This article was originally published in the San Marino Tribune on for January 19, 2018.
In last Sunday’s reading from the Hebrew Scripture, the boy Samuel is ministering to the Lord in the Temple. We are told right away that “the word of the LORD was rare in those days,” and also that “Samuel did not yet know the LORD.” Samuel hears a voice calling to him repeatedly, and repeatedly he mistakes the voice for that of the old priest Eli.
The Seasons of the Church Year, as with the variations between autumn, winter, spring, and summer, arrive with a distinctive atmosphere in tow. Epiphanytide, beginning January 6 and lasting to Ash Wednesday, is among my favorite of liturgical seasons. The frenzy of Christmastide is over, the sturdy Lenten disciplines are still weeks ahead, and we are taught in this season, like Samuel, to train our ears for the voice of the LORD. We are to expect ‘epiphany,’ and manifestations of God in our ordinary lives. Might it be less that the word of the LORD is rare, and more that we do not care to hear the word?
An ‘epiphany’ can be a sudden moment of clarity, or a gathering awareness of something that has long been afoot in our lives but which we are only slowly able to name. These manifestations of our own nature and place in the world, or of the ways God is working with us or among those whom we love, ease themselves forward. It is as though we have been staring a long while at an optical stereogram, when the hidden image pops suddenly to view, and once seen can go unseen no longer.
The shocking intrusions of nature can inflict epiphanies of a raw and unavoidable sort. Many of my friends in Montecito were threatened, first by the Thomas fire, and then by the pounding debris flow the morning of January 9th. Dear friends of mine lost their home and barely escaped with their lives, yet my conversations with them in the aftermath are always laden with gratitude. Both have been serving at my former parish of All-Saints-by-the-Sea, which was made first a triage center, sitting as it does just below the 101 at San Ysidro Road, and then as a center of relief and aid distribution. Clarity regarding the fragility of life and the simple joy of being alive have scored them deeply, and their first response was to put themselves in service to others.
Blessedly, most of us will not be subject to natural disaster and it’s accompanying revelations. More frequently, we resemble Samuel. God is calling to us. We sense the tug, but we are busy, and so we do not attend the call.
God speaks to us each through the circumstances of our lives. It is said that there are “thin places” in the world, where God pushes through the barriers we erect in our earnest, heavily-calendared lives. Pilgrims often find themselves uniquely open to God in Cathedrals, on the hard trek to Santiago de Compostela, or on the Isle of Iona. I felt myself in a thin place earlier this month clambering through the Kivas and up the ladders of the cliffside pueblo dwellings of the Anasazi at Bandelier, New Mexico.
But we needn’t venture so far afield. It is truest to say that the thin place, the gate of heaven, the house of God, the ascending and descending of angels, is right inside each of us, waiting for us to pay attention to what our lives might be saying, and what God is speaking into our lives.
The old priest Eli still had good counsel in him, and he tells the boy Samuel, “Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.’” And Samuel did that, and listened; and soon, Samuel knew the LORD.
God seems always to need to call to us multiple times before we are ready to hear. “Moses! Moses!” (many times). “Samuel!” (eight times). “Joseph, Mary, Mary, Joseph” in multiples. “Saul. Saul. Saul!” You are in good company if you have not immediately and all at once heard what is being said to you, and you are not alone if you have taken shelter in the demands and busyness of your life and so did not listen as you may have. It takes a while to tune our ears, and to realize that every space is a thin space. During the wending weeks of this Epiphany Season, when you lay your weary bones to rest, whisper toward your ceiling and say, “Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.”