Drawing All into the Circle of Love

Drawing All into the Circle of Love

Advent wreath with taper and glass candelabra surroounded by shells, arrowhead, driftwood, and a feather.

PHOTO: Mary van Balen


Originally published in The Catholic Times  December 11,2016

After a lovely and unusual Thanksgiving weekend spent with my two sisters and their husbands, I was caught unawares by Advent. Oh, in a vague sort of way I knew it was coming, but I was busy with work, publishing a book, and cleaning the house for my company.

When they left on Saturday afternoon, I ran errands and fell asleep, stretched out on the couch. Then suddenly it was Sunday, and I had not prepared a wreath. Resisting the urge to run out and buy candles, I decided to use what was already around the house.

Over the years, my wreath has evolved into something decidedly untraditional. Forty years ago, inspired by Black Elk (a Lakota holy man who, I later learned, became a Catholic catechist), I sewed and beaded four tiny red leather pouches filled with a mixture of sage and sweet grass symbolic of kinnikinnick used by some Native Americans in their great peace pipes and in other rituals.

The pouches rested on four direction points of the wreath: North, East, South, and West. A feather, shells, and a small buffalo cut from leather also decorated the pine boughs, a reminder that God is the Creator of all things, and that all things are made holy by the Incarnation.

Eventually, allergies and bronchitis set off by aromatic resin and the mold that clung to the freshly cut pine necessitated its removal. I thought about artificial greenery but decided against it.

four vigil candles arranged on linen surrounded by tiny read leather pouches, feeather, shell, and other items for Advent wreathit

PHOTO: Mary van Balen

Instead, I used beeswax vigil candles arranged on a round linen doily or tray covered with a deep blue napkin. The little pouches, feather, shells, and buffalo remained. A stone from the shores of the Sea of Galilee, gift of a friend, became a regular addition. Once I added a bird’s nest and soft, dried pampas grass plumes. Everything belongs in this circle. We stand on holy ground.

This year, I found tucked in a drawer some beeswax candles from Burton Parish, the colonial Episcopalian church in Williamsburg, VA. The tapers would just fit into the two simple glass candelabra that my parents had used to decorate the table at their wedding reception.

I washed and dried the candle holders, remembering an old photo of my parents, their families, and friends gathered around a long table in Dad’s family home for the celebration. The candelabra would gather my family and the human family into the circle of my “wreath.”

Along with the usual items, a wooden frog from Thailand, a fossil scallop picked up along the York River under Super Moon’s shine, a smooth piece of chert from a Paris walkway, and an arrowhead found on a Cape Cod beach joined the circle.

All the earth sits with me as I light the candles and remember the mystery of Jesus walking with us. Each night my parents and ancestors sit with me as do the people who were here first and who struggle still to protect the land and water that sustain us all. I am reminded of the ages and ages of this earth, of the creatures that filled it. The plants and animals, the birds and the sea creatures. We are a small part of an unimaginably huge cosmos. God loves it all and entered into our little corner to show us just how much.

The words of Isaiah that appear throughout our Advent liturgies overflow with images of nature. Crooked paths made straight. Parched land exulting. Steppes rejoicing and blooming with abundant flowers. Enemies, the lion and the lamb, lying down together. An old stump that looks dead sprouts a green shoot. Things are not always what they appear to be.

Isaiah says God will not judge by appearance. God stands with the poor and stands for justice.

Glorious words.

Four beeswax vigil candles in glass holders, surrounded by birds nest and other natural objects used as an Advent wreath

PHOTO: Mary van Balen

I sit at my dining room table, looking at my “wreath” and longing for such a time. Advent tells me that time is already here. We celebrate Emanuel, God-with-us. Jesus draws the circle that encompasses all and invites us to join the work. He showed us how to live our lives, a part of God’s own, so the circle continues to grow in our time and place.

I sit at my dining room table, watching candle flames push away early morning darkness, and I have hope.

© 2016 Mary van Balen


  1. Anita Davidson says:

    Beautiful, Mary! Thank you for sharing a little of your Advent with us! I love your wreath idea and will definitely be rethinking ours next year. Love it!

  2. Mary,
    Thank you for sharing your thoughts and drawing me into your circle. Your wreath creations are lovely and so meaningful. I have often improvised myself when Advent creeps up on me unprepared. The process of coming up with a wreath and candles is always rewarding. Your photographs are astounding! Love them and love you!

    • mary van balen says:

      I’m glad you liked the photos and am grateful you’ve been part of my circle for so long. This year, it seems, the light of Advent has much darkness to roll back. May God-with-us give us strength and faith to help.

  3. Nancy Milburn says:

    To Mary, my friend since first grade: Beautifully written as are all your pieces. It inspires us and reminds us in a broader sense to choose only to surround ourselves with things (and people!) which are dear and meaningful to us…in our home’s decor, in our holiday decorations, and those we invite to our table.

    • mary van balen says:

      Yes, I remember our school years! I hope that the gathering of all those good and faithful friends and the joy in the goodness of creation will give us all hope and strength to be light in this world…as you and Brent have done for so many years.

  4. Jane Ring says:

    In my mind, I can picture you as you chose each of your special ‘wreath items’ over the years. Each one holding a special memory from your parents’ wedding day to your travels abroad. Your explanation of each one’s place in your wreath signifies, to me, our place in God’s wreath!
    God bless you, dear friend!

    • mary van balen says:

      Thank you, Jane. In the days and months to come, we will need to remember we are all “part of God’s wreath.”

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