A continuation of reflections in the season of Advent.
Four winters past, I ventured to Paris, where I lived through the coldest, longest winter that either France or I had experienced for as long as we could recall. I slept mostly in a village twelve miles northwest of the city, but during the days I wandered, most frequently gravitating to rivers and cathedrals.
This is what happens whenever I am in Europe. I always grab a map of the city (I would never get home if I didn’t), but I inevitably drift toward water and places of worship.
For three months, I haunted the doors and pews and sacred spaces of Paris—the chapels, churches, cathedrals and basilicas. I read plaques, lit candles, scribbled letters, and sat staring at windows of stained glass for what seemed like hours. Sometimes I would pray—for forgiveness, for wholeness, for restoration of a broken that I couldn’t seem to put back together. And sometimes I would just stand there, gazing up, always up, following the path of arcades and organ pipes into vaulted ribbed ceilings capped with ornate bosses.
Sometimes I sought holiness, sometimes I sought hope, and sometimes I was just looking for a place to rest my feet or warm my hands without making a purchase or paying a fee. Save Notre Dame, the cathedrals of Paris are usually mostly empty, which is sad in the grand scheme of things, but which also made them seem safe. There was always space for me in the cathedrals. I was never turned away.
Earlier this month I went to Grace Cathedral in San Francisco for the first time in years. Having been built in the first half of the 20th century, it is not nearly so old or grand as the sacred spaces of Europe, but there is a nave and a transept, scattered chapels, stained glass, rose windows and a Skinner organ. There is even a set of golden doors modeled after the famed Ghiberti Doors in Florence.
The first time I entered Grace, it was midday and the space was nearly empty. I flashed back to each isolated experience in Paris, to every cathedral I’ve ever been to by myself, and I felt strangely and beautifully at home. More at home, I would say, than in the church I’ve been attending for the past three years, where there is never enough parking and the seats fill to capacity, where everything fills to capacity.
To be home is to be in a place where there is always enough room and more than enough welcome. Where nothing is expected and nothing is required. Where your presence is enough. Where you are enough. Home is a place you come to rest and renew. To warm your hands and your heart from the cold bitter world outside.
Having grown up in a Christian home and community, the birth of Jesus is a story I know better than most—at least as well as Make Way for Ducklings, Poky the Little Puppy, or any other tale I was told as a child.
We would act it out at church each Christmas. Between my brother and myself I think we’ve been every character in the nativity, save the donkey or the Baby Jesus. It seemed like a perfectly normal and natural story, no matter how many sermons I heard in which the pastor tried to point out that it wasn’t. Of course there was a census and obviously Mary and Joseph had to go (via donkey), and no duh there was no room for them in the inn. Shepherds, sheep, angels, Eastern astrologers—send them all. There’s plenty of room in the diorama stable.
Even the year I played Mary at the insightful and “historically accurate” age of 14, I didn’t really think about the strangeness of the whole narrative. Sure, I thought it’d be nuts to get pregnant in the middle of eighth grade, but that was as far as I got. I didn’t ponder what it would be like to believe something truly impossible. I couldn’t fathom the kind of faith that says “yes” to what is totally irrational. Then again, I have also never seen an angel as far as I know, so there is that to consider.
I have been waiting for “a word from the Lord” since the day I finished college. I’m not entirely sure what that phrase means, only that it is something I do not have, and if it is a real thing then I very much want it (and not only because I’m in the habit of wanting what I do not have).
I associate “a word from the Lord” with audible voices, the descending of doves and the appearance of angelic beings, but I’d settle for a prophet in a Patagonia at this point. Really, I’d take anything.
Or would I?
Were someone to visit me today—play Gabriel to my Mary and tell me what was about to happen in my life—would I really believe him?
Is belief something that we “work on” and develop, or is it something that just happens? Is it something we choose or something we get? Or is it both? Can it be both?
When someone tells me that there is a plan for my life, my gut response to hit them upside the head and tell them to prove it. I don’t really do this, because that would be mean, but often that is what I am thinking. I am thinking that a plan is impossible. A plan hasn’t yet happened I have no reason to think that will change. But at the same time I am hoping it might. At the same time I am dying to dispel my own disbelief.
“Signs & Fulfillment”
I see signs everywhere: in songs that play on the radio and dreams that wake me mid-slumber; flight delays, seating arrangements, magical parking when I’m rushed and it’s raining. I see them in LinkedIn page views and Facebook likes. In billboards and sermons and books I’ve been reading. In the sell-by date on a snack sized package of hummus. Everywhere.
Whenever I’m searching for guidance or seeking direction, making a decision or hunting for hope, I start to see signs on a regular basis, often in places they do not exist—newspaper headlines and podcast guests, movie marquees or a change in the weather.
I don’t trust them, even when I want to. I know myself too well. I know how much I want to hope in divine orchestration, how much I long to believe that there is someone else putting my life together—pulling strings, changing hearts, and working it all in my favor. I want to believe what I want to believe and what the signs to be witness.
Sometimes, when I am at the start of a relationship, I am amazed by the way it unfolds. The similarities in our stories, the familiar desires, common favorites: books, movies, TV shows, travels. I take it as a sign that this time it will work. This time we won’t mess it up. But then it doesn’t and I wonder if I did something wrong. If I misread the signs or if they weren’t really there to begin with.
I do the same thing with jobs, especially the positions that land in my inbox unbidden. When the requirements in the description actually align with my experience, I begin to believe that it’s more than an accurate algorithm. I start hoping that the role will give purpose to my placement, will answer the questions and frustrations I’ve been nursing for years.
But you know and I know that this isn’t how it works.
If life is a highway, I feel as though I am driving in reverse. I don’t see the signs until they’ve already passed. And so I spend much of my free time staring at the rearview.
I can tell you the road that has led to this moment, the U-Turns and blind spots that set the trajectory for this time and this place, but I really can’t say what is coming ahead, not even when I’m reading the indications all around me.
Last night I stayed up until midnight cutting coffee filter snowflakes, baking cocoa cayenne cookies, and talking to an eighth-grader about the way she sees the world. It was amazing.
I have known this girl since she was in first grade, and every time I’m back in Kansas City, I get to hear about her world and see how much she has grown (mostly in spirit and maturity, but sometimes in other ways as well).
Last night we were talking about some of the things that she loves—namely trees, puppies, holding babies, and the land of Rivendell (the place where the elves live in The Lord of the Rings).
“Sometimes,” she said, “I look at pictures of it and it makes me cry.” She paused and then added, “I know that’s silly, but it does.”
“Oh honey,” I told her, “That’s not silly. I cry about places all the time.”
This is the truth. Ever since I was young, I have had a deep affinity for beautiful places. They fascinate and delight, call to and inspire me. Yet, there has always been something about standing in the presence of true beauty (physical or otherwise) that is on the one hand inspiring, and on the other quite sobering. There is a painful intangible force that often imbues my encounters with beauty, resulting in an experience that might best be called “joy.”
“It is difficult to find words strong enough for the sensation,” C.S. Lewis writes of a childhood memory. “Milton’s ‘enormous bliss’ of Eden…comes somewhere near it. It was a sensation, of course, of desire; but desire for what?…Before I knew what I desired, the desire itself was gone, the whole glimpse… withdrawn, the world turned commonplace again, or only stirred by a longing for the longing that had just ceased.”
When I first read these words, it was as if a veil had been lifted. As if the man on the other side of them (who had, coincidentally, penned them in Oxford, the same space in which I read them) was giving speech to the experience of my heart.
“In a sense the central story of my life is about nothing else,” Lewis writes. “I call it Joy, which is here a technical term and must be sharply distinguished both from Happiness and Pleasure. Joy (in my sense) has indeed one characteristic, and one only, in common with them; the fact that anyone who has experienced it will want it again.”
So it is with the places, experiences, and encounters so great that they bring us to tears; the moments so sacred that we weep at their passing; the birth of a child; the act of making love; the reuniting of those long separated; the making new of all things.
This is Joy. It is not tinsel and lights and glitter and gifts. It is not pageants and parties and cookies and cards. It is as much pain as it is pleasure, a crystal clear shard of pure utter holiness.
“I doubt whether anyone who has tasted it would ever, if both were in his power, exchange it for all the pleasures in the world. But then Joy is never in our power.”
May we embrace Joy when it is present, fleeting though it may be, may we cry and laugh and surrender in its wake, lest we miss the gift that is ever before us.