God Is In Our Midst

The Lord, your God, is in your midst, a mighty savior. He will rejoice over you with gladness, and renew you in his love. He will sing joyfully because of you, as one sings at festivals.
Zephaniah 3:17-18

And how does this happen to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For at the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the infant in my womb leaped for joy.
Luke 1:43-4

 

Many years ago my mother and her sister went on a long desired trip to Europe. It was a somewhat lengthy one involving visits to several countries from Great Britain to what was then Yugoslavia. As the vacation approached its end and they were within a couple of days of returning, I received a call from my uncle. I was amazed as I don’t believe I had ever heard his voice on the phone before. I recall that his tone was somewhat anxious as he asked me if I had heard anything more from them, and what would be the best way to pick them up at the airport. As this was previous to the cell phone age, I told him that I had not heard anything from them except for a postcard or two, and I told him my plans to pick them up and that I would get my aunt home directly from the airport.

What surprised me about this call was that I could hear in my uncle’s voice how much he was missing my aunt and how eager he was for her return. This was somewhat shocking to me, as my sense of their relationship was that it was at its base loving and committed but also quite difficult and contentious. I would have thought that a time of distance from each other would have been a most desirable experience for both of them. Yet, I heard in my uncle’s voice, someone whom I would  not have recognized. There was a vulnerability, a desire, a neediness, traces of which I had never heard or seen before. Perhaps within a week or two of my aunt’s return, he might have forgotten the experience, yet, for my part, I could never see him in the same way again. Beneath his reserve, humor, and perhaps far too often irony and cynicism, there was a person with the needs, desires and even fears of a child. Beneath what seemed like my aunt’s and uncle’s endless jousting and assertions of force in their relationship, there was also their love and need for each other.

In our own ways, there is something of my uncle in all of us. We live our common and ordinary everyday lives in our unique but habitual ways of being and coping. We assert an apparent form that is self-contained, confident, competent, and endlessly self-sufficient. Yet, we are also, deep within ourselves, vulnerable and longing for love and connection. Today we are told that Mary travels to her cousin Elizabeth “in haste.” As Jesus tells Zaccheus that he must enter his house today, so Mary must be with Elizabeth in her need, not only to help her physically in her pregnancy and delivery, but even more so to bring to the one she loves the love that she bears within her. Love, says Simone Weill, is a “direction.” In the human heart, and as we learn in the scriptures today apparently in the Divine heart, love is a longing for connection, to be with and to be close.

After many years of life living with or in proximity to a close friend, we now find ourselves physically distant from each other. When work or leisure brings us back together, I find myself always eager and excited in anticipation and sad when we again separate. The experience, as my uncle’s, teaches me something about the nature of love. In order to live the deeper life of love’s possibilities, we must be willing to undergo the excitement, desire, and longing of anticipation but also the sadness and disappointment of departure. I wonder if the quality of our relationships to each other is not diminished because of our fear of our own vulnerability, of our unwillingness to suffer the pain of separation, distance, and loss. Was some of the struggle in the marriage of my aunt and uncle, some of the day to day distancing from being intimate, a result of my uncle’s refusal to bear the vulnerability, desire, and need that I heard as he spoke to me on the phone? Learning to love is learning to bear the sufferings that an alive and loving heart will always experience. Pope Francis has spoken of the lack of tenderness in our world. It is difficult for us to be tender, for we can only be so when we are willing to cease hiding from ourselves and others our own fragility and vulnerability.

When I was 6 years old my grandmother died. She had been my closest friend and almost constant companion those earliest years of my life. Little did I recognize the pain of that loss for some thirty or forty more years of my life. I did not at all understand how much my refusal to suffer that pain again negatively influenced my willingness, and so even my capacity, to be truly close and committed to others. Instead of daring to love them, I would settle for being nice to them, for appeasing them. Little by little, however, be it through literature or film, or through the experience of the end of a school year when students I had been with for four years were leaving, I began to experience a sorrow that was actually a momentary physical pain in the heart. In time I slowly began to be with that sorrow and pain rather than to evade it. By learning that sadness and disappointment were painful but not unbearable, I began to learn something of the need for, but also the call to, love. I discovered there was a joy in loving another, in being close and making a dedicated and lasting commitment to another, that I had failed to really know for much of my life. I then realized that I had lived for so long with resentment at the loss of my grandmother that I had no space in me for gratitude for her life, for having had her love and companionship for those earliest years of my life.

So, what does all this have to do with the Feast of the Visitation? In Mary, who is bearing Jesus to her cousin Elizabeth and the child she carries, we witness the very nature of the love of God. Although there are so many reasons and ways that our own capacity to love is filtered or diminished, that is not the case with God. God is always coming close to us, always visiting us. We fail to recognize that so often, because we are hiding from God — hiding our fears, resentments, unmourned losses. And if God does this in our regard, so are we, in turn, called to be always visiting others, with our love, hope, and delight in them. To bear God in this way, however, means we must touch what is most vulnerable and human in us. For that is what we share. After my uncle made that call to me, I never saw him in the same way again. We were now close in a way that had been impossible before, because I realized that we were so alike. He had evoked tenderness in me by not hiding from me, even if just for a moment, who he really was and the needs and desires of his heart. It is not our facade of competence, autonomy, pride and arrogance that God delights in, but rather it is who we truly are that is so often hidden away not only from others but from ourselves.

Then, we are aware of the God who will not let go of us, who travels from infinity to be close to us, not waiting for us to reach the foothills of heaven before attending to us. Wonderful but also very frightening indeed: God will not let us hide, because hiding does not allow us to receive all that God wants to give of life and joy—though the receiving of such life and joy may feel utterly disorienting. And when we look at one another, we see not only a face that is being looked at by God, we see a person from whom God cannot bear to be parted; so how can we bear it? Any divisions in our world, class, race, church loyalty, have to be confronted with the painful truth that apparently we find it easier than God does to manage without certain bits of the human creation.

Rowan Williams, Ponder These Things, p. 72

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