Tag Archives: grace

Birthday Pilgrimage

Path to S_ Baume-provence2010In 1947 in the July heat of the Fresno valley I took my first breaths, released from my mother’s watery womb, having been created in the heart of God. Being the firstborn, my parents named me traditionally after my great-grandmothers, Christine (Norwegian) and Gertrude (French-Irish). 

We didn’t have much, but we lived in an America that honored family, faith, and hard work. We were rich in all three. 

Two years before my birth, my father, William Carl Thomas, discharged from the Navy as a chaplain on the USS Phoenix in World War II, had married my mother, Helen Martha Martin, in a church near her home in Inglewood, Los Angeles. They didn’t have photos taken, so they dressed up later for a picture in a garden. That was 1945. 

My journeys in time through my sixty-eight years have known everyday miracles, full of twists and turns, ups and downs, rarely along the road I had chosen, but, by grace, pulled along a better one. As I look back it seems I traveled many paths that wove in and out of one another, forming a cloth of many colors. 

My body traveled with me, naturally, housing my soul, growing, aging in sickness and in health, knowing the pains and pleasures of each day granted. My flesh has changed on this journey as cells have rearranged. Its waywardness has been partially tamed through habit and inconsistent discipline, exercise and diet. Hopefully, my body has grown to know its proper place in my life, subject to my soul and not its dictator. But the two don’t always agree on this; it is a work in progress, a journey ongoing. 

My soul traveled through these years, discovering the rich fullness of Christ at twenty and beginning that bright pilgrimage to God in God, as St. Benedict said. I traveled into the Eucharist, uniquely encountering Christ, and I traveled into his Body, the Church, learning to love and forgive, and most blessedly, being loved and forgiven in return.   

My soul learned in its journey how to wash itself clean with confession. All that I have done wrong and all that I have left undone can thus be seen in the light of Christ, purged by my penitence, my re-penting, changing. Such washing grants me the joy of waking each morning with a clean heart and soul, one open and honest and loving and unafraid. This is Christ’s healing tonic, forgiveness through his Church, His Body. And in this way we set out on the right path, at least for that day. 

I traveled as well into my own little gifts, such as they were and are, that grew tentatively, surprising me like green shoots sprouting from the earth, as experience sculpted memory, hopes, and fears. A student of history, I’ve learned how little I know, and it is humbling. But I’ve grown to know the face of freedom, its nature and its challenges, when it is threatened, and when it is nourished. I can recognize freedom’s enemies, hidden or disguised as friends. I am beginning to understand the difference between liberty and license. 

I also traveled in and through words on the printed page, blessed to grow up surrounded by books and book lovers. We poured over encyclopedias and dictionaries to answer our questions. We carried home stacks from the library. We listened to stories read aloud at bedtime, that borderland between listening and dreaming, wakefulness and sleep, when the heart and mind are open to the imagination and words are savored. This was our entertainment in an age when TV was limited, even (in our home) suspect. But reading aloud made language sing and dance. Meghan Cox Gurdon writes: “To curl up with children and a good book has long been one of the great civilizing practices of domestic life, an almost magical means of cultivating warm fellow feeling…and a common cultural understanding.” Today more than ever reading aloud together is an antidote to reading screens alone. We thus personalize our shared stories, joining the generations and renewing our culture. 

I traveled with others along the way, gathering together, working together, healing and helping: brothers and sisters in the Church, family and friends now scattered. These many and varied people of God are so unique that their differences complement rather than copy one another, forming an infinite rainbow, an eternal spectrum of type and color. There were mothers who mothered and fathers who shepherded. These many stars in a firmament of folks twinkled their way into my heart, lighting my path. I shall see them again one day when we gather at the river that runs by the throne of God. 

I’m still traveling through my time, glad and thankful that my destination is clear, the pathway well marked. I need merely read the signposts found in the forest of sacrament, scripture, and prayer. I began in the mind of God, swam in my mother’s watery womb, breathed my first air in a farming town called Fresno. As I begin my sixty-ninth year, I watch and listen, waiting for the words to see and hear, praying without ceasing, thy will be done within my free will, so that I choose the right path, home to God.  

Christmas Choices

It often seems when our family gathers at Christmas that the many activities, the many foods, the many gifts, the many reunions of cousins and brothers and sisters, fill the rooms to bursting, leaving no room for the story of the Incarnation. So, unhappily, on the birthday of Our Lord we are pulled away from him, away from the story of the Word made flesh, and God’s still small voice is muffled by the loud chatter of Christmas.  So I tried something new this year at our family gathering.  The grandchildren (age 12 through 20) read the nativity story aloud as we sat before the twinkling tree and the crèche figures arranged to the side.

The tree was bright and shimmering against a window of foggy sky, but the crèche – the fired clay figures of Mary, Joseph, the Christ Child, the shepherds, the wise men, the sheep and cows – was dim and gray-blue, almost shadowy, set upon the river-rock hearth. The rough clay figures seemed more real than the fir tree, as though they were earthen, solid, but somehow eternal.

Our readers began with the words of St. Luke, “The angel Gabriel was sent from God unto a city of Galilee, named Nazareth, to a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary…” These words tell of the great event we call “The Annunciation,” when Gabriel announces to Mary that God has chosen her to be the mother of his son. It is a precious and fabulous moment in history, for while Mary was chosen, she still had to choose.

Sr. Mary Gabriel Whitney OP of the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist, relates this pivotal moment in a charming ballad included on the CD, Mater Eucharistiae: 

And so on that day
The whole human race
Held its breath to hear the answer
Of the Queen of Grace.
 

The whole human race. Indeed, we all held our breath.

My grandchildren continued St. Luke’s account. We heard how Mary visited Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist, and how Mary sang the song we call The Magnificat, magnifying and rejoicing in God her savior. We learn of the historical census decreed by Caesar Augustus, how Mary and Joseph went up from Galilee to Bethlehem, the City of David, how she brought forth her firstborn son, wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. We then see the bright angels appearing to the shepherds and bringing the good tidings of great joy… that a savior has been born, who is Christ the Lord, and they would find him wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. We learn of the wise men from the East who follow a star to the manger where the young child was. Finally, we hear how all fell down on their knees and worshiped the Child.

It was a short reading, but the story of the Incarnation settled upon our souls, warming us. For a few minutes we recalled why we were celebrating on this 25th of December, 2013. For a few minutes we re-called the Lord of Hosts and his awe-full act of love, coming among us as he did.

I often think how God chose to come to his people, in this moment in time. I think of Mary and her choice, her answer. I wonder at the choices we make minute to minute, day to day, the power each of us has to shape our world by what we do or do not do. In a way, the whole human race holds its breath to see what choices each of us will make this day, this hour, this minute. For every choice creates our future as the People of God and as the people of the earth.

This morning I worshiped at First Presbyterian Church in Berkeley with my son, his wife, his son (11), and his daughter (8). My father, my son’s grandfather, Carl Thomas, was youth pastor there in the early fifties (I was five), and today my son attends a Presbyterian church in Boulder. So I sat on the long cushioned pew with my son and his son, and thought of my father and his charismatic, loving ministry. The pastors today no longer wear the long black academic robes my father wore. The building from the fifties had been replaced by a modern one in the eighties. But the cross stood strong and present before us, and the simple service echoed my childhood memories.

Thick candles burned and large tables of sand stood to the side. Long white tapers were laid out nearby. The pastor asked us to consider the old year, the ways in which God had answered our prayers and the ways in which we thought he had not. He asked us to pray for the new year, one in which God would be present in our choices. Earlier, a speaker had said he had gone on a mission with open hands and had returned filled and transformed. So we prayed into the silence, reaching deep into God’s heart, and then, one by one we rose, lit a taper and gently shoved it into the sand. Soon hundreds of candles burned before us, each one reflecting a prayer to choose with open hands and hearts. I lit my candle off my grandson’s and shoved it into the sand alongside my son’s. 

As the Twelve Days of Christmas bridge the Feasts of Incarnation and Epiphany, they arc New Year’s Day. It seems a fitting cluster of events: the Word made Flesh, dwelling among us; the old year turning into the new, and our consideration of past and future, our choice-resolutions; and finally, the manifestation of the Word to the world, the light banishing all darkness.

Each of us plays a crucial part in this pivotal time. We are part of the greatest drama on earth. We look back to Christ’s coming in Bethlehem, and we look forward to His second coming to earth, this time in judgment and glory. We make our New Year’s resolutions, choosing his light, opening our hands to be filled with good things, so that we may be transformed, so that we may magnify the Lord. 

Like the Queen of Grace, we pray, “Be it unto me according to thy word.”