Week One: Thursday

Advent One: Thursday

Letting Loose

As we look at crossroads this winter season and listen for ancient guides, I was gifted a quotation by Hildegard of Bingen, a 12th century religious mystic who lived toward the end of the medieval period, a remarkable woman who was a German abbess, writer, composer, philosopher, mathematician, and visionary.  In telling a story about a feather, she wrote, “The feather flew, not because of anything in itself but because the air bore it along. Thus am I, a feather on the breath of God.”

Two images strike me during this long season of pandemic and our journey toward the Light this Advent.  The first, of course, is the feather.  In many ways, we humans tend to think we are in control.  We make our plans, we carry them out, we say our prayers, we meditate, we pay our dues, we take our vitamins, and then, when the unexpected happens, we tend to sink into a depression or we rail against the fact that life is unfair, that ultimately there is very little over which we do have control.  If anything has taught us about how little control we have in our lives, surely it is this pandemic.

But what if we thought of ourselves more as a feather, something that the wind (Spirit) moves, directs, and upholds?  Or like a leaf on a stream?  What if we were more open to making our plans and saying our prayers and beginning each day not so much with rigid expectations that everything must turn out the way we want it to, but with anticipation—even curiosity–trusting that whatever happens, we are not alone?  For most of us, that flexibility and trust would require a major makeover.  But a very wise woman, Hildegard of Bingen, saw such a journey is possible when we release ourselves to the breath of God.

The Creator blew over creation and the earth was born.  The Hebrew word used for breath in the story of Genesis is ruach, which also means Spirit.  We are Spirit-breathed creations. The Creator blew breath into dirt and brought humanity to life. The Christ blew breath over a group of terrified individuals “locked down” in a room and brought them peace. When we look back at the ancient figures in the Bethlehem story—a blue collar carpenter, a teenage girl, a middle-aged woman—we witness how powerful resting like a feather on the breath of God can be.  Imagine how their life plans were shattered, yet nowhere do we see them pouting or rising up in angry frustration.  Instead, they let go, they released their grip, and they allowed God to carry them forward to births that changed the world.

It is never easy to let go of anything, not our power, not our control, not our worries, not our plans and routines, and especially not those we love.  Much of life is a freefall, and instead of resisting it, we can ask to float, to hover, to drift on the very breath that breathed life into each one of us.  Blessings to you.

Advent One: Wednesday

Doctor with Covid-19 patient

In the Moment

During the Thanksgiving Holiday, this photo made the rounds, and no doubt many of you saw it:  Dr. Joseph Varon, inside a Covid-19 unit at Houston United Medical Center, holding a lonely, elderly Covid patient on Nov. 26, 2020.  The photographer, Go Nakamura (Getty Images), often visits the unit and never leaves unchanged.  The article can be found here:  https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/health/2020/11/28/photo-texas-doctor-hugs-lonely-covid-19-patient-thanksgiving/6451760002/.

As I mentioned in a former post, lectio divina (sacred reading) can be applied to many mediums, including photography.  I could not help but be stopped by this photograph, to sit with it, to cry with it, and to be open to receiving whatever message it has for me.  I am reminded of Michelangelo’s Pieta, the stunning sculpture depicting Christ’s mother, Mary, holding her dead son in her arms.  Dr. Varon has the same downcast eyes as Mary, the same still expression of acceptance, of reality, both of their poses that of a Christ-figure holding a beloved and broken child, both poses an imitation of all those who give up their hearts, who pour out endless compassion without judgment, for the sake of another.  Those actions are the hope that this photo offers. And this current world needs that hope.

As of this writing, 13.6 million cases of Covid-19 have been documented in the USA, with 268,000 deaths.  The number of new cases is 136,313, a number that is expected to grow.  Yes, many of these people will recover, but over a quarter of a million of them have died, with more loss expected, changing the lives of family and friends, and even our own lives by losing what they may have offered to the world.  This photograph of compassion is a light in this present darkness because it shows someone who refuses to concede to the darkness. This doctor, this patient, this photographer compose a Trinity that says “no” to those who have given up caring, “no” to those whose only concern is their own comfort, “no” to those who no longer remember what it is we are waiting for–not for things “to go back to normal” but for us to be transformed by this pandemic experience. This photograph is proof that each one of us in this winter season and time of waiting for the Light has the opportunity to go deeper, to connect with the God/Being/Spirit that gives us strength that we alone cannot muster. This photograph is a miracle of love.

What I sense I am being called to as I sit with this photo is to be present, however I can be, with anyone in a dark place, to practice compassion without judgment, and to remember to hold this broken world up to the light.  My candle today is lit for any and all of those who, this moment, are sharing their lights despite the cost.  It is lit for doctors, nurses, and all staff of hospitals and nursing homes.  It is lit for friends and family of those who are struggling with Covid-19.  It is lit for scientists and medical researchers spending countless hours away from family in order to secure a cure.  It is lit for religious leaders of all faiths who week after week unfailingly provide worship in some form or other, despite criticism and impatience.  It is lit for all those in our neighborhoods and cities who are making sacrifices to be without family, without friends, to follow the guidelines as an act of love for their neighbors.  And it is lit in memory of all who have died, and all who know they are dying. It is lit for this doctor and this man in this photo and for the photographer who have the courage to be real.

As we journey toward the Light, may we never forget or be afraid to take the time to feel in this season of darkness and thus honor all impacted by this pandemic.  May what is happening in this moment, right now, remind us of our own call to carry the Light.  May we not leave this time behind as an awful memory but instead allow it to mold us into the image of Love.  May we never leave unchanged. Blessings, and safety, to you.

Advent One: Tuesday

In the Silence

Lo, in the silent night
A child to God is born
And all is brought again
That ere was lost or lorn.

Could but thy soul, O man,
become a silent night!
God would be born in thee
And set all things aright.
–15th century

Whoever wrote the 15th century verse copied here knew a truth about the sacredness of silence, of stillness.  We cannot birth anything new, we cannot be transformed, we cannot grow toward the Light when we allow ourselves to be influenced or dictated by times of frenzy, anxiety, discord, and chaos.  If ever we needed quiet and light, it is this present time.  If ever we needed our souls to mimic “a silent night,” it is now.  Outside this small space of time here on a blog page, the world roars in disarray.  Even if we aren’t watching the news, we are picking up our phones and reading the headline stories or getting entangled in the fear and angst of social media.  Our lives feel out of control in a world of pandemic and finger-pointing. Without silence, we risk becoming addicted to the noise that shouts that the word for the day is fear; the word for the day is anger; the word for the day is defiance.  We hear so much noise we risk becoming the noise ourselves, and then there is no place for the Light to be born.  Our ears cannot hear the messengers.

Over the past year, I’ve become very aware of my own reactions to the noise.  I even took a social media “time out.”  While I have learned that the noise is not something I can ignore (because some of it has truths we need to hear), it is something I want to set aside, or at least put boundaries around, each day in this journey of growth.  Silence is essential for discerning how we respond to the noise.  If we seek to model ancient guides, we remember that Jesus Christ sought silence eight times in the short gospel of Mark before returning to the clamor of his life and that Elijah had to escape to a mountain to hear the still small voice of God that guided him back into the foray.  Each faith tradition has its own models for stillness and silence because we all need to be grounded in something other than ourselves. If we want to assist in the birthing that God/Being/Spirit has for each of us in order “to set things right,” then silence and stillness are our offerings.

Each time I come to this page, I light a candle.  It flickers beside me and is one of those candles that crackles, and so it becomes my signal for silence.  No words are necessary.  Nothing needs to be produced.  I just sit with the light, watching the flame stretch, then shrink, then sway like a dancer, its smoke ascending skyward like prayers. The candle evokes a sense of mystery and reverence and prepares me to go into the sanctuary of my heart, my Holy of Holies, where God is present.  Only then am I able to meet the noise again, but with a sense of calmness and clarity I otherwise would not have.  The noise needn’t win.

Advent and the winter seasons are a time of rest, and also a time of preparation.  The noise must, at some point and in some way, be addressed.  The darkness must give way to the Light, and we are the ones called to speak and to carry the candles forward.  But how we do so depends on the time we spend in silence, listening to that still small voice that also directs and empowers and reassures us.

Perhaps when you come to this page, you, too, might light a candle in this season of darkness, marking your intention to shut out the noise, just for a bit, and to trust that the silence is preparing your soul, as well, to birth something new.  Blessings to you.










Week One, Day Two: Monday


Traveling the ancient paths of the dark seasons in search of the light often requires depending on ancient practices for our tools and compasses.  One such tool is called “lectio divina,” which means “sacred reading.”  Instead of reading a piece of text for information, lectio divina invites us to read the text for transformation, which is quite a significant difference.  Information feeds the head; transformation changes the heart. The purpose of lectio is to allow time for a word or phrase that catches our attention or touches that deep part of us to take root and become a guide as we walk our journeys.  Lectio is similar to hearing that still small voice of God, Being, Universe whisper personally to us.

What is inviting about lectio is that it isn’t limited to the written text.  We can experience lectio with a painting, a song, nature, photography, all of which have messages waiting to be shared.  I was gifted with that experience this week when a friend introduced me to the song “Everything is Holy Now” by Peter Mayer and found on Youtube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KiypaURysz4.  

The first word that caught my heart was “holy” because Advent and the winter season can be entered into intentionally as a process toward transformation, becoming holier, not in a Bible-thumping, superficial way, but with the hope found in the original meaning of the word:  to be made whole.  To move toward wholeness is to embrace both the shadows and the light as part of our being and as part of creation as we move toward our center. 

The second part of the song that stopped me are these lines:

“So . . . the challenging thing becomes

Not to look for miracles

But finding where there isn’t one.”

Not to look for miracles?  Isn’t that what we all yearn to do as the end hopefully comes to this dark, worrisome, angry and divisive year?  The song writer instead challenges us to find a moment, a situation, where there is no miracle; he invites us to expect, not search for, the miracles happening all around us.  Now, not tomorrow, next week, next year.  Now.  What a “holy” change in perspective it takes to notice the burning bushes all around us.

Following his lead, I invite you to spend some lectio time with Peter Mayer’s song and listen for what speaks to you, considering how you might use his message as an angel guiding you toward the light.  For my part, my desire is to be granted eyes that recognize the miracles shimmering in the dark places, to expect flickers of candlelight that remind me of the presence of God/Creator/Spirit to illuminate my path toward wholeness.  Blessings to you.

Advent Week One, Day One

Light in a Season of Darkness

In my last post, I mentioned crossroads and ancient paths, and how Advent, or the winter months, invite us to reflect on where we have been, where we are now, and where we are going.  Though winter invites us into fallow time, how we approach that time is part of our journey.  This dark season can either be something we get through and get done . . . or something we allow to transform us.

As this journey begins, I see Advent not only from a Christian perspective but even more so from a universal, humankind perspective.  The title for these reflections, “Light in a Season of Darkness,” speaks to the communal need for hope, for perseverance, for reassurance, for the presence of Something or Someone that is bigger, wiser, more compassionate and loving, than we are.  December is a season of lights for all sorts of faith traditions and secular celebrations because it is in the time of deepest darkness that we need to see the flame.

Advent is also a fallow time as the earth goes to sleep and rests, as animals slow down and hibernate, something which is difficult for most of us to do because of the responsibilities and demands and expectations of our daily lives.  But don’t the earth and the animals hold “ancient wisdom”?  In whatever way we can, we might follow the lead of that wisdom and carve out some time for spiritual hibernation.  Perhaps this space here can be just a bit of quiet earth, of stillness, of resting in the sanctuary of our hearts and receiving whatever may be taking root in each of us.

In regard to journeys, we always meet the question, “What do we take with us, and what do we leave behind”?  I have recently begun to pack lighter for my travels and not to worry if there are several photos of me in the same clothes.  The pandemic has certainly taught me that what I wear doesn’t matter much, so I have given away clothes and not replaced them.  Lightness makes it so much easier to maneuver.  Lightness makes it so much easier to breathe.

As we enter this four-week journey together, I invite you to join me in spending some quiet time considering what to let go of this season.  What weighs you down or hinders you or distracts you from your own personal light and joy?  What is necessary to keep that leads you through the shadows to the Light?  Ask for Ancient Wisdom to help you discern what you need, and don’t need, for this part of your travels, and may you, and I, be blessed.

Journey Blessing

Wherever you are
on your particular ancient path
may you give up expectations,
your own and others,
of what you “should be,”
when you “should have” arrived,
what you “should have” accomplished
by now
along with worry over whether
you have truly achieved

May you leave behind those expectations,
your own and others,
stuffed in the carry-always luggage
you dread hoisting
once more above your head
into the compartment
above, already filled
with bundles and backpacks
of those who could not

May you honestly assess
what you have chosen to carry:
old records coated in dust,
ingrained “shoulds” that did not
arise from your own innocent soul,
snapshots yellowing with age
of what people think of you,
manipulations and mind-traps
of every weight and shape
to make you into another’s image.

May you rummage through your luggage
with courage and keep only
what is you,
by you, of you, and then
may you love yourself enough
to set your suitcase aside,
trusting the lightness
of what is precious
to lead you freely onward.

© Rosemary McMahan

Which Direction?


“Thus says the Lord: ‘Stand at the crossroads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way lies, and walk in it, and find rest for your souls.'” (Jer. 6:16)

How many crossroads have we stood at in our personal lives? Reflect on a few of them. What direction did you take? What convinced or guided you to take that direction? Do you ever look back and wonder where you might be if you had taken a left instead of a right? Then join the human race.  Crossroads can be tricky.

We are in a season of crossroads and making choices.   The United States will have a new president in January, and we will choose whether or not to support him.  Hopefully, vaccinations for Covid-19 will become available as people choose between taking them or not.  Christians are at the crossroads of Advent, a time of waiting, or a time of rushing. I am at my own personal crossroads as I leave pastoral ministry for the ministry of writing.  How do we navigate which way to go?

God the Creator and designer of crossroads speaks through the prophet Jeremiah in the Old Testament of the Bible and instructs us to “ask for the ancient paths, where the good way lies.”  How often do we consider “ancient paths”?  Out with the old, in with the new is our typical practice.  But something resonates within me when I reflect on “ancient paths.”  The image of a cairn appears, built by someone who has gone before to direct someone coming from behind.  In the darkness and waning of this present year, with all its many challenges, wounds, revelations and sorrows, I wonder if we can consider who, or where, the cairns are in our own journeys.

Scripture and holy writings from whatever faith traditions contain many cairns and crossings.  I think of Eve and all the blame and shame she has shouldered for thousands of years simply for wanting to know, for being curious, for taking a risk.  Yes, she lost her innocence, but she gained the fullness of experience, both joy and sorrow, both delight and hardship, that transformed her into someone real.  Eve embodies much wisdom about crossroads.

Poetry is another place to seek the cairns who know about ancient paths.  Mary Oliver comes to mind and her reliance on the guidance of nature that never disappointed her in the personal directions she chose.  Authors and musicians and artists of all types who have walked the path before us lend us their guidance, if we want it.  If we listen for it.

For me, Advent and the closing of this year offer us the invitation to ponder whose cairns we are following as we stand at the crossroads of a new year.  What ancient wisdom is right there, waiting for us to embrace us, to walk in it, to find rest for our souls in this season of waiting?

Oh, I should mention that this particular passage of scripture ends with this response: “But they said, ‘We will not walk in it.'”  Crossroads are tricky places and guides don’t force themselves on us.  We have a choice to accept the invitation, or not.

Beginning November 29, the first Sunday of Advent, I will be inviting you to join me as we walk on ancient paths and seek ancient wisdom and listen to those guides both within us and without, that will lead us to—if not rest for our souls—a place of sanctuary as we journey toward the Light.

Light in a Season of Darkness: What are We Waiting For?

Advent.  A time of waiting for what is coming.  Autumn, waiting for winter, waiting for the coming of spring, waiting for the coming of summer, waiting for the coming of autumn.  “To everything there is a season,” we are told, if we wait for it to come and then, often, to pass.

What are we waiting for?  The answer to the question seems quite obvious for most Americans.  We are waiting for this election cycle to be formally over.  We are waiting to see what the next four years will bring.  We are waiting for stability, for peace, for kindness, for Light.  The question seems obvious for the rest of the world.  We are waiting for vaccinations, for the end of the pandemic, for what that “end” will look like and what it will ask of us and who will say “yes” to what is required.  Waiting can be tiring.  We can only tread water for so long.  Our hope, I believe, is to rediscover the practice of waiting while staying in the moment, paying attention to that moment, whatever it is.

In this time of watching the world in which I grew up, reared children, practiced a vocation seem to crumble or at least suffer some serious fissures, I have wondered where God—that ultimate Being that is part of us yet is much vaster than us–is.  Slowly during these months of pandemic, that answer came to me:  “What is, is where God is.”  What our current reality is (lockdown, illness, frustration, anger, fear, displacement, separation) is where God is.  And if we desire to participate in the creative and re-creative work of God, we join God where God is.  IS.  Here.  Now.  In the waiting, or rather, in how we wait.

How are you preparing to wait for the Light and the closure of the year 2020?  How am I?  In our waiting, how will we assist the flame that is calling to be rekindled?  What commitment will we make to being Light-followers?  These are the questions I am taking into my heart this Advent, with honesty, with compassion, and with the presence of the Spirit of God.  You are invited to join me in pondering them, or sharing your own questions.


“Light your candles quietly, such candles as you possess, wherever you are.” ~ Fr. Alfred Delp, martyred in Nazi Germany, age 38

As the daylight hours shorten and we approach a fallow time of year, many Christian denominations prepare for the season of Advent, the month-long period of waiting for the celebration of the birth of the Christ-Child, the Light of the World. Other faith traditions, such as Hindus, Jains and Sikhs, celebrate Diwali, a festival of lights, while our Jewish sisters and brothers prepare for Hannukah. Darkness calls humanity to seek the light, eon after eon.

Our current pandemic is certainly a dark place, while social and political upheaval in the United States and in other parts of the world create heavy shadows. But each of us has been given a spark of light, and this time of year, in particular, is an appropriate, and much-needed, season to reflect on how we can shine our lights together. As Father Delp, a Jesuit priest hanged for treason in Nazi Germany, invited, we are to shine humbly in whatever way our souls, spirits, psyches call us to, in whatever places and situations we find ourselves, in order to stave off the darkness and encircle our world with the healing power of light.

During this Season of Advent/Diwali/Hannukah, etc., I will be sharing my reflections on how we may be called to both wait in the darkness and to illuminate the shadows in a series called Light in a Dark Season. I invite you to join me as a Light-Bearer so that together we might spread a mantle of brightness over our wounded world.

In the small still shadow of a darkened morning
before the screeching of this broken world repeats,
I strike a match and set it to a stub of wick:
an offering of light being birthed yet again.

Before the screeching of this broken world repeats,
I breathe sacred flame-glow into heart, psyche, soul
an offering of light being birthed yet again,
a single, slender candle singing prayer.

I breathe sacred flame-glow into heart, psyche, soul,
imagine the brilliance of a hundred million candles
burning quietly on the edges of every dawn
before the screeching of this broken world repeats.

I strike a match and set it to a stub of wick,
my hope for this wounded world one fluttering flame,
a single, slender candle singing prayer
in the small still shadows of a darkened morning.

© Rosemary McMahan