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I live by many calendars: academic, Gregorian, liturgical. One of the blessings of these overlapping cycles is an abundance of time-markers by which to order and reflect upon life. There are seasons and semesters, holidays and Holy Days. As they come and go each invites transition, anticipation, and very often, remembrance: Where was I—who was I—when this marker passed last year?
I’m pondering this question as I anticipate the beginning of Advent this weekend. Some things about my life have changed dramatically since the onset of the liturgical season a year ago. I live in a different place. I hold a different job. Less quantifiable things have shifted, too: I’ve been learning to live with the ups and downs of mental health like never before, and that has changed me in ways I still struggle to express.
Amid these reflections I’ve recalled an Advent discussion I facilitated for the young adult ministry in my church community. That’s where I was a year ago when this marker passed. The discussion centered on this poem, A Song on the Feast of the Epiphany by my friend Christine Rodgers. It is my favorite Advent poem. (Yes, despite the fact that the Epiphany is not celebrated during Advent…).
I’ve been reading the poem over and over again, and it has reminded me that texts can function as time-markers too, not unlike special calendar days. I read and I remember: How did this poem speak to me a year ago when I read it? “Be bold like the Magi. Do not tarry, settling into your comfort….” Did I respond to its challenge? “[S]et out keeping the star in your vision.” Did I live according to the truths it affirms? “It will lead you to the place you are most in need of, the place where God is.”
“And if an angel warns you in a dream not to return by the old way, please listen.” Have I listened?
There are some words, some truths, some challenges that we need to hear again and again, regardless of how many things change in our lives. I remember this as I read. We need to hear them again because, from year to year, some things do not change. That is another reminder that accompanies time-markers: Some things are the same.
Even after a year when I have tired to live the Gospel Way with a bit more courage than before, I recognize many of the same shortcomings at work in my life. I still tarry, settling into my comforts. I’m still distracted from the things that I espouse to matter most. There has been immense change, but still these setbacks endure. Some things remain the same.
The Advent season reminds us that this also remains the same: As we await and work toward change in our lives, God’s grace already surrounds and transforms us. This remains the same. No matter what else has changed or remained the same, God’s star still shines there, above us. May we turn our faces and boldly step toward it during the journeying season before us….
…Today I was reading about Marie Curie: she must have known she suffered from radiation sickness her body bombarded for years by the element she had purified It seems she denied to the end the source of the cataracts on her eyes the cracked and suppurating skin of her finger-ends till she could no longer hold a test-tube or a pencil
She died a famous woman denying her wounds denying her wounds came from the same source as her power
–an excerpt from “Power” by Adrienne Rich
On Thursday I went to an evening liturgy at the Episcopal Cathedral. Instead of extending my palms over the altar during the Eucharistic prayer as the presider had implored us to do, I attempted to wipe the tears from my cheeks without attracting the attention of the small congregation. Instead of singing and casually swaying with the melody of the communion song, I was preoccupied by the tense knot in my throat, trying to swallow it–along with all that unbridled emotion.
It was the liturgy of my dreams, right there in front of me: the liturgical prayers and rituals I loved, enacted by a community with lay and ordained ministers of every gender, sexuality, and race, language that reflected tradition while emphasizing the full and equal participation of all. All this filled me with joy and excitement–yes–but the tears were an outpouring of another kind. As I stood there amid that liturgy, I imagined what it would be like to call this my church. And I cried because I could not imagine it.
I could not imagine my church becoming this type of church, nor could I imagine leaving my tradition for the sake of calling this one my own. Even when faced with the manifestation of this seemingly ideal worship community, being Catholic–or potentially not Catholic–remained overwhelmingly complicated. There is some complicated power that binds me to Catholicism.
I do not live as Marie Currie died, denying the source of my wounds. I know it pains me at times to be in this tradition, but I also sense right now that there is a force keeping me here. Maybe I will figure it out some day, detangle myself from its mysterious pull to enter a space where I can call a liturgy like that my own. Until then…
Sometime before midnight on New Years Eve I found myself nuzzled into the living room couch with another friend who studies theology in graduate school. Amid the dancing, yelling, and clamoring of glasses at the party that surrounded us, she spoke one of the most simple, profound things I had heard about God in a long time.
After describing the details of a rigorous seminar course on prayer she had completed early that month, she said, “You know, I came out with a lot of doubts about whether God works in the world the way we often think God does. But I do think that God moves in people.”
A poet friend of mine once described the different types of poems she writes. She identified one kind by describing a visit to a museum when she found herself standing before this particular painting, staring and staring, simply captivated by it at the deepest parts of herself. She couldn’t walk away. She had to write a poem about this surprising moment of wonder that simply grabbed her. She writes these poems about simple, startling moments. I think God moves in people.
The more theology and philosophy I study, the more confused I am about the Infinite working in the finite. I’m reading Karl Barth and at the moment he is trying to convince me that in my human limitation I do not know God from within. He says something like, human beings cannot know this wholly-Other God but through the revelation of scripture and the Church. What to say? I do not have convincing words for responding to this brilliant theologian at the moment.
But I have wonder: I have these moments when God moves in me. And in these moments the finite world may be simply what it is, but something in me is different. The wonder persists beyond the limits of what I can explain with my rigorous reasoning right now. I’ll keep trying to put words to it.
On the days when I particularly overwhelmed–when I am convinced that any reform in my church will require at least 10 million perfect words, when I am sure that nothing I can think or say or write will ever make any difference, when I am tempted to think that the countless number of books in Harvard’s theological library may actually make so little an imprint on the world–on these days you will probably find me cross-legged on the floor of the Harvard Bookstore. I will be hunched over barren pages held together by thin bindings in the poetry aisle. Their words belong to people that most people do not know, people I do not know.
I don’t just come for the poems; I come for all the white space that fills these poetry books. The white space actually comforts me more, I think, reminding me of two things: First, reminding me of the arduous silence–all the wordless thinking–that accompanied very worthwhile word I have ever written. Wordlessness can be precious and productive in its own ways. Second, reminding me that I do not need to say everything–I do not need to say everything–only a few beautiful, dangerous, honest-to-God, true things. Poems are so captivating because they say so much with so little.
I am so little, and I want to say something worth so much.