Several years have passed since I found it at Pecos. More accurately, Jeanne Chua found it for me. She was helping me look for a rock with a rough surface to use in a workshop on Native American Spirituality. Intent on the search, Jeanne had walked down into the dry arroyo. She bent down quickly, grabbed this particular one, then turned and handed it to me. "This will work," she said. It wasn't until later, during the workshop, that I began to notice the various symbols it holds. (And because it came to me in this way, through another, I've always considered this special rock to be a gift.)
Many images have emerged through this rock since it came to me so many years ago. Sometimes I see an unborn baby in the womb. I see angel wings of protection. I see a tiny owl. Primarily, I see a human being wrapped in deep contemplation inside a cave. Light emanates from the wall of the cave, and energy radiates.
Some ancient scholars tell us that the birth of Jesus took place not within the familiar structure of a rough barn which we commonly find in our modern day Nativity scenes, but in a cave hollowed in the earth; a place where animals would have been kept. I appreciate this image because of the darkness, the quiet and intimacy, the enclosed womb-like feel of it. Often I have the sense that I am wrapped in Advent in much the same way--deeply immersed in this dark, humble, hidden season leading us up to the return of the light and the great Feast of Christmas.
There's nothing particularly grave or grim going on in my personal life at the moment, but I am very conscious of the darkness others are experiencing. On this day of the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year, with the darkest part of the year and the greater portion of Advent behind us, I'm aware that this year I have been at least slightly more focused on the dark and quiet of the season. I've taken more time to read others' reflections, more time to think, more time to allow the cave of my heart to hold others and their needs in that space of prayer.
Spiritual Direction offers me the opportunity to companion others in the darkness, to hear their stories, to watch with them as they await the coming of the light. Together we acknowledge that there are no quick fixes, or easy answers. No speeding up the process. We are where we are: in the present moment.. And the present moment is sacred.
Louise (I do not use real names here.) awakens every morning to intense loneliness. She acknowledges that "reflecting on the darkness is quite a different thing when you are actually In It."
John reports that his life has just fallen apart. He's overwhelmed and wants to know how to recover inner peace, faith and serenity.
Vince seeks healing. He just wants to be able to stop yelling at his kids.
As Cindy and I talked recently, wondering what we could possibly do to ease the plight of the people of Aleppo, I commented to her that I recently sat with a woman whose life is just as shelled out as any life in that devastated city. (I recall consciously thinking as I had waited for this woman to arrive that I needed to be willing to enter her experience. I did so, and deeply, It was painful.)
More and more, I am hearing the stories of women who are mistreated by their mates and partners. Their experiences range from a husband or boyfriend's stony detachment, casual disinterest, and mild disapproval on one end of the spectrum, to systematic emotional abuse, manipulation, and betrayal on the other. It's heartwrenching to hear their stories, and challenging to urge them to self care.
Yet another friend, Irene, spoke of being in such a good place right now. Her life is happy and light. "But you're still going to be here when it isn't, right?" she laughed.
So this is Advent. Advent is Reality. And Advent is Always Now. Because always we are waiting and watching for help, knowing that even if we're doing okay for the moment, a time will come when the darkness descends, and we will be the one reaching for a remedy, for something to ease the pain, for something to set us free, to reassure us that we're not alone.
In other words, we are always waiting and watching for the Christ.
Brennan Manning reminds us that "God entered into our world not with the crushing impact of unbearable glory, but in the way of weakness, vulnerability and need. On a wintry night in an obscure cave, the infant Jesus was a humble, naked, helpless God who allowed us to get close to him."
In much the same way, we, too, find the Christ--in times of weakness, vulnerability, and need. Our brother Brennan doesn't have to remind us that the world does not understand vulnerability. As he puts it, "Neediness is rejected as incompetence and compassion is dismissed as unprofitable."
On Monday, I met with other spiritual directors for our monthly peer supervision session. Our time together consists mostly of silence and deep listening. It often feels to me like a mini-retreat.
In each session, one of us agrees to be the "presenter"--to ask for help in clarifying a question or problem that's arisen in our practice as a spiritual director. It requires that we trust, that we lay bare a part of our soul, and that we welcome insight and support from others. In other words, it requires that we become vulnerable; that we willingly expose the cave of our own heart.
In the midst of this session, I looked around the table at the six of us, as though from the point of view of an outsider, and let sink in what we were doing, This wouldn't make sense to anyone, this activity we're engaged in here. . .. It would look really odd, and it would certainly be hard to explain.
It might also, from the point of view of an outsider, look like a complete waste of time!
And, yet, we come away from these sessions, restored in some way, rested, and renewed, as though it were a small retreat. We come away better prepared to be with others, and to even be more vulnerable with others, in order to offer what we can to them--our presence.
And Christ's presence within.
Because, in the words of Evelyn Underhill, "The birth of Christ in our souls is for a purpose beyond ourselves: it is because his manifestation in the world must be through us. And always, in order for that to happen, I must first tend the presence of Christ in the cave of my own heart.