Wait. Just wait. It is this word that characterizes the Advent season – waiting. We wait for, we anticipate, we long for the coming of the Christ Child. That’s what ” advent” means: the arrival of a notable person, thing, or event. So during advent, we’re celebrating waiting for the arrival of Christ. The season of Advent has been developing through the tradition of the Western Church since the 6th century. Why? Why celebrate the waiting and not just jump into Christmas?
We don’t like to wait much these days. We feel like it’s empty time – an empty waste of time that could be full of something else. Caryll Houselander, Catholic lay mystic, poet and artist, sees it differently. She speaks of emptiness as purposeful and meaningful – the necessary condition of the human soul that wants to receive the fullness of God.
She begins her book Reed of God in this way:
“That virginal quality, which for want of a better word I call emptiness, is the beginning of this contemplation. It is not a formless emptiness, a void without meaning: on the contrary it has a shape, a form given to it by the purpose for which it was intended. It is the emptiness like the hollow in the reed, the narrow riftless emptiness, which can only have one destiny: to receive the piper’s breath and to utter the song that is in his heart…The pre-Advent emptiness of Our Lady’s purposeful virginity was indeed like [the reed].” (p. 21)
She goes on to talk about emptiness in the way most of us understand it, not as the positive aspect of an anticipation of fulfillment, but as a negative sign or a nagging discomfort.
“Strangely enough, those who complain loudest of the emptiness of their lives are usually people whose lives are overcrowded, filled with trivial details, plans, desires, ambitions, unsatisfied cravings for passing pleasures, doubts, anxieties and fears…those who complain in these circumstances of the emptiness of their lives are usually afraid to allow space or silence or pause in their lives…They dread silence because they do not want to hear their own pulses beating out the seconds of their life…Death seems to them to be only the final void, the darkest, loneliest emptiness. They have no sense of being related to any abiding beauty, to any indestructible life: they are afraid to be alone with their unrelated hearts. Such emptiness is very different from that still, shadowless ring of light round which our being is encircled, making a shape which in itself is an absolute promise of fulfillment.” (p. 22)
We have all had moments like that. Moments where we use the material as an escape, where we fill up our inner space with noise because we’re avoiding some issue, person or thought. And sometimes temporary distractions can actual be helpful in giving our mind/heart/body a break. But what if such noise becomes the pattern of our lives? Have frenetic schedules, instant gratification and constant over-stimulation become a norm for us?
“The question most people will ask is, “Can someone whose life is already cluttered up with trivial things get back to this virginal emptiness? Of course he can. If a bird’s nest has been filled with broken glass and rubbish, it can be emptied.” (p. 22)
Are silly little distractions the only thing that drowns out our inner silence? Not at all.
“It is not only trivialities which destroy this virgin-mindedness; very often serious people with a conscious purpose in life destroy it by being to set on its purpose. The core of emptiness is not filled with trifles but with a hard block, tightly wedged in. They have a plan, for example, of reconstructing Europe, for reforming education, for converting the world; and this plan, this enthusiasm, has become so important in their minds that there is neither room to receive God nor silence to hear his voice, even though He comes as light and little as a Communion wafer, and speaks as soft as a zephyr of wind tapping on the window with a flower. Zealots and triflers and all besides who have crowded the emptiness out of their minds and the silence out of their souls can restore it. At least, they can allow God to restore it and ask Him to do so.” (p.23)
I love that Houselander brings in the serious things, too. She shows that we can really turn anything into meaningless noise when we become so focused on the thing itself that we rush headlong towards the goal driven only by the power of our own self-efficacy. In by-passing the natural waiting periods of silent discernment and connection with God, we truncate whatever fruitful vine we would hope to yield.
We are given the chance during this Advent season of waiting to become aware of the noise we’ve let into our lives and create a space anew for silent anticipation. We are given the chance to slow down and notice that waiting is not empty of meaning, but rather a part of the process of fruition; and that emptiness in itself, as an inner receptivity to God, is the very condition of fulfillment in Him.
Caryll Houselander puts it thus:
“Our own effort will consist in sorting out everything that is not essential and that fills up space and silence in us and in discovering what sort of shape this emptiness in us, is. From this we shall learn what sort of purpose God has for us. In what way are we to fulfill the work of giving Christ life in us?” (p. 24)
The next time you have to wait for something – for your coffee to finish brewing, for the light to turn green, for the gas tank to fill up, for mass to start – take that moment to just wait – don’t fill that space with anything else!
This is a very small, but very effective way to open that silent space for God, to get in touch with the Spirit of Advent, and to start clearing out the noise. Prayers and blessings to you!
Tip: Focus on feeling the anticipation and open a small space of silence in your heart. Don’t get on your smart phone and post a status update, don’t text someone, don’t start planning dinner – just take those few moments, maybe 5, 10 minutes, and just wait. In silent attentiveness. If your mind gets distracted, focus on your breath, and perhaps say an rhythmic prayer like the Hail Mary to help quiet your mind.