"It is in the shelter of each other that the people live," An old Irish proverb teaches.
Life, it seems, begins and ends in encounter. Together we support one another. We create something new; we make space. And there, within ourselves and within the world, life is sheltered and sustained. Between you and me there is created the perfect balance of resistance and reassurance — trust rooted in and returning to love — a balance better known as relationship.
Together we live and move and have our being. Just as God lives in us. Yet, in the cold chill of winter, it can be easy to forget that our God is a God of relationship encountered.
"Look at the sky, Colleen," the woman said in a hushed tone as she gestured out the window. She knew we weren't supposed to be talking. "The beauty," she continued, pointing to the treetops, "that's what this is all about."
I looked intently as she left my side; I could feel the eyes of the other women in the dining room on me. They knew we weren't supposed to be talking, either, and so they watched my gaze, trying to discern what it was that was so important it warranted breaking silence to be addressed.
I felt like I could have stood up and shouted to the room "It's beauty!" But instead, I just sat and stared intently at the treetops. Crisp and clear; stripped bare and set in silhouette against the bright blue sky. It was beautiful. And I couldn't say a word about it.
I was at a silent retreat for New Year's — a prayerful pause at year's end. The fog and dreariness that engulfed the end of the year in the Northeast seemed to have broken. And seated in that dining room on the last day of 2015, I smiled to myself as I soaked in the beauty. Unbeknownst to me, it was what I had come away to encounter.
Driving five hours north a few days before, I'd travelled through a foggy haze from Pennsylvania to Massachusetts, from the relative warmth of Philadelphia to the snow covered ground of the Commonwealth. As dusk fell upon the backroads I was travelling, I noted what seemed like the fusing of heaven and Earth. The trees made to look even taller in their barrenness seemed to stretch into grey sky, their tops disappearing into low hanging clouds just as quickly as the taillights ahead of me faded into the distance.
A year ago, I attended this retreat for the first time with two sisters I'd shared novitiate with, drawn by a Jesuit friend who was helping facilitate the retreat. Somehow in just one year of attending, I'd become part of this nearly 40-year-old New Year's tradition. Religious sisters from numerous congregations were in attendance, along with married, single and widowed women, all of us seeking time away to begin the new year with prayer and intention.
Arriving at the retreat center, I was met by familiar faces. To my surprise, despite a year's time and few words between us, they remembered me and I remembered them. Friends, new and old, united in reflection and prayer, connected by the space between us.
Settling into the silence of retreat, I found myself giving thanks for the opportunity to step away, no matter the hazy grey of winter and year's end. Silence and time solely set aside for prayer were a welcome and much-longed-for reprieve from everyday life. I was determined to take full advantage of it all and yet, I soon realized the invitation of this retreat might be to take full advantage of what God was offering and not, perhaps, what I had planned.
I wanted to encounter God, to take a quiet look back on the year that had been. I longed for deep connection within the all-too-rare stillness. I wanted to listen uninterrupted. I named those desires and God answered. Sometimes, though, what you want and what you long for can turn out looking differently than how you imagined.
'Look at the sky'
It didn't happen all at once. It happened as I sang my heart out at liturgy; and as I let me guard down; and, oh yeah, as I stopped to have deep conversations with those around me, people I love, people who are on the other end of a phone or an email more often than they are in conversation with me in person. And in those moments, moments utterly contradictory to what I thought I needed or wanted, God provided.
Talking, I found clarity. I remembered why I need to talk, why I need to write, why I need to create and explore and discover. There in the space between myself and another was God inviting me to listen and speaking softly in the consolation of relationship, the reality of friendship, and the gift of presence.
There, I could see the year as it was and myself as I am. I was free to live. I'd found shelter.
In the space between, I could hear myself beyond the words I speak or the stories I tell, I could genuinely be myself, be known, and in the process, know myself better. That's the invitation that comes in prayer and the gift God offers us each day. Sometimes it takes silence; other times, we need someone else to listen with us, to witness to God's work.
More often than not that's where the gift is that's being offered to us: in the space between. That is the gift of relationship, whether with friends or colleagues, family or strangers. It's in the space between us that God works. We get an opportunity to encounter the Divine in connection with another. If we're lucky, we'll come to know and recognize that God can work anywhere and through anyone. We just need to make space.
There, we are given the opportunity to be the best version of ourselves. That's the reminder Pope Francis gives us with each call to mercy and example of encounter. For if "the name of God is mercy," then our lives are a call to occupy (and bridge) the space between heaven and Earth in each relationship.
That call doesn't always sound like we think it might. For me, it was in conversation where I thought there should have been silence — a humbling reminder from God that we can't do this (mercy, encounter, or relationship) on our own.
We can't make heaven touch Earth. We can't clear the clouds. We can listen, though, and create space. And, perhaps when we do, the beauty that's been there all along — the presence of God in beauty and in others — will shout out in the sudden silence and we'll delight in the sight and the sound of a space between filled with grace, open to love and in the shelter of which life for years to come can flourish.
[Colleen Gibson is a Sister of Saint Joseph of Philadelphia. Author of the blog Wandering in Wonder, she currently serves as assistant director of campus ministry at Chestnut Hill College in Philadelphia.]