Last Saturday I had the privilege of doing an Advent Quiet Day at Grace Church, Chattanooga. For those of you who aren't familiar with Quiet Days, they are fairly traditional in the Episcopal Church, especially during Advent and Lent, the liturgical seasons of self-examination and preparation. My friend, who is the priest in charge at Grace, asked me to do something about the black madonna for them. Typically the day consists of two presentations of perhaps 45 minutes each, and some quiet time for prayer, meditation, journaling. It's a time to take the material of the presentations and internalize it, make it your own. I was very excited to do this presentation, but didn't know what to expect, as I had offered the same presentation to my own parish last year and zero (yes, zero) people showed up for it. But this is a much bigger and more diverse parish than my own; in addition, I was privileged to get some additional publicity in the form of National Episcopal Church coverage, so as I said -- who knew how many people might come?
I'll admit, the day didn't start well. I thought I knew my traveling time pretty well, having been off the Plateau and down to Chattanooga several times; in addition, I had directions from the diocese. Unfortunately, my travel took a bit longer than I'd planned, and I got on the connecting interstate going the wrong direction. I was nearly a half-hour late (having planned to be 45 minutes early), and of course I arrived flustered.
But then it all settled down nicely. I talked about my madonnas as artifact and Christian icon. I talked about how Mary is actually the perfect companion for Advent, as she certainly knew the truest sense of "preparation," and how my own story connected with the darker aspects of Advent preparation. I, like Mary, knew how it felt to be young, pregnant, and unmarried: I know the shame, the doubt, how it feels to tell parents and one's intended of the untimely pregnancy. I spoke of Advent being a time when we move into darkness, then out of the darkness toward the light of the Incarnation of Christ. I showed my artifacts, talked a bit about my pilgrimage last year in search of the Italian black madonnas. I answered questions, then we took a short break and sat in silent, centering prayer for a time.
After lunch I talked a bit about what some believe are the pagan origins of the black madonna, about the similarity to Isis and Horus, to Artemis, about how the Madonna might have appeared to the Italian culture that had been worshipping women in the form of goddesses for millennia. I told them my theory that Christianity was much easier for this pagan culture to accept when it appeared in the form of a female holding a child, and how some of the Italian legends and festivals for Mary held elements that resembled pagan legends. I told more of my personal story, about how grief and dark places are such old, familiar friends to me, how I've trod the dark paths of grief many times, and how I feel called to be with people in their darkest times here at my own parish. You can imagine that in a parish of retirees, I have many occasions to walk beside them in times of illness, disability, and grief.
This is the black madonna at Oropa, the first one I saw in Italy. Isn't she striking?
I had 13 participants, and it was really wonderful to be with people who understood my points, who were interested, who asked questions, who weren't mystified when I talked about Carl Jung, his feminine principle, the shadow, the sacred feminine, the dark feminine.
And I was delighted when they asked me to return to conduct their Lenten retreat, an overnight at a nearby retreat center. I'm happily planning and preparing for that now, as well -- am thinking of focusing on the biblical Wisdom tradition and writings.
The weather has really shifted today. It went from a mild 50 degrees F, with a little sunshine, to overcast and rainy and cooler. Tonight and tomorrow it's supposed to snow.
Earlier, I worked outside in the yard a bit. This is an "after" shot of the sidewalk, which was buried in leaves and overrun with nasty bamboo grass and wild rose thorns.
Yeah, keep in mind, this is the "after" shot! Imagine what it must have been before. You can see this overgrown bed (who planted this bamboo grass here in the first place? It sure wasn't me!) will occupy me for hours, as I spent an hour here, clearing this walk, cutting that nasty wild rose, and raking a bit. Every mild winter day will afford me the chance to get outside into the invigorating fresh air, as can be seen from this:
Well, that's about half of what needs to be pruned and trimmed, weeded and tidied. Want to come help? My flower beds are suffering from years of neglect now; every year I swear I'll do better, and every year things get away from me almost before I know what's happening.
The good thing about this part of the country is that we get plenty of days that are 45-50 degrees and sunny in the winter; that's when it will feel good to get outside and bend and stretch and breathe fresh air (and leaf mold from all the dead things). Despite appearances, I like to get my hands in among growing things, and it has been entirely too long since I've done that.
Tomorrow is the Third Sunday in Advent. I'm not quite sure where this year, much less this short season, has gone already. I've begun my Christmas decorating, which feels as though it will be low key this year. Here's the tree, partially decorated:
The ornaments are red ones that I had in the house (I used them up through Valentine's Day in various bowls). I haven't brought the rest in from the garage yet -- I get really tired of schlepping stuff back and forth.
Finally, before I head off to finish my sermon: I've begun a program called Food Addicts in Recovery Anonymous (FA). It's modeled very closely on Alcoholics Anonymous, not just some generic "Twelve-Step Program." One of the books we study is the "Big Book" from AA. It's a pretty rigorous food program for the first 90 days -- no flour, no sugar, call sponsor daily to report food plan for the coming day. As I read the materials daily, I find that so many of the things these books say "fit" for me, and my heart sinks. I do not like admitting that I have an addictive disorder or personality. I'd much rather this was all just "bad eating habits" that I could change at will. But I've been carrying this weight for nearly 20 years now, and trying to "change bad habits" hasn't really worked. Though the focus of the program is not weight loss, per se, but becoming abstinent and working a program of recovery, I do, of course, want to lose weight, as well. This is my eighth day, and I can tell I'm losing. My knees and hips are already thanking me, and I expect they'll continue to do so. But equally important, I'm becoming more and more aware of habits and characteristics and coping mechanisms that need to be addressed and changed. I think I've got a long road ahead of me, but if it gets hard, I remind myself that it's really one day at a time, and maybe I can make it through just this one day. I'll let you know how it goes. I'm really trying to let God do this for and with me, but it's hard to let go the reins.
Hope you all are taking some time just to be in Advent. Be alert. Watch for signs of what God's doing. Get your heart ready for the feast of love that Christmas is really intended to be.
Oops! I forgot the promised link to last Sunday's sermon (thanks again, Fran, for encouraging me to do this!): Download Advent 2A, December 5, 2010 . I will post tomorrow's when it's finished -- tomorrow!