Follow the Thread

“Try to think of it as a long thread,” Jim said.  “Il filo, in Italian.” 

This past Monday night, my church choir was practicing for Christmas, working on a new song that was not yet pretty enough for prime time (AKA Midnight Mass at St. Vincent’s).  Our accompanist, Jim Primosh, was trying to help us sing more smoothly by getting us to think beyond individual words or notes to the “through line” carried on our breath, unbroken and continuous.  He encouraged us to picture il filo—the long thread running through the music.  This image helped our singing a great deal, but what really caught my attention was that it was the second time I’d encountered “following the thread” as an analogy in less than a week. 

The first time was at a mentoring breakfast last Friday.  I was talking with a wonderful young man who had just changed majors, following his passion away from a clear career path.  We were discussing my recent shift from campus ministry to freelance work—also a leap into the less clear.  Andrew observed, “All the things you really loved, you’re still doing—just in a different context.”  The image of the continuous thread came to me (though I hadn’t heard the lovely Italian yet), and I described the things that matter most to me as a thread running through everything I’ve done.  “Find your own thread,” I encouraged Andrew.  “If you can see where it’s been, you can follow it forward.” 

We talked about personal mission, and the concept of a “six word mission statement” from a leadership training session at Gwynedd Mercy University. For a long time, I’ve been using the six-word tag line: Connecting Scripture, Spirituality, and Everyday Life.  Challenged to come up with a more personal motto, however, I found myself drawing on the words of the Baltimore Catechism (which, NO, I am not old enough to remember, but that didn’t stop my mom from teaching it to me).  Why am I here?  Six words:  Help others know / love / serve God.  That’s a clear thread.  The context doesn’t matter nearly as much as making sure whatever I’m doing serves that goal.

Through subsequent conversation with Jim Primosch (who happens to be an acclaimed composer and brilliant pianist as well as a parishioner of St. Vincent’s and an incredibly patient music teacher), I learned that an even more elegant term for il filo is the French la grande ligne, the main or “pure, true line” running through great music.  Jim pointed me to an article that brings together theology and music around this concept of la grande ligne:

“The more that music, however complicated it is internally, gives off a pure, true line, the more intelligible it is—and that’s why nine out of ten developments, which are not integral parts of the form, but some sort of filler for the blank spaces between the essential points, are false and wearisome.” 

(Letter from composer and music teacher Nadia Boulanger, cited in Jeanice Brooks The Musical Work of Nadia Boulanger: Performing Past and Future Between the Wars.)

In this season of Advent—a time in which we are called to create space for God—I am intrigued by that image of “false and wearisome” things that are just “filler for the blank spaces between essential points.”  It’s like St. Paul’s prayer in Philippians 1:10:  May you learn to value the things that really matter, up to the very day of Christ.  (That’s the 1970 NAB, no longer in use liturgically, but gosh, I do love some of the phrasing.)  This is a season for noticing the false and wearisome filler that keeps us from spotting and following the divine thread in our lives.  Instead of filling up the blank spaces with chatter, frittering, or mindless acquisition, can we grow more willing to rest in them?  Can we pause in the darkness long enough to let the essential points of our life come clear? 

This image of il filo or la grande ligne also can help us make sense of our disjointed personal history.  If we’ve been through significant changes, our life narrative can begin to seem more like a collection of short stories than one great mystery novel.  We change schools, jobs, and homes; we find and lose life partners; we are healthy, then we’re not.  In the midst of such flux, it is helpful to remember what is unchanging in our lives.  This includes our deepest passions and convictions, loves that continue beyond the grave, and—at the heart of it all—our relationship with God, described by the Hindu poet Tagore as “the one companion of my endless life, who links my heart with bonds of joy to the unfamiliar.”

That’s the thread. 

In this Advent season, at Christmastime, and always, may you follow it with confidence into the unknown future. 

Far from Ordinary

Today is the last day of the Church year: Saturday of the 34th Week in Ordinary Time. After six months of green, liturgists are breaking out the purple and pink.  At sundown tonight, it’s Advent.

Advent is a time of preparation, as John the Baptist cries: Prepare ye the way of the Lord!  Step outside church, however, and it’s already secular Christmas: Prepare ye the cards and the gifts! Prepare ye the tree and the lights! Prepare ye the cookies and pies!

Even as I rail against it, I have to acknowledge that I enjoy many of the trappings of secular Christmas, because I’m pretty good at cards, gifts, trees, lights, cookies and pies. (Well maybe not so much with the pies.) Do I have to stop enjoying all these things in order to “do” Advent properly?

Of course not.

But I do have to think about the how and the why of the things I undertake in the next few weeks. Am I doing them compulsively, from a sense of ought? Or am I doing them lovingly, in a spirit of hospitality?

One thing the Advent and Christmas seasons have in common is that they are all about hospitality. We prepare to welcome Christ into our hearts as we prepare to welcome people into our homes. The sweet spot is when we can do both: welcome people into our hearts as well as our homes. That is the essence of hospitality.

When I was in the volunteer community at Freedom House in Richmond some thirty years ago, we used Henri Nouwen’s definition of hospitality to explain what we were trying to do for people experiencing homelessness. Hospitality, Nouwen suggested, is the creation of a free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy.

Hospitality is the creation of a free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy.

I have been thinking a lot about hospitality lately. Who or what requires free space to enter my heart this year? Who or what feels like a “stranger” to me, needing to be befriended?

I have an inkling about some of the answers to these questions, but I want to sit with them a while, pondering them in my rocking chair through the dark mornings of Advent. One thing I do know is that it has to do with change.

Everywhere I go these days, I seem to find myself in conversations about letting go. Letting go of cherished people and places. Letting go of faith communities that no longer feel like family. Letting go of agility and ability through illness and aging. Letting go of titles and roles that once defined identity. 

In all these scenarios, it’s easier to see what’s going than what’s coming. Tempting to cling to what was with nostalgia, and to regard what will be with suspicion.

What would it look like to be hospitable instead? To create a free space in our hearts where a strange and even frightening new aspect of life could enter and become a friend? To allow room for a new relationship or reality to grow within us—intentionally, gradually, peaceably?

In St. Vincent’s choir, my new favorite Christmas song is Friends in Christ, Rejoice. The refrain is simple but powerful: Like no god we had imagined is the baby in the straw. And that’s the point, really. As Christians we believe that God chose to enter our world in a way no one had imagined: the most vulnerable way possible. And it is still into the vulnerable parts of our lives—and our world—that this God is born, again and again.

Like no god we had imagined is the baby in the straw.

And so my prayer for you, this Advent season, is this:

May you create the space you need to be hospitable to yourself.
May you to take time to pause, to ponder, to pray, to notice.
May your hospitality overflow in gracious welcome
  to whoever and whatever will be part of your life in the year to come.
May the God of surprises come to you like no God you had imagined.

And may your far-from-ordinary days be extraordinarily blessed.