To the Edge: An Advent Reflection

I delivered the following reflection at an Advent retreat I facilitated on Saturday, December 7th, 2019 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN.

In western Scotland, there is an archipelago known as the Inner Hebrides—a collection of wild, sparsely populated islands that hug the coastline like an outcropping of jewels, ensconced in the swirling gray-green tides of the north Atlantic ocean. On a map, they appear easily accessible to the mainland, but to visit them is to enter a world apart.

The Inner Hebrides are home to wild birds—puffins, and rock doves, and golden eagles— and hardy, weather-beaten plants—heather, and thistle, and a host of insistent wildflowers. They contain small fishing villages and hillsides covered in roaming sheep, whiskey distilleries and ruined monasteries.  Some of the islands are vast and mountainous, a series of craggy cliffs and broad, low plains; others are barely a speck of gray rock, grazed by the wings of passing seabirds–namelessly residing amid the roiling waves. 

But for all their remoteness, streams of travelers make their way to this cluster of islands, over 100,000 people each year. They come for a variety of reasons: for hiking, or fishing, or whiskey tasting, or perhaps for a bit of windswept solitude; but they come especially to visit one place in particular: the tiny island of Iona, perched at the outermost edge of the Inner Hebrides, accessible only by boat. 

Iona is humble in size—only a mile wide and a few miles long, with a population of just 120 people—but it looms large in the imagination of many, for it was here that St. Columba arrived from Ireland in 563 CE and established a monastery that would become the center of what we now call Celtic Christianity—an ancient form of the faith, nourished in the misty hills and valleys of what is now Ireland and Scotland, and shaped by the cultures of their early people—a form of Christianity that long predates the establishment of a church in this region with any direct tie to the authorities in Rome. 

It was here, on little Iona, at the rocky edge of the known world, that for centuries monks and scholars and warrior-kings traveled for an encounter with the living God, the One who came to be among us as Jesus, the Christ. It was here, at the edge of the sea, where they dwelt and prayed and studied and died, seeking some whisper of God’s voice in the wind and in the silence. 

And so it is that, still, pilgrims go there, to visit the tiny village, and the crumbling ruins, and the reconstructed Abbey, and the ancient stone Celtic crosses with their inscrutable symbols. They travel by train, and then by boat, and then by bus, and then by boat again, to reach this holy place, this thin space, this island of craggy, rock-strewn grace because…because for some reason they must. 

Because for some reason, each of us is drawn in some way to these places that lie at the edge of knowing, these places where the land and the sea merge, these places where what we know is overwhelmed by that which we will never fully understand. We go to these places to be silent, to listen, to watch, and then to return home, perhaps a bit more awake, a bit more alive than we were before. 

Iona has that effect on people. 

Advent also has that effect on people. 

Advent, as you might know, is derived from the Latin word adventus—it means “to come”—and so this liturgical season is the one in which we focus our attention on a very particular coming—that of Christ, whose birth is proclaimed on Christmas and whose return is promised at the end of the age. 

It is a season of hope and expectation, but also of some severity—for we know that in these comings, our lives will never be the same. The world will never be the same. Arrivals of this magnitude require reflection. Preparation.

And for the same reasons that some make the journey across the moors and the shores to seek out a tiny abbey church on a Scottish isle, to seek the presence of God in a wild land, so each of us ventured here, today, to seek out the importance of this season and what it means to “prepare the way” for the coming presence of Christ.

That phrase, “prepare the way,” the theme of our retreat today, is taken from tomorrow’s Gospel lesson from the third chapter of St. Matthew:

“In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,

“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: 

‘Prepare the way of the Lord, 

make his paths straight.’”

Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

It is worth noting that John the Baptist, in his mission to proclaim the coming Messiah, does so in the wilderness, not in the city—he is wandering across the uninhabited landscapes of Judea, crying out his message of repentance and preparation.

Matthew tells us that it is the people of Jerusalem and all Judea who come to him, leaving behind the security of their homes to seek something of God in an unguarded landscape, to be baptized by a wild man in a wild river, to embrace a salvation that is spoken of as a cleansing, a burning, a harvesting—an elemental experience, undomesticated and savagely beautiful. 

And like those Judeans, so we, too, venture beyond the familiar in Advent. We come here, not into a physical wilderness, but into the expansive, mysterious, silent heart of this season, a season whose core purpose is to instill in us a sense of Christ’s imminence, his urgent imminence—both in the form of a child, born unto us in a manger, and also in the form of a king, descending again one day in glory to judge and redeem creation at the end of all things. 

We enter this season by stepping beyond what is safe and predictable, into a liminal space—a space between knowing and unknowing, a space between the stories told and the stories yet to be told. 

We are drawn, like the Iona pilgrims, to stumble to the outer edge of the human heart, to gaze into the cloud-draped horizon and to be quiet, to listen, to watch for the One who is coming, like a wave, like a storm, like a still small voice speaking out of the whirlwind, surging over the coastline of our longings and carving them into his likeness, reshaping our hearts like stones polished by the sea. THY kingdom come, THY will be done.

Advent, it must be said, is not a season for the indifferent or the timid. If we go out to meet it, to answer its call, it will change us. 

But what does all of this talk of wilderness and pilgrimage and change have to do with our gentle program today, focused on silence and prayer? Quite a bit, actually. 

Because, you see, we spend our lives surrounded by noise; this is especially evident at this time of year, when the onslaught of saccharine commercialism joins forces with the pervasive noise of toxic online discourse, idle gossip, and media chatter to create a din that is, ultimately, numbing to the soul. 

We careen from one task to another, often with very good intentions, and yet we are often left, at the end of the holiday season, with a sense of depletion and disorientation. 

If Christ has indeed come into our midst through all of this, we run the risk of losing track of him, and thus we might end up cozy, perhaps well-fed and entertained, but unchanged. Untransformed. Untouched by the wonder of God, who gazes back at us through the eyes of an infant, who takes on our innocence and our frailty and imbues it with Divine Love, to show us how special, how good this life can be. 

So in order to break free, in order to find him, in order to find ourselves, we must venture elsewhere, as pilgrims tend to do.

We need not travel to an island. Silence and prayer and Scripture are our pathway on this journey. They invite us into the presence of God and shape our lives as God’s people. They require us to notice everything, both inside of ourselves and in the world around us—the good and the bad—so that we can discern God’s abiding presence in all of it. 

Because God is, indeed, present. God has come to us in the birth of Christ—the first Advent. God comes to us sacramentally in the Eucharistic life of the Church—the continuing Advent. And God will come again at the last day to redeem our turbulent history—the final Advent.  

Our prayer and study, then, remind us not simply that “Jesus is the reason for the season” while blithely going about our frantic business as usual. Our prayer and study instead suggest that the season of Christ’s coming actually asks something of us—no, demands something of us—something that has nothing to do with consuming or producing, nothing to do with the further commodification of our love. 

Advent requires, with its voice crying out in the wilderness, that we make space, that we clear out the noise and the haste, that we “prepare the way” in our hearts and in our societies for the cold, vivifying gust of salvation that will soon be borne on the wind, on the waves, on the breath of the One who approaches, toppling old injustices and healing old wounds.

The One whom John the Baptist proclaims. The One who, even now, hovers at the edge of our perception, like an island shrouded in mist, so close we can touch it, though we cannot quite see it, yet. The One who will make us, and our winter hearts, and our flagging, tired dreams, new again. The One who will bring us to life. 

Today you are making a journey of your own—a journey to the edge—into the realm of Advent, where nothing is resolved and yet everything is possible. You do not have to achieve anything today. You are simply invited to make the trip, to pray, to listen to the silence and to yourself, and to one another. 

Simply to do this is an act of courage, an act of pilgrimage. Simply to do this will help prepare the way for Jesus to enter your life more deeply. And when he comes—and he will come, as sure as the ebb and flow of the tide, a sure as the beating of your own heart—you will know that there is, ultimately, no wilderness in which you are alone. There is no distant shore where he cannot reach you. In Advent, he comes to us. In Advent, you will find that he is already here. 

Maker:S,Date:2017-11-9,Ver:6,Lens:Kan03,Act:Lar02,E-YFrom my own pilgrimage to Iona in April, 2018.

Half-Finished Life

On the coast of Scotland in the town of Oban, there is a church—a cathedral, in fact. It’s the most unusually constructed building I’ve ever seen. It started as a simple little brick structure, and then some years later the leaders had a grand vision of expanding it into a massive stone edifice. They had more vision than they had money, though, and when funds ran out, they’d only partially begun the addition.

Today, when you walk in, you can clearly see where the old building and the new were awkwardly joined—there are huge steel girders holding up the new section, and while these beams were probably meant to be temporary, they’re now just part of the interior. So far the whole thing has held together. You can see what it looks like in the photo attached to this post.

I feel a bit like that church building, and maybe you have have, too, at various points in your life. I want to be polished and put together, I don’t want the ugly interior structures showing. I want to be all incense and candles and beautiful music. Instead most days I feel like a half-finished project cobbled together from bits of false starts and broken dreams.

But you know what? God is still present.

God is still present in that half-finished cathedral, and in my half-finished life, and in yours. God doesn’t care about smooth walls and cohesive aesthetics. God isn’t worried if all you can put together is a misshapen hovel, as long as it’s built with love.

This might be self-evident to you, but goodness is it hard for me to accept. I have sought love and validation in every place where it cannot be found. I have spent years trying to be a Grand Cathedral sort of person–perfect, alluringly ornamented, trying to stand out, trying to earn the approval of teachers and lovers and friends. Not because they demanded it, but because I was convinced of the ancient lie: you will be complete when…When you know more. When you create more. When you look better. When you are more sophisticated. When you are admired.

God doesn’t care about any of it. Christ didn’t live, die and rise again so that I could achieve social respectability or admiring glances. So why, oh why, do I keep wanting it? I am weak, Lord. Help me be happy in the permanent construction zone that is life.

These months at Mirfield, and the events of my life therein, have definitely stripped me down to the steel girders. But I’ve learned about the dignity of silence. I’ve witnessed the beauty of consistency, in both prayer and work. Yes, I’ve felt the sting of loneliness and rejection, which is a small death, but also the warmth of kindness, which is a bit of resurrection.

These are good things. Necessary things. I wish them for you, too, to the extent that they draw you closer to the God Who loves you regardless of how well put-together you are.

There is so much more to say, but not now. For now I’m looking at those unsightly cathedral girders and reminding myself that what is humble is often what is strongest.

Home in just over six weeks. Pray for me, as I am for you.

Pausing in the Ruins

Holy Week began tonight with the first evensong of Palm Sunday, and Mirfield is a buzz of activity as visitors arrive to participate in the Community’s extensive schedule of observances. Over the next seven days we will have upwards of 50(!) worship services, plus communal meals and public lectures. It is, according to everyone who has experienced it before, a singularly transformative experience.

I will admit, though, that the excitement of Easter’s impending arrival (and the two-week break that follows!) also feels bittersweet, like a valedictory. This time of Lent, now entering its final stretch, has been rich with challenge and insight, and I’ve taken much time and space throughout these 40 days for an unflinching look at my life. Some of it has been consoling, and some of it has been jarring. This penitential season has a way of stripping you down to the skin, revealing your fears and flaws, leaving you shivering and raw and somehow even more alive as a result.

That’s how it felt last week when I took a trip by myself to the seaside to visit the ruins of Whitby Abbey.  The site stands on a headland overlooking the North Sea, and on the day of my visit the weather was so inclement that there wasn’t a single other person around. The wind blew so forcefully that it almost knocked me over as I traversed the wide grassy field, and when I sought shelter beneath the crumbling Gothic arches, the rain whipped through the intricately carved stone window openings that once held stained glass, stinging my eyes with tears. It was miserable and beautiful all at the same time and I thought: this is Lent, in all its luminous, wondrous fury. We spend a season alone, praying and crying amid the majestic ruins of our regret, as the cold wind of God blasts through, shocking us back into reverence and life.

Now, though, back in the community at Mirfield, it’s time to come in from the cold and embark on a different type of journey: into Jerusalem with Christ for a final week of tribulation and revelation. On Palm Sunday we join the throng and enter the holy city, waving our palms as an assemblage of lost souls who still seek salvation on our own terms: power, success, admiration. And as we move through the days and the liturgies, there is still so much yet to be faced and relinquished—our false hopes, our jealousies and our idleness, our tendency to betray the love that is offered to us, bargained away for a few coins and an empty kiss.

But just like my rain-soaked excursion to Whitby, it’s a journey we can’t help but make, because it is often from the depths of pain and isolation that we begin to recognize the miracle of new life that comes on Easter day. I have been wrestling with so much these past few months, and I feel ready to step into the redemptive light of whatever lies ahead. For just a few days more, though, I will sit and be attentive to the yearning and the questioning that have been my gentle companions for this season.

Wherever you are this Holy Week, and whatever you might be going through, I pray that you will find courage in facing what you must face, and solace in knowing that everything good awaits us on the other side of the Cross.

Peace, my friends.

The Joy of Normality

Temperamental spring is flirting with the landscape in Mirfield. In the past two weeks we’ve had snow blanketing the hillsides, unannounced rainstorms that drenched me on the way to morning prayer, and profusions of purple crocuses and yellow daffodils carpeting the parish churchyards. A bit like life itself, the weather in England is unpredictable, occasionally frustrating, and always beautiful.

Having been here almost two months (!) I’ve settled into a rhythm of prayer, study, meals, and periodic frivolity that feels more like a new home than like a “trip”. Given how disoriented and adrift I felt in the first couple of weeks, this change in itself feels like a miraculous revelation. It makes me realize how infrequently I am grateful for normality in my daily life back in California: always hungry for what is next, not for what simply is.

There was a piece I read long ago by the Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh that referred to this type of everyday gratitude as “the joy of no toothache.” In other words, it’s usually when we are in some type of acute pain that we finally recognize the joy that was already present in the pain-free status quo. Now that the discomforts of adjusting to life in Mirfield have mostly subsided, I am determined to relish the quiet happiness of simply being here.

But how to hold onto that sense of gratitude? For me, in this place, it has come about through a burgeoning sense of prayerful discipline. I am realizing more and more how the constancy of the Daily Offices (morning prayer, Eucharist, evening prayer, etc.) keeps me attentive to God and to the preciousness of the day at hand. Compared to my life back in the US, when I often let prayer become sidelined by academic anxieties, personal angst, and (let’s be honest) a lot of social media-driven idleness, now the rigor and structure of prayer is the framework upon which I build each day. I don’t always *want* to go and pray the Offices, but I must, and in maintaining that commitment, I find small but perceptible shifts in my heart, an accumulation of movements that are reorienting me towards the Divine presence in moments I might otherwise have missed it.

Robert Browning writes of this type of attentiveness in “Pippa’s Song”:

The year’s at the spring,

And day’s at the morn;

Morning’s at seven;

The hill-side’s dew-pearl’d;

The lark’s on the wing;

The snail’s on the thorn;

God’s in His heaven—

All’s right with the world!

 

The saints often express similar feelings about the miracle of the commonplace (think of St. Francis’ Canticle of the Sun). It is a mistake, I think, to sentimentalize or trivialize these types of observations. Deep satisfaction and delight in the everyday is not the same as naivety, nor is it complacency. To marvel at the poignancy of God’s abiding in the present does not preclude us from clear-eyed hope, from the work of reconciliation, or from the pursuit of justice; instead, it grounds us in pursuing those aims out of love, rather than fear and stridency.

Of all the things I am discovering at Mirfield—the joys of community, the need to take a more holistic view of priestly formation—one of the simplest and best is this experience of inhabiting the day prayerfully, non-anxiously, without a lot of worry about the future. This hasn’t come easily, but it is a change I have experienced quite dramatically in the past few weeks. I told someone recently that there is a bright line around my time here; beyond June 1st I am unsure of what life will hold, and I am suddenly, truly all right with that. If “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1) then I am experiencing faith anew here.

So, if I could offer any bit of advice for the perpetually stressed, among whom I have counted myself for many years, I would say this: forget dramatic transformations, and give yourself over to a gentle discipline of prayer. Focus less on an idealized, perfect end result, which is forever beyond our grasp anyway, and find something simple and immediate that will ground you in this day which God has made for us. It might be the Daily Offices, if you are Episcopalian/Anglican, or it might be something else. If you are already engaging in a practice along these lines, I’d love to hear about it in the comments!

Please know that in my daily prayers I am constantly lifting up your names. It is a great consolation to think of all the love that has permeated my life thus far, and I can only hope to give some of it back to God, through my relationships with you and through the worship that I offer up each day.

Peace, dear friends. You are in my heart always.