An Advent Reflection
by Sarah Thomas
This Advent I am thinking about boundaries. For lots of reasons. And I am asking the questions: Which boundaries are real? Which boundaries are illusion? Which boundaries are necessary? I think many people are asking the same questions lately, as I see the fear and pain splashed across social media around the question of boundaries and other-ness.
This past Thanksgiving, my husband, three daughters, and I visited my parents in northern California. There is a sign that is posted at the edge of a cliff near the house that reads: “Danger. No Entry.” The land is eroding quickly and it’s quite hazardous. But since I grew up roaming these cliffs, its danger zones are familiar to me, and so I always lead my young family right past this sign every year, without a moment’s hesitation.
I grew up coming here to visit my grandmother. The spot is located on a part of the northern California coast that is remote and hard to get to. I associate this place with Presence because it is a landscape where the entanglement of life and death is very apparent. The air is intoxicating in its heady mixture of sweet grass, pine, ocean salt, and sometimes slight decay. The beaches are beautiful, but not because of some kind of idyllic peacefulness. They are wild and rugged, teeming with life and death. You never know when you might run into a beached sea lion with turkey vultures circling overhead. But wildflowers grow with abandon, and fierce winds have carved out stunning shapes in the rock over time. For me, this place is all the more beautiful because of its inability to hide its unabashed rhythm of life and death, light and dark, and all the shades in between.
I also associate this place with family. It is the spot of many Thanksgiving dinners and summer visits. Both grandparents died in this cedar house and newborn babies have slept in this very room from which I am writing today. Anniversaries have been celebrated and feelings have been hurt. We stumble onto each other’s sore spots and trigger each other’s shadowy places. In this place with its porous boundary between this world and the next, I notice the false boundaries family members erect between each other. I notice the boundaries I erect within myself, too. What are we trying to keep out? To maintain? To protect?
It reminds me of the story of the very first Advent, when Mary was visited by the Angel announcing that she would be the life-bearer of God. Boundaries may have been on Mary’s mind! And yet she said yes. Despite what others might think of her unmarried status. Despite fear. Despite the unknown. She said yes to the in-breaking of the divine crashing through her boundaries. And then she said, “My soul magnifies the Lord.”
My soul does feel magnified in this spot on the planet. I feel myself saying yes to something, even though I’m not sure what it is. The gnarled cypresses say Yes to the relentless winds, to the clinging lichen. The sand rock says Yes to the erosion of Time. I suppose they are all saying Yes to what is. They aren’t resisting with boundaries of not-being-ready, or by being afraid, or by hiding their true nature. The redwoods and manzanitas breathe in and out, making air, joining me in an exchange of breath. This place reminds me that while some boundaries are important and necessary, others get in the way, and there needn’t be any boundaries between self and Spirit. I am reminded that separateness is truly an illusion, as the mystic James Finley says, and that I am intimately connected to this beautiful, sad, renewing, heartbreaking, rejoicing rhythm of life and death, light and dark, then and now and someday. Maybe that’s what the poet Henry Vaughan meant when he wrote, “There is in God, some say, a deep but dazzling darkness, as men here say it is late and dusky, because they see not all clear. O for that night! Where I in Him might live invisible and dim!” Perhaps it’s what St. John of the Cross calls a “luminous darkness.”
And so this Advent, I am asking the question of myself and my loved ones: Can I let go of some of my defendedness this season? Can I say Yes to the ways the Spirit is trying to break through my boundaries? What do I need to let go of? What spiritual practice might I adopt this month that could help open me to the mystery of the waiting in the dark?
Wishing all of you an expectant Advent,
– Sarah Dammann Thomas
is a member of Stillpoint’s board of directors.