by Troy Cady
I made my first conscious connection about the importance of thresholds in my early thirties when I worked with children from time to time. I was fascinated how the simple act of inviting a child to “get ready” for what they were about to experience in the next room had an incredible effect on the quality of their experience during the hour in question.
Yesterday, in fact, I had the privilege of being with a group of eight children between the ages of four and twelve. The focus of our time was to hear a Scripture story and “wonder” about it—or rather, to wonder about our place in it. Really, the whole time together is to be characterized by wonder. Because this posture of wondering is so all-encompassing, preparing to wonder is crucial. We call it “getting ready” and yesterday the children got “ready” before they even entered the room. Standing in the hallway outside the room, a helper blessed them with the gift of peace through saying, “The peace of Christ be with you.” Then, the helper asked each one, “Are you ready?”
When the child is “ready”, they enter one at a time and form a circle. Each one waits until the entire circle is formed as the others enter and eventually we hear the story in a spirit of wonder.
Some people think of this process as just another way to get children to behave, but we really do it as a way to honor the child’s own agency. Nobody can be forced to be “ready.” It is something only one can do for one’s own self, not for somebody else. Asking the question whether a child is ready gives the child a chance to be in touch with their own thoughts and feelings, to really consider: “Am I ready?”
Sometimes, the child knows they are not ready, so they answer, “No.” Then, they are given time, the grace and space to “get ready.”
In all my years (about 15 years now) of practicing this readiness ritual, I have yet to meet a child who did NOT want to “get ready.” Anticipation seems to be built-in to us, at least when we are young. Perhaps that is something we lose as we get older, if we get set in our ways and become suspicious of new experiences.
More than simply cutting us off from the old, “being ready” to cross the various thresholds of our lives helps us consider how the spaces from which we’ve come factor into the new spaces we’re entering.
It’s a mystery. One does not simply leave one’s old self behind when entering a new space, but nor is one chained to one’s old way of being when entering the new space. If we continue to practice this kind of ready openness, we are always at one and the same time who we’ve always been (the same) and new, changed, different. I like to think of it as a process of becoming more truly yourself.
|Photo by Ronaldo de Oliveira on Unsplash
Openness is a good word to describe what it means to be ready to cross thresholds and inhabit any given space in a spirit of wonder. Indeed, those who regularly practice mindfulness or meditation as a conscious discipline will tell you that their spiritual and emotional exercise is predicated on their openness to be open.
It just so happens that as we cross the threshold into a new year, Christians are in the midst of the observance of the twelve days of Christmas—another threshold event that is all about openness. I marvel at how open-hearted God showed himself to be by becoming an infant. It’s a mystery how God chose to be acted upon, put himself at the mercy of our mercy.
To be open is to be moldable, shapeable. By becoming a child, God made himself available to be molded and shaped by people—parents and neighbors, teachers and laborers, friends and enemies. Jesus was no static individual. As he aged, he changed. There was both give and take in the relationships he shared. He inherited the traditions of his people, and we can be sure those traditions shaped who he was. And those traditions had even evolved over the years. In Jesus’ lifetime there was no small measure of religious creativity and spiritual flux to be found as different schools of thought rubbed up against each other and responded in kind. We tend to think of the religious environment of Jesus’ day as too fixed, but nothing could be further from the truth. It was a time of dynamic theological questioning.
And it was the radical openness of the nativity that inaugurated God’s new process of “becoming.” During Christmas we remember that God crossed the threshold between heaven and earth to inhabit the spaces of our world in a new way. The divine became human and “made his dwelling among us” by making the greatest crossing of all time. In so doing, he invites us to wonder whether the line between heaven and earth is not as big as we previously imagined. Indeed, the more we are in touch with the real world in which we live, the more we realize how thin the line is between the so-called “sacred” and “secular.” Because of this, Christmas is more than a time when we remember a historical event; it is an invitation to us, in fact, to make the same crossing he did. It is the past made present—and it is a present creativity that makes for a hopeful future.
Openness is a posture of childhood. It is a mindset that knows intuitively we have not arrived, there is still much to become. It is a looking, an anticipation, an enduring hope. During the Christmas season, as we cross the threshold into a new year, there is one gift we are all invited to open that will keep on giving: it is the gift of openness.
When you enter a new space the only light you have is the light you have been given. Sometimes that light feels a little less than the light from the space you’ve left and sometimes that light feels a little more.
I have a confession to make: I often look around at others and envy the light they have. I know this is foolish, but I do it anyway.
When I compare my light to the light of others, I grow restless and inevitably try to twist myself into a shape that does not suit me. I want to become like that other person, instead of wanting to become more like myself.
When I consider this propensity more closely, I see that what I really want is not so much the light the other person has but the popularity and success they have. I make the mistake of equating light with fame, fortune and accomplishment.
But someone can be famous, wealthy and powerful…and still not be in touch with their own light. Indeed: fame, wealth and power are often…quite dark.
The light that is given to you, if it is your light and not someone else’s, can never be anything else to you but light. Even if it feels hard, even if it feels dim to you…if it’s you and yours, it’s light.
Being faithful to the light you’ve been given is an incredibly underrated virtue in our culture. We’re always comparing our story to another’s. We often wish we had the life of another. There’s a reason this saying is familiar to us: “The grass is always greener on the other side.” And all it takes is a little taste of what it’s like “on the other side” to discover that the light that is truly yours is the best light you can ever have. Just be faithful—for in faithfulness we reveal what the world needs more than anything else: our deepest, truest beauty.
Threshold events can be transformative. We often dismiss the power of short moments in the everyday and even when it comes to big thresholds (like the passage of one year into the next) we marvel at how quickly it passes. It all happens so quickly, we scarcely realize how much has changed. We quickly settle into a “new normal,” even when that “new normal” does not suit us or is not good for us sometimes.
The late psychologist and rabbi Edwin Friedman observed the effects of life cycle rituals in family systems: a baptism at the birth of a baby, a bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah at the onset of adolescence, birthdays, graduations, wedding ceremonies, and funerals are just a sampling of the ways we mark thresholds in our lives.
Each of these thresholds spell change not only for the individual concerned but also for the entire family system of that individual. “Differentiation” is the term given to describe the change process. This change often leaves others who know you well feeling unsettled, and sometimes they will (consciously or unconsciously) respond in ways that try to get you to be your old self.
It’s tempting when this happens to return to your old self, but it is neither healthy for you nor them. Cultivating non-anxious presence is key to staying the course because it puts others at ease (everything is going to be okay) and because it puts you at ease. It’s fascinating that Friedman identifies playfulness as the single best sure-fire way to practice non-anxiety.
Thresholds are bigger spaces than they seem. Each one is big enough to hold an entire playground. In each one, we are able to stay connected, yet we are free to roam. Thresholds don’t have to be lonely places. Even death, as lonely as it is, can become a space of companionship. Hospice workers know this mystery very well.
The wonder of a threshold is that it is your threshold but you don’t always have to go through it alone. I wonder: as you contemplate the threshold of a new year…who might be a good companion for you?
In Celtic spirituality there is a custom of blessing entryways. I think it is a lovely custom! Every home has many entryways, in fact. There is the entryway between the outside and the inside, but that is just the start. Within the home, there are also entryways for places that are used to rest, cook, eat, clean, befriend, learn and listen.
If you leave home and go to a place of work, there are still more thresholds to be honored. In cities, simply crossing a street can represent a profound threshold, a move from one space into an entirely different space.
Our lives are a series of thresholds. It is good to notice them and honor them because on the other side of each threshold are people who are going through their own spiritual, emotional and physical thresholds. Most people you know are just trying to find their own way with the light that has been given to them. To bless these thresholds is to try to understand the people who inhabit the different spaces around us.
I wonder how much change we’d see in this world and in ourselves if we adopted the practice of blessing every threshold we encounter? I think we’d understand what it means to live a life of prayer, that’s for sure! I’m convinced there is deep and ancient wisdom in the custom of hanging a mezuzah in the doorway.
As you consider the doorway of one year to the next, I wonder: what’s your blessing, what’s your prayer? Thresholds are good places for both prayer and play. They are good places to ask: “Who am I and how can I just be more…myself? How can I be true to who I’ve been and how can I be open to renewal, revision? What light has been given to me, how can I be faithful to it, and who could accompany me on this journey?”
I pray you enjoy the journey that the year to come holds. I pray you experience this threshold as a place of hope.
Happy New Year!
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