The Second Week of Lent is upon us and “it’s good that we are here,” according to Peter after experiencing the Transfiguration. What an understatement! Kind of like saying “I enjoyed it” after being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. I always wonder what lingered in the memories of Peter, James, and John after that incredible vision of Elijah, Moses, and the resurrected Christ. Surely keeping it a secret was a joke. That unexpected glimpse into the spiritual realm must have permanently altered their vision, just like any authentic experience of the divine, even the smallest of transfigurations.
On cue every spring at the beginning of March, the bare wisteria vine that grows outside my kitchen window suddenly blooms with delicate, fragrant, and liturgically correct purple blooms. Every year I am transfixed watching the flowers multiply at an astonishing pace. I planted that vine myself many years ago so that I would have something to gaze at while I cooked and did the dishes. Despite the awareness that spring is near, that the dead-looking vine is teeming with life, I am always startled when these sweet blossoms beckon me outside to stand agog at this ordinary but marvelous transfiguration.
Experiences of the divine are also revealed in the lives of those around me. I communicate by text almost daily with my close friend, Fr. Jim Ries. He recently retired as pastor of Our Lady of Fatima parish in San Clemente. Now he lives in Oceanside, close to San Luis Rey Mission, in a mobile home he completely remodeled to accommodate his disabilities. Fr. Jim has a degenerative nerve disease called “Charcot-Marie-Tooth” and is permanently confined to a wheelchair. Friends for many years, I remember when he nimbly walked and rode a bike, discerned his vocation, attended seminary, and his ordination to the priesthood. We remained close during all of his assignments as a servant priest and pastor in the Diocese of Orange. Jim has spent nearly every holiday with my family, a “little brother” to me, an “uncle” to my kids, a sports-on-TV sidekick with my husband, a jokester at the dinner table with my extended family friends. All along, Jim knew what was in store, that his body would slowly decline, but that never deterred him from living abundantly.
Fr. Jim sees moments of transfiguration even in his own sufferings, of which there have been many. About two weeks ago, right in time for Lent, he fell and broke his leg, a major setback for him. While I screamed at God over the unfairness, Fr. Jim accepted the week-long hospital stay and many months ahead of physical therapy with his usual calm good nature and courage. He revels in the little victories of sleeping through the night and watching televised sports from his recliner now that he is back at home. He says he is offering up his sufferings, picking up his cross, and following Jesus for the salvation of the world.
I marvel at Jim’s resilience and quiet piety. Even though I have learned to see transfiguration in the ordinariness of a spring day, like my blooming wisteria vine, I am hard-pressed when it comes to suffering. I still have a lot to learn about the Paschal Mystery although I am repeatedly transfigured by its truth and beauty, drawn into deep caverns of meaning, and comforted by the cycles of renewal it promises.
Visions of the dazzling white garments of Jesus in transfigured moments come and go quickly for most of us ordinary pilgrims on the spiritual journey. Yet we can anchor these little manifestations in our memories and resolve to stay awake enough to see more. At the oddest moments, when the heart surges with gratitude, Peter’s voice may arise and remind us that indeed, “it’s good that we are here.” Then, like the apostles, we descend the mountain to spread that good news.
The First Sunday of Lent every year focuses on Jesus’ temptations in the desert. It’s a mythological tale that most Christians with basic formation know. Jesus fasts for forty days and nights and then, just when he’s ready to return from his retreat, the devil appears and tempts him with three very human desires: power, prestige, and possessions. Not only does Jesus not give in, but he also defeats the enemy by engaging his strong will and acute biblical rhetoric. I always want to yell “touché” when the devil slinks off defeated and Jesus is comforted by angels.
After listening to this gospel at mass on Sunday, the topic of temptation has occupied my thoughts. Like everyone, I have had many temptations in my life, some I gave into, some I resisted, others I simply observed with obsequious detachment. No longer wrestling with the devil at my age, I do still wrestle with God, almost every day, in fact. There are so many mysteries and paradoxes, so many confounding situations in our Christ-soaked world. I am tempted to lose my temper, change my sanguine nature, ditch my contemplative commitment to nonviolence, especially when I ponder world news each day. So much gloom and doom have tempted us to give in to depression, anxiety, and a host of other apathetic stances. Resisting these more subtle temptations has been far more difficult than we ever knew.
I watched “60 Minutes” this week and their report about the people of Ukraine brought tears of rage and sadness to my entire being. An overwhelming temptation to engage headlong into the conflict and DO SOMETHING engulfed me. I absurdly entertained thoughts of what it would be like to be in physical combat, forcibly resisting the oppression. The compassion of the Polish people on the train platform made me want to get on the next plane and join their efforts to take care of the vulnerable. Let’s be real, I silently told myself. I cannot engage either of these temptations. I am an older American woman committed to nonviolence who has no power or prestige on world stages.
Late last night, I had a long conversation with a soul friend. She talked about her fears of another world war. I told her we had to stay detached from these gut-wrenching thoughts and the temptation to believe we cannot defeat evil except with violence. When we hung up, I wondered if I had said the right thing. Was I telling her NOT to engage with the faces of those beautiful children and mothers on the trains, the resolute ones staying behind to fight? Just stop reading editorials and watching the news? Move into blissful ignorance and not think too deeply? While I was only trying to help assuage her anxiety, apathy is not the answer, of course, when it comes to temptations.
So what else can I do? I can (and will) write a check and send it to the Ukrainian Relief Efforts. I have, after all, a wealth of possessions that sometimes possess me way too much. Yet my conscience sneers at this paltry solution. Simply sending cash is too easy and will not untether me from the deeper conflicts within my spirit. Every day, I turn to prayer, always my go-to solution for everything, even though sometimes these efforts never seem like enough.
In the end, I ask myself, “What is the spiritual response to these nagging temptations that constantly peck at the hard shell of my well-ordered life? Rebuking the devil is also not enough, as Jesus showed us in the gospel story. The paradox of living in this on-going war between good and evil begs us to hold the tension of this world resolutely enough to slake temptations and gently enough to allow the restoration of angels.
According to prolific writer and theologian, Fr. Ron Rolheiser, we should always view the world as we look upon the scene at Calvary: Jesus hanging in between two thieves. From a distance, you cannot tell which is which. Closer, we see that Christ is with us in the human drama of struggle, suffering, sweating blood, and dying for love. The scene is not simply a remembrance of what happened two thousand years ago, but is real today–Christ is riding on those trains with the refugees, fighting for peace and freedom with both the Ukrainian and Russian people. On both their sides.
Perhaps the best response for us who are far away from the conflict is to keep the faith and resist the temptation to think we have been forsaken or abandoned. It always astonishes me how the Good, alive inside us, quickly appears when the chips are down. The whole world is reaching out to the people of Ukraine, coming to their aid with immense, unfathomable love. When tempted to do good, the Christ in us arises, surprises, and sustains all who are in need. Seeking the wisdom place, let us unite in solidarity with all who are affected by war and be comforted by the enormous display of empathy flowing into the world.
The birds are singing again in my backyard. They are not in full force yet but are daily gaining momentum, right on time and right in tune with the coming of the warmer weather and the season of spring in all its glory. The earth is preparing to tilt on its axis more toward the sun just like the rest of us, longing for a release from the shorter chilly nights and gray skies of winter. The familiar signs are all around us on this Fat Tuesday or Mardi Gras. Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, one of the busiest days on the Church calendar.
I am always intrigued that people of all walks of life, even those not particularly religious, are drawn to this time of fasting, abstinence, and repentance right before Spring is officially sprung in nature. (Did you know that the word “Lent” actually means spring?) Ashes are black, like dirt, and applied to the forehead as a crude little door into the cluttered and anxious mind. We are “adam,” made of mud, and will all return to mud someday, somewhere. This primitive ritual reminds us of our fragility, our need to be prepared and ready for anything to happen.
We seem to possess an innate sense that in order for something new to take root and grow within the soul, the soil of the spirit has to be tended to like a garden when the earth has to carefully be loosened, fertilized, and watered. This garden metaphor has resonated through my consciousness on a low frequency for decades although March 2022 seems somehow different from the past two years.
When Lent began in 2020, the Covid-19 lockdown launched two weeks later. I had already written a Lenten booklet entitled “Abide,” which I found interestingly prophetic. What else could we do during the lockdown? In 2021, the booklet was entitled “Emerge,” based on the hope vaccines offered to end the pandemic. Alas, emerging waxed and waned. Delta and Omicron forced us into learning more tough lessons about tenacity and fear. After the winter siege, life is opening up again. Even mandatory mask-wearing in schools is ending.
As Lent begins yet again, I have chosen to focus on the word “engage,” despite my heightened awareness of the threat of viral strains. Now that I am a grandmother of nine, retired, and in my seventh decade of life, every day feels like a gift wrapped in the colors of sunsets, the light shimmering over the water of the Pacific, and the purple flowers beginning to show themselves on the wisteria outside my kitchen window. The inner voice urges me to engage now with all the energy I can muster. No more “waiting it out,” like someone in a perpetual rainstorm. Time to charge into life full force, splashing in puddles, unafraid of being drenched, and taking delight in every drop of water inside my shoes. No more denying myself like a monastic, not this Lent of 2022. This will be a Lent of engagement, spontaneity, and opening to whatever life has to offer.
For many years, I went by the motto, “fast now, feast later.” On this Fat Tuesday, Mardi Gras of 2022, I plan to do just the opposite and will “feast now and fast later.” The feast will be on Beauty, Truth, and Goodness, which flows effortlessly from the Source of All Love. I will try to engage more with this Love and stream it to the Ukrainian people, to world leaders in Russia and Washington, to the forgotten and marginalized who have no voice, to my Church, community, neighborhood, family, and friends. Just maybe, like the butterfly effect, this Lenten engagement will be a small catalyst for the garden of life to bring forth an everlasting metanoia of both hearts and minds.
It is February and true to form, the Oscar nominations were just announced. To film lovers like me, this is always a momentous occasion. Every year my curiosity is piqued by the list of films the “Academy” nominates, especially for the “Best Picture” category. Predictably, some nominees do not surprise me, but each year I am challenged by other choices and stymied by films I have never heard of prior to the announcement. I set out then and there to see as many of the films on the list as possible. Even with streaming, now that the number of nominees has been expanded to ten, this is no easy (or cheap) task.
Isn’t this a superficial endeavor? Why do I bother with the films that seem to go against my spiritual aesthetics? Crazy as it may seem, I have a passion for seeking God in the most unlikely places. Hollywood fits the bill.
This year’s list is really challenging because I have only seen five of the ten nominees so far (West Side Story, The Power of the Dog, Coda, Dune, and Don’t Look Up). Although I only have about a month to find and watch the others, I am determined. Maybe you would like to join me?
If you have never analyzed movies for spiritual content before, here’s my shortlist of what to look for, tied into the Christian Paschal Mystery. Remember, these themes can be found in both drama and comedy although they can be very submerged or disguised.
Incarnation – Are there Christ characters? Look carefully. Sometimes the Christ is very hidden! In what way is a character Christ-like? Who opposes the Christ figure(s) and how is this opposition portrayed?
Suffering – What is the main struggle in the film? Who takes on suffering courageously and who becomes bitter or callous? What characters or circumstances inflict, prolong or alleviate suffering?
Death – What kinds of death are portrayed (physically, psychologically, spiritually)? Who or what dies and how? Why do these deaths occur? What feelings are evoked in you from the death scenes?
Resurrection – What characters and circumstances promote a sense of redemption from conflict, suffering or death? Warming: redemption themes might be very subtle.
Ascension – Is there a sense of letting go in the film? Of ascending to a new reality after the conflict is resolved? Perhaps the absence of ascension makes this point better than resolution of it.
Pentecost – Does a new way of being, thinking, living occur in the film? Or the prospect of one? Or is hope thwarted by the actions (or inactions) of others?
Uncovering these themes in film has informed, enriched, and enlightened my wisdom journey. Besides all that, I take great delight in the stories and the way modern filmmakers choose to portray them in such creative ways. An antidote to negative criticism of modern culture, this is a way to connect with the Christ who continues to speak to us here and now, through every possible medium.
In my spiritual quest for solitude and silence, I have become increasingly sensitive to and intolerant of noise pollution. Loud voices. Doors slamming. Talk radio and television commercials blaring. And most of all, gardeners with their blaring weed-whackers and leaf blowers. I can tolerate the mowers but whatever happened to old-fashioned raking and week pulling? I wince sometimes at the rant inside my head that vehemently berates this generation’s lack of courtesy and awareness of others. Although this indignation may be righteous, I learned recently that an attitude adjustment was in order if I truly want to become the “wise elder” I seek to be.
Although we have a large yard, my husband and I do not have a gardening service anymore. We installed artificial turf in the backyard a few years ago because of the drought and although I still have fifteen rosebushes, beds of succulents, and many potted plants, we find it therapeutic to tend to them ourselves. We are apparently in the minority on our block. Almost every day, gardeners in big trucks arrive and the noise recital begins from morning until late afternoon: first mowers, then loud radios, voices, weed-eaters, and finally, those ear-piercing leaf blowers. Stymied from any possibility for quiet meditation,. I put on my noise-canceling Air Pods and play Gregorian chant to block out the cacophony.
Last week, when I rounded the corner on my daily walk, I came face-to-face with my neighbor’s gardener. He was mindlessly blowing their leaves and yard debris into my flowerbed which I had just painstakingly weeded and watered. I stood like a warrior poised for battle in the middle of my sidewalk. Immediately, he turned off the blower and reassured me he would clean up the mess he had made in my yard straight away. This was my chance, I thought, and struck up a conversation with him about leaf blowers and noise and why sending so much dust into the atmosphere was necessary. Above his mask, his eyes looked careworn and tired. He told me that he hated the blowers, too, and showed me the earplugs he wore to decrease the literally deafening decibels that bombarded him his whole workday. Up to him, he would get rid of his machine but circumstances did not allow such a luxury because, without it, he simply could not compete.
We talked about his daily schedule. He said he covered a 50-mile radius, 10 hours a day, 6 days a week, approximately 30 minutes at each house. I quickly did the calculations – so that meant doing 10-15 residences a day? He nodded. Even if he wanted to rake leaves instead of blowing them into the street, he did not have time. Cutting back was not an option. He had a big family who depended on him. Without using these loud tools, his livelihood would be drastically diminished. Moreover, he could not pay his nephew (the assistant standing sheepishly at a distance) who was taking online college classes. I suddenly felt very small and thanked him for talking to me. I knew he had to get going if he was going to beat the clock.
I sat on my front porch step and forced myself to listen to this gentle man’s leaf blower but now it sounded more like some weird neo-classical music that my untrained mind heretofore could not appreciate. After packing up the tools, he smiled and waved to me as they drove away. I waved back, surrounding him with love and light, my go-to intercessory prayer practice. I felt a little like Thomas Merton when he was pierced with love for the people on the street corner in Louisville. Agape (the love of God) is like that – unconditional, no strings attached, a gift of grace, spontaneous, epiphanous, descending when least expected, shattering brick and mortar, pettiness and self-righteousness. Agape cracks open the dusty doors of the heart with simply a few minutes of human contact.
Today, we celebrate St. Valentine’s Day and I plan to leave some heart cookies in a tin for my neighbor’s gardener. He and his nephew might enjoy the unexpected treat. Unbeknown to them, they helped my heart expand to embrace the totality of human experience, full of silence–and noise.
Long ago, a little girl in Catholic grade school, I was introduced to art appreciation once a month on Friday afternoons. Each child received a five-by-seven-inch print on cardstock of either a painting or a sculpture with a short description on the reverse side. I can still smell the fresh ink on those cards and how thrilled I was to be given these precious little gifts. The art teacher pointed out obvious highlights and nuanced features, instructing us on how to “see” a work of art. After the presentation, we were told to put our heads down on our desks, be perfectly still, and imagine ourselves inside the artwork. After about ten minutes, we were asked to write a short paragraph on what we thought the artist was trying to convey.
The day we were given Van Gogh’s “A Starry Night” was a turning point. I knew nothing about the artist’s tortured life but thought he might be a child, like me, whose parents had allowed him to go crazy with paints. When I placed the print on the desk for our time of meditation, I kept my eyes open and felt like I was in the painting, walking through turbulent indigo, under a comet-filled sky.
Like so many people, I fell in love that day with Vincent Van Gogh and even more with our Creator who gifted him with these celestial visions. Our paths crossed many times over the years, in gardens of irises and daffodils, in fields of wheat, under wild trees and cherry blossoms, on Paris street corners, in self-portraits and faces of ordinary people. In the 1970s, when the song “Vincent” (by Don McLean) hit the pop charts, I played it about a million times and cried every time, thinking of Vincent’s despair which culminated in death by his own hand. “Now, I think I know what you tried to say to me, How you suffered for your sanity, How you tried to set them free. . .“
Several weeks ago, I went to the Van Gogh Immersive Experience with my three daughters, their Christmas gift to me. This craze has been sweeping the country for the past year so undoubtedly many of you have also attended.
We entered a huge, dark warehouse hidden in the back of the Del Mar fairgrounds. After strolling through a gallery of information about Van Gogh’s life, the inner sanctum appeared. I almost took off my shoes for this seemed more like a temple than an exhibition hall. Despite being with my family and many strangers, I felt suddenly alone as mood-altering music began and Van Gogh’s paintings lavishly appeared on the walls, ceilings, and floors, like ocean waves of spilled paint, until we were immersed inside his voluminous life’s work.
On the black surroundings, handwritten quotes appeared slowly at first, then the colors, flowers, trees, faces, places, and the very soul of Vincent Van Gogh were splashed on every corner of the immensity. At one point, a young woman danced, couples embraced, some took selfies, many were intent upon recording the experience on their phones as if they could not bear so much stimulation.
I sat as still as a statue on the edge of a wooden bench, drinking in the colors, feelings, hundreds of paintings, both familiar and foreign, utterly inebriated with beauty and wonder. Caught up in the embrace of the Beloved, free from time and space, an intimate moment of “oneing,” written about by great mystical lovers, poured into my soul. I took a “long, loving look at the Real,” that night, my favorite definition of contemplative prayer. My heart silently cried out, “My Lord and my God!” after this consecrated moment, now forever etched into my memory.
On the ride home, we discussed what Van Gogh might think of the immersive experience. I do not know, of course, but I felt his personal, passionate, presence streaming through the confines of time and space and modern technology, inspiring generations to fall on their knees in wonder and adoration. What better legacy of love is there?
For three decades, I taught several classes on the History of the Catholic Church. Dividing two thousand years into 500-year chunks was an overwhelming task. But I loved it. Since this was not for college credit but rather for the formation of neophytes, I used a storyteller’s conversational style, pointing out quirky connections to modern culture. When I did evaluations at the end of the year, Church History was most often checked as the favorite topic.
People seemed most intrigued (rather morbidly perhaps) to my discussion of the plague, as in Bubonic, the pandemic that ravaged basically every country of the then known world from 1346-1353. Seven long years of the “Black Death” took its toll on medieval life. I often heard gasps and “wows” when I showed my PowerPoint charts of how many people perished (estimated around 200 million). There was a certain relief that it “couldn’t happen today,” since we have modern science and superior medical resources not known 650 years ago.
The primary question I raised during these presentations was: How did the plague affect religious practices and attitudes? Understanding the past is key to comprehending the present, a necessary and essential educational step. I tried hard to fit historical events together like a big jigsaw puzzle for clarity. Here are the top ten points that summarize the after-effects of the bubonic plague:
Empty churches. Not only did clergy and congegation die off, but survivors became afraid to gather in big groups and so they stopped attending.
Somber Liturgies. Often focusing on death, liturgical prayers and hymns were dominated by pleadings for release from purgatory, reparation for sin, and collective protection from harm.
Blaming Weak People: Individuals who engaged in immoral, evil acts (especially sexual sins) were blamed for causing sickness and death.
Blaming Ethnic and Social Groups. Jews, Muslims, immigrants, foreigners, pagans, atheists were targeted as the cause/spreaders of the plague.
Negative Image of God. God was seen as punishing, revengeful, angry with his creatures and had intervened by “culling” the population with the plague.
Rise in Superstition. Protection from harm was sought from novenas, rosaries, holy hour devotions, pilgrimages, and donning medals, scapulars, crosses, etc. Donations were given to clergy and institutions for time off purgatory.
Pervasiveness of Dread, Fear, Anxiety, Depression, Hopelessness. Emphasis on the afterlife, the desire for heaven, the fear of going to hell, promoted a negative view of life on earth as a place of trial and suffering.
Rise in Elitism. Those who were rich had better food, water, healthcare, than those who were poor. Hoarding food and medical supplies was common.
Determinism and Belief in Predestination Increased. Everything is up to God and happens “for the best,” or “for a reason.” Some are chosen and some are not. People were taught to obey and accept whatever hand they were dealt.
Skewed View of What is Blessed and Holy. A growing belief that a productive, disciplined life of work and spiritual devotion shows God has blessed and rewarded certain people. Conversely, those who experience sickness and death are not as blessed or loved by God.
Perhaps the biggest story of 2021-22 centers on the after-effects of Covid 19 (the modern plague) on our lives. Most people see the story as medical, or even political, but not so those of us interested in global religious trends. Hidden behind the daily statistical screen crawl are literally millions of stories about how coping with the virus has affected overall quality of life, images of God, church attendance, prayer, and a sense (or absence) of the divine.
Over the Christmas holidays, I tested positive for the omicron variant of Covid 19. Yes, I have been vaccinated and have never been risky about crowds, obediently following protocols. Nonetheless, the strain spread like wildfire throughout the whole family after our Christmas gathering. Fortunately, the medical folks speak the truth about the experience, which is mostly mild cold-like symptoms in the head and throat. The children had it for about two days. The adults had it about a week. The quarantine over the Twelve Days of Christmas was tortuous to me. As I resigned myself to ten days of isolation and solitude, there was ample time to think, write, and pray. For a few days, I was curiously resistant.
Eventually, I contemplated my Covid 19 experience, a battle I had fought so valiantly for 18 months. From the beginning, I told my family and friends not to think of me as “vulnerable.” I hated all that rhetoric about anyone over 60 or with “co-morbidities” needing to be sheltered like some hothouse flower. Ugh. Who wants to think of themselves like that? I worked full-time and was around lots of people throughout the worst months of Covid 19, pre-vaccines. Honestly, I never felt afraid and repeatedly said I would rather take the risk and be with my loved ones than hide in fear until it ended for good. I never understood those who preferred to distance and only see each other on Zoom. So, I guess you could say that I was prepared to get Covid if I had to—of course– I preferred winning the battle rather than losing it. When those two pink lines appeared on the rapid test, I faced a sobering dish of humble pie.
While isolated, I returned to my plague after-effects list and was rather stunned to recognize these realities within myself and my former community. In the 21st century, churches are still empty and many people have yet to return in person for one reason or another. Moreover, liturgies have become more somber and do not inspire hope. Gone are the joyful hymns and upbeat atmosphere. The music at my parish throughout the pandemic has sounded like a slow dirge and did not change one bit during the Christmas season. Priest homilies are canned messages about the readings we have all heard a million times. Often bookended with silly warnings about gum chewing, pleas to come to confession, or pitches for more money, these little sermons lack relevance and do not speak to the current hunger for meaning in this anxious time in history. I now leave mass feeling even more depressed than I was when I arrived. I prefer to watch mass online (St. Monica’s in Santa Monica is terrific) than go to the local parishes. It’s not fear of the virus that keeps me at home. It’s my sadness and disappointment that parishes are merely surviving and not inspiring that keeps me away. I love the Eucharist and I love community so this is a big sacrifice for me.
We are still quick to blame others for the pandemic which I also find so disgusting. I refuse to look at Facebook or Instagram or any social media outlet that allows the crazy-minded among us to feed into the big fear by making outrageous claims. I did not allow anyone in the family to do it either. What’s the point? We can never be sure who brought Covid to Christmas dinner so why bother endlessly opining about it? To make the “spreader” feel even worse than they already do? That doesn’t sound very compassionate or Christian to me.
Many people still have the Old Testament, vengeful image of God embedded in their spirituality. Some feel guilty, some feel unworthy, some feel superstitious. I see more people wearing scapulars, trying to ward off the evil by wearing crosses, and sprinkling holy water on everything. I hear claims that the pandemic is “happening for a reason,” and if we get sick and die, then it is “God’s will,” “our time to go.” If we do not contract it then we are “blessed.” Despite 650 years of progress, we are still very primitive in our attitudes toward the divine, especially when we feel threatened by an invisible virus that kills.
These nearly two years of the pandemic have been a time of spiritual desert-dwelling for me. What I am experiencing is familiar territory for I have been in the desert many times in the past, characterized by a sense of aridity and starkness. But there is also beauty in the desert’s night sky, in the shadows of the dunes, in the blooming cacti that appear out of nowhere. My brush with the plague has made me ever more aware of the subtle, incarnational divine presence that exudes from every flower, leaf, animal, person I encounter. When faced with death, isn’t this where we all end up? Clinging to every aspect of this stunningly beautiful life we have been given?
Perhaps the greatest gift of the pandemic has been the opportunity to embrace every minute, even the Covid minutes, with a sense of humble gratitude, yet another reminder of how much I take for granted. Now on the other side of the illness and not having experienced the serious, life-threatening variants of the past, I do feel a sense of relief. My brush with the plague has been strangely yet predictably paradoxical. I have been enriched by the very thing I had dreaded the most. Now I await the renaissance, the rebuilding of our Church and community life in whatever new form must emerge.
In other parts of the world, today is known as “Little Christmas.” Traditionally, on January 6th, the three kings, or Magi, arrive in Bethlehem and pay homage to the Christchild with their mysterious gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Today, people still dress up as kings and give each other gifts. They eat kings’ cake and have parties that flow into the night. In America, most people are done with Christmas by now. Not only do we not give gifts, dress up, or bake cakes, we do not even acknowledge what goes on in other places. Unfortunately, in 2022, January 6th is now associated with the insurrection at the capital last year. How very sad!
Epiphany defined means a “sudden manifestation of the divine in the ordinary” and, when aware, should be happening to us all the time. Use of the word has grown in popularity these days to mean a sudden realization or enlightenment. It’s like a flash of mystical insight when there is no doubt, even for a few seconds, that God is close and real. Obviously, these moments are fleeting. As soon as an epiphany happens, the flash is gone like a sunset and no amount of alchemy can conjure it up again.
I have had many epiphany moments in my life. Some bigger than others. The latest one happened recently when I was raking leaves in my backyard and suddenly felt overcome with happiness over not having to return to work after Christmas. Having been a self-proclaimed workaholic all my life, this was a profound realization for me. A hurtle, really. I always mused about what I would be like when I no longer let work define me and truth told, was afraid to look into that abyss. To feel so utterly free of incumbrances is an epiphany of the highest order. It is a gift, like gold, frankincense, or myrrh, that is unexplainably and paradoxically perfect.
May you be open to the many splendid epiphanies all around you.
“O star of wonder, star of light, star with royal beauty bright, westward leading, still proceeding, guide us to thy perfect light.”
I am feeling a little sad today, not just because the Yuletide officially ends on the Twelfth Day of Christmas, but because I am not baking a kings’ cake nor am I hosting an Epiphany party, something I have done faithfully for several decades (except last year). With the Omicron virus out of control right now, it would be irresponsible to gather in person and so I must celebrate virtually, or simply in my heart, this special day in the year.
Parties on Twelfth Night I have had in the past are remembered with great joy: baking a tiny plastic baby in the kings’ cake, donning crowns, moving the three Magi closer to the Christ child, giving little gifts of stars, and chocolate coins to my guests. All these activities have great significance to me, I suppose because my primary love language is gift-giving, and I am grieving the lost opportunity.
But it is a bright, sunshiny day in Southern California. The light this time of year is so brilliant that it reminds me of the star of Bethlehem and a dream I once had: It was the dead of night but suddenly a great light appeared in the sky and everyone woke up, came out of their homes, and walked down to the beach following the radiance. When we arrived, we were enveloped in warmth, unity, peace and joy. We were one in the love that enveloped us, emanating from the trinitarian love song that plays at the heart of all creation. Best of all–we all recognized it!
On this Twelfth Day of Christmas, I plan to leave little gifts anonymously on the doorsteps of my neighbors. I not only want to follow the light, I wanted to be a light for someone today. I hope and pray you are too.
“I wish I had a river I could skate away on; I wish I had a river so long it would teach my feet to fly. . .I wish I had a river I could skate away on. . .” from “River” by Joni Mitchell
No secret revealed, libraries and bookstores rank high on my list of favorite places and I have skated away on a river of books since I was old enough to read. Novels, nonfiction, classic literature, children’s books, well, I love it all. My children and grandchildren are well aware of this facet of my personhood. One of their Christmas gifts every year is a book I think they need to read. To my delight On Christmas day, I had quite an in-depth conversation with my twelve year-old-grandson about the book True Grit (my gift to him) and about Charles Dickens, an author he said he had never heard of. (I had to do some deep-breathing during that statement because Dickens is one of my favorite authors).
This past year, I did something I never pictured myself doing–I decided to listen to audiobooks. I began by borrowing classic novels from the library and listening to many titles long checked off my list. One of the first was A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. I have read this novel at least five times as well as seen the films but when I heard a distinguished English voice read Dickens, I was mesmerized. The words came alive, the scenes even more vivid, the story clearer than ever before. I also listened to Middlemarch by George Eliot (almost 900 pages), and Promised Land by Barrack Obama, which he read himself! Now I am listening to the Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis and enjoying the voices of the familiar characters in a way I never thought possible. Because I tried something new, I have been immensely enriched and abundantly gifted.
I fear that kids today do not read for escape and pleasure like I did and that does not settle well in my soul. Having seen and listened to many anxious and depressed young ones, I know they need a river to skate away on sometimes. Unfortunately, that river is most often social media, texting, or internet cyberspace environments that do not transport them to a land of enchantment and beauty. My youngest daughter is a high school English teacher and we have many conversations about how to raise and nurture a next generation of readers. While challenging, perhaps we elders need to make the effort to share our wisdom without judgment and teach our young ones how to skate so they will feel the glorious freedom flowing from the river of books right at their fingertips.