This session closes our Advent retreat, Sprigs of Rosemary—a retreat that can be adapted to any schedule and, certainly, can be used any time of the year. This final post recognizes that YOU are a temple of God, a home for God in the world, the ultimate sanctuary for the Divine.
Advent leads us from the darkness of the womb to the light of Christ at Christmas. As we journey through the weeks, we circle the Advent wreath lighting a new candle each week—a reminder that our waiting ends, that Christ will come. But it can also set our intention to be a dwelling place for God, to remind ourselves that Christ is incarnated in us. “Sanctuary” by Maranatha Music is a prayerful reminder:
In Session 1, we contemplated the lyrics of Sanctuary, written by Carrie Newcomer, and explored the power of images to tap into our intuition through collage. Expressing one’s creativity allows time and space for new ideas to bubble up, for questions to surface, and for meaning to take hold.
“Images attract the attention of the right side of our brains, and when there are only images, this intuitive side stays in charge and will go deeper into the uncharted territory of the psyche. It is this side of our brain that can see the whole picture at once and surprise us with wise answers that seem to come from some deeper place.” Seena Frost, SoulCollage Evolving
Contemplative Session 2: Sanctuary in Thin Places
The Caim Symbols, as with images, can represent something beyond a surface level of understanding, pointing to the abstract. Symbols can become an important part of rituals, helping cement an idea or intention and give energy to creativity and prayer.
While researching sanctuary as a theme for this retreat, I discovered two symbols that illuminated the notion of creating sanctuary. The first is the Celtic Christian symbol, caim. A caim can be practiced as a ritual of circling oneself with prayerful protection in dark times. There is a power in a symbol that embraces its meaning and yet goes beyond—it can be a reminder of being loved and safe during times when one feels uncertainty.
“The “caim” involves simply drawing a circle around yourself or another person physically or in your imagination. This encircling prayer is grounded in our awareness of the constant companionship and protection of the divine. It reminds us that God is in this place. Often, as they embarked on journeys or felt at risk, Celtic pilgrims would inscribe a circle around themselves as a reminder of God’s ever-present companionship and protection.
Practicing the encircling prayer is simple. Pause and then take a moment to draw a holy circle around yourself or, imaginatively, around a loved one. Use your index finger as a way of inscribing the circle around you. As you draw the protective circle, you may use a traditional or contemporary prayer of encircling. You may also choose to write and read your own personal prayer for yourself or another. But, in any case, the power of a spiritual tradition often finds its most lively expression when we embody it from our deepest spirit and in the language of our own hearts.”
The Mandorla It was serendipity that brought me to the next symbol and image—the mandorla. During a retreat on the St. John’s Bible, an acquaintance shared with me how important the mandorla was to her spirituality. Thinking she was mispronouncing mandala, she shared with me that the mandorla is an ancient sacred symbol used in icons. The union of the circles, an almond shape, create the mandorla. Italian for “almond”, also known as a vesica piscism, it is a symbol of new life and fertility. It is often used in Christian art to frame Jesus or Mary.
Within days I came across a few other references of mandorlas used in icons—and then came the inevitable falling-down-the-rabbit-hole-of-the-internet-research. I had no idea how often the mandorla was used in art and how deeply archetypal the meaning is. In Christian art, mandorlas represent sacred moments that transcend time and space, such as the Resurrection and Transfiguration of Jesus and the Dormition of the Theotokos and symbolize the Christ Light. The two circles can symbolize the balance between seeming opposites—body and soul, physical and spiritual, masculine and feminine, light and dark, togetherness and solitude.
We go to the light, the mandorla, as a contemplative space for sanctuary. The mandorla is that in-between space, that “thin place” where we can carve out time to be in the presence of God, a place of sanctuary where we can rest in the tension of opposites. We are called to be this Christ Light for each other, but it is the balancing of together and alone, being and doing that we desire.
Read and Reflect
“If there is anything the stories of Advent and Christmas want to impress upon us, it’s that heaven and earth are in conversation. These weeks invite us to eavesdrop. We listen in as angels appear to people in their dreaming, their working, and in other corners of their ordinary lives. We travel with wise ones who watch the heavens and follow a star. We hear sacred texts that tell us of a God who takes flesh and enters into our human existence. Again and again we see points of passage between the realms, giving us cause to wonder if the wall between the worlds is weaker than it often seems.
Celtic folk have long called such points of passage thin places. In the physical landscape and in the turning of the year, there are spaces where the veil between worlds becomes permeable. Heaven and earth meet there; past and future intertwine with the present, or fall away entirely.
In Christianity and other traditions, specific locations have been recognized as thin places. These sites often become destinations for pilgrimage, with the presence and prayers of visitors across the centuries seeming to make the veil thinner still. Yet the meeting of worlds is not purely location-dependent; thin places happen where they will. Sometimes called thin moments, they can occur in any spot that inspires us to open our eyes, our ears, our hearts to the presence of God, who imbues creation and goes with us always.
My friend Brenda says, Part of what makes life hard is that it’s mostly thick places. One of the wonders of thin places is that they have the ability to occur in those thick places, those riddled-with-life spaces, those moments or seasons made of muck and struggle. Think again of the stories that come to us at this time of year; they are nothing if not earthy. For all their seemingly supernatural elements, they are rich in the stuff of real life: pregnancy, loss, travel, pasture, manger, creatures, birth.
At the heart of the conversation that unfolds during Advent and Christmas is this: when heaven and earth meet, they meet in our midst. The Incarnation does not happen at a remove; it happens among us, inescapably intertwined with all this world holds. What does this mean for us here and now, in this world, in this time? How do we welcome the God so willing to come to us?
Source: Jan Richardson (Jan offers a free Women’s Christmas Retreat every year at Sanctuary of Women. I lost track with all of my research where I found this article she wrote and some of the questions below, but I’m sure it is from one of her retreats. She writes amazing poetry and has the most beautiful art.)
Consider journaling with the following questions or making a collage card using these questions as a guide.
How can we find sanctuary in the thick places, in everyday life?
When have you sensed heaven and earth at play together, a thin place that opened up to you? What did you find there? What did you take with you when you left?
Is there some part of your life that feels like a particularly thick place — an aspect that feels especially complicated or mundane, or seemingly resistant to the presence of God? What do you need there? How might it be for you to simply sit with that space and ask God to meet you in the midst of it?
What does this mean for us here and now, in this world, in this time? How do we welcome the God so willing to come to us?
Creative Practice Consider the symbols, images, and questions in Session 2. Journal, create a collage, write a caim prayer, contemplate, visualize the mandorla as the light of Christ that brings balance to all of life.
Listen to “Behold, All Things Are New” by Alana Levandoski.
Share your insights or creations in the comments. Session 3 coming soon. Blessings, Jodi