Advent always was an interim time, spanning the threshold between the harvest festivals of autumn and the vulnerable, fierce hope of Christmas. That “betwixt and between” time and place, where things tend to happen, wove itself around us as we gathered for retreat in a time when the forest waited, bare-branched and leaf-carpeted, for that first snowfall, likely still weeks away.
In a season when it is traditional to think about the coming of the light, I was pondering darkness. It seems that this Advent falls at a moment of history when the world is in an up-ended, uncertain, and, yes, frightening between-time, when we struggle to know how to be and what to do and how to behave as things all around us in politics, in governance, in world affairs, and in our psyches, slide toward the dark.
Much of our conversation, and all of our prayers, during the retreat began in these shifting sands. We walked individually for long periods in silence through the hushed, expectant woods, noticing as each was drawn, here the curling leaf, there the emerald moss, the red flash of a wood pecker, the rounded belly of a stone, the harsh call of a blackbird. These guardians and guides spoke of a deeper reality, the “world behind the world”, where the Heartbeat maintains its steady, eternal rhythm, and things are always ending and beginning.
In Advent, Christians prepare to receive again that Heartbeat, falling slippery and newborn into our waiting hands: a wailing, embodied Presence, a squirming reminder of inbreaking Love, and of grace. For the truth is, as wise ones have said, that we don’t know what will happen, and when, despite the murky mess we are in just now, we might receive exactly the story, the dream, the vision required to begin to re-create the world.
I recently came upon this from St. John of the Cross: “If a person wishes to be sure of the road they tread upon, they must close their eyes and walk in the dark.”
On the first night of the retreat we walked in silent procession to the Meditation Shelter. The moon, barely a sliver, was hidden behind drifting clouds; the trees were only felt presences along the path, deeper veins of darkness hovering just beyond the reach of flashlight and lantern. Guided by the sound of the drum calling from the Meditation Shelter, we moved slowly along through the night. As we gathered just outside the Shelter’s door, a misty, icy rain teased our cheeks and shoulders. We were each glad to be ushered one by one through the door leading to “the realm of heart and soul and mystery” and into the candlelit Shelter with its brightly burning woodstove and glowing oil lamps.
There we told stories, placed our hopes on the altar, danced in sacred circle, and drummed our prayers. We listened as the Angel Gabriel told Mary of impossible things, and she felt a turning and tilting within herself, “as one turns a mirror to flash the light to where it isn’t” (from Marie Howe’s poem Annunciation). When we were done, we walked back out into the night, and there overhead, as if a veil had been thrown aside, a thousand stars shone, flickering through the branches, dancing in the velvet sky. Grace happens, and always unexpectedly.
Maybe that’s how it is we walk in the dark, into the disturbing places in ourselves and our world, and how it is we know where to go and what to do, and how we become sure of the road we tread upon.
Today I received an email from my dearest friend. All the buses going to Washington for the Women’s March in January were full, not a blessed seat was left; nor in any of the buses going from nearby towns and cities. Churches and homes across the area are filling up; floor space is at a premium. At Rolling Ridge, we are opening our Retreat House, planning how to make our way into the city over highways and streets that will be crammed with vehicles and women, all coming, possibly by the millions, to bear witness to the deeply feminine, and human, values of hospitality, inter-connection and community, sanctity of Earth and common humanity, civility, respect, deep listening, and soul with which it is possible to begin again to weave the beautiful garment of the world. We are learning to walk in the dark.