Through whom God walks burning

We sat around the table tonight in the artist’s studio, collaging photocopied icons of the Madonna and child onto canvas board, cutting words from magazines, layering images, painting, covering in encaustic wax. The pressing question for me for that two hours was how much gold paint was gaudy, and how much simply got the point across.

Advent is in the morning. I always come to moments like this thinking I should find myself in some reflective place that is meaningful and word-worthy.

But the past few months have been quiet. July and August were painful in unexpected ways, processing a couple relationships which changed overnight, and some boundary-setting.

And then I’ve pulled back from social media some, unfollowed a few folks who often led me to feel inferior or like my life was a mess, and gave the middle finger to all people and coaching accounts suggesting I could be a brand unto myself with the right marketing knowledge.

And I’ve stepped away from the hyped up desperation of activist anxiety – not because the world is fixed, or activism is bad, but because its broken feels limitless while my compassion feels finite and human, and I am prone to overwhelmings.

I frankly haven’t had much to say that has felt put together or important. Which isn’t an apology exactly; it’s been much needed quiet with the solitude of my own thoughts.

But tonight, the few words I jotted down in pencil on the sheet of notebook paper as we worked through visio divina as a group felt like the beginning of thoughts that wanted for a middle and an end.

The Mary in our icon stood with her hands out in prayer position, looking directly at the viewer. Or it was prayer position in the ancient church. Today, it looks very much like the posture of the priest during “The Lord be with you,” or during the final benediction. She looks powerful and strong, like a woman come into her own.

Sorting through magazines, I found a photo of a young woman with her hand over her eyes, and began to think about the young Mary who could not see what was coming, and the older Mary with the eyes that beckon you into prayer. They both ended up in the final collage together, intertwined and overlayed, the Christ child as the heart of the older Mary while simultaneously in the womb of the younger Mary.

It’s Mary I return to every Advent. She’s an obvious choice for themes of waiting and expectancy, but also as the years have gone by, as I teeter on the brink of 40 now and I have been a mother with a growing son, I have come to wonder about her, about what growth for her looked like – how she went from young unwed mother, to queen of heaven, a powerhouse, a priestess of sorts drawing us toward Jesus.

And while it’s usually been the younger Mary who has drawn me, tonight it was the elder, priestly Mary. This isn’t surprising, as I work my way into an imaginary of myself as priest and move through the ordination process of the Episcopal church. How do I move from “just a girl” and my immaturities, insecurities, and doubts, into priestly identity where I stand in the community as someone who is for the sake of others?

Much of it is grace; some of it is, no doubt, work.

In the past months, I’ve been thinking a lot about the kind of priest I want to be, and more generally, the kind of human I hope to be.

I erred on the side of gaudy tonight with the gold paint. I wonder if glory is ever modest or if the luminous spills over without apology, given free reign. Gold halos, gold light emanating in the background, gold on the edges of the bodies like sun kissing skin. Gold everywhere.

In these quieter months, Rilke has been my friend. Poems from his book of hours, particularly the ones translated by Robert Bly, have never been far from hand. My worn and dog-eared copy has even traveled with me.

There are lines of his which speak answers to the question of who I want to be, what kind of priest and person I’m aiming for:

I have faith in nights.”

I want my best strength to be like a shoot, with no anger and no timidity, as a shoot is.”

“I want to be a mirror for your whole body, and I never want to be blind, or to be too old to hold up your heavy and swaying picture. I want to unfold…. I want my grasp of things true before you.”

Or the one I’ve been thinking about tonight, his line about “young Titians, through whom God walks burning.”

I want to be one through whom God walks burning.

Tonight as I edged everything in gold, Mary’s arms outstretched also reminded me of branches, and I remembered that she is sometimes imaged as a burning bush, an unquenchable fire which never burns down, but instead flames out of the living. On the edge of the wilderness, Moses turned aside, and we with him.

That’s my prayer as I head into Advent: Make me one through whom you walk burning.


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