s Adoration Chapel has a wonderful stained glass wall behind it that depicts Jesus on the cross, with Mary and John at his feet. I’ve spent countless hours in that chapel, my eyes noticing every detail in the glass. But this day, I noticed that the image of the cross seems to float within a wonderful depiction of the tree of life. The dark wood of the cross has leaves in beautiful shades of green swirling around it. The image of Jesus’s cross juxtaposed on the tree of life was enough to get me to take a few deep breaths and settle into prayer. As I was drawn deeper into this link between the tree of life and the cross of the crucifixion, I was struck with another connection. I’ve always loved a wonderful little book about Mary and Jesus by Caryl Houselander called The Reed of God. In it, Houselander says, “The description of Jesus’ birth in the gospel does not say that [Mary] held him up in her arms but that she ‘wrapped him up in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger.’ As if her first act was to lay him on the cross.” In the midst of the season’s hustle and bustle, as I sat and prayed with this new, found image of the tree of life, and its wood as the manger AND the cross, I was drawn into the silence of the chapel, and the beauty of the connections that God had made for me. This moment in prayer was, for me, a lovely moment of grace.

As I sat there in prayer and contemplation, I began to realize that a woman had walked into the chapel. She had a tiny baby in her arms. She, too, seemed to be in a hurry that day, and she, too, seemed to need a little nudge from God to find focus. I watched as she walked right up in front of the monstrance and held the infant’s face up where he could see. This mother, her baby in her arms, then knelt before the monstrance for a few moments, her head bowed, all the while making sure her child was facing Jesus. It was if she was saying, “Behold! Do not be afraid!”

In this moment of grace, it was as if God was saying it to me. “Behold!” I sensed God telling me to notice the infant… Notice the way this mother helps her child see Jesus… God seemed to be whispering, “This is all you need to know this Christmas.” This young mother was a stunningly beautiful reminder to me to take in and celebrate moments of wonder.

The invitation here, for me, was the beautiful awareness of Advent as a season of awe and wonder, even (and perhaps especially) in the middle of a busy workweek right before Christmas. For all of us, the invitation during Advent is to remember the baby. To be vulnerable. To open our hands and hearts to the infant. And to grace ourselves with the peaceful moments that bring our focus where we know it belongs.

I return again to that quote: “Grace happens when life is lived and celebrated authentically.” And so I pray: May your efforts to go deeper be moments of grace and transformation.

 

[This material was presented as part of an Advent talk given to women in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. Here is the introduction to the talk.]

part two: an advent circle of grace


the second light: community

Earlier this year, when I realized that my laptop was on its last legs, I started the painstaking process of tidying up the files on my hard drive. It’s always so time consuming to do this, isn’t it? And, typically, it’s a rushed process because it seems like there’s always a critical deadline looming for which you can’t live without the computer. In the process of creating new file folders, deleting old ones, organizing and weeding out, I found myself sorting through the old “Christmas Cards” folder on the hard drive. This task of cleaning up that I wanted to complete as quickly as possible suddenly slowed down to a crawl.

When we were first married, we experienced several cross-country moves in a relatively short period of time. Sending out Christmas cards in which we included an annual Christmas update letter easily became integrated into our annual Christmas traditions. Once we started our family, we loved taking the girls out on a sunny late-autumn day for a photo at a local landmark to include in the card. Isn’t it funny how these wonderful rituals seem to grow and change from year to year? When we lived in Maine, we wrote about the time that the moose strolled right down our street just like in the opening of a popular old TV show called Northern Exposure. A couple of years later, we suffered the loss of my dad and two of our grandparents in the same year, so we wrote touching tributes to each them in the annual letter. Our home just outside of Washington, DC afforded us with one of my favorite family photos, taken inside the National Building Museum. The girls were so small and everyone was so happy in that picture. One year, when we started to grow tired of coming up with new material, we creatively wrote a Mad Lib with lots of fill-in-the-blanks for our family and friends to fill out. So when I started going through the old files on my computer and came upon all of this Christmas stuff from years gone by, I delighted in the walk down memory lane.

I realized, as I was going through all of these things, that I had also saved the annual spreadsheet lists of people to whom we would send out cards. Talk about going through the archives! As you might imagine, the people on the lists changed from year to year, because the places we lived and the circles of people in our lives changed from year to year as well. Our families, as all families do, suffered great losses over the years. As time went on, we lost contact with some friends for a variety of reasons. Likewise, we gained so many new relationships, new friendships, and new communities. When I compare the most recent Christmas card lists with the ones from 5 or 10 or 20 years ago, I am blown away. Memories of faces and moments and life come flooding back. This is the stuff that life is made of, isn’t it? Remembering each person on these years of old lists was an astounding moment of grace for me. And as I reflect on it this Advent season, I find myself reflecting on one of my favorite images from the Letter to the Hebrews. The author of the epistle writes:

“Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.” (-Hebrews 12:1)

Reflecting on this scripture causes me to pause. In my mind’s eye, I picture the dozens of people who have filled the lists on all of those Christmas card spreadsheets. I think about the couples, the families, the aunts and uncles and cousins, my brothers and sisters in law, my nieces and nephews, the old neighbors and co-workers. I reflect on all of the places the cards have travelled – the cities and towns and neighborhoods, the mailboxes and kitchen tables they’ve graced. I think of those who have died, and I think of the communion of saints, this great cloud of witnesses, and the way I sometimes feel their presence like a whisper. In the process of remembering, the invitation, for me, was to give honor to all of the holy souls that have graced me in my lifetime. The invitation for Advent is to celebrate the innumerable communities that have formed so many circles of grace in each of our lives.

As Michael Taylor says, “Grace happens when human life is lived and celebrated authentically.” And so this is my prayer for all of you: May you find solace and growth in the relationships in your lives. And may you delight in the presence of those holy friendships that enfold you in circles of grace.

 

[This material was presented as part of an Advent talk given to women in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. Here is the introduction to the talk.]

connection

It’s been 18 years since our last move. Prior to that, we moved 5 times in 9 years, an average of every 21 months or so. Aside from the obvious difference of the many years spent in our last home, and the distance around the globe, which is literally halfway-around-the-world, this move has been unlike any of the others. We’ve never lived in a big city before; taken public transportation everywhere; lived on the Equator. The culture and languages here are unlike any place we’ve lived in the US. Our living space is MUCH smaller. The obvious differences go on and on.

What I’ve been focusing on of late, though, are the less-than-obvious things. The subtle, unexpected things.
[see full post]

driving

 

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I have always valued car time. For me, it is time spent alone with people I love, where conversations can go on for a while without interruption, where all the passengers are looking forward, where scenery is mutually enjoyed and things (sometimes long unspoken) come to light. When I am traveling in the car alone, I like to blast the music from the iPod and sing along, relishing the fact that I can choose the playlists. I listen more closely to the lyrics, allowing them to speak to my heart as the sound fills the car. When I am traveling in the car with others, I savor the chance to hear and to be heard. To listen, and to respond fully. To be aware of the gift of this time together.

It seems that autumn, for me, has been a road trip season. Both of our children have left the nest and are away at college. So, beginning in August, we’ve driven to their respective campuses for move-ins, visits, and various deliveries that could not be accommodated by mail, from mini-refrigerators to repaired laptops to bookshelves. Lots of time in the car, all of it good.

I drove with our youngest daughter to Kentucky, the car packed up to the absolute max, the GPS set to her dorm’s address, her new home-away-from-home. I’m pretty sure we couldn’t fit much more into the car that day than a couple of extra water bottles. More than the physical “stuff,” during the long drive, we filled the car with conversation. We talked about her insecurities about college, from making friends, to getting lost on campus, to managing her money. I responded with motherly reassurances. On my solo trip back to Pennsylvania, my awareness was on the grace of that trip. The grace of both of us being able to really listen to the other. To respond with love. To help the other understand, and to help the other to grow.

A few weeks ago, I drove with a friend to an airport a couple of hours away. Her daughter was coming in on a late flight, and the dark drive on the turnpike is not much fun. In our hectic lives filled with jobs, family, and friends, our conversations have been reduced to 5-minutes of catching up here and there. Having the car time with my friend gave us the chance to go much deeper into many of the conversations we’ve been starting for the past few years. I talked to her a lot about her cancer, her treatment, her recovery, the financial pressures and the celebration of her cancer-free status. The grace of this time of communion with my friend continues to bless me, weeks after the fact.

More recently, I drove with some dear friends to hear Richard Rohr speak at a venue a couple of hours away. These are women with whom I have shared hours in the car, in airplanes, in restaurants, in each other’s homes. My soul sisters. It’s time in the car with them that illuminates the grace that we are in each other’s lives. When I think about it this way, I am astounded. Surprised. Grateful. Somehow, I know that the grace of the time spent together is truly a gift. When this awareness touches my heart, I give thanks.

Today, I pray that during this holiday time of car trips to come, an awareness of the gift of this time of grace will stay with me. I invite you to do the same.

Now is the time to remember that all that you do is sacred.

-Hafiz