The Visitation, by Jacopo Pontormo is one of the paintings I most often display in my Spiritual Direction office during the season of advent. Pontormo depicts the moment of Mary and Elizabeth’s meeting, as described in Luke 1:39-56. In it, the two women, each carrying a seed of a promise within them, stand belly to belly. Their arms create a circle of waiting, a space in which hope’s fragile seed might be held and protected, nurtured into being. 

Catholic writer, Henri Nouwen, explains, “Elizabeth and Mary came together and enabled each other to wait. . . . These two women created space for each other to wait. They affirmed for each other that something was happening that was worth waiting for.”


Recently, a dear friend sent me a small, cloth elephant ornament in the mail. We have both been through a LOT this year and, despite our own intense struggles, we’ve worked quite deliberately to support each other. Attached to the elephant was a note explaining that female elephants support each other in times of stress. Intrigued, a quick look online revealed a beautiful picture – when an elephant goes into labor (a time of great vulnerability and stress) the other elephants in the herd back themselves into a circle formation around her. Then, when the baby is born, they trumpet in celebration. 

The elephants, like Mary and Elizabeth, form a circle of waiting.


Nouwen goes on to say, about Mary and Elizabeth’s circle of waiting, 

“I think that is the model of the Christian community. It is a community of support, celebration, and affirmation in which we can lift up what has already begun in us. [This visit is an expression] of what it means to form community, to be together, gathered around a promise, affirming that something is really happening.”


Circles of waiting require intimacy, trust, and safety. Too often, for many of us, these things have been absent from our church experiences. What we have received, instead, is a conditonal welcome, an attitude that says something more like “we’ll wait and see how you turn out before we support you” instead of, “we believe God has begun a good work in you and we can’t wait to see how it all turns out.” Churches fail to be circles of waiting when product (appearances, image, income) take priority over process, when control replaces trust. 

Thankfully, though, many of us, including Nouwen himself, find and form circles of trust outside of traditional church structures. For me, this has been one of the great gifts of spiritual direction – the opportunity to be encircled in my own waiting and to offer to circle with others as they wait upon God’s often surprising and mysterious activity. 

I hope you find such spaces. I hope, if you are able, you offer such spaces to others. 


For reflection:

Where have you found circles of waiting and with whom? Perhaps now is the time to let that person or people know how much their presence means in your life.

If you are need of community in your waiting, who might you reach out to? Perhaps now is the time to begin a spiritual direction or counseling relationship as God begins something new in you.

Who do you know who needs support in their time of waiting? Who’s circle might YOU complete?

* Quotes are from “Waiting for God,” by Henri Nouwen in the collection, Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas.

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