Sr. Genevieve Mooney OP
St. Mary’s Dominican Convent Cabra
I A frequently repeated word during Advent is ‘Watch’. What exactly are we watching or watching for? we may tend to jump to a conclusion and give it a very limited,’ religious’ and even a threatening and ominous meaning. It is not necessarily so. Another similar exhortation is to ‘Wake up’. A number of spiritualities, specially eastern, tell us that we are normally asleep. Mindfulness is currently popular and it may have something to teach us, But it is not new to us and we had something similar in our ‘celtic’ or Irish tradition.
One of my favourite poets is Mary Oliver. I’m sure many of you know her. She’s an American poet, now about 90, a nature poet, deeply spiritual and has great wisdom – and is delightful. One of her favourite phrases is ‘Pay Attention’. I’m going to take that as a synonym for ‘Watch’. Her central idea is the importance of living our lives – really living fully, being truly alive. She asks: ‘are you breathing just a little and calling it a life?’ And the way to live our life is to ‘pay attention’. And simply to pay attention is to pray.
She has a very simple ‘Instruction for living a life’
Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.
Which could be translated as ‘contemplari et contemplata aliis tradere
For her, paying attention is to contemplate. Contemplation is not just about trying to contemplate God and things ‘divine’. We can pay attention or ‘contemplate’ anything, especially the natural world.
So-called ‘celtic’ spirituality’ became very popular some years ago. We were given the impression that it was all about nature, was ‘creation-centred’. In the current meaning of that, it isn’t – though keen awareness and appreciation of nature was certainly part of our tradition. But the real gift that authentic ‘celtic’ spirituality could give us is the insight that there are not two realms- the ordinary material and the spiritual – there is only one. We do not have to go into some rarified ‘spiritual’ sphere or atmosphere to find God. The material world everywhere IS spiritual and God is truly present in what Kavanagh calls’ the bits and pieces of everyday life’. It is here that Christ is coming all the time . It is here we have to look for him. And we can miss him. John O’Donoghue says ‘Behind the facade of your life, something wonderful and eternal is happening’.
Are we in the habit of noticing things? ‘Noticing’ is not ‘Paying attention’ but if we don’t already do it, it’s a good start! Do we think things are worth contemplating? There are lovely trees around you here – have you looked closely at any of them? The shape of the leaf? the arrangement of twigs and leaves, maximising reception of sunlight? The pattern of the bark? Have you looked long enough to sense the life in the tree? A ‘withinness’ in it? Or a presence? ‘There’s a withinness of God in every living thing’
We may look out in the morning and see that it is raining and ‘write off’ the day. ‘It’s horrible’. No, it’s beautiful. Like most land animals we don’t like to get wet but the trees love it, the ground loves it, the grass loves it – but specially the trees, I think. If you pay attention you can feel their pleasure.
All this is important, more important than we generally believe. But, of course, it is especially important to pay attention to other people – especially those around us. We can some times see them as little as we se the birds. There may be a special reason why we don’t always see them. We tend not to see the familiar and what we think we know. and we think we know the people around us. We have them summed up and labelled in our own minds. We know what to expect – so that’s what we see. If I think Sr. X is kind and generous, and Sr. Y is quick-tempered and sharp-spoken that is what I will see. If we stood back, cleared our mind of our preconceptions and prejudices and paid attention with complete openness and freedom, we would almost certainly be astonished.
Jesus was a countryman and his parables, metaphors and similes are from nature. With Paul, a city man, and then with a very ‘Roman’ Church, this connection was largely lost, so that the official prayers of the Church have little of nature in them. The psalms often refer us to nature and you know that lovely passage in Job: If you would learn more, ask the cattle, seek information from the birds of the air. The creeping things of earth will give you lessons and the fishes of the sea will tell you all.. There is not one such creature but will know this state of things is all of God’s own making He holds in his power the soul of every living thing. .
We have an Irish version of this:
There is nothing in the sea but is full of God’s life.
There’s no bird on the wing but is full of God’s blessing.
There is no star in the sky but is full of God’s life
We won’t hear them, and the voice of God in them, unless we pay attention. Mary Oliver has a lovely poem called ‘At the River Clarion’
I don’t know who God is exactly
But I’ll tell you this.
I was sitting in the river called Clarion, on a water-splashed stone
And all afternoon I listened to the voices of the river talking
Whenever the water struck a stone it has something to say
and the water itself and even the mosses trailing under the water
And slowly, very slowly, it became clear to me what they were saying
Said the river: I am a part of holiness.
And I too, said the stone. And I too whispered the moss beneath the water
You don’t hear such voices in an hour or a day
You don’t hear them at all is selfhood has stuffed your ears.
That’s the problem. If we are not paying attention to other things, we are probably paying attention to ourselves. No life is more limited and duller than one taken up with self.
People refer to Mary Oliver’s ‘Gospel of paying attention’. She says: ‘ I don’t know what a prayer is. I do know how to pay attention’. She seems to love the blue iris and it often stands for something specially beautiful. In a poem called ‘Prayer’ she says
It doesn’t have to be the blue iris. It could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few small stones,
Just pay attention then patch together a few words
And don’t try to make them elaborate.
You needn’t even patch any words together. Life is really very simple and it is all of a piece, not in compartments. .Prayer is very simple. Contemplation can be very ordinary.
Many of the Advent readings are poetry. If we read them as poetry we will get more from them. We don’t read poetry for a clear, ‘prose’ meaning. It appeals to our imagination, our emotions and our memory, so it affects us more deeply. If we are using our imagination we will be aware of sudden, sometimes startling, contrasts. A common theme is that of generous superabundance. The desert will not just get rain and produce flowers; it will become streams and pools of water and grow cedars like Lebanon . The lame will not just walk; they will leap like deer. We are reminded
that God will always far exceed our hopes and expectations.
II It’s winter and we are very aware of cold and darkness It seems a very suitable season for Advent – for hope, for looking forward, and longing. The way we see the seasons and their sequence affects how we experience and how we think. We think of spring, summer, autumn, winter. We are generally very conscious of spring, with all the new growth and new life breaking out all over. We love it. We don’t make as much of nature in summer – its fruitfulness. We take it for granted and tend to think more of what it means to us – warmth, holidays,… Autumn means the brilliant colour of the trees, we think less of the later harvest of fruits and vegetables. Winter in nature, we are not sure what to do with and tend to anticipate spring by thinking of growth beginning underground But that doesn’t happen immediately – there is a period of rest.
Our celtic ancestors thought of the year differently. They saw the year beginning with winter as the day began with night. We begin with darkness. Like all comparatively primitive agricultural people they lived close to the earth and really lived the seasons. Winter was different and very important. You know the triple Goddess- the maiden of spring, the fruitful mother of summer, the cailleach – the crone or wise woman – of winter. So for most of us here, this is our season. Our lives also have their seasons, the spring of youth, the fruitful middle years of work the autumn of retirement and the winter of old age. Again, for most this is our season.
In northern countries, further north, in Scandinavia winter was very significant. With snow and ice, all work had to stop. They went indoors and life took a different rhythm. Does that say something to us? It was not a useless or negative time but a rich time, a time for creativity, for crafts, story-telling, music – a time for passing on the myths and stories, the traditions and customs and rituals. This was the task of the wise woman ( and the wise man)
In spite of all the wonderful images that fill the readings during Advent, we only have one concrete symbol – the Advent wreath which comes to us from Scandinavia. It’s a very recent import. We almost see it now as obligatory, as quasi liturgical. It’s neither. It is a purely popular custom, in the sense that it came from the people. not from the Church. The Church had and has nothing to do with it It is basically a natural or pagan, symbol which was adopted by Christians and the Church has not prohibited. It came from Scandinavia, initially in the Lutheran Church, spread into Germany, was adopted by Catholics and eventually only quite recently arrived in the English-speaking countries and Ireland. Since it is a popular custom there are absolutely no rules or regulations about it except the natural ones -‘ a circle of greenery with candles. but we promptly made rules about it – imposing inappropriate arbitrary rules and, to my mind, spoiling it. Four candles makes sense; increasing the light gradually makes sense. Three purple, one rose makes no sense. This is already arbitrary for the vestments and even more so for the wreath. It spoils the ‘circle’ So does lighting the same candle in week one. Then we largely miss the point by leaving the wreath as a piece of the furniture during the season. The whole point is lighting the candles. It might be a good idea to make a little ritual of this, at least once a day, with a minute of silent reflection. This would enrich our Advent.
There is a theory about the origin of the wreath. As a symbol of the changed rhythm of life, some Scandinavians took the wheels off their wagon. What a lovely idea! Take the wheels off your wagon! As work stopped, life went indoors. Some took one of the ‘resting’ wheels indoors, decorated it with greenery and lights. This became our Advent wreath. We can take a leaf out of their book and in a way follow their example. I don’t suggest we ‘down tools’ and do nothing. But we could go inward. Pay more attention to that inner life at the depth of us that Paul prayed would grow stronger We could make this a contemplative time. Go deeper within ourselves and let what we do come from a deeper place.
Activity is not opposed to contemplation. The opposite of contemplation is not activity but superficiality. We can do anything, even pray, superficially We can do anything contemplatively. I think perhaps we collectively don’t sufficiently value the contemplative life. I am sometimes disturbed by way people speak about the elderly or frail. They can’t engage in active ministry but they can pray. I sometimes hear ‘At least they can pray’ (for want of something better). I see it differently. We have all, within the call to religious life, met and responded to many calls – coming either directly from the Holy Spirit or through authority. I think old age or disability is a call – as much as any other , as important as any other – maybe even more important. A positive call we are asked to respond to. Contemplative life, as anyone in a contemplative community will tell you, does not mean spending long hours in prayer. It means living from a deeper place. For most of us as we said this is our season. It is in this sense also. This is very positive – a call to the ‘better part’ Advent is a good time to begin to consider seeing our life in his way. It would help us to live more fully and fruitfully right to the end.
III Vatican II had two things to say about Advent. The constitution on the Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, put Advent at the end of the liturgical year. And it emphasised that it is not a penitential season but one of joyous hope. But the ‘Norms’ that came out a couple of years later were very conservative and left Advent at the beginning of the year and kept the penitential character in the purple vestments and the absence of ‘Gloria’. This is likely to change in the not too distant future.
For much of its history Advent was focussed not on Christmas but on the Parousia – that is, the final fulfilment of all creation, the most joyous possible prospect. We call this the Second Coming, when every thing ever created will be united with Christ and in Christ and Christ will be all in all. Unfortunately we haven’t paid much attention to this, which is absolutely central to and perhaps unique to Chistianity. Instead we turned ‘the Last Day’ into the Last Judgement, concentrating only on the apocolyptic description of the Judgement in the gospels and focussing it on us individually , on our moral behaviour and a judgemental and punishing God This is in the gospel but the words and deeds of Jesus as a whole paint a different picture – a loving God who is not interested in our sins. We have unfortunately been taught to make them hugely important – even talking about them ‘separating us from God’, which is impossible. We are not essentially sinners. At the deepest core of us is not sin but divine life, which no sin, however grave, can ever touch. We are essentially, in our deepest self, a spark of the Divine The mystic, Gertrude the Great said: ‘my real me is God’. Amazingly, it is true of all of us. We can say with Mary Oliver’s river: ‘I am a part of holiness’.
We believe God is merciful. God is mercy and we see ‘mercy’ primarily as forgiving sin .But mercy is not necessarily about forgiving sin. I see it primarily as ‘compassion’. Julian of Norwich has a ‘parable’ of a servant who, going home in the dark, falls into a ditch and hurts himself. Julian asks: ‘Does the Master punish the servant for falling? ‘ No, he rescues him, brings him home and sees he’s taken care of. My version of this parable is about a mother and toddler. They are in a park, on a lawn area, perhaps slightly sloping downwards ahead of them. The toddler gets excited and tears off very fast, too fast for her still wobbly legs and uncertain balance. We all know what’s going to happen! Very soon, she gets ahead of herself, pitches forward, falls flat on her front and starts yelling. Does the mother punish the child for falling? No, she goes to her, takes her in her arms, comforts her and kisses the hurt place well. That is God’s response to our failures – not anger or being ‘offended’ but compassion.
One incident in the gospels always strikes me in this context – the first apparition of Jesus to the disciples after the Resurrection. We remember what some of them have done. They abandoned their friend in his hour of great need for support; as disciples, having a sacred relationship with their Master, they let him down, even denied that they ever knew him. How hurtful would that be? They thought they would never see him again and now here he was before them.. In Luke, their first reaction is not joy but fear and (one version has) panic. What is he going to say to them? What is he going to do? He has something to say to them: ‘Peace!’ He never says ‘I forgive you’ or, what he usually says: ‘your sins are forgiven’.
With divine forgetfulness he doesn’t seem to remember what
they have done. Jesus shows us what God is like.
The idea that we and the world are moving towards judgement is ‘static’ in a way – Things continue and the end is just a matter of time. But the Parousia provides a vision of a dynamic ongoing process of ‘divinisation’ – ‘Christification’ in which we and all creation are growing towards the point when ‘all things are united in Christ and Christ is all in all’.
Thomas Merton says: ‘The Advent mystery is the beginning of the end of all in us that is not yet Christ’ .This gradual transformation into Christ is, as it were, part of the Second Coming. It is the Second Coming in progress and it is what we mean when we speak about Christ being born in us.
This does not depend on us but entirely on God. That should be very good news but actually it seems to be a problem for us. We are at least a bit like the pharisees. The problem with them was not hypocrisy – they did meticulously keep the Law. The trouble was they thought thereby to win God’s favour. God owed it to them. They deserved it. We can be something the same. If we are good, lead a good life, pray, avoid sin and repent of sins committed, God will reward us with heaven. We’ve earned it. We speak of ‘meriting’ eternal life’ We can’t ‘earn or ’merit’ anything from God and the good news is that we don’t have to. But there is something in human nature that wants to earn it.. Our ego wants to achieve it.
The greatest gift God has given us so far is our life.- the privilege of living as a human being. This clearly is pure gift. We didn’t ask for it and we didn’t earn it. Whatever comes after this life has to be equally pure gift. This life is not a test, it’s a gift. And heaven isn’t a reward, it’s a gift. All we have to do is accept it with awe and gratitude. And instead of focussing so much on our sins and therefore on ourselves, we just need to get ourselves out of the way and let God get on with our transformation. And be grateful that God can, will and does, infinitely more not only than we could achieve but more than we can ask or imagine.
The warnings in the readings about not knowing the day or the hour and coming like a thief in the night are not about our death but something bigger and more important .the Second Coming.- When Jesus was born those who were waiting for the Messiiah missed him because he came in an unexpected way. The warnings are telling us not to do the same. We could miss his second coming – here and now -if we are looking for the wrong thing or looking in the wrong direction or the wrong place.. One of the messages we get most often during Advent is ‘Prepare the way of the Lord’. How do we see this? Sometimes we may see it as looking to see what we could do, should do, to further the kingdom of God by making this world a better place. Of course, we should do that But the kingdom of God is not utopia. And did Jesus tell us to work to bring about the kingdom? He said: ‘It’s here, it’s everywhere, it’s within you’. It’s a given. It doesn’t depend on us. We might pray for readiness – that we would clear space within us and intend to be available for the action of God within us – that would be a way of ‘preparing the way’ and we could celebrate with joyful hope rather than repentance.