We are at a turn of time. For those of us sculpted by the cycles of Christian liturgy, we have come again to the beginning, to Advent – the Preface to the story of human renewal by the incarnation of God. The seasons themselves tell the same story. Here, in the northern hemisphere, the harvest has been gleaned, the leaves fallen. There is no more to do for now, really. The seeds of next year’s harvest are already buried and germinating in the ground, grown hard and cold. It is ours only to wait. We wait for the manifestation of what is already asleep deep within the earth.
It is no wonder, then, that Advent has been considered the contemplative’s season, par excellence. The contemplative, like the deceptively fallow earth, and the yet flat stomach of Mary, bears stewardship of a seed that is already here. Christ is already conceived within and around us; the contemplative knows this and has been tilling the tender soil. Our practice emboldens us that even when the ground seems like parched sod under our feet, we keep on waiting in fidelity to the hidden truth. The Letter to the Colossians puts it so beautifully. “You have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory (3:3-4).”
Here I quote at length from Advent to Pentecost, in which a Carthusian writer reflects on the contemplative’s hope at the heart of his vocation:
What is this eternal glory? It is God giving God’s self to us with all that God is and all that God has…. This is our hope. Let us become aware of its enormous audacity…. In Christ the perfect union of God and humankind has been realized. Our hope is to participate in that union – Christ in you, the hope of glory (Col 1:27). I do not hope for health, success, happiness in human terms,… not even for a supernatural happiness for myself alone. I hope, God enables me to hope for only one thing: Christ…. For all humankind, for all creation, I hope, with confidence in the Word of God, for that fullness of life and love which is the full stature of Christ, God all in all.
….That is the reason why the Liturgy makes us read the great promises of the prophets, above all Isaiah, during this time of expectancy. The Christian life on earth is a time of expectancy. The life of the [contemplative] is especially so.
Yes, let us become aware of the audacity of our hope and practice – the expectation to become a little christ in the One who is all in all. So we must ask: what image of Christ are we expecting and into which are we willing to be made?
For many, Advent is typified by the infancy narrative: reception of a tender divinity, fresh, tiny and uncomplicated. Indeed, three Sundays of the Season will accentuate this point, but not the first. And it is the message of that first Sunday, which I believe to be the siren’s call for the full stature of the contemplative vocation in our current corporate reality. The First Advent reading from Luke:
There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth, distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man, coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near (21:25-28).
Presenting this as an Advent narrative, turns our eyes and heart not back to a first coming but ahead to a second. Here, I do not intend an eschatological end time, nor, should that be the case, that this time is it. However, we are invited directly to confront the dark, destructive reality of our times (as many have before us and doubtless many will after). Most especially, we reflect on the possible responses to it.
There is a common, predictable, and understandable reaction to these ‘signs’. They are all around us: faintness, fear and foreboding. Along with these, of course, we can add the rage, imbalance, decentering, and blame throwing that typify our culture, and, very often, ourselves. It cannot be said that these reactions are unjustified. Matthew writes in more detail about wars and rumors of wars, nation rising again nation, famines and earthquakes. We could add to these, pervasive sexual misconduct, racial brutality, corporate greed, and boundary lines that define who deserves a chance at economic wellbeing and freedom from those who don’t. Faintness, fear, foreboding, rage, disorientation, and blame all seem completely justified.
That’s because they are. Period. We cannot and must not force others or ourselves into a pious or blindly tranquil reaction to the events around us. Certainly, one who has been directly impacted by it should never be denied their process, in its fullness. Above all, the path of awakening and the fullness of humanity is betrayed when we to pretend to be other than we are. In Jesus’ Holy Saturday descent we saw, if nothing else, that divinity cannot entirely infuse and redeem unless it touches the deepest haunts of humanity.
However, from the vantage point of the full stature of divine humanity (cf. Eph 4:13ff, it is interesting to note that all these responses are characterized by Luke as ‘confusion’: People will be confused by the roaring. It is confusion – that is to say, an irreconcilable cognitive dissonance and heart shock – that leads to responses of fragmentation. We cannot see the meaning because the brutality of the process wears us down, dilutes our anamnesis of the cosmic reality, and strips the cords of hope to frayed threads.
Have any of us felt this? Felt our anger and also felt the toxic futility of it? Felt our exasperated judgment and also felt its erosion of the deeper Peace proper to the path we had embarked on in our practice? Felt the outward radiating spark of love within us being doused by the tsunami of violence around us and its mirror in ourselves? Felt the inquiring gaze of the part of us which advocates for convicts’ rights upon the part helplessly relishing the public downfall of so many whose evil done in secret is now being turned up to the light? However justified these responses, there is loss of personal freedom here. The Christ life has been born in us but, like the audience of the Isaiah prophecies, we are slowly carried into exile from that inner incarnation by the onslaught of roaring waves, besieging the mind with confusion. It is this darkness that Luke, and our present circumstances, place in front of us.
Yet I remain drawn by our Carthusian’s words, “The Christian life on earth is a time of expectancy. The life of the [contemplative] is especially so.” This suggests that the spiritual pursuit is not primarily for ‘fulfillment’. The impatience, shame, tepidity, and bitterness that plague us now are a reminder of how hard and elusive this truth really is. The spiritual life is perhaps most deeply manifested by an increasing capacity for expectation, precisely in an increasing (or more precious) lack of fulfillment. Growing in such expectancy, we are able to abide in progressively more tranquil, encompassing degrees of love and centered modes of action. Why? Because at the very center of our longing is the expectant knowledge that the seed is already there in this hard, cold, soil under our feet.
Dallas Willard speaks of the distinction between trying and training. If we aspire to run a marathon, it is foolish to set out the first day for 26 miles. And, failing, all the more foolish to try it again and again. Instead, we train – tackling our diet, exercise, shorter races, until we arrive at the goal. Of course, it is the same in our spiritual evolution. The world is presently crying out for love, fighting, breaking and dying for lack of it. However, I think an honest examine shows that, as a whole, we have been lulled into a kind of complacent comfort from which no amount of trying will produce the centered faith, hope, and love to which the present moment calls us collectively to rise.
Yet here we are.
Our daily practice of silence, surrender, self-awareness, and witness have been for something. Our comradery with each other, the refreshment of our retreats, and the enlightenment by the teachings might rightly be conceived as fuel and training for the very serious call we must now live. Becoming love – not only in view of the downtrodden but also the ‘sinners’ laid before us (lurking within us) – is a marathon of evolution into the Divine likeness. Perhaps we are not there yet, but do we want to be? Do we want to give our daily practice specifically to this end in the public sphere – however mysterious our part may be? Some days my answer is, “No, damn it!” But, are we willing to want to be?
Perhaps we will always need the periodic comfort and consolation of the Baby to send us again on the journey. But, in reality, the world needs us to come into our second advent, mature in (or at least willing) the unified love of Christ’s consciousness. Will we give ourselves this second coming? For, it is not only ourselves who are waiting. “The [whole] creation waits with eager longing for the children of God to be revealed.” One wonders, is all the chaos we see around us part of this birthing, “the whole creation groaning in labor pains” for the full stature of our practice in our lives to be revealed (cf. Rom 8:18f)?
posted December 11, 2018 by Adwoa Lewis-Wilson
* These Nio Guardians (仁王ーBenevolent Kings）can be seen at the entrance gate of Buddhist temples. A temple, a shrine, a church, a mosque or the house of the Lord are all symbols for the heart. They are symbols for psychological tools to protect the heart that is trying to be present and awaken the God within. The guardians are making sure that no miscellaneous thoughts or emotions enter the heart and disturb the state of Presence. he basis of all words, and the mother of all syllables. It is the wellspring of all teachings. It is said that the two guardians represent the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, birth and death. Alpha and Omega are the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet. The guardians symbolize the first and last syllable of a mantra, or the birth and death of the spiritual body of effort to reach the state of prolonged presence.
Adwoa is part of a generation of young(ish) contemplative Christians exploring the intersection between the inner work of Wisdom and its prophetic presence in the world. Believing we live in a time where the voice of Silence and Wisdom must be heard, Adwoa is actively exploring ways to build communities of hospitality and mutual support for the work of personal transformation and its radiating witness to others. Her practice has been shaped by various monastic residencies, vowed life as an Oblate of the Order of Julian of Norwich, the Wisdom community, and her personal journey with inner and societal poverty, marginalization, and darkness.