It is Advent. I can scarcely believe the speed with which this year has flown past. Neither can I quite believe – despite all the dimensions of our world which are still positive, creative and hopeful – the quantum leap which our troubled planet seems to have taken this year: into a frightening level of population displacement with its attendant human misery, and of mindless violence for the continuation of which, it appears, we have to steel ourselves for the foreseeable future until our political lords and masters can come up with some kind of solution. As I write, that solution is not at all obvious.
What can we do about this at an individual level, to help our feelings of pain for the suffering of our fellow human beings, and to make us feel less helpless? At a practical, outgoing level, we can send donations of food, clothing, money to help ease the plight of those millions of refugees displaced by violent upheaval.
Advent, however, invites us to pause, be still, go within…The great psychologist and mystic Carl Jung observed that if there is something wrong with the world, then there is something wrong with us. We can start the process of possible change for the better by looking unflinchingly into our own hearts – and amending our own behaviour. Writer Edward Hays puts this challenge beautifully:
“Advent is the perfect time to clear and prepare… Advent is a winter training camp for those who desire peace. By reflection and prayer, by reading and meditation, we can make our hearts a place where a blessing of peace would desire to abide…
“Daily we can make an Advent examination. Are there any feelings of discrimination toward race, sex, or religion? Is there a lingering resentment, an unforgiven injury living in our hearts? Do we look down upon others of lesser social standing or educational achievement? Are we generous with the gifts that have been given to us, seeing ourselves as their stewards and not their owners? Are we reverent of others, their ideas and needs, and of creation? These and other questions become Advent lights by which we may search the deep, dark corners of our hearts.
“ Faith is not about belief in something irrational or about a blind connection to something unreal. It’s about a gathering, an accumulation of events and experiences of a different order….” (pp 78-79)
It was just such an “accumulation of events and experiences of a different order….” that led me in mid-life, after an odyssey of spiritual exploration, finally to take the Dalai Lama ’s advice. If you can find a corner in your own tradition, he said in one of his books, why adopt anyone else’s? So it was that I found a corner in the Scottish Episcopal Church, fifteen minutes’ walk from my house.
All the sacred stories, Christianity being one, have at their core the ability to offer humans collective ritual practice through which to affirm that persistent sense, endemic to the human psyche, that we are all tiny sparks in a great blaze of divine light. We need to celebrate that together, with humility and awe. I needed to have that celebration in my life. And to find a mode of entry, despite my innate resistance to any form of doctrine or dogma.
As I struggled with my defiant heart in the first few months of churchgoing, a friend gave me Nora Gallagher’s fine memoir to read; the narrative begins in the season of Advent. It proved a great support and comfort. Most importantly, it aided my entry into church life. A re-read followed about two years later, and again this month – for our church community’s book group.
This time, I resolved to write an appreciation for my website. This is THE memoir to read for anyone returning, as Nora Gallagher did, to a church forsaken a long time previously; anyone with spiritual needs to be met who doesn’t quite know how to go about it; anyone who is prone to sitting in the back of the church and crying without quite knowing why – as Nora Gallagher did, for the first year of her return.
She writes beautifully, with stark honesty and directness at times: What is a priest? she asks a friend, a canon. “A person who is too fucked-up to do anything else” he replies drily.
She can also convey her experiences with spare and moving simplicity, for example in describing a totally unexpected encounter with the presence of a beloved friend who had recently died, Lois, at a time when Nora herself felt especially vulnerable and in need of consolation: “…. I felt, particularly, the skin of her hands. They felt dry and sunny, as if she were holding a piece of the sun….The overall feeling of this whatever-it-was was of detached kindness, without emotion, clarity without sentiment, the purity and refreshment of a sun-dried sheet.”
She is able to communicate the ordinary day to day failings and inadequacies of herself and her fellow community members as they travel together for a whole year from one Advent season to the next. The texture and turbulence of church life is rendered with forensic accuracy and unfailing humour. The despair and exhaustion of supporting terminally ill friends and, most painfully, her beloved brother Kit, through the gruelling business of dying, is not shirked.
Central to the whole book is her developing understanding that the beauty and nurturing of liturgy as spiritual practice has an inseparable partner: service to others. To this end “A couple of us started a soup kitchen in the parish hall”, which grows and develops throughout the church year, feeding all levels and groups inhabiting the underside of American prosperity – people who for many and varied reasons have fallen through the cracks. For them, the Trinity community kitchen is a lifeline.
Gallagher does not glamourise the usually thankless and occasionally dangerous business of feeding those folk upon whom ordinary society has turned their backs. She writes about the vicissitudes of such service with unfailing honesty, humanity, and just the right seasoning of humour.
The church to which Nora Gallagher returns is not the same church that she left – had it been, she clearly states, she would not be there. She is supported by wonderful women priests: realistic, humorous, humane and compassionate. In the partnership between ordained and lay ministry which is strong at Trinity, she takes on such tasks as serving at the Eucharist: “The mysterious and irrational Eucharist….that fed my mysterious and irrational life.” In attending to this task, she sees “the fallen-down helplessness in people’s eyes….” but also “….bits of hidden life, something about to emerge…. ”
A thorny contemporary issue finds central place in this vividly evoked year in the life of Trinity Episcopal church. Mark Asman, the temporary priest in charge, is an openly gay man. Should the community call him as their Rector? They love him and appreciate his strengths, especially his ability to pull the community closer by bringing out the best in people. But is this enough to cope with the controversy such an appointment would surely bring? The way the Trinity community deals with this process, and their eventual arrival at a decision – Mark was called, and said“Yes” – is beautifully woven by Nora Gallagher into the tapestry of a vital, painful, joyful, tempestuous and inspiring year.
I love the way she ends the book. She and spiritual director Ann Jaqua are lunching in a favourite cafe, discussing their latest creative project which is meeting with some resistance. Nora observes that there are times when she can’t stand church life. Ann responds that she can either put up with it, or start a new one. Just then, “a crazy man with dreadlocks” who used to come to the community kitchen strolls by. Nora can’t finish her sandwich and is wondering aloud what to do with it. The crazy man pauses, asks if she wants the half sandwich, she says no, and without a pause he takes it. Ann Jaqua grins. “Nothing is lost.”
Do choose “Things Seen and Unseen” as your Advent companion!
1000 words copyright Anne Whitaker 2009
Licensed under Creative Commons – for conditions see Home Page