Keep the Light On: Making room for the holy in our midst

“We have no available rooms,” the hotel manager told me. It was 3 a.m. My college friend and I were road-tripping from Minneapolis to Houston where I was going to teach second grade. Michele convinced me it’d be more fun to take the back roads, and so we were somewhere in the middle of Oklahoma. We’d specifically chosen to stop in this town because it was the biggest circle on the map that we’d seen in hours. Plus, it was in the chain of hotels that promised to keep the light on for us, especially in the darkest hours.

I inquired once again as politely as possible. He ran his hands over his greying stubble and delivered the same verdict. Incredulous, the words flew out of my mouth: “What is this a big night for you?” Then I turned on my heels and bolted out the door, suddenly aware that my 24-year old brashness might get me into trouble. Equally dismayed, Michele peeled out of the parking lot, listening to me quip about how it felt like that night in Bethlehem when there was no room in the inn.

Of course, many Biblical scholars now contend that the “inn” was not an inn after all, but a guest room in the home of relatives where Mary and Joseph stayed during the later months of her pregnancy. Inn or stable, guest house or creche, the story reminds me that the divine is always seeking a resting place in us. We are called to make room for the holy in our midst. It is not something that has come easily for me lately. I seem to hurl from one thing to the next, from preschool graduation to a new school for kindergarten, from my son’s tonsillectomy to the rush of holiday shopping.

In an effort to find more room for God and interrupt my flurry of to-dos, I have been praying in gratitude for gifts that have opened my heart. The earliest one of memory was for my grandmother, actually. I was a teenager when my grandparents celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary. I remember sitting with all my cousins and watching my grandparents open gifts. Even though they were being rather reserved, I was full of anticipation, secretly feeling so proud of the Precious Moments figurine I gave them. The doorbell rang unexpectedly, and I saw someone hand my grandmother a grocery bag filled with carrots, yams, and Russet potatoes. “She gave what she had,” my grandmother said softly. It was the first time I ever saw her cry.

I vowed right then, at the age of fifteen, that all my gifts would mean something. No doubt, I’ve fallen short over the years. But like my grandmother, I have also received gifts that were given solely from the heart. Eight years ago, when my son (as I tell him) was a dream on God’s heart, my family came to Chicago to celebrate my 40th birthday. It was a rare occasion, given how much I let my life take a back seat to First Communions and eighth grade graduations, baptisms and soccer tournaments.

It was a grand four days and on our last night together, after many raucous rounds of cribbage and Scrabble, my youngest nephew handed me a small, decorative box signed by all my nieces and nephews. Inside was a stack of blue and white cards. Surrounded by my whole family, I read every last one of them out loud: 20 reasons why we love you and 20 wishes for you.

We love you because you are unintentionally funny. We love you because you make great pies. We love you because you call me “love,” because you listen to me playing the piano, because you give us wonderful sleepovers. We love you because you watched us when we were little and you are there for us while we grow up. … We wish that you keep making crepes. We wish that you would get over your fear of broccoli and crabs at the beach. We wish that you become the most famous author. We wish that you have the family you always wanted.

And even now, as I pray, I think about all those tender moments when I knew only God could have orchestrated such intimate grace and healing: an unexpected love, another invitation to trust, the dead plant in my office that somehow sustained tiny shoots of green while I waited for a job offer, a little boy, not born of my body, who carries my spirit out into the world every day. The litany goes on and on. And even if a high-speed Spiderman racer set (complete with Nerf darts) and the JCrew sweater I got on sale don’t qualify as particularly meaningful gifts, the swelling of gratitude for my son and all my nieces and nephews reminds me that the holy is always in my midst.

And so, in the spirit of gifts that have opened my heart, I would like to say thank you to you, my readers. Many of you have read my musings for years now; some for the first time. This blog has kept my love for writing alive and fed my desire to find the sacred in the here and now. Your warm responses have affirmed for me that God is indeed big. Thank you for tending the holy with me and helping me to see just how brightly it shines.

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