Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Getting Thin in 2014

Photo: Merry Christmas from Bayley House!
Bayley House Christmas, clockwise from back left: Carol,
Maureen, Nancy, Terry, Andrea, and me!
It’s the last day of 2013, which means that tomorrow, after stuffing our faces for a few weeks, many people will start talking about getting thin.  Although being healthy is a good thing that contributes to overall wholeness, I’ve got an idea for a different kind of “getting thin” resolution this year.  It comes from a reflection Sister Nancy led during our house community Christmas celebration (thanks Nancy!).  She invited us to read and pray with an excerpt from a 2012 NCR article by Jay Cormier (full text found here) called “The Thin Places Where God Speaks.” 

The article reads, “The Celtic Saints speak of ‘thin places’: locations in time and space where the things of heaven seem to touch the things of earth.  To be in a ‘thin place’ is to be in the real, present world of God.  Christmas is the ultimate thin place: God touches human history in the birth of a child…In Christmas, the boundary between heaven and earth is at least blurred, if not breached, forever.”

It seems that each year at Christmas, I’m amazed by something new about the boundary-breaching mystery of the Incarnation.  Last year, I reflected much on the idea that Jesus gave God a human face.  For centuries before Christ, our ancestors prayed to a God that they had read about in the scriptures but that remained an ethereal presence.  Jesus came, and God could be touched and held!  We have a deep sense of who our God is in Jesus – we can see actions, hear words, observe and imitate the radical love and compassion that he embodied.  Jesus’ birth is God saying to God’s people:  I love you, and I want you to know me.

This year, praying with Emmanuel, I was touched by our God’s intimate knowing of the human heart.  In taking flesh, Jesus lives in our world, breathes, eats, and sleeps.  As a baby, he depends on his parents for sustenance and love.  He lives times of great joy and great struggle.  He loves, cries, laughs, and feels the whole gamut of human emotion.  Now, God didn’t need to take on human form to understand us; God created us!  But maybe this is a reminder for us when we need one:  Jesus really understands it, all of it.  It’s like God’s saying: I love you, and I want you to know that I know you.

Sometimes, our life seems full of “thick places.”  God may seem too distant, too big, too incomprehensible, too mysterious to be knowing and knowable.  There are moments when I look up into the vast sky and wonder, “Who is this God, really?”  A God who created all we see and who finds a way to speak to little me is tough to grasp at times.  But Christmas reminds us in a powerful way that it is true.  My spiritual director often begins prayers with, “God of the universe and God of our hearts…” God is mystery, yes, but God is oh-so-close, with, among, and in us.  We’re always in a thin place.

At the beginning of December, Andrea, Donna, and I went to Nerinx, Kentucky, to spend a few days at Cedars of Peace, a retreat center run by the Sisters of Loretto.  We each had our own little hermitage for the weekend.  I spent hours just sitting in the comfy chair in front of the large picture window, watching the squirrels and letting the silence seep into my bones.  Winter has its own beauty, and it spoke to me of Advent.  The tall, bare trees sing of being naked and vulnerable before God who knows us so deeply.  There was a freedom in their leafless splendor, all of their branches stretching out, as if unabashedly reaching for God with every fiber of their being. There was nothing superfluous about them, just a simple be-ing.  They invited me to simply be, too, making space for Jesus’ love and new life to grow.

 I felt God’s healing love in an undeniable way.  There was that Incarnation insight that’s been with me: know you and love you as you are.  I prayed Maranatha, and I knew that Jesus was there. 

Not my photo...but just as beautiful as the deer
in Nerinx.  Aren't they always a delightful,
surprising sign of God's presence?!
On the last morning of retreat, I had just finished cleaning my cabin and packing up.  I had about ten minutes to spare until departure, so I plopped down in the big chair one last time, sad to be leaving and hoping I’d be able to carry with me the Presence I’d felt.  I didn’t feel much like praying and certainly didn’t expect anything miraculous.  Well, right when I looked out the window, three deer that I had encountered throughout the weekend came bounding out of the woods and began playing. Right then!  Andrea could see them from her cabin, too.  I was overcome with prayer, the best kind, the kind that catches you off guard and reminds you that it is God who does the praying in us, anyway.  It was a reassurance: I was with you here on retreat, but of course I’m with you always.  How did you know I needed that?  I thought.  And I felt God’s intimate, knowing smile at me in the wonder of nature around me.  A thin place.

Our lives are thin places, whether we realize it or not.  Yesterday, I spent time doing little projects that have piled up in my room, awaiting some “break” to tackle them.  The afternoon project was organizing all the files on my computer and transferring everything from my old external hard drive to a newer (much smaller!) one.  As I organized, I stumbled upon pictures from the last ten years of my life, especially the last year.  It was appropriate, as 2013 comes to a close, to flip through them, giving thanks for the people and places that have shown God’s presence to me so clearly.  Here is a snapshot:

As we reflect on the year behind us and the new one about to dawn, I invite us to “get thin” in the spiritual sense.  What have been the “thin places” of your life in the last year?  If you look, you’ll find the Incarnation happening in and around you.  You’ll find that God who knows us and wants to be known by us touching the stuff of your life and abiding in your heart through “thick and thin.”

How will you be open to the “thin places” to come?  I ask God’s grace for you and me, that we might be awakened to the Christmas-infused nature of our whole lives.  God’s powerful love, gentle comfort, and deep joy are born in us each day.  God’s spirit of courage, justice, charity, and compassion urge us on like a fire within.  Jesus touches our lives and invites us to touch the lives of others. 

It’s probably a good idea for all of us to eat less cream cheese and cookies in 2014.  But let’s make sure from time to time to stand where we are, as we are, and behold how heaven is touching earth.  God is near.  Year after year, the place we are in is thin.