By Sr. Elizabeth, SSJD
Last year at this time I had just finished my fourth retreat talk for the New Year’s Retreat. I began on the morning of New Year’s Eve by asking the retreatants to write down some of the blessings they had experienced in 2019; then a few of them shared one of their blessings with the whole group. Most of the retreatants had no difficulty finding a few blessings from the previous year. Then I asked them to think about the challenges they had experienced during the past year. One or two of them shared a major challenge for 2019. If I had been able to lead that retreat again this year and had asked about the greatest challenge of the past year, I suspect that for everyone it would have related in some way to Covid-19. It has been such an extraordinary year around the world.
Near the end of my first talk last year, I talked about being on the cusp of a New Year. I said, “None of us knows what it will bring in terms of joy or sorrow. We may have certain expectations, but all of our expectations may be turned upside down in a moment of time.” This is always true, of course, but how prophetic that was for 2020. No one could have imagined on January 1st, 2020, that we were about to be thrust into a worldwide pandemic that would affect almost every country on our planet, that would result in over 81 million confirmed cases of Covid-19 (no one knows what the real numbers are) and almost 1.8 million deaths that were reported to the World Health Organization. Covid-19 brought with it a whole new vocabulary and set of actions: Lockdown, social distancing, PPE, zooming, quarantine, isolation, the wearing of masks, disinfecting frequently touched surfaces, …. Travel virtually came to a halt; the border to the United States was closed except for essential traffic something I could never have imagined.
How do we prepare for an unknown future? How can we be open and receptive to the unknown? The future is always unknown, of course. We know that intellectually but this year we felt it in the depths of our being. Estelle Frankl in her book The Wisdom of Unknowing suggests taking time to ponder the unknowns, to marinate in a good question such as:
- Who am I?
- Who are you, God?
- What are you calling me to be or do at this time?
- What is my role in this place, at this time in my life?
When Jesus was baptized by John, he had a profound experience of the presence of God. He heard the words, “This is my Beloved son with whom I am well pleased.” Then Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, was led into the wilderness where he fasted for 40 days. I think of this as a time of discernment, a time when he communed with God. I wonder what questions he asked himself. Did he ask God, “Who am I, God?” “What does it mean to be your Beloved Son?“ “Did he ponder what God was calling him to do?” We know about the temptations, about what he was not called to do. In Luke’s Gospel, we are told that, early in his ministry, when he went to the synagogue in Nazareth and was asked the read a lesson from Isaiah, he read the words: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’ Did these words first come to Jesus when he was discerning his future ministry in the wilderness and he responded, “Yes, that is it!” or was his ministry clarified for him in that moment in the synagogue?
On Monday we too we will have a retreat day, a time in which we might ponder the future and ask ourselves: Who am I, God? Who are we as a Community? Who are you, God? What are you calling me to be or to do at this time? What are you calling us to be or do at this time? Are you asking me/us to step out of our comfort zone in some way? In the next few months we will be taking time as a community to ponder our future.
On December 25th, 1939, not long after the beginning of World War II, King George VI, not usually a compelling speaker, inspired and reassured his people in his Christmas message, by quoting part of a poem by Minnie Louise Haskins called “The Gate of the Year”:
“I said to the man who stood at the Gate of the Year,
‘Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.’
And he replied, ‘Go out into the darkness, and put your hand into the Hand of God.
That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.”
The poem continues with these words: “So I went forth, and finding the Hand of God, trod gladly into the night. And He led me towards the hills and the breaking of day in the lone East.”
And so today, we go forward into a new year, 2021. We are aware that the year will be full of many unknowns, for the world, for our country and our neighbours to the south, for our community, and for each one of us personally. Some may find that exciting. Others may find it frightening. We do know it will be challenging.
I would encourage you on our retreat day on Monday to ask yourself some or all of the questions I mentioned above. You might also want to reflect on your name. Do you know the meaning of your name? Were you named after someone in your family? Have you ever changed your name? I was expected to be born on April 21st, the Queen’s birthday, but in fact I came a day early, on Hitler’s birthday—not a promising beginning in 1941. However, I wasn’t named after the Queen; it was just a name my mother liked. In my mid 20’s I was renamed Betty (without being consulted) by the office manager of the travel agency where I worked. When I worked in Japan for two years, I was asked if I had another name they could use because one of the other missionaries was called Elizabeth. I lived quite happily with that name—Betty—for several years after returning to Canada. Then quite suddenly I realized I wasn’t a Betty; I was Elizabeth! And I returned to the name my parents gave me. Why? I’m not quite sure but I knew it was right for me.
Today marks the day on which Jesus was named and circumcised. In Biblical times, names were very important. God changed Abram’s name to Abraham, saying “I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations.” Sarai’s name was changed to Sarah meaning Princess which marked a new beginning for her also. We can think of many other Biblical names which have meaning but perhaps the most important one of all in the Old Testament is the name of God. After God gave Moses his new mission, Moses said to God, ‘If I come to the Israelites and say to them, “The God of your ancestors has sent me to you”, and they ask me, “What is his name?” what shall I say to them?’ God said to Moses, ‘I am who I am.’ He said further, ‘Thus you shall say to the Israelites, “I AM has sent me to you.” What I love about this name is that it is neither male nor female. God simply says, I AM.
In Isaiah, God says: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.” I believe he says this to each one of us. Jesus has many names: “Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace”. My favourite is ‘Emmanuel’, meaning, ‘God is with us.’ These are all descriptive names of who he will become, but the name given him by Gabriel to Mary and Joseph was Jesus, meaning “God is my salvation”. Later he became known as Jesus the Christ, the Messiah or Anointed One. As our saviour, Jesus liberates us from blindness and fear and guilt by showing us that God is a God of unconditional love and has unlimited compassion for us.
One last comment on names: In the Revelation to John, we hear these words: “Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches. To everyone who conquers I . . . will give a white stone, and on the white stone is written a new name that no one knows except the one who receives it.” I leave you with the question: “What might God’s secret name for you be?”