Advent Listening for a New Year

2018 was a year of change. I turned 65, I lost my job, and we sold our beloved home, moved 4 times, welcomed and lost close family members and communities – events that offer an opportunity for deep listening.

I’m learning about my new home in British Columbia. Cascadia, the Pacific Northwest region of Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia, boasts that residents are spiritual and not religious, a distinction that shapes a way of life with the natural world. I also discovered that The Contemplative Society, that encourages Christian wisdom tradition, is based in Victoria, BC. I attended an Advent Silent Mini-Retreat this group co-sponsored with the Interfaith Chapel at the University of Victoria on a recent Saturday.

Being a bit cautious about riding the city bus for the first time to the University from my house and thinking the retreat started at 9:00 instead of 9:30, I arrived about 8:45. As synchronicity would have it, I helped Liz and Henri, who were leading the retreat, get the space ready. They welcomed me as an insider rather than as a first-time participant. We set up the kitchen area for a break and a light lunch, arranged tables in the outer areas, and carried chairs and pillows to the chapel space. Liz even asked me to greet people as they arrived when the time came, thus encouraging me even more to belong.

I risked entering into the day in this spirit of welcome and brought my most inward practices into community. And in that unfamiliar sense of community, I did newly experience familiar patterns I’ve cultivated over the years. I participated in chants in the style of Taizé, which were new to me, and familiar centering prayer and contemplative reading. A prayerful and reflective walk through the exposed shapes of the winter garden next to the chapel expanded my understanding of possibility in a season not usually associated with growth.

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Snowberries in Finnerty Garden, University of Victoria

I’ve nurtured a way of reading and meditating on scripture, Lectio Divina, for many years. On this retreat, sharing that experience with others, I had to consciously listen, since I wasn’t the one reading to myself as is my usual custom. Liz, one of the retreat leaders, read Luke 1: 26-28. Slowly and deliberately, she read the scripture multiple times. I didn’t have the opportunity to see the words, so I noticed more acutely the ideas that stood out to me as I listened to this Advent story of Mary’s visit from an angel foretelling her role as the mother of Jesus.

I heard that Mary was favored by God and asked to do something she had never done before. For maybe the first time, I heard Mary question how this could be so, she wasn’t even married yet. Then I heard those familiar words, nothing is impossible with God, which I usually associate with Sarah’s, Hannah’s, or Elizabeth’s stories of the miracle of conception when that was their deepest wish, prayer, and impossibility. I heard clearly Mary’s answer, “Here I am Lord, let it be done to me according to your design.”

In the penetrating gift of silence that followed my hearing, I was able to attend to my own life alongside Mary’s experience. Here, in my new place, I also am being called to something else, something I’ve never done before. I said that, in so many words, last November and December and January and February and even March when I knew I wouldn’t be continuing in my job at the University. I knew my loss forced me to embrace newness.

But then, I lost sight. I got bogged down in the uncertainties when I knew where we might be going. How crazy is that to have that awareness of newness when I didn’t know where I would be—but then to lose that sense when the way became clearer that Mitch would take a job in Victoria.

When my last semester was completed in the spring, I was disoriented. I went through both the pain and great hope of graduation as my own ending. I was thankful for Tom Long, the graduation speaker, whose words were life-giving: go deeper, abundance, reversal, and confrontation.  I was thankful for colleagues who acknowledged my sadness with steadfast care and respect. I was thankful that I had the foresight to decide to do what I knew was right even at the last minute, to have the courage to go to graduation when I said I wouldn’t because I thought it would be too painful.

And then, in that quiet place, my heart wasn’t quiet as the veneer of anticipating newness began to buckle under the weight all that unknown—significant life changes for both our adult children, revisiting Victoria in anticipation of moving, the agony of planning another physical repositioning. I met these changes with brace rather than surrender to the newness being offered.

I lived the uncertainty anxiously, perseverating over the details of planning an international move. As I pondered what to give away or keep, what parts of life, as I knew it, would be coming along, my decisions were uncertain. I continue to second guess and hold old visions too tightly. I am still somewhat unwilling or unable to claim this place as our own—my own—my dwelling place for this time. The freedom to be able to make unplanned trips to be with family in their own states of change and challenge has actually made the separation of things and place even more acute—the unsettledness and disorientation renewed.

In my new home, I have passed over the signs of new life. The beauty of the island is muddied by my old dream of hardwood forests on old mountains that soothed my mind’s eye. Even with the fast and sure friendship of two women my same age and the unusual cast of characters who have generously shared their stories with me in my new home, I don’t know if I’ve given in—let my guard down so to speak. I lack the surrender to newness that keeps me apart and uncertain.

And now I come to this day, facing my impossibility. What do I hear? What is God’s word to me as I listen? I reread that scripture with my own eyes in the shadow of that new contemplative community I experienced at the retreat.

But she was greatly troubled… (v. 29)

Another translation says Mary was perplexed. Mary’s response bears similarities to my own of this last year – disorientation, not knowing, being afraid, even wondering how this can be.

How can this be since… (v.34)

Mary, too, is giving God a reality check. This thing you are telling me can’t be possible and here is the reason—this doesn’t make sense. However, it

…will be holy… (v.34)

What is happening to me is holy, of God, and not entirely my own doing.

Nothing is impossible with God. (v. 36-37)

The angel gives evidence of Elizabeth’s impossibility taking shape. Notice and lean into what God is already doing.

Here I am…let it be done to me… (v.38)

Mary simply was willing, available, and consented to God’s presence and action in her life. I’m reminded that these mothers celebrated the impossible that was right in front of them even though they could explain none of it. Even though I have not done so simply, am I able to let old certainties make way for the impossible?

The lesson is not new. In this life situation, whether I view it as a threat or an opportunity, I responded with brace, hardening, resisting and blinding myself to the unknown. Mary’s response was to accept the impossible as a willing and available participant in newness.

The chimes in the chapel garden called me back to the community following my listening walk. Keep listening.

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