I grew up with the tradition of an Advent wreath -- four candles, one for each Sunday of Advent, and a candle in the middle. In my childhood, the central candle was always a countdown candle, thanks to the artwork of our neighbor, Grace Krabill.
When our children were little, I went back to her and learned how to paint the candle with a spiral of numbers from 1 - 25 and a scattering of holly leaves and berries. At supper each evening, the children took turns lighting the countdown candle or blowing it out. Then on Sunday evening, we'd carry the wreath to the living room, turn out all the electric lights except for the little ones on the tree, light candles around the room, and ceremoniously light the Advent candles for that week. And we would sing the appropriate number of verses from "O come, O come, Immanuel."
Now that the children are grown and out on their own, we have a Christ-candle in the middle of the wreath, and we sing "O come" in other settings.
On this third Sunday of Advent, I'm hearing the third verse of "O Come" singing through my heart, with its rather mournful melody.
O come, thou Dayspring, come and cheer
our spirits by thine advent here;
disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
and death's dark shadows put to flight.
I'm grieving the deaths in schoolrooms in Connecticut and China. I'm holding awareness of others' gloomy clouds and dark shadows -- illness and loss of loved ones, depression, work and family stresses, discord in home or church or nation, the pain of past events, the challenges of the jolliness of this season.
I'm savoring the words of Zechariah's prophecy from Luke 1:78:
By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.
The dawn, or in the words of the King James Version, the dayspring.
For those who sit with the shadow of death this day:
O come, thou Dayspring.
O come, O come, Immanuel.
Immanuel, which means God-with-us -- and which brings me back to the Christ-candle, and the phrase that the Children in Worship program has given us, the phrase that is always repeated at the end of their worship time, as the candle flame is extinguished and the smoke swirls through the room:
The Light that was in one place and one time
is now in all places and all times.
It feels very right to have a Christ-candle in the middle of our Advent wreath, and to be lighting it each evening, even as we also light the Advent candles one at a time, week by week, waiting to celebrate Christmas and the arrival of the Christ-child, the Light who was in one place and time, and now is in all places and all times, the One who can guide us into the way of peace.
The light shines in the darkness
and the darkness can not put it out.
I picked up a copy of John O'Donohue's Anam Cara at Better World Books the other day. I haven't started reading it yet, but I did leaf through the beginning and came across this paragraph, which fit so well with the themes of this blog, I had to share it:
We are always on a journey from darkness into light. At first, we are children of the darkness. Your body and your face were formed first in the kind darkness of your mother's womb. Your birth was a first journey from darkness into light. All your life, your mind lives within the darkness of your body. Every thought that you have is a flint moment, a spark of light from your inner darkness. The miracle of thought is its presence in the night side of your soul; the brilliance of thought is born in darkness. Each day is a journey. We come out of the night into the day. All creativity awakens at this primal threshold where light and darkness test and bless each other.
John O'Donohue, Anam Cara, p 4
I had a retreat day at the cottage at Pathways Retreat Center today, a good day of rest and reflection. The morning was gray and drippy, and could have been dismal, except that everywhere I looked, I saw beads of light. There was even color.
The afternoon was drier and I was able to walk the small labyrinth. I came back to my snug cabin and Seeking with All My Heart by Paula D'Arcy, and found myself reading about her experience walking a labyrinth made with luminaries (candles in paper bags). She describes how she half-closed her eyes, so she was no longer aware of the others walking with her through the narrow rows of candles.
"There was only light. And suddenly I was nowhere, and I was everywhere. At the same moment. I simply was. And there was nothing more or less than now."
She held that awareness as she refocused her eyes and started the journey back out, passing the people who followed her, this time meeting their eyes, holding their gaze. She realized that the labyrinth wasn't just a work of art, but a representation of something deeply true.
"The path we each walk, the movement of the soul toward awakening, is ablaze with light. We never take a step apart from light. By light we are held and defined.
But on the path itself, day to day, we seldom, if ever glimpse light. We're more likely to see difficulty, adversity and sorrow. We often feel alone, not held. There is no sense of a life-sustaining embrace. There is the sense that life is an incomprehensible puzzle, which often goes in a direction we would never have consciously chosen. Far from seeing light, we perceive darkness."
She goes on to tell of meeting, years later, the nurse who had cared for her in intensive care in the days after a car accident that took the lives of her husband and daughter. She didn't recognize her, but the nurse knew who she was and told of how she had tended her and prayed for her, and hoped against hope that she'd make it -- praying that the flicker of light she saw in her would not go out.
Driving home after the encounter, Paula was overwhelmed by "a realization that those days, for me, had appeared to be totally and utterly dark. And if my life at the time had been depicted as a journey within a labyrinth, I would have insisted that that particular section of the path was unlit. But that night, in a rare moment, I not only got to see that I was mistaken, I got to see the very embodiment of the path's light."
Darkness and light. Walking in the light, whether we are able to perceive it or not.
I drove over to Elkhart for a meeting this morning and took the country roads, past fields that a few days ago were golden with sunshine. Not today. Today there was a thick gray cloud cover, and the bare trees were dark gray, the harvested soy fields were rusty gray, and the harvested corn fields were dun, with scarcely a ghost of pale gold remaining.
It wasn't a landscape for sparks of light, at least not photographic ones. It occurred to me that it is easy to find sparks in full sunshine -- so easy that we quickly take it for granted. And in darkness, the light stands out in vibrant contrast. The real challenge is finding light when life is gray, and all energy and life seems bleached away.
I thought I'd probably be writing about moments of light from conversations or from my visit to the seminary library, and I certainly could do that with memories from today. But I'll save some of the reading sparks for another day and post the one photographic spark I did find.
I came out of the seminary library into a downpour and hurried to my car. No glory of gulls today. But these berries on low bushes by the sidewalk were dripping light, thanks to the rain.
And just a few more photos from the retreat, for friends that would have liked to be there. The theme was Driven or Drawn: Tending Spirit Movement, with presentations by Father Bill Sneck, SJ.
Mary Lou Weaver Houser created the visuals for our time together, and slowly added to this center visual as the retreat proceeded. If you’re wondering about the cobwebby look – yes, it’s floss, picking up on Father Bill’s description of doing a daily examen of consciousness as a good and necessary habit, similar to regular flossing.
The collage in the background of a waiter is also thanks to Father Bill, who likes to use the waiter as an image for his work of spiritual direction. He sees the Holy Spirit as a gourmet cook serving up a rich banquet, while Father Bill is the waiter who knows the menu of many possible prayer exercises, readings and activities; he listens to his directee’s hungers and offers menu “specials;” he is subordinate to the relationship between the diner and the chef, only one part of a good dining experience.
This unplanned still life caught my eye as I was journaling the first night. It captures many features of the retreat – flame-colored leaves gathered out in a beautiful natural setting; helpful presentations and the encouragement to put what we were learning into practice (doing the consciousness examen, formulating a proposition to test with Ignatian style pros and cons); quiet times for reflection and journaling; good food; good worship times. The sheet of music came from an evening worship session and brought its own spark of light for me. It’s the yearningly beautiful melody for a version of Psalm 139 (#556 in the Hymnal Worship Book, a tune by Ananias Davisson called Tender Thought). And the words of the last line are very fitting for thoughts on light and darkness.
If deepest darkness cover me,
The darkness hideth not from Thee;
To Thee both night and day are bright,
The darkness shineth as the light.
And one last photo, taken just as I was leaving. You can see the front view of this statue in the previous post. Here he is more anonymous, a pilgrim setting out. It makes me think of the angel’s message to the women at the tomb in Matthew’s telling of Easter morning. “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here…he has been raised, and indeed, he is going ahead of you to Galilee…” It’s a good reminder, as I return to the routines of daily life, that Jesus goes ahead of me. And that there’s always that pilgrim’s staff, ready to be picked up and used on the Way. (See it waiting there, in the corner? I didn't notice it until after I'd taken the picture.)
My walk got delayed a bit this (yesterday) morning, because this friendly fellow was splayed on the screen door to our porch, and I had to take his photo. Something about his fresh green oddity, and that amazing leaf-look just makes me smile.
I did a little internet sleuthing and found this link to the katydid's song.
Listening to it gave me a little aha! moment -- we've been hearing katydid's in the regular night chorus.
The moon was nearing the trees to the west as I crossed campus -- and looked twice that big without the camera.
A little way down the bike path, the morning glories were trumpeting a blue hallelujah to the dawn.
And the darker purple morning glories are an embodiment of the Inner Light.
I’d gotten that much written last night, but waited to post. Yesterday evening, Assembly’s worship space was available for people to gather in silent prayers around the cross. I knew it would be a time of light in darkness, and it was.
The worship space was dark, except for the lights on the banners and front table, where the flame of the peace lamp burned steadily. Closer to the entry, two semi-circles of chairs embraced an open space. In the center of that space, the rough wood cross that we use for Good Friday services lay on the floor, with two terracotta platters full of sand at its head and foot. A few small white candles stood in the platters already, bright flickers of light in the darkness. Others were held by people silently praying in the chairs, or kneeling at the cross.
John and I lit our own small white candles at the Christ candle, and joined the silent prayer.
It was a restful moment of light in the darkness. And in the middle of it, there came another spark of light. We had been there for awhile, in the midst of that prayer-filled place. There was quiet movement, as some left and others arrived, and I hardly noticed when Bethany, chair of our worship committee, got up and quietly opened a nearby closet. She brought out a small side table.
She disappeared into the worship closet. While she was out of sight, one of the older members of the congregation got slowly to his feet, his cane in one hand and burning candle in the other. He moved forward to place his candle in the platter at the head of the cross. I wondered how he would manage to get down and back up again, but just then Bethany arrived with another sand-filled platter. In one graceful movement she set it on the small table and put the table near the cross. With a gentle smile, she helped Hilary set his candle in the sand.
It struck me as such a lovely, attuned-to-the-moment gesture, a small act of kindness that captured the spirit of so many small acts of caring that are happening in this community, sparks of light as we struggle with the chaos of one act of violence.
I’d end with that, but I want to add the quote that I saw repeated in several facebook entries and a few emails yesterday. Karl Shelly, one of Assembly’s pastors and Adjunct Professor of Peace, Justice & Conflict Studies at Goshen College, wondered what to say as his “Transforming Conflict & Violence” class gathered for the first time since Professor Miller's death.
Here’s the quote. “Two things I know to be true: this world is filled with remarkable beauty and love. And this world is filled with unspeakable violence and pain. We live in between both; with glimpses of heaven and of hell; of darkness and of light. As one who seeks to transform conflict and violence, I will live by the proposition, and walk in the hope, that violence and pain never have the final word ...”
Amen and amen.
Our congregation had its annual retreat at Camp Friedenswald this weekend. The trees in southern Michigan were at their peak of color and I spent much of the weekend wandering around taking photos of light shining through leaves. I’ll save some of that light and color for posting on the next rainy day – memories are a good source for sparks of light in the midst of dreariness, thank Heaven.
John and I went back to Goshen last night for a gathering with friends and returned just before sunrise this morning, in time to spend a peaceful hour watching the gradually increasing light in the fen, and listening to the calls of killdeer, geese, and redwing blackbirds.
Looking over the fen, just before sunrise
About an hour later, when the sun has risen far enough over the hills behind us for the light to reach the fen.
It was a restful gift of slowly increasing light and birds singing praise, a good base for learning soon afterwards that tragedy has again touched the congregation. The father of one of our members, and a colleague of the many members who work at Goshen College, Jim Miller, was stabbed and killed by an intruder in the early morning hours. His wife was also injured and is in the hospital.
Darkness and light. Death and life. How can this be?
During the worship service, after the children left for Sunday School and the details we knew were shared, after one of the pastors led in prayer and we sat together in silence holding the family in God’s Light and wrestling with the chaos, the worship leader stood and in heartfelt Hebrew cried, “Eli, eli, lema sabachthani?"
"My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" he translated, drawing on Jesus’ words from the cross. “How can this be?“
And yet, he went on, it is. And so is the bright sunshine, and the colorful leaves, and this group of people gathered together, giving thanks to God.
Life and death. Lament and praise.
Back home again, I found this prayer from Philip Newell’s Celtic Treasure:
O God of light,
from whom all life flows,
may we glimpse the shinings of your presence in all things.
In the darknesses of our world,
in places of fear and terrible wrong,
and in the darknesses of our own lives,
in times of confusion and doubt,
may we glimpse the shinings of your life-giving presence.
Amen and amen.
My approach to contemplative photography --
Tell about it."
Mary Oliver in "Sometimes"