As I said in my last post, this is one of a series of posts I’ll be writing in the next few days about a retreat I attended at Holy Cross Monastery in West Park, NY on March 3-5, 2017. The theme of the retreat was “Living Hidden in Christ with God,” a reference to Colossians 3:1-4. I can’t talk about it all in a single blog post, because there was just so much. It was an incredibly powerful weekend for me, and I think that it will take several blog posts to unpack it.
Sunday’s sermon contained a very powerful image. It was the First Sunday in Lent; the gospel reading was Matthew 4:1-11, the story of Jesus’ Temptation in the Wilderness. The preacher began by talking about lanyards, and remarked about how she learned how to make them when she was young and at camp, about many lanyards she made in her childhood, and how useless they all were. Then she read an excerpt from a poem called “The Lanyard” by Billy Collins, in which he describes the lanyard he made at camp as a gift for his mother:
She gave me life and milk from her breasts,
and I gave her a lanyard
She nursed me in many a sick room,
lifted teaspoons of medicine to my lips,
set cold facecloths on my forehead
then led me out into the airy light
and taught me to walk and swim and I in turn presented her with a lanyard.
‘Here are thousands of meals’ she said,
‘and here is clothing and a good education.’
‘And here is your lanyard,’ I replied,
‘which I made with a little help from a counselor.’
‘Here is a breathing body and a beating heart,
strong legs, bones and teeth and two clear eyes to read the world.’ she whispered.
‘And here,’ I said, ‘is the lanyard I made at camp.’
‘And here,’ I wish to say to her now,
‘is a smaller gift. Not the archaic truth,
that you can never repay your mother,
but the rueful admission that when she took the two-toned lanyard from my hands,
I was as sure as a boy could be
that this useless worthless thing I wove out of boredom
would be enough to make us even.’
And then, this preacher did a wonderful thing. She said (something like) this:
“We are now in the season of Lent, the time when people who follow Christ all around the world spend our time making lanyards for God.”
I don’t recall the details from the rest of her sermon. But this image sticks with me. The idea that all of the acts of piety we do, all of the things we give up, the things we add, the acts of charity and fasting and prayer and self-negation, all of these things are no more than a lanyard to God. Nothing we do can compare, nothing can even come close, nothing can even be in the same cosmos, as what God has done for us. And so our acts of piety are good, but not if we think they’re “evening the score” with God, or that God is impressed by them.
Featured image: By TheBendster (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons