Altar for an Unknown God

Let mystery have its place in you; do not be always turning up your whole soil with the plowshare of self-examination, but leave a little fallow corner in your heart ready for any seed the winds may bring, and reserve a nook of shadow for the passing bird; keep a place in your heart for the unexpected guests, an altar for an unknown God.
-from Amiel’s Journal, translated by Mrs. Humphrey Ward

The Novena of Grace is coming to an end today.  This was my first year coordinating this event and so I was unsure of what to expect.  I am good with details and I had everything well organized so things have gone smoothly.  I worked with a marvelous team of presenters who have broken open the scripture in meaningful ways every day and our musicians have been stellar.  And while I knew this was a powerful experience for others who have participated in years past, I was unprepared for the depth of impact on my own heart. 

Of course, gathering together with a community twice a day to pray for nine days is certain to have some kind of impact.  One of the gifts of this time has been the reminder of how rhythm and discipline — showing up for prayer each day — is transformative.  All we need to do is show up and grace arrives to do its own work.

At the end of each liturgy we give people an opportunity to come up and say an individual prayer while holding one of the the relics of the Saints I wrote about the other day.  I had the opportunity to stand there several times over the week as we sang our closing song “Hold Us in Your Mercy” and wait.  Slowly people come forward one by one and stand before me.  I place the relic in their hand and place my hands around theirs.  There is great intimacy in this act, the warmth of skin touching as they lean toward me and whisper the prayer that is on their hearts.  Many pray for family members and friends struggling with illness, some pray for their own clarity and discernment, one young man looks me right in the eyes and says he wants to be healed of his addiction.  I hold his hands tightly and I offer my prayer in return.  Many close their eyes to receive this prayer, but he holds my gaze intently. I say that with St. Francis Xavier and the whole communion of Saints who stand right there with us, I ask blessings upon him for healing and wholeness in body and spirit.  I pray that he be freed from the prison of addiction and experience the promise of life that God desires so deeply for him.  I say these words and I mean them as deeply as anything I have ever said. A tear rolls down his cheek. I squeeze his hand, “Amen” we both say and he walks away. His longing has been imprinted on my heart.

I wrote about the relics a few days ago and there were many wonderful comments on that post.  Wronda followed up with this beautifully poetic image: “I felt their existence as stones that have fallen into the pond of eternity, the ripples of their falling reaching forward to stroke my soul with their own. I am blessed and able to join in the blessing of others.”  Rippling out from the eternal moment, soul encountering soul, blessing upon blessing.

Sometimes I wonder what we are doing when we pray.  I question how it all works, we have created such an intricate system for explaining how God responds. But even in the midst of those uncertainties, of this I am sure.  The power of being present to another person in the midst of their struggles is of such magnitude, such grace.  To extend my reach, to hold the hands of a stranger, to listen intently to the deepest desires of their heart, to offer my own prayers in union with theirs, to create such solidarity in the context of great kindness.  I don’t have to know how it all works, except that it matters that I show up and be there along with the great gathering of ancestors who join us in this prayer.

As one of our presenters this week shared in her reflection, when we arrive in church, we lay everything we bring on the altar — our joys, our griefs, our frustrations, our fears, our celebration.  And when we share in the ritual meal, these become mingled.  To enter into communion with another means that we each share the burden of what the other carries as well as the lightness of joy.  To gather with these fellow pilgrims, means that I must risk a radical vulnerability.  I am asked to help carry your sorrow and offer you my gladness and you are asked to do the same for me.  I am asked to not try and diminish your sorrow through my gladness, but to allow them all to dwell in that space together, to risk being fully human together.

One of the things I have been reminded of in these days is that the liturgy is a template for our daily living.  We gather in community to speak our struggles, to listen to the archetypal stories of our tradition, to share a meal, to reconcile with one another and with ourselves.  We lay ourselves at the altar and in the process we are invited to leave room for the unknown God, the God who is far beyond our understanding and who also dwells in the midst of our tears.  In Benedictine tradition, one of the vows is conversion, which I take to mean that I have committed myself to a lifelong journey of allowing myself to be surprised by God.

Here on this nine-day pilgrimage the God of my understanding has shown up again and again with abundance.  But also the God who breaks through the confines of my imagination, an Unknown God who shows me that what I believe and don’t believe are of little consequence.  What does matter is my capacity for love, and welcoming in the grace offered to me in each moment.

(c) Christine Valters Paintner at Abbey of the Arts:
Transformative Living through Contemplative & Expressive Arts

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