The basic Christmas story is well known to Christians and non-Christians alike. But the story inside the story that frequently gets lost is all about a passionate God who grew weary of the distance, and chose to break into human existence to draw us close. The Advent/Christmas Season has to do with a salvation history that refuses to stay cordoned off in a safe, wistful past. God is still reaching out a hand in this time and this place inviting you and me to a further sharing of divine intimacy.
There was a time when I thought I had a fairly clear idea about what intimacy with God was all about. Long, long ago, in what feels like a faraway galaxy, or a page out of someone else’s life, I used to take yearly, and sometimes semi-yearly extended retreats. In those days, unencumbered by the booming, banging, buzzing demands of soccer tournaments, and little league double headers, and too many bills, but not enough money, and too much activity, but not enough time…in the days before diapers, and pull-ups, homework, driving permits, and middle-age too, I was a slightly overly-serious, but well-intentioned, SLM (Single Lay Minister).
Employed by the Archdiocese of Saint Louis to work a university campus, what was lacking in monetary compensation was balanced with the time off provided by the rhythms of the academic year. Flush with this time off, and a desire for closeness with God, I would regularly carve out time to inhabit the chapels, woods, lakes and mountains of numerous midwestern retreat houses. Late into the night, God and I would sit in the flicker of candle light…me with my Bible, God with all that silence.
Now that I am married with kids, I think of retreat house experiences as the spiritual equivalent of a long, slow, romantic, candlelit dinner. My wife and I love a romantic night out at a great restaurant. And when we can get the time and money together, it’s great for our relationship. But with three busy kids, aged eleven to eighteen, these long, lingering meals seem to come around about as often as Kohutek’s Comet.
I think the more common experience of intimacy for those who inhabit a family looks a whole lot more like laboring alongside one another. Many parents have discovered that the way into a school-aged child’s world is not through the front door of a direct question, but through the backdoor of a shared labor.
For generations, a mother longing to draw closer, has learned to mix up a batch of chocolate chip cookies alongside her school-aged daughter. Many fathers have drawn closer to their sons under the hood of an old car, or under the net of a driveway basketball hoop. Likewise, many spouses find their way to intimacy by capitalizing on those sparkling moments that are measured in minutes rather than hours.
There is nothing wrong with encountering the God of the retreat house and monastery. But it seems to me that the common experience of intimacy in marriage and family life is a good metaphor for the more common experience of intimacy with God.
Those with a spiritual sensibility know that the world, created by God, held in existence by God, and saved by God, is filled with God’s presence. Our world is shot through with divinity. Scratch just below the surface of any experience, and there you will find the Word who is once again looking for ways to flesh out a closer relationship with you.
The articles contained within this blog have always been based upon the premise that in our God-drenched world, common everyday experience is loaded with transcendent meaning. Life is full of parables. For those with eyes to see, Bethlehem is here and now.
This Christmas, in the time it takes to drink a cup of coffee, take some time for yourself. Just like Mary who reflected back on the experience of the joyful mysteries of her life, and “treasured them in her heart,” I invite you to cast your mind back to one of your joyful mysteries. As you close your eyes, allow God’s Spirit to surface the memory of a time when you felt a great sense of well-being, competence, or joy. Next, step back into that experience with your senses. As you inhabit one of the sacred stories of your life, just hear the sounds of that scene once again. See the visuals all over again. Smell the aroma of that setting. Above all else, bring the visceral feeling of that moment back into the current time zone. You will know when you have spent enough time treasuring that moment in your heart when a smile begins to spread across your face. As you reflect and savor, perhaps you will develop a deeper appreciation of God’s intimate presence in your life. Maybe in the current time zone, you will come to see that God is writing a personal Christmas story in the sacred events of your own precious life.