Waiting

Let’s face it: We don’t like waiting. We want what we want immediately – whether that be acquiring something, solving some problem, hearing back from someone, and so on. Yet, here we are in Advent, a time of waiting.

Even if what we are waiting for is only a week away, we are impatient. We forget what Bonhoeffer calls the “austere blessing of waiting.” He writes

Waiting is an art that our impatient age has forgotten. It wants to break open the ripe fruit when it has hardly finished planting the shoot. . . . Whoever does not know the austere blessedness of waiting, will never experience the full blessing of fulfillment. Those who do not know how it feels to struggle anxiously with the deepest questions of life, cannot even dream of the splendor of the moment in which clarity is illuminated for them. For the greatest, most profound, tenderest things in the world, we must wait. It happens not here in the storm but according to the divine laws of sprouting, of becoming

I’ve been facilitating a couple of small groups in our parish’s Advent Retreat in Daily Living.  This past week they prayed with several characteristics of waiting, as articulated by Marina McCoy: Advent waiting as expectant, as requiring making space, and as hopeful.

The characteristic that struck most of the retreatants was Advent as requiring making space, so I share here McCoy’s comment on that aspect, which asks some good questions.  It is not too late in Advent to ask ourselves the same questions:

Although the main action in Advent is God’s, I have my part to do too. I am not waiting passively for God to act. Rather, I have to make room for God’s action to be something that I can welcome, something that I can pay attention to when it happens. Here the images of the inn and stable are helpful. There was no room at the inn for Mary, Joseph, and Jesus, because it was too full. The stable was poor and simple but had space for them to take shelter. Is my heart open to God? What are the superficial concerns or worries to let go, in order to make room for Jesus to come again this Christmas? Is my life too rushed and busy with holiday preparations, or am I building in time to make space for the Christ Child?

Remembering Thomas Merton During Advent

Today, December 10, is the anniversary of the death of Thomas Merton, poet, peace activist, Trappist monk, prolific writer, mystic, lover of nature, champion of social justice and contemplative.

Merton has always been a favorite of mine; his writings have been enormously beneficial to me at various points in my spiritual journey. But it is fitting to celebrate the anniversary of his death during this time of Advent.

Merton once wrote, “The Church’s belief in Christ is not a mere static assent to His historical existence, but a dynamic participation in the great cycle of actions which manifest in the world the love of the Father for the ones He has called to union with Himself, in his beloved Son.”

What a great thought to keep in mind as we approach Christmas!

Our celebration of the birth of Christ is not merely a fond remembrance of a young couple who cannot find room in an inn as the woman approaches pregnancy. Or about the story of a star and of shepherds and wise men. Rather, our Christian faith is about more than the historical existence of a Jewish man named Jesus.

Ultimately, it is about the love of God – a God who longs for nothing less than our total union with Him. A God who chooses to become human out of love – to show us what it means to be fully human – and fully divine.

And, as the Merton quote suggests, our realization of this reality demands a response. Not mere a passive enjoyment of that love, but dynamic participation in manifesting God’s love in the world.

As we move through these days of Advent, days in which our world is groaning in suffering, we might ask how we might more fully manifest God’s love in the world.

I Will Give You Rest

My successor as Director of the Office for Spirituality at the University of St. Thomas shared the following message today as part of her office’s Advent reflections on Mass readings. Since it speaks to a passage that always moves me (Matt 11:28-30), I share it here with her permission.

As I read the Scripture readings for today one line spoke to me, “Come to me and I will give you rest.” This has always been a favorite line of mine from Scripture and of my devotion for the Sacred Heart of Jesus (this same Gospel is read on his Solemnity). The reading from the prophet Isaiah today also calls us “to not grow weary”, but to trust in God. 

This advent without doubt has deeper meaning. Like the people of Israel, we are awaiting new hope, for light to shine in the darkness. This year has brought much suffering, sacrifice, uncertainty, division and sadness to our country and to the world.  Like those described by the prophet Isaiah, many of us have felt weary, overwhelmed and lacking hope. In the midst of the struggles due to the pandemic, the experience of deep divisions in our country, the deep cry of those marginalized and the poor, we wait for hope and rest. Yet, at this time when it is hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel, Scripture invites us to rest in the Lord who can take our burdens, for he “gives strength to the fainting; for the weak he makes vigor abound”. The Lord continues to promise his presence and opens once more his heart as that place where we all can find true rest.  

Advent is a season of hope and longing, a time to remember that in the midst of darkness and suffering there is the promise of light. As we say Maranatha this Advent, let us remember that Jesus too is saying “Come to me.” Let us bring to him with trust all our burdens and by our actions make easier the burdens of others around us. Let us open our hearts to this hope the Lord gives us today and come to him. There is no better place to rest.

Learning from Mary and Joseph

During Advent we hear of the messages to both Mary and Joseph regarding the birth of Jesus.  Last year, I was sent a reflection sheet from an Advent retreat, and I came across it going through some old files.  I thought I’d share it for your reflection during this Advent.

Mary was encouraged not to fear but rather to believe that God could do great things in her…

What fears do i need to let go of?

Do I really believe God can do great things in me?

Mary said yes to God’s plan even though others did not understand…

What in my life calls me to believe even though others may not understand?

Joseph showed an acceptance and compassion for his pregnant fiance…

Who in my life needs my acceptance and love?

Joseph followed his dreams and trusted in God…

What dreams in my life call me to trust in God?

A Poem for Advent

 Many people more talented than I am are able to write poems that express the fruits of their prayer.  One of those, Dianne Schlichting, is a woman I have known for many years through the spiritual direction and retreat work I do.  With Dianne’s permission, I share one of her poems, which she titles simply Advent.  I hope you find it a useful adjunct to your prayer as we begin the Advent season.

Jesus, tree,
Branch me.
Prune to remove that
Which is not you;
Emptiness, tension create.

Promises yet to unfold:
The future filled with
Hope;
The present already holy in
Christ.

Mystery enters humanity–
Interruptions abound.

Rearrange the furniture
Of my life to
Accommodate
The invited, long-awaited guest
Who is Christ.

Explode me through
The revolving doors of
My everydayness
Into
Fruitfulness.

Ornament on a tree
I am graced to be;
Vine and branch
Lover and beloved
Father, son, spirit, and me–
All bound in
Divinity becoming humanity
Ornament tied to the Tree.

Every Day Is A Day of Thanksgiving

Enjoy this video today.  (If you received this post by e-mail, you may need to click through to see the video.)  And, if you are not already familiar with it, check out the Grateful Living website.  You will find some great practices of gratitude, as well as videos of Brother David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine from whom I have learned so much.

And, of course: Happy Thanksgiving!  I hope the day is a wonderful one for you, despite COVID’s impact on our plans.  But more than today, let every day be a day of thanksgiving.

Here Comes Advent!

One week from today – Sunday November 29 – marks the beginning of Advent, my favorite season of the liturgical calendar.

Advent is a time of preparation.  The word Advent comes rom the Latin “Adventus,” which means “coming.”  So we are preparing for a coming – the coming of Christ.

We tend to think of that preparation in terms of our celebration at Christmas of the Incarnation of Christ.  God’s becoming human is of foundational importance to us – it means everything to Christians that God became human.  But in thinking about what it means to celebrate the Incarnation, it is good to remember that the coming we are waiting for is more than the anniversary of a historical event.  The Catholic Encyclopedia reminds us that the coming is broader than that.  In talking about Advent, it speaks of our need

to prepare ourselves “worthily to celebrate the anniversary of the Lord’s coming into the world as the incarnate God of love,

thus to make our souls fitting abodes for Jesus’ coming in the Eucharist and through grace

thereby making ourselves ready for his final coming at death and at the end of the world.

As that explanation suggests, it is vitally important to our task as disciples to keep foremost in our minds that Advent is not about reenactment of the past, as beautiful as our Christmas pageants and crèches are.  We’re not just remembering these nice things in our faith history that happened a long time ago because it gives us a warm feeling.

Rather, if we are Christian disciples, we are called to play active parts now in birthing Christ into the world; we each have a role in giving reality to the rule of Emmanuel.  So this season is about making ourselves ready to more fully give birth to Christ.

How will you do that?

There are a plethora of ways to do so.  The Ignatian Spirituality website (here) offers several suggestions, as does Creighton’s Online Ministries (here.)  My parish, St. Thomas More, is offering an Advent Retreat in Daily Living, which provides prayer material for each day as well as small group (virtual sessions), information relating to which you can find here.

Whether through your own parish or otherwise, think about how you will prepare yourself this Advent.

 

Hope and God’s Fidelity

I was recently invited to reflect on the question how God wants me to experience hope and how that leads back to God’s fidelity.

Walter Burghardt’s reflection for today in  Give Us This Day, addressed that question so beautifully it almost brought tears to my eyes.  He write:

[Y]ou have a gift we call hope.  Not a wimpy “Maybe things will turn out o.k.’  Rather, a confident expectation that wherever you turn, whatever your problem, God will be there.  Not always with an answer, but always with a presence, a strength, a courage out of this world.  A confident expectation that your life will not end in six feet of dirt, will in fact never end, that you will always be alive in God, that the spiritual part of you will survive the corroding of your flesh, that one day the whole person that is “you” will come together again, but without the pain, without the tears.  Unless such is your hope, there is no point in your presence here.  And if I may quote one of my few deathless sentences, “If heaven is not for real, I shall be madder than hell.”

A confident expectation that whatever I face, I do not face it without God,  a presence that gives me all the strength and courage I need to face anything.

A confident expectation that that presence of God transcends physical death, that I will be with God always.

And Burghardt is spot on in his suggestion in the penultimate sentence that it is that hope that gives meaning to our lives.

God Believes in Claude

I grew up with the musical Hair, which I saw on Broadway at probably a younger age than I should have seen it. Every once in a while, the words to one of the songs (I know most of them by heart) starts running through my head.

The song lyrics that came the other day are from the song Manchester, England. They repeated in my mind (and, OK, I sang it out loud as well) more than a few times before I actually sat up and took notice. The character, Claude Hooper Bukowski, sings:

I believe in God, and I believe that God believes in Claude, that’s me, that’s me.

To say I believe in God says something significant. Hopefully when we affirm our belief in God we affirm more than the fact of God’s existence; our affirmation of our belief in God hopefully has meaning for how we live our lives.

But it seems to me to say something more to affirm not only my belief in God, but my belief that God believes in me. I hear that line as affirming that I know God knows me with particularity. That I know that God has me in God’s mind and heart. That I know God values me. That I know that God believes I have a contribution to make to the building of God’s kingdom.

Ask yourself: Do you believe in a God who believes in you? And if yes, what difference that does make in your life?

The Need to Exercise our Freedom

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, was a great thinker and prolific writer.  Several of his books sit on my bookshelf and I have benefitted greatly from them. Since his recent death on November 7, I have been catching up on some of his Covenant and Conversation posts.

One that struck me deeply is his recent commentary about Abraham.  He talks about two events that occur late in Abraham’s life – Abraham’s purchase of a plot of land in which he can bury his wife Sarah and his efforts to find a wife for his son Isaac (who at this point is 37 years old).  Both events are described in incredible detail – Rabbi Sacks says in more detail than almost any other story in the Torah.  He contrast the detail with the description of the story of the Binding of Isaac, in which so much is left unsaid, and suggests the literary style is meant to call our attention to the significance of what is happening.

And why are these two events so significant.  Rabbi Sacks’s finds the explanation to be “simple and unexpected,” writing:

Throughout the story of Abraham and Sarah, God promises them two things: children and a land. The promise of the land (“Rise, walk in the land throughout its length and breadth, for I will give it to you,” Gen. 13:17) is repeated no less than seven times. The promise of children occurs four times. Abraham’s descendants will be “a great nation” (Gen. 12:22), as many as “the dust of the earth” (Gen. 13.16), and “the stars in the sky” (Gen. 15:5); he will be the father not of one nation but of many (Gen. 17:5).

Despite this, when Sarah dies, Abraham has not a single inch of land that he can call his own, and he has only one child who will continue the covenant, Isaac, who is currently unmarried. Neither promise has been fulfilled. Hence the extraordinary detail of the two main stories in Chayei Sarah: the purchase of land and the finding of a wife for Isaac. There is a moral here, and the Torah slows down the speed of the narrative as it speeds up the action, so that we will not miss the point.

God promises, but we have to act. God promised Abraham the land, but he had to buy the first field. God promised Abraham many descendants, but Abraham had to ensure that his son was married, and to a woman who would share the life of the covenant, so that Abraham would have, as we say today, “Jewish grandchildren.”

Despite all the promises, God does not and will not do it alone. By the very act of self-limitation (tzimtzum) through which He creates the space for human freedom, God gives us responsibility, and only by exercising it do we reach our full stature as human beings. God saved Noah from the Flood, but Noah had to make the Ark. He gave the land of Israel to the people of Israel, but they had to fight the battles. God gives us the strength to act, but we have to do the deed. What changes the world, what fulfills our destiny, is not what God does for us but what we do for God.

This is the reality we must embrace.  God doesn’t do it all alone.  God’s promise will be fulfilled, but not if we sit back in our easy chairs waiting for God to do it all.

In Jewish terms this is sometimes referred to as tikkun olam, the obligation to take one’s part in repairing the world.  In Christian terms it is our obligation to co-labor with Christ for the building of God’s kingdom.

“God gives us the strength to act, but we have to do the deed.”