I look forward to Advent with a very palpable, almost pulsating joy. Advent, my favorite liturgical season, stimulates such a joyful anticipation that it has a way of grounding me and making me feel most myself.
In a time when I’m often feeling beside myself, given all the surreal absurdities swirling around, to experience a deeper wholeness, a reorientation of my sense of self anchored in the wider story of salvation, feels miraculous to me.
It is also why I fiercely hold off from jumping into Christmas festivities prematurely. I would hate to miss what Advent has to offer in reorienting me and deepening my interior life to be able to embrace the Incarnation more wholeheartedly. This is also one of the reasons I wish we had more time for Advent especially on years like this one when it’s essential just three weeks. I miss the more traditional start to Advent that was right after Martinmas on November 11th. Kind of like the Mardi Gras before Lent.
Along with lovely traditions like meditating on salvation history with the Jesse tree and praying the St. Andrew Christmas Novena, I have found Caryll Houselander’s reflections in The Reed of God to be quite profound in her poetic style, especially on carving out a prayerful stillness to maintain a “purposeful emptiness of the virginal heart and mind” that is free of the clutter we fill our lives up with. She invites us to meditate on the shape and matter of our being that God first created us in and then to discover through that shape and matter “an absolute promise of fulfilment.”
She uses the example of a hollow reed waiting for the breath of its piper in order to be brought to life and likens it to Our Lady as “a reed through which the Eternal Love was to be piped as a shepherd’s song.”
If ever there was a reboot activity, for me, this is it! Advent is the perfect context to ‘begin again’ by reintegrating my nature with my reason for being and rediscovering the unrepeatable seeds and soil God conceived just for me before I was born, and before I filled up His design with worldly distractions and sins that would slowly distort my true sense of self.
Who doesn’t feel emotionally and spiritually cluttered, even derailed at times? We can begin again, with Mary’s help, to discover the unique design God made us to be, so we too can receive His Breath, manifesting Christ to the world more authentically as only each uniquely created person can.
This is essentially what the daily examen can be in Advent or any time of year. To use Houselander’s example of the hollow reed, I can ask myself metaphorically, how has God been able to make music through the unique instrument that is me? What gifts has He implanted as seeds and how is the soil of my soul nurturing those seeds?
These meditations help me strip away the noise, and wait as within a dark womb, to receive new light, like a kind of rebirth. This exercise creates a denser reality of God in my spirit, and I somehow feel more human, more myself. A person who is in-waiting for her Savior; on the verge of tasting Eternity in Christ who has already come and will come again.
Truely, it is within this context of a freshly cleared out spiritual space and waiting for the fullness of Eternity to implant more deeply, with the merciful benefit of the Holy Eucharist, that I experience most acutely the reality that my entire life is the season of Advent. Nothing makes as much sense to me than realizing my default natural human condition is to be in a state of Advent: in trustful waiting for the “absolute promise of fulfilment” to manifest in my particular body and soul.
My little watercolor sketch above (inspired by someone in one of my groups looking for “Advent art” to decorate with) is me imagining traveling in this life of daily Advent and the need to cultivate stillness and silence for nurturing God’s fulfilment in me.
The barely perceptible glow on the horizon gently beckons me to stay faithful through the dark thickets in life, that there is something blindingly bright just on the other side of that veil of trees, and that in just a matter of time, the light will overcome the darkness.
The sky reflects the season’s liturgical colors of violet and rose, dramatized as the verge of a new dawn before the earth’s creatures wake up. It’s an experience in nature that, at least to me, poetically reflects what a Rorate Mass* is liturgically (seen in my photos of that Mass below). There’s a profound sense of beckoning, in the quiet emptiness of the night, to draw down Grace on a dark world still in a state of spiritual sleep.
Being the very sensitive person that I am, (of the melancholic varietyI find that just the anticipation of Christ’s coming to be all that my heart can manage when I’m fully engaged prayerfully in that anticipation. This ‘side of the veil’ exists for us mortals for a reason because we really couldn’t handle experiencing the other side, in heaven, given our current fragile, fleshy state.
If I fully enter into just the anticipation of heaven, in the deepest sense I can, that would be enough for me to be happy, and I would max out what I am here for, given the view of life here as a state of ‘advent’, with ultimately waiting for the advent (or arrival) of His Second Coming.
A less lofty parallel for me of why we need this time behind the Advent ‘veil’ is that it’s kind of like planning for a vacation in some idyllic destination. The planning part is at least half the fun as actually being there and the anticipation of it alone helps to orient the goals and steps it takes of getting there, giving purpose and focus to the days leading up to departure. I have often found that when I’m finally in my travel destination, like overlooking a misty Tuscan sunrise over the hills of a vineyard or the gleaming blue domes from atop an ancient volcanic rim in Santorini, I am utterly overwhelmed and breathless; humanly incapable of taking it all in. I have even experienced a sort of shutdown of the senses from the sheer oversaturation of beauty.
Did you ever try breathing out of a fast-moving car window as a child? No air can actually go in your mouth. The force of air is too great for our lung’s capacity to receive oxygen without bursting. Similarly, the measured bitesize experiences of Eternity this side of heaven, most notably in the Eucharist, is really all that our mortal state can manage right now and merely signifies a fuller experience of life yet to come. Not the least of which is it signifies that this veiled world is not our final home.
How sad it would be to skip over the quiet nature of Advent and jump right into Christmas festivities, that too often are characterized with worldly flare, and often missing that grounding and regulating process that reaffirms our unique human posture of waiting and preparing for the fullness of life.
I would like to conclude this meditation with an image and prayer from the introit of a Rorate Mass that sums up the human heart begging for the descendance of Grace to penetrate the soul with divine Light. It is the ultimate disposition of a faithful heart living the spirit of Advent ~ in all seasons.
“Drop down dew, ye heavens, from above, and let the clouds rain the just: let the earth be opened, and bud forth a Saviour”
“Rorate, caeli, desuper, et nubes pluant justum, aperiatur terra, et germinet Salvatorem.” Is 45:8
*A Rorate Mass, a rare find these days, is a votive Mass in honor of Our Lady originating from the Traditional Latin Mass of the Church offered in Advent and is said before dawn, lit only with candles. (It may also be offered as a Novus Ordo Mass, but that might be even more rare.) It gets its name from the opening words of the entrance antiphon, or introit, of Is 45:8. The visuals are so striking in that at first, we see only the warm glow of the candles and then by the end of Mass, the light of day begins to bleed through the stained-glass windows into the womb-like space of a dark church creating an otherworldly realm, incarnating the sense of Heaven pouring its Light down like dew into our dark souls.
What are some ways you can foster moments of quiet and stillness during this often-preoccupied season of Advent that can facilitate a deeper yearning and desire for heaven’s dew? Looking at the images above, can you picture yourself in a dark, candlelit church begging God for a new outpouring of Grace into your soul? Can you look at the Advent watercolor landscape and sense the dawn of Christ’s coming on the horizon? What are some areas of spiritual thicket that can be cleared away?
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Images and meditation by Renata Grzan Wieczorek. Use only with permission.