what are we waiting for?
Baby Jesus…God made flesh…a warm glow…a sigh of relief…nostalgia for when Christmas meant something…a moment of escape from ‘real life’?
We are told, at least I was on Sunday, that this is a time of ‘joyful expectation’. Of what? I certainly have no idea any more what exactly happened ‘that first Christmas’, no idea what I really believe about, well, almost everything.
A book I have that’s an introduction to Rowan Williams’ thinking by Rupert Shortt outlines three important strands within his spirituality.
The first is the Desert Fathers (and Mothers). He gave a lecture called ‘Staying’ on the Fathers’ idea of stability. A lot of their advice was given on the boredom and frustration of leading a solitary ascetic life. Essentially the question, “How do we stay with ourselves?” which seems so tied up with ‘waiting’.
The Fathers gave advice to young monks – you must stay in the cell. One staved off his boredom between prayers by plaiting palm leaves. “‘And so he advanced, little by little….’ In other words, holiness is often prosaic: it consists in doing the next thing. Williams warns that ‘we like to be noticed’. ‘We would like our lives to be dramatic, to speak in compelling ways, and here are the Desert Fathers telling us: eat, sleep, drink, plait a few leaves, or whatever the equivalent is in your domestic situation.’” (p97)
The Dark Night
The second strand is St John of the Cross’s Dark Night of the Soul, which Williams wrote about. It’s a process where “the real work is done by God”. This speaks to the question of what we are waiting for: the mystery of the Christ child, and strikes an encouraging note for the bewildered.
“‘God will see to it by his action in our minds and hearts that we are peeled away from our attachment to ideas of him and ideas of ourselves. God will see to it that we are left with no idols to worship. … It means and [John] is painfully explicit about this, that most of your confident ideas about God will at some point cease to mean anything to you. They will just go dry. And the corollary of that is of course that your ideas about yourself go dry and dead.’” (p100)
“‘If you can accept and even rejoice in the experience of darkness…then you may find your way back to religion…that is more creative because you are more aware of the…uncontrollable quality of the truth at the heart of all things.’” (p101)
Praying with icons
Some of Williams’s writing on icons takes us to the literal heart of Advent.
The icon of the virgin Mary praying and carrying Christ inside her is as much a picture of the Church – the God-bearer showing Christ to the world. But Williams chooses to reflect on the hiddenness of Christ depicted here.
Among other things, the first nine months of God’s incarnate presence in the world was entirely within the secret world of the womb.
Again Shortt on Williams: “Jesus’ hiddenness in the icon should temper our urge to define the body of his followers too narrowly. A moment of ‘desperately needy openness to God on the part of very irregular Christians’ might fuel the Church just as much as ‘the routine prayer of the worshipping community’.
“Two further insights follow…God in Christ may be most real ‘in the lonely dryness of a prayer that seems to be going nowhere’ and… Since Christ himself is its living centre, the Church can shun idolatry and ‘stay with the mysteriousness of Christ’s presence rather than creating an accessible but false picture to hang on to.’” (p106) Rowan Williams: An Introduction, Rupert Shortt
Liturgy we used: Download AdventLiturgy061206.pdf .