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Welcoming God with Open Arms

While Lent is sometimes thought of as a season to give up something, this Lent comes after a year of pandemic and unrest that has many feeling like they’ve already given up a lot. For some it has meant no in-person visits with family or friends for close to a year. Some have lost jobs. Some suffered from serious cases of COVID-19 while others lost loved ones to the virus. Life has changed for just about everyone. The sense of loss is real.

While I was Zooming with a group of friends shortly before Ash Wednesday, one friend said she thought she’d have a “passive” Lent. Further conversation revealed she didn’t mean she would do nothing, but that she wasn’t going to pile on extra activities or give up anything particular. She simply was going to try to be open to receive grace offered in her ordinary routines.

That requires paying attention. “I know I’ve missed God’s Presence with me in the past,” she said, and thought she might make a list or keep a journal, reflecting on places and times in her life, recognizing God’s presence while looking back.

“Contemplative” might be a more accurate word to describe her approach to the season.

In his book The Dark Night of the Soul: A Psychiatrist Explores the Connection Between Darkness and Spiritual Growth, Gerald May wondered if John of the Cross’s much quoted sentence Contemplacion pura consite en recibir (often translated “Pure contemplation consists of receiving” – which sounds pretty passive) might be better understood if translated with what May considered a more accurate rendering of recibir – “Pure contemplation consists of welcoming with open arms!” (p 78).

I remember my Grandma Van Balen, who waited at the top of the steps, arms outstretched, when we arrived at her home for a visit. We scrambled up the staircase, wanting to be the first one she gathered up in her embrace and pulled onto her welcoming lap.

When someone showed up at my parents’ house, my parents stopped whatever they were doing and welcomed the visitor. After offering tea, coffee, or something to eat, they’d sit and visit, enjoying the guest’s company and listening to his or her stories.

Mr. Rogers was said to have been good at that. When he engaged with someone, he was so attentive that they felt as if they were the only person in the world. That’s deep listening. That’s receptivity. That’s openness at its best.

Practicing such deep listening to the Holy Presence in our lives could be a fruitful way to observe Lent. We could ask ourselves “What gets in the way?” The tendency to multi-task through the day? Worry about the future? Regrets over the past? A hectic schedule? Pressing family responsibilities?

Sometimes much of what fills the day is beyond our control. Welcoming God “with arms open wide” might mean focusing on the person or task in front of us and trusting, with a lift in the heart, that God is in us and around us as we work as well as when we take some quiet, reflective time.

We can also remember that such openness to receive isn’t a one-way street. God is always welcoming us to share in Divine Life. But we forget. Then something – a moment, words, a song, a sight or sound or feeling reminds us that we indeed exist in God’s embrace.

Poet George Herbert (1593-1633) provides an image of this Divine hospitality in his poem, “Love (III).” In the first two stanzas the speaker, aware of his sin, draws back from the space into which Love invites him. He lists what makes him unworthy to be Love’s guest, but Love persists, wanting only to welcome and to serve. The poem ends: You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:/So I did sit and eat.

This Lent, instead of “giving up” or “adding on,” how about doing whatever it takes to open our heart-arms wide? Sit down at Love’s table and enjoy what is offered every moment of every day.

©2021 Mary van Balen

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Patience Robbins
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This was such a beautiful reminder of Jerry’s words, Mary. And very pertinent and inspiring for this Lenten season. A deep bow of gratitude to you.