These past two weeks I’ve been “substitute” teaching a graduate course in Religious Education and Ministry as my dear friend Dennis broke his leg. Since this “gig” was last minute, I was scrambling and panicking over what I would lecture/talk about. Truth be told, and as those of you who know me, I’m ALWAYS scrambling and panicking about what I’m going to discuss. This time it was with greater intensity as this was a class of Ph.D. students. My game was leveled up from my sweet undergrads. As usual, the sage advice that I received from Dennis was “Talk about what you know…pilgrimage.” I suppose it worked as many of the conversations I had with our students was how pilgrimage is woven into our daily lives yet at the same time is an opportunity to leave our daily lives. So the Camino has been at the forefront of my mind for the past two weeks for that reason as I think about what a joy walking and contemplating and being in creation is for me. There’s been an emptiness in my soul this past year, along with a deep yearning to throw on my backpack and my little hiking shoes and just walk across Spain. Without the Camino, without walking, without pilgrimage, my life doesn’t feel fully complete. I feel it more than ever during the winter when the light is dim, the days are “shorter” and much colder. So I’ve been thinking, and anticipating and planning and yes, WAITING for my next Camino. Waiting to see what might unfold for me in the movement of pilgrimage this coming year. And with this waiting, it struck me that I might be able to construct a connection between pilgrimage and Advent. I don’t think I’ve fully “nailed it” in this entry, but perhaps it will unfold if I keep at it during this season of grace-filled wonder.
As we make peace with and put closure on 2018 many of us begin to reflect on all that was these last twelve months, whether good or bad, and prepare for what is to come, despite the unpredictable nature of the outcome. During this time of year we more often than not find ourselves confronted with long lists, bigger bills, shopping, baking, and lines to “stand on” (as we say in Brooklyn) as long as the lists we carry. The family drama is usually the tree topper of the season provoking stronger feelings of “good riddance” rather than “good will to all.” Even decking our halls offers the potential to induce stress, as many of us strive to create the perfect Christmas diorama that our children and grandchildren will look back upon with fondness and nostalgia. More often than not these vignettes become more like the scene from “A Christmas Story” where (spoiler alert) the dogs invade the house and eat the turkey or just about any scene in “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.”
This Christmas crescendo builds and rises as the thermometer plunges here in New England, compelling us to bundle in layers and brace ourselves against the snow, sleet, ice, wind and occasional power outages. The light at this time of year is diminishing, which can for a good number of us, be a time of struggle emotionally and mentally. Yet with the waning light, it is a season to rejoice, be merry, grateful and count our abundance of blessings, even when we may have to search hard to find them. It is the season of Advent, a time of, waiting, spiritual anticipation and preparation as Christians looks forward to the light of Jesus.
I find myself continually searching for light after we turn the clocks back in November. Stumbling in the dark, searching for light…such are the metaphors for my life but also for the season of Advent. I’m rather cranky about the shortened hours of daylight, as I leave and return home each day under a blanket of darkness. I eagerly count the days, hours and minutes until the Winter Solstice (Friday, December 21, 2018, 5:23 pm EST for those inquiring minds who want/need to know), greedily looking forward to when each day gets just slightly brighter and “longer.” At the same time, when it finally arrives, I feel a bit cheated for some odd reason, as if I have been forced to contend with the understanding that the cocoon I’ve enveloped myself in will be broken. A paradox among many that I struggle with in my life…but that is another post or most likely a session with a therapist.
Most days I leave my warm and cozy house before dawn and look forward to getting a left side window seat on my train ride into NYC so I can catch a glimpse of some beautifully hued sunrises befitting these December days. FYI…there is a moment around Greenwich when the train crosses a bridge that has a glorious view of the river meeting Long Island Sound. When the sun is inching above the water it’s magnificent! The winter sunrises are subtle, gentle, and quiet, rising like ballerinas, wafting and manifesting grace and artistry with effortless precision as the rich and intense pinks, creamy yellows, bright violets and moody blues (Did you get that one? Hahahaha) ascend against a backdrop of fading stars and the moon. These masterful strokes of vivid color are alluring reminders of the gift of every new day. When I arrive home every evening I am greeted by the various phases of the moon suspended in the night sky spotlighting my front walkway towards the delicate illuminated candles and stars in each of my windows: lights to welcome me and assure me that there is hope. Hope for warmth, comfort, joy and peace. My little Advent wreath graces my entryway; a symbol of this period of waiting, an anticipation of the reverent and joyful celebration of the moment that infinite love expressed in an eternal outpouring became incarnate, bearing a light, the warmth of which had never before been felt.
Light is so important in our lives, in our religions. Since fire was discovered, our sacred traditions have utilized and celebrated this element as divine and in honor of the Divine. The light of the stars have guided and illuminated the paths and hearts of pilgrims journeying to Santiago de Compostela and on other religious pilgrimages throughout history as seekers have moved towards the sacred with purpose and longing in prayerful anticipation of a deeper relationship with the Divine. Light is also essential in our defense against depression, discouragement and despondency. Yet, ironically we often find ourselves within the shadows that are cast by the lights. It’s a challenge to come out of the shadows when the last thing we want to do is immerse ourselves in all the brightness of the wrapping, lawn ornaments, decorations, and carols at the spinet. The festivities have the potential to reflect the opposite of their intent. Yet the light, this particular light of Advent and Christmas is indispensable and necessary most especially when we find ourselves more often than not surrounded by the sad and terrible reports of violence and injustice against so many people in our country and the world. This light, the light of the Savior born, the light that St. Francis of Assisi so lovingly created for us in the tradition of the crèche is a reminder that we are invited out of our suffering, which, by the way, is not along the camino of commercialism that Amazon and others proclaim will bring tidings of comfort and joy. The light that arrived is a light that crossed borders with little joy or comfort. This is a light that illuminated the world of the oppressed, the tired, the hungry and lonely of the 1st century and throughout history to our present time. A light that recognized and shared in the burdens and suffering of death, betrayal and the consequences of speaking truth and standing with the poor and marginalized. This is not the impressive and powerful light of the Eiffel Tower or the Empire State Building but the light that embraces us in its glow, that stands with us in the bleakness, the tragedies and the unbearableness of our lives.
We can reflect on the many ways light is present for us, guiding us out of the darkness of our stress, misfortune and negativity. Light is important. Indeed, it most certainly assists us to see our way literally, but it also reflects and illuminates the goodness of creation, and our relationships: our families, friends, and colleagues. When we light candles, we find a way to connect with our ancestors, with those people who forged paths so that our personal pilgrimages might be less burdensome. Light delivers warmth, comfort and joy. It is reminder to us how the strangers, the marginalized, the lost, and the forgotten are vessels of light for us and each of us for them. Without our communities, without our relationships, those that we hold fast and firm, those that are newly formed and those that we will create, we are stumbling in the dark. In this darkness we often stop and wait for our eyes to adjust, and in doing so become aware of any slight glimmer of light, that slight glimmer of hope that we anticipate will guide us towards Christmas. The practice of Advent in our darkness presents us with the opportunity to adjust our eyes and seek the light and find a spot to wait. And in the waiting, which for some of us (me) is a difficult practice, we remember WHO we are waiting for.
The waiting for the light during the season of Advent reminds us that God never abandons us in darkness. In actuality, God waits with us. God waits when we (and when I say we I really mean “I”) are impatient, distracted, heartbroken, anxious or otherwise engaged. This warm and gracious, subtle, welcoming season of Advent is a time when we are offered the perfect gift. Not a gift found in the LL Bean or J Crew catalogues, but the gift of deepening our relationship with God as we wait together for Jesus to enter into this world as one of us. We wait for the Holy Spirit to guide us towards love, a love that is absolute. A love that empowers us to love one another and God in return. A love and a light that makes visible to us the invisible. A revelatory light that reminds, and invites us into an encounter, a relationship like no other. A light that kindles and irridates our Advent Camino/Journey.
Full disclosure, I write all this because in actuality I keep thinking that if I write, if I can process it and unpack and puzzle out the theology of it all then just MAYBE the lightbulb will eventually go off… that AHA moment will happen for me and my mind and my heart will finally fuse. Maybe I’ll start to better understand the words that I think sound appropriate, the words that I think I should write, and eventually these words might become infused with deeper trust, faith and belief. I still wonder about so much of it…I still struggle with that faith thing that I’ve been wrestling with on every pilgrimage I ever make. Why should this journey through Advent be any different I guess. I’m still not there…in so many ways literally and metaphorically speaking.
But we continue to wait for enlightenment, with longing, we wait with hope, we wait, in the darkness, searching with anticipation for God to be born. And in this waiting, we wait WITH God for God to be born. Maybe it takes this waiting…the calming and slow anticipation of holding our breath, settling ourselves and discovering anew that Advent spark of incarnational love unfolding eternal light so we can proclaim Emmanuel – God is with us.