In his book The Art of Pilgrimage, Phil Cousineau writes that in every sacred journey, there is a secret room, a place along the path that gives us a different perspective on the deep mystery of our journey. In describing this hidden room, Cousineau draws on a story that poet Donald Hall tells of friends who purchased an old house in the country. Cousineau writes,
It was a ‘warren of small rooms,’ and once they settled in and began to furnish their new home they realized that the lay of the house made little sense. ‘Peeling off some wallpaper, they found a door that they pried open to reveal a tiny room, sealed off and hidden, goodness knows why: They found no corpses nor stolen goods.’ For Hall, the mystery of poetry to evoke powerful feelings finds its analogy here, in its ability to be sealed away from explanation, this is the place where ‘the unsayable gathers.’
And so it is on the pilgrim’s path. Everywhere you go, there is a secret room. To discover it, you must knock on walls, as the detective does in mystery houses, and listen for the echo that portends the secret passage. You must pull books off shelves to see if the library shelf swings open to reveal the hidden room.
I’ll say it again: Everywhere has a secret room. You must find your own, in a small chapel, a tiny cafe, a quiet park, the home of a new friend, the pew where the morning light strikes the rose window just so.
As a pilgrim you must find it or you will never understand the hidden reasons why you really left home.
A couple of years ago, I shared these words from Hall and Cousineau as I reflected here at The Advent Door on the gospel lection for Christmas Eve. Then, as now, I find myself struck by a seemingly small detail that Luke tucks in near the end of this passage:
But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. (Luke 2.19)
Over the previous nine months, Mary has entertained an archangel, said yes to becoming the mother of the Son of God, made the journey to visit Elizabeth, and lifted up a song of hope that has endured across centuries. She has waited with Elizabeth, made the journey back home, and traveled with her husband Joseph to Bethlehem to be included in the registration ordered by Emperor Augustus. She has labored to give birth to her son, enfolded him in strips of cloth, laid him in a manger, and welcomed those who came to marvel at what had come to pass.
Luke tells us that in response to their amazement, Mary treasures these words in her heart. Luke’s description conjures an image of a woman who, amid the tumult of angels and signs and visitors and miracles, holds all these happenings in a place of stillness. Among the memories of nine months of adventures she never could have imagined, Mary embodies a sense of wonder that is quiet and deep and wise.
Mary has found what Hall and Cousineau describe: she has found the place where the unsayable gathers. She has found the secret room.
As we approach Christmas Eve and the end of our Advent journey, it seems a fitting time to pause for a moment and look back on the path we’ve traveled these past few weeks. And I want to ask now, as I asked a couple of years ago: Have you found a secret room for yourself in these Advent days? In your pilgrimage through this season, have you found a space, a moment, a place of wonder or wisdom or sheer respite or deep delight, that helped you discover the purpose of this pilgrimage?
This season has been intense for me, as always: it has been full, it has passed quickly, and I always wish I could make more time to savor and to linger with these days. Yet on this Advent afternoon, as the sky turns toward dusk and I fix myself another cup of tea on what is, for us in Florida, a wonderfully chilly day, I find myself revisiting a few secret rooms that opened to me along this path. I think of a visit with my spiritual director on a weary afternoon a couple of weeks ago, and receiving from her a golden bag of chocolate truffles that she brought back with her from France—that we opened and immediately began to eat. I left that visit lighter in spirit—and not solely because of the truffles (though they were excellent medicine). I think of an afternoon spent with three women whom I love and whom I had not seen in a long time, and how they brought an amazing lunch and filled my home with their conversation and their spirits. I think of a celebration with friends on the Winter Solstice, and of how we gathered outside around fires beneath a dark sky and spoke of the gifts and challenges of darkness and light.
On this Advent afternoon, I am treasuring these things in my heart. (And still savoring the magic bag of truffles.)
Perhaps this will become our tradition here at The Advent Door—as Christmas Eve approaches, to invite the question again: Where have we found a secret room on this pilgrimage toward Christmas? Where and how do we join with Mary in pondering what has taken place? Amidst the unfolding story—the story of the birth of Christ, the story of our own intertwined lives—what do we treasure in our hearts?
In these remaining moments of Advent, may a secret room yet open itself to you and help you remember why you undertook this journey in the first place. Blessings and peace to you.
[For another reflection on this passage, see Where the Foreign Meets the Familiar. For last year’s reflection on Isaiah 9.2-7, the lection from the Hebrew Scriptures for Christmas Eve, please see Longing for Light.]
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