This is probably a more difficult Advent than most, a time when we long for the joys of Christmas, even for our own emotional equilibrium. Today we talk about how God stoops to us in our weakness with an amazing love that changes everything.
Come, they told me: a newborn king to see
Our finest gifts we bring to lay before the king
So to honor him when we come.
I have a confession to make.
I love Christmas music, and could play Christmas music all year long. And sometimes—when no one is listening—I’ll play it in my office… even in June or July or August!
Christmas carols, somehow, have this magical way of instantaneously reminding me of the story of God’s incredible love for me, for us, which is what we really celebrate at Christmas.
And Christmas carols, even secular ones, make me feel happy. They remind me of home. I still remember some verses of a song about elves who discovered “it’s better to give than receive.” The song was on a record we played at Christmas time every year in our home. That’s the one Christmas carol I associate with my childhood, with going home… I still will look for that record if I’m at home for Christmas.
And how about you? What’s your favorite Christmas carol? What song fills you with good memories of your childhood?
On to another confession.
Jeannette and I were wondering what to do for an Advent-Christmas mini-retreat this year to offer you, our loyal friends. We actually were thinking and praying about this for you in July!
We knew this Advent-Christmas might not be filled with happy family reunions for everyone. Some of us will be grieving friends and family members, having had nothing but a “Zoom wake” to mourn and remember them. Some of us will still be putting our lives on the line in hospitals and city streets and classrooms for the sake of others. Some of us will feel afraid. We’ll all be uncertain of the future. And that uncertainty makes us even more anxious…
Even a Christmas carol can’t wipe all that away. We can’t sweep all our emotions and concerns and grief under the rug to pull out the stops for a gala celebration of Christmas in our own living rooms, isolated perhaps still from other family members. Maybe it will be different; after all, it’s only November… But maybe it won’t.
And Jesus wouldn’t want us to wash away our own very real struggles in order to throw him a party, either.
Jesus came so we can find our story in the midst of his story... a story that is beautiful and sad and charming and full of promise and tragedy and hope and confusion and strength in the darkness and the triumph of light and love.
That is what Christmas is all about, really.
So after praying together about this, we decided that on Tuesdays from now until the end of the year, we’ll offer you a mini-Advent retreat based on the song The Little Drummer Boy and on the story that was adapted from it. I’m 57, so I grew up watching the animated version of The Little Drummer Boy every Christmas while my parents struggled with putting the lights on the Christmas tree. With my sister and brother, I cried every year through the story of Aaron who lost his family in a fire set by desert brigands and who then wandered the desert as an orphan with his magical drum and three animal friends who danced to its beat. But we cried even harder at the end as Aaron played for Jesus in Bethlehem and at last found love.
Perhaps you watched it also.
This animated version of The Little Drummer Boy is based on the original song written in 1941 by Katherine Kennicott Davis. It’s a story in which we can find our own stories this year—every year, in fact. It’s the story of the power of Christmas, and this year, like Aaron, we so need to experience the coming of Christ and what he can do in our lives in a powerful way.
So we invite you to join us in this mini-retreat every Tuesday until Christmas. The commercial Christmas season begins after Veterans Day, so that’s where we’re beginning, also, today, and we’ll continue our mini-retreat through Advent and to the end of the year.
Welcome to The Little Drummer Boy!
Sr. Kathryn James Hermes, FSP
I hope you’ll keep in touch by joining my letter that I send out a couple times a month here.
Little Drummer Boy (c) 1968 Rankin/Bass Animated Entertainment / Universal Pictures DreamWorks Classics
This Sunday is the Feast of Christ the King. I’ve been thinking a lot about the Kingdom of Christ within me, how I surrender to the power of the King, how I turn my life over entirely to the reign of the Kingdom. As we close this year, it is a perfect liturgical Feast to prepare us for Advent and Christmas. Both an end and a beginning.
In the past couple of days the presentations and prayer guides are beginning to come in for our 3-hour virtual retreat led by Sr Martha and myself, following the guidance of St Elizabeth of the Trinity. This is the first of our Tabernacle of the Heart retreats. (The second will be on grieving through the lens of another woman mystic: Catherine of Siena.)
So I thought I’d just give you a sense of what’s to come, hoping you’d like to join us. The retreat will be next Saturday, November 14. We will hold the retreat twice on that day, once in the morning and once in the evening so people can choose the time best for them. Can’t come on that day but still interested. We’ll be sending everyone files for the retreat: video, audio, and text. So if you come, you’ll have them to go through again at your own pace. If you can’t be there in person, you can make a private retreat on a day of your choice. Now, to some of the wonderful things filling my inbox for the retreat!
Excerpted from one of Sr Martha’s talks:
Your own personal story is where God wants to be this Fall day in 2020…no where else. God is committed to you. Are YOU committed to you? The insights and the graces I need to move forward in life’s journey, those that you need TODAY, will unfold today. The other insights and graces you need down the line, will unfold at that time. Back to the gardener analogy…no gardener in her right mind would dump a swimming pool of water on a seed, walk away and say, OK, I’ve given it all that it needs for this year to grow! God doesn’t do that with us either. He is in a dynamic, active relationship with each one of us….and his grace, some call grace “his loving us,” will guide me on the journey as I come to that next step.
Each of us here has what she needs to make the journey of CHRIST alive in me today. We can be sure of it, because God is a good gardener and will not let His lilies, roses and violets go unwatered and unfertilized. No way…
Excerpted from one of the presentations of Jeannette de Beavuoir:
What Elizabeth longed for with all her soul was to seek the Trinity dwelling in the deepest sanctuary of her heart, to listen to that Mystery, the very essence of which is Divine Silence. For that she entered the cloister of Carmel, entered the exterior cloister of the walls. Once inside, she entered more deeply into the inner cloister of her heart to seek the indwelling Trinity which had invaded her soul from the first moment of baptism. She declared: “I am Elizabeth of the Trinity, that is, Elizabeth who disappears, who is lost, who lets herself be invaded by the Three.” One of her favorite Carmelite mottos was this one: “Alone with the great Alone.”
The ultimate goal of a Carmelite nun is not different from that of other Christians; it is the perfection of charity. It is, however—thanks to a special grace of God her specific vocation–as fully understood, the unique excellence of this end, of the greatness, purity, and tenderness of God, whom St Francis loved to call “the Beautiful.” She has known “the great love” of Ephesians 2:4 with which the Father has loved her freely, and understood that such love should be preferred to everyone else, love without measure until the total gift of self. A Carmelite could not imagine even for a moment that she no longer loved the one who has loved her so much that he gave himself for her; however, she also desires to respond with a greater love, with the gift of her life. The enclosure is therefore a choice of love, of the supreme love of a creature for her Creator.
Elizabeth was no doubt a saint of the cloister. But she is perhaps even more a saint for those of us who live outside of it….
Excerpted from the video by Sr. Kathryn:
Since your baptism the Trinity has dwelt within you. Your soul is a little heaven on earth. God never leaves you alone. Just as he waits for someone to visit him in the Eucharist, he waits for us to visit him within our own heart. “You will always find Him there, longing to do you good.”
So the question is, how do you enter your own heart.
I had been a person lost in my head…in my thoughts and rationalizations and plans for the future and stories about what was happening in the present. So much so that I lived many years ago with perpetual headaches.
The past and future exist only in our minds and thoughts. They are now in the hands of God, not in ours. When we are lost in them, we let slip through our fingers the only moments we can actually intentionally seize for the glory of God and the care of others and our own soul.
So the question is, how do we enter our heart? How do we stay in the present…
That’s just a taste… We’ll be bringing together the retreat this week and praying for all the retreatants in a very special way. If you feel St Elizabeth of the Trinity saying to you that she wishes to be your sister in the spiritual life, learn more about the retreat by clicking here. I hope we see you there!
We were told numberless times going into Election Day that this election was the most important election of our lifetime. On this weekend after casting our votes, we’re still living on the adrenaline of heightened concerns, hopes, and emotions…
At this point for our emotional and spiritual health, we may want to hit PAUSE and remember that no matter what is decided in this election, God has a purpose that unfolds in history, a purpose that cannot be overturned.
There is no way for us to know how this will end, no real possibility of us figuring it out or of changing the outcome to what we think the final result should be. And even after all the results are in, there will be heated discussion and commentary on whether the results are accurate. Hope is the belief that we are held in the midst of this chaos. Hope is the belief that we are cared for most tenderly even if we cannot see in the way forward how God is leading us.
Today I invite you to let the dust settle and to soak in the sense of safety and trust that is the bedrock of Psalm 23.
It seems to me that nothing better expresses the love in God’s heart than the Eucharist: it is union, consummation. He is in us, we in Him, and isn’t that Heaven on earth? He whom the blessed contemplate in light and we adore in faith is really the same One.
Elizabeth of the Trinity
I recently saw on my Facebook wall a quote which read: “The older you get, the more quiet you become. Life humbles you so deeply as you age. You realize how much nonsense you’ve wasted time on.”
Until we come to terms that life is a gradual, difficult, gloriously transformative undoing of everything we have built up for ourselves and of ourselves, it will continue to perplex and, in some cases, embitter us.
Just the other day I sat beside a priest friend, sharing my spiritual journey, my self-discoveries that were not that pretty. Of course, I had explanations ready at hand. I thought they added perspective. My friend said, “Those are just excuses. Everything you’re saying is just ego.”
Just ego…. The nonsense I’ve wasted time on.
We get caught up in our younger years in wildly exciting things, dreams for what we could do or be, determination to make improvements, change things, build things….
But life tends to lead us out of these sunshine beginnings into the stormy years of our undoing. Then back into sunshine, then onward to shadow….
The elders of the Jews who were tasked with rebuilding the house of God in Jerusalem, had been sent there from their captivity in exile in Babylon. The glories of the former Temple, all that Jerusalem had been for the Chosen People since King David, had been lost. They were beginning again, and anyone who has begun again to rebuild from the ashes knows that it is hard and discouraging work. To rebuild is to face the unknown, to construct in faith, to hope in God, to place ourselves under his mercy, to walk blindly along the paths marked out for us…at his bidding, for his glory, according to his plan.
In the Gospel, we can imagine Mary standing on the outside of the crowd that surrounded the house where her Son was preaching. With his words, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and act on it,” Mary’s heart had to have skipped a beat. The relationship of mother-son that she had known since Jesus’ Bethlehem-birth had now to give way to something larger that she didn’t yet understand. These words, certainly a confirmation of her holiness, defined the moment when she realized definitively that her motherhood was not her own, that it never was meant to be her private joy. All that she had been in her mysterious and magnificent YES to the Father, was now public “property,” so to speak, for everyone else’s benefit. She had to move over to make room for us. I often think of what Mary must have been thinking and feeling as she turned and walked home that evening….
In our lives, we are led into progressively deeper poverty in which all we once knew as normal becomes shrouded in a future of uncertainty. We walk forward lighter, simpler, more quiet and humble, perhaps less significant. If this is happening to you rejoice. You are being led on the path of holiness which can only culminate in glory.
“Your inward life is now sprouting, bringing forth fruit” (Sgs 4;13)
It is time.
It is time to forgive yourself…
It is time to forgive yourself for what you didn’t see.
What you didn’t understand…
What you couldn’t feel…
It is time to forgive yourself…
For the people you didn’t save…
What you didn’t become…
Who you didn’t save…
What you didn’t change…
It is time to discover the beauty of falling leaves…
Blessing the winter…
Hoping the spring…
It is time to rest…
In the silent spaces of sorrow and silence…
In the hurt and pain of wounds and shame…
In the broken and fragmented and lost…
It is time to believe…
In the inward spring…
The new life sprouting…
The blossoming and growing and ripening…
I find transitions challenging. Leaving the familiar behind puts me back in the fragile place where I wonder if I’m good enough… If I’ll make it… If anyone cares…
I’m sure no one can see the swirl of emotions and thoughts and general confusion that reigns within, sweeping away the secure self-image that just weeks before had been mine.
Transitions are difficult times of immense grace, severe gifts of mercy, gentle or drastic pruning that makes way for new blossoms that unexpectedly surprise us with new futures and joy.
I often will put myself “forehead to forehead” with Jesus in prayer—an image from the lay mystic Gabrielle Bossis in her popular spiritual classic He and I. Praying in this quiet, unreflective way that suspends all thought and straining opens my heart.
And during transitions, I need to open my heart. To believe that my Beloved One is at work within me. So one day recently I asked Jesus what he had to say to me regarding a transition I was in.
He said, “You silly willy….”
That absolutely got my attention!
“You silly willy. Your heart has been longing for more. You’ve been aching under the strain of all that has been your daily life. Here I am helping you out. So just go with the flow….”
The lightness of Jesus’ touch was exactly what I needed.
“Your inward life is now sprouting, bringing forth fruit.
What a beautiful paradise unfolds within you.
When I’m near you, I smell aromas of the finest spice,
For many clusters of my exquisite fruit
Now grow within your inner garden” (Sgs 4:13-14 TPT).
Transitions can be initiated by yourself or others. By your decisions for change and growth. By others’ decisions which may not take into account your needs. They can seem positive or negative. Hope-filled or disastrous. Be the beginning of something new or the disastrous end of something gratefully over. Tactfully orchestrated or bluntly dropped on you.
In the transition, in the threshold between what was and what will be, God is at work for you and within you. Outside my window the wind is caressing the trees. The leaves are almost singing as they rustle against one another. Those leaves did nothing to bring themselves into life. They are the fruit of the living tree. They sprouted from the ends of the twigs in the early spring, emerged into maturity, and are now getting ready to be released, to become the lovely shades of fall colors that are pushed along by the cold winds of the late autumn.
Friends, in whatever part of the cycle we find ourselves, we can be sure that we are part of the living Tree, the living Vine.
Loved into being…
Nurtured into maturity…
Gently moved into the freedom of trusting the winter…
Bearing within us the cycle of hope…
of gentle winter and determined spring…
of releasing death and innocently new life…
of Calvary and the Garden of the Resurrection…
Live within the Tabernacle of your Heart where Jesus is always living… loving… giving… blessing….
When we nourish ourselves on the Word of God we gradually are able to see an unexpected, unearned future: new life, a new heart, a new future, a new relationship with God. The word of the Lord became a part of Ezekiel’s being when the prophet was told at his calling, “Eat the Scroll,” and it can become a part of our being as well. When we regularly digest God’s word, options become available to us that we couldn’t anticipate.
The Power of the Father, compelled by His love,
Descended and dwelt in a virgin womb.
“And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.” (John 1:14)
Dwelt… Dwelt in a virgin womb. Dwelt among us.
Various words are used to describe the way God dwelt among us. It has been rendered: God tabernacled among us. God pitched his tent among us. The Revised English version translates this verse more literally this way: “And the word became flesh and pitched his tent among us, and we gazed at his glory; glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
The first time God pitched his tent among us is recorded in the book of Exodus. God had accompanied his people as they fled Egypt, dwelling among them in a pillar of cloud by day and in a pillar of fire by night. For the Israelites who had spent 400 years in Egypt, culminating in the whole bitter fate of slavery, this new visible appearance of the presence of God to them must have been amazing. They had cried out for freedom and God had responded. And even more they hadn’t escaped Egypt like criminals breaking out of jail and on the run. No, the Lord was coming with them on the journey to the Promised Land.
In the wandering years as the Israelites made their way through the desert, Moses built at the Lord’s instruction a meeting tent outside the community. The tent-tabernacle-place of God’s dwelling was the center of the worship of Yahweh by the people of Israel from shortly after the exodus until it was replaced by Solomon’s temple around 960 BC. The tabernacle was filled with the glory of God. That glory was so radiant that when Moses left the meeting tent after having spoken with God, his face shone so brightly it had to be covered with a veil. Joshua, Moses’ assistant, remained in the tent.
Wouldn’t that be neat? To dwell in a space that was filled with the glory of God? To just stay there… Stay. Abide. Dwell.
God’s dwelling with the Israelites gave them a chance to dwell with him if they wanted. He was there. He was waiting.
When Solomon dedicated the Temple he had built, the glory of God filled it. “When Solomon finished praying, fire flashed down from heaven and burned up the burnt offerings and sacrifices, and the glorious presence of the LORD filled the Temple” (2 Chronicles 7:1).
However, right before the exile into Babylon about 400 years, Ezekiel saw in a vision the glory of the Lord leaving his place above the cherubim of the ark in the Holy of Holies and exiting the temple. The Lord was leaving Jerusalem, opening it up to the invasion of its enemies.
As the faithful remnant was taken into exile in Babylon, God went with them to protect them. He was with Daniel, Ezekiel, Esther and the other believing exiles wherever they were in foreign lands. God dwelt with them, pitched his tent, so to speak, wherever they were to protect them, never leaving them utterly abandoned.
600 years later, John writes that the glory of God has come back, has pitched his tent among us once again in the body of the Lord Jesus Christ. Ephrem’s image is powerful: God was compelled by his love for us—his love for us was so great that he couldn’t resist the power of what his love wanted to do…. To descend and dwell in a virgin’s womb. The word became flesh and pitched his tent among us.
When Jesus returned to heaven he left his glory on earth in the tabernacles of our Churches, where he continues to dwell. God had told Moses to fill a lamp with pure oil to burn perpetually in the Tabernacle or Meeting Tent to signify God’s presence. Today a sanctuary lamp continues to burn to signify that the Blessed Sacrament is presence, God’s glorious presence, the glory of God on earth.
God pitches his tent with you and me, wherever we are, wherever we need him. Longing to meet us, he hopes that we desire to meet him.
Teresa of Avila, reflecting on the state of her heart, this place where the Lord had pitched his tent, once prayed, “O my Lord, since it seems you have determined to save me, I beseech Your Majesty…don’t you think it would be good…if the inn where you have to dwell continually would not get so dirty?” Her famous book on mysticism The Interior Castle describes the lifelong spiritual journey by which we enter into seven mansions (also called dwelling places) which are stages to getting closer to God.
My heart wants to grow in hospitality toward this divine Loving Leader who wants to pitch his tent and abide with me. He who will go with me even in the humiliating and messy times of desert wandering and exile, who will speak with me and listen to me, who will pitch his tent in the tabernacle of my heart and fill me with the Spirit and the glory of God.
I want to be a Joshua who stays in the tent, surrounded with the glory of God, soaking in his presence, being transformed by it, loved and mentored and forgiven and recreated by it. And it is for this reason that I and so many seek out the Eucharist in the Mass and in adoration.
You are entirely a source of amazement,
From whatever side we may seek You:
You are close at hand, yet distant—
Who shall reach you?
St Ephrem, Faith 4:11