"It is in the shelter of each other that the people live," An old Irish proverb teaches.
Life, it seems, begins and ends in encounter. Together we support one another. We create something new; we make space. And there, within ourselves and within the world, life is sheltered and sustained. Between you and me there is created the perfect balance of resistance and reassurance — trust rooted in and returning to love — a balance better known as relationship.
Together we live and move and have our being. Just as God lives in us. Yet, in the cold chill of winter, it can be easy to forget that our God is a God of relationship encountered.
"Look at the sky, Colleen," the woman said in a hushed tone as she gestured out the window. She knew we weren't supposed to be talking. "The beauty," she continued, pointing to the treetops, "that's what this is all about."
I felt like I could have stood up and shouted to the room "It's beauty!" But instead, I just sat and stared intently at the treetops. Crisp and clear; stripped bare and set in silhouette against the bright blue sky. It was beautiful. And I couldn't say a word about it.
I was at a silent retreat for New Year's — a prayerful pause at year's end. The fog and dreariness that engulfed the end of the year in the Northeast seemed to have broken. And seated in that dining room on the last day of 2015, I smiled to myself as I soaked in the beauty. Unbeknownst to me, it was what I had come away to encounter.
Driving five hours north a few days before, I'd traveled through a foggy haze from Pennsylvania to Massachusetts, from the relative warmth of Philadelphia to the snow covered ground of the Commonwealth. As dusk fell upon the back roads I was traveling, I noted what seemed like the fusing of heaven and Earth. The trees made to look even taller in their barrenness seemed to stretch into grey sky, their tops disappearing into low hanging clouds just as quickly as the taillights ahead of me faded into the distance.
Arriving at the retreat center, I was met by familiar faces. To my surprise, despite a year's time and few words between us, they remembered me and I remembered them. Friends, new and old, united in reflection and prayer, connected by the space between us.
Settling into the silence of retreat, I found myself giving thanks for the opportunity to step away, no matter the hazy grey of winter and year's end. Silence and time solely set aside for prayer were a welcome and much-longed-for reprieve from everyday life. I was determined to take full advantage of it all and yet, I soon realized the invitation of this retreat might be to take full advantage of what God was offering and not, perhaps, what I had planned.
I wanted to encounter God, to take a quiet look back on the year that had been. I longed for deep connection within the all-too-rare stillness. I wanted to listen uninterrupted. I named those desires and God answered. Sometimes, though, what you want and what you long for can turn out looking differently than how you imagined.
It didn't happen all at once. It happened as I sang my heart out at liturgy; and as I let me guard down; and, oh yeah, as I stopped to have deep conversations with those around me, people I love, people who are on the other end of a phone or an email more often than they are in conversation with me in person. And in those moments, moments utterly contradictory to what I thought I needed or wanted, God provided.
Talking, I found clarity. I remembered why I need to talk, why I need to write, why I need to create and explore and discover. There in the space between myself and another was God inviting me to listen and speaking softly in the consolation of relationship, the reality of friendship, and the gift of presence.
There, I could see the year as it was and myself as I am. I was free to live. I'd found shelter... Read the complete column here.