Recently, January seventeenth to be exact, it was the fourteenth year of the dedication of the Chapel of St. John at the Convent. It is a special day that comes around every year, and just as it is for the Sisters and the community, so it is for me. Five years ago this January seventeenth, my daughter was born. My story from then on has revolved around and without her. Motherhood, as I experience it inwardly and apart from her, has everything to do with moments in time; moments of dedication. First steps and words, like the Sisters took on this day, towards an open future; an unknown. What will happen from here? Where are we going now? Who am I without her? What do I do now? Five years on, I have started to walk along the ancient paths, to the Convent, and to the Chapel of St. John in North Toronto. I have come a long way from a hospital room in Southern Alberta.
This January seventeenth, I took my monthly retreat day and came into the chapel for the weekday service of thanksgiving, took my place in the choir, and waited for the invitation. This year, the opening hymn at the Eucharist was from the hymnal Gather: All Are Welcome (hymn no. 850). Here are a few of the verses:
“Let us build a house where hands will reach
beyond the wood and stone
to heal and strengthen, serve and teach,
and live the Word they’ve known.
Here the outcast and the stranger
bear the image of God’s face;
let us bring an end to fear and danger.
All are welcome, all are welcome,
all are welcome in this place.
Let us build a house where all are named,
their songs and visions heard
and loved and treasured, taught and claimed
as words within the Word.
Built of tears and cries and laughter,
prayers of faith and songs of grace,
let this house proclaim from floor to rafter.
All are welcome, all are welcome,
all are welcome in this place.”
As these words were presented to me, as the choir behind and before me, the organ pipes sounded with praise, where else could I be? Of course, it is here. Here, where I must be. What does it mean for all to be welcome? What if we truly carried this promise out? What does it mean for the outcasts, the liars, the enemies? What does it mean for the non-believers and the church-goers? For the hypocrites and the thieves? What would it mean for those not living in freedom? For ourselves, what does it mean? What does it mean for me with the pain and grief I have gone through? For the divide in my life on this day? A day where I can’t help but remember I am alone, without her, but filled because of her. Filled with sound and silence. Filled with waiting and filled with knowledge. Knowing, when I have waited so long to be understood, to be known.
On the joyous and painful day of January seventeenth, ‘all are welcome’. Moments are miracles happening in time, little by little. Music rings from our lips and keys and organ pipes. Can’t you just see it? Take a listen… where all God’s children dare to seek…all are welcome…here the love of Christ will end divisions…all are welcome. During the chorus, I look up, share a smile with a Sister ahead of me; don’t they say singing is praying twice?
Living with the Sisters has taught me the value of time. There is more than enough of it, and never enough. We will never have as much time as we would like, but there will always be more time later. Later, after the Daily Office. After serving one another and the Lord. Time will pass just as it had up to this moment, the moment for prayer. It will remind us of what we have done and left undone. It will remind us at noon, that the Table is not just for me, or you, but for everyone; no really, everyone. Jesus doesn’t just look like the people you are used to seeing. Silently we wander through the day, with rest and toil and the work of God permeating the time that has passed. Pausing, in this work, to be reminded that we are beings in time, with the hope of eternity. Once, eternity seemed ever so long, ever so dim. It seemed so far off when I could not even bear to welcome myself.
I imagine myself now, singing this promise in a procession in my church back in Lethbridge. I served for a while last year, and I can see the pews and vaulted ceiling above me, the crucifer ahead, the choir and clergy behind me. As they like to say, walking ‘holy and slowly’ and all our robes swaying with the movement. For reverence has its own pace that we can never quite keep up with, but it looks a lot like ordinary to me. I wonder if we could recognize this holiness in each other? What would it look like to welcome this holiness in the day to day outside chapel and church walls? In the Starbucks, downtown and in the side alleys maybe? Or to even recognize it in our pews, chairs, and choir stalls. What would it look like? Would it look like the hotel clerk or the lawyer, or the street performer? Would it look like your enemy? Would it look like your neighbor? I remember walking into the church just over a week after January seventeenth five years ago, feeling a lot like the stranger; like the neighbor. I was the person next to you in the pew you did not know, even in a place I had known my whole life. I was the woman at the well just trying to go through my day the best way I knew how. I was among the five thousand. Wandering. Waiting. Seeking.
You may not have to like your neighbor, but they are as much a part of creation and as deserving of resurrection as you are, so I hope you can find it within yourself to love them; they are just as worthy of approaching the feast with ordinary holiness in their heart. This has nothing to do with you or me, but with Jesus. This is what I have been learning from the Sisters: all are welcome.
Please, come and give thanks where fear and danger have no place.
Kelsea Willis, SSJD Companion