I have felt without a home lately.
I still long to go to an Eastern Catholic church but our move away from this corner of the Ohio Valley is still indefinitely stalled, and my attempts to learn to drive and secure a vehicle are taking a bit longer than expected. The ride we can get on Sundays is to a pleasant Latin parish with a pleasant musician and a pleasant pastor. There’s nothing wrong with it; I just feel out of place. Of course, early December in the Ohio Valley is as depressing as November was, and any kind of prayer has seemed tacky and hollow, lately. God seems far away, though He’s not. I would feel out of place anywhere.
Perhaps it’s part of my vocation to feel out of place.
In the evenings I light my purple Latin Catholic Advent candles in the old faux granite Celtic knot Advent wreath in my icon corner–and then Rosie and I pray Eastern Catholic evening prayer, because that’s the prayer I like. Last year, Rosie fidgeted during Advent devotions, but this year she was stock-still, moving only to cross herself when I did and bow dramatically when I bowed my head.
She’s only interrupted prayer once. It was when I was chanting Psalm 140, where Rosie always chants along with the parts she remembers. She confessed to me last year that she usually prays “do not turn my heart to things that are rotten” instead of “do not turn my hear to things that are wrong,” and I told her that wasn’t really a mistake. This time, her question was about a later stanza: To you, LORD God, my eyes are turned: in you I take refuge; spare my soul! From the trap they have laid for me keep me safe: keep me from the snares of those who do evil.
“Where do you turn when you turn to God?” she asked gravely.
I realized she wanted instruction on what to do, literally, with her eyes. She had knelt and bowed and crossed herself several times, and she wanted a gesture for “to You, O Lord, my eyes are turned.”
“Oh,” I said. “Just look at the icons. Icons are like portholes to Heaven.”
That’s one way of looking at icons. I also like to think of them as those special glasses that help colorblind people to see color for the first time. People with certain types of colorblindness can’t see red or green properly, even though red and green things are all around them, just waiting to be seen. They put on the glasses and, at least some of the time, red and green become apparent. So, we all live in a world where God is everywhere present and filling all things, the angels are always right with us, the souls of the just are our constant cloud of witnesses. But we can’t see them. We stumble around as if they weren’t there at all. But then we gaze on the icons, and see the people that have actually always been here.
Rosie turned her eyes to the icons, and gazed until it was time to snuff the candles.
This afternoon I had to run tiresome errands downtown. It was quite cold, by Steubenville standards, for early December, and the temperature was dropping: when I got on the bus, the wet patch from yesterday’s rain on the sidewalk was a puddle, and when I got back it was a slick of ice. Fronts were rolling from north to south across the sky, dark and then soft enough for the sun to peek through and then dark again; as I walked from one end of Fourth Street to the other, it seemed as though I was walking under a great big woven blanket, with alternating light and dark gray stripes.
It was said, in ancient times, that the Creator dwells above the Firmament, somewhere up on the other side of that gray striped blanket. The ancient Hebrews believed that, and wrote about it in Genesis, but they were far from the only ones. I used to love a Native American myth that was in a book of international fairy stories I had growing up– in that myth, the sky is a cover over the earth, the stars are holes where the spirits kindle their camp fires, and the Great Spirit is up there with them somehow. When you admire the sky, according to the myths of so many different cultures, you turn your eyes to God.
It was bitter cold by the time I got to my last errand– a trip to the Adoration chapel to pray in quiet for awhile. The Friendship Room next door was busy. They were setting up their Nativity for the season. I think Molly and the other volunteers like to decorate a little earlier than a fussy person like me does, because that end of downtown is so drab and people need fun things to look at. At the other end of Fourth Street and in Fort Steuben Park, we have our locally famous nutcracker village which is always lots of fun. On this end, we have the Friendship Room, awash in lights.The luminous plastic Baby Jesus was already enshrined between the luminous plastic Mary and Joseph, in a manger scene that wasn’t completely constructed yet. There was a stack of hay bales in front of the Holy Family, or I would have knelt to pay homage; as it was, I just gazed at Him for awhile. When you kneel before the crib, you turn your eyes to God.
Two shivering, miserable-looking people, one toting a shopping bag, approached the Little Free pantry in front of the Friendship Room’s porch. It was bare except for two cans of vegetables. They looked disappointed, and walked away. I knew that the pantry would be filled up soon– donors come and fill it daily, but it never stays full for more than a few hours. Those women just happened to come at a lean time between donations.
I wanted to cry.
The Gospel tells us that when you turn to your neighbor in compassion, you are turning to God.
I went into the Adoration chapel and sat for half an hour. I stared at a slim white circle which was God. I read from a comfortable old Bible that had been set on the kneeler in front of me. I read the psalm again, that Advent psalm that inspired me in the first week: To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul, my God, in you I trust; do not let me be disgraced; do not let my enemies gloat over me. No one is disgraced who waits for you, but only those who are treacherous without cause.
I flipped open to the Gospels, where the Words of Christ were helpfully printed in red. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’
Thumbing through scripture, even absentmindedly as I was doing it, is another way of turning to God.
I went home and busied myself with homeschooling, cooking frozen hash browns for dinner, listening to Rosie’s Beverly Cleary audiobook for the thousandth time as she played and did her seat work. I couldn’t get the image– the icon– of those cold people out of my mind. And I complained about it to my friends on Facebook, as I always do.
I asked if anyone wanted to help me blitz the free pantry with a quick donation of food the way we’d blitzed the parish Giving Tree with presents for the first week of Advent. Maybe we could make a tradition out of it, and do something generous for the poor spontaneously every week of Advent– or maybe always, every week no matter the season. Maybe every day, I could be attentive to everyone around me as icons of God deserve, and give what I could, and recruit the people with more resources where I couldn’t. Maybe the whole world could join me in being attentive, again and again like a chain of dominoes, the Holy Ghost moving through everyone. Maybe if we would turn to God, if we would just let the Holy Ghost move, the world would look completely different, and there would be no empty pantries.
While I was typing, a friend replied; before I could hit “enter” she had asked if she could send me a little money to buy some food to drop off, so no one went hungry again. And I smiled, and I felt for the first time in ages like I was right at home where I ought to be.
I guess I’m going to the store to pick up cans tomorrow.
The dangerous thing about turning to God, is that God is everywhere present and filling all things. You don’t really know where your gaze will rest or where you’ll end up standing.
But where you end up, you’ll be home.
(image via Pixabay)
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