Last year I preached a homily about a student who was burdened by her past but nervous to go to confession. The priest who was hearing the student’s confession early on a Sunday morning brought an enormous piece of chocolate cake and some ice cream to the confessional, and when things got hard for the student, he encouraged her to eat the chocolate cake. It was an extravagant, ridiculous gift that brought joy to the difficult occasion, and the chocolate cake was a reminder of God’s extravagant love and mercy.
This has been an extremely hard year for me–last year was easily the worst year of my professional life, even after the two prior years which were no picnic. The Iceland trip was more than a vacation for me; it was a time of seeing so much extravagant beauty and sharing so much good time with my family. The whole thing left me feeling better than I had before. It was graced and full of mercy.
My best moment, though, happened at a very remote hostel in East Iceland. We stayed at the beautiful hostel Havari, owned by a popular Icelandic musician who goes by the stage name Prins Polo and his artist wife. They run the hostel and a vegan farm. The venue includes a small restaurant and performance space.
They were having a “slow festival” the night we were there, and we enjoyed a nice dinner followed by a lovely acoustic concert. At the end of the concert (which was all in Icelandic), Prins Polo apparently invited everyone to a bonfire by the beach. And then, as we were leaving, he said into the mic, in English, “And we want to especially invite our guests to come down to the bonfire with us” while looking directly at us. So, we made our way down to the bonfire. How does one say no to such an invitation?
Anyway, we got to the bonfire by walking about a half mile and across the Ring Road (route 1) at around midnight. Iceland is close to the Arctic Circle, so it was still a little bit light outside.
When we arrived at the rocky beach, we saw a beautiful sight: A small gathering of maybe 20 or 30 old people and young people together with children, enjoying the late evening. The kids played with the fire and the parents kept them safe without yelling or disciplining their children. Everyone was kind. We sat next to a couple who’d traveled from Reykjavik (5 hours, at least) to attend this festival because of their love for Prins Polo.
We were sitting down on this rocky beach with people we had never met, yet somehow I felt like we were doing something people have always done– gathering around the fire, staying safe, staying warm, telling stories, eating, enjoying the beauty of the place and the goodness of the moment. The owner of the hostel pulled some seaweed from the water, dried it by holding it over the fire, and shared it with the people near him who ate it with enthusiasm.
And then they pulled out a tray and handed it around. When it got to me, I pulled out the piece of cake that’s in the photo.
Chocolate cake. Mercy. I came back to that old story and that homily, and I thought of God’s healing, extravagant love.
Here’s my piece of cake as it came out of the pan. No, I didn’t make it into that heart shape, nor can I imagine God being so heavy-handed that he’d do something so cheesy. But, I mean, maybe I needed something that cheesy at that moment, and maybe God gritted his teeth a little and provided.