The Stillness of Waiting and the Beauty of Birth

the-stillness-of-waiting-and-the-beauty-of-birth

How does a Christian keep an Advent orientation amid society’s pre-Christmas, frenzied rush? The key is to focus on the right things. The first Sunday in Advent marks the beginning of the liturgical year, and the season in which we prepare to celebrate the nativity of the Lord. We celebrate Advent in two ways: by anticipating his arrival at Christmas here on earth, and by being more aware of His second coming as the Messiah at the end of time. We journey through Advent in joyful anticipation. Jesus is coming. He is the fulfillment of the prophetic promises, the Word made flesh and dwells among us. We also prepare for His coming by sensible fasting and penitential practices. We are always in need of reform. The purple liturgical color of Advent is a reminder of our need for conversion.

Although we can take advantage of Christmas sales while on earth, there are no discount rates to heaven. The eternal destiny of humankind should not be trivialized. Because our soul is the only part of us that will last forever, she requires optimal healthcare while we are on earth. Advent should direct our attention to eternal realities, such as the care and beauty of our soul. Teresa of Avila’s refection keeps us informed about the uniqueness of our souls.

We know we have souls. But we seldom consider the precious things that can be found in this soul, or who dwells within it, or its high value. Consequently, little effort is made to preserve its beauty. All our attention is taken up with the plainness of the diamond’s setting … that is, with these bodies of ours.

She continues:

I know well that I had a soul, but I did not understand the dignity of this soul, nor did I know who lodged within it, because my eyes were blinded by the vanities of this life, so that I was prevented from seeing him. I think that, had I known then as I do now, that in this little palace of my soul so great a King is lodged, I would not have left Him alone so often, but at least sometimes I would have stayed with Him and been more careful to prepare a clean lodging for Him.

Teresa gives us solid advice regarding prayer, growth, and love for Jesus in her writing. She said that she found many graces by meditating upon the humanity of Jesus, and speaking with Him.

Rising to greet the dawn with prayer should be a practice of all Christians. This is a way to start the day right. We greet Jesus, and then go about our business in the context of awaiting His coming. Early rising helps us to be prepared and on the watch. “My soul yearns for you at night, yes, my spirit within me seeks you at dawn.” (Isaiah 26:9) We remain watchful, not only for us, but also for people who are physically awake, but spiritually asleep to the call of the Lord, or to the true beauty of Christmas. The foundress of the Focolare Movement, Chiara Lubich, said:

Only love is watchful. This is a characteristic of love. When one loves a person, one watches and waits on him unceasingly. Every moment spent away from the loved one is lived with him in mind is spent waiting. Christ asks for love so He requires us to watch.

Watching in prayer symbolizes spirit over flesh, and life over death. Prayer gives us the stamina that moves us ahead on the spiritual road, as well as appropriately managing the stresses of the day. When watching in prayer is a struggle, we can think of parents watching during the night at a sick child’s bedside, or a night nurse caring for her patients. Love is always ready to watch and wait. Our hearts awaken repeatedly as we rediscover God’s love for us. His love creates a calm abiding during the difficulties that mark our days. By quietly watching and waiting, we grow in God‘s life and in his love.

Woman of Mystery
Who is the best teacher regarding how to love Jesus? Mary, of course. Thomas Aquinas wrote:

The Blessed Virgin, by becoming the Mother of God, received a kind of infinite dignity because God is infinite. This dignity, therefore, is such a reality that a better one is not possible, just as nothing can be better than God.

Mary, of infinite dignity, has made her loving presence known throughout Christian history. She is the heart of our Church. This woman of silence and of mystery leads us deep into the mystery of her Son. Advent is the time for waiting and watching with her as His life begins to develop within her.

O Mary Mistress of the Advent, unlock for us the still, white way of your surrender to Almightiness, and bring to flower and fruit within us the expectant hope, the eager love of all our longing. Let the simplicity of our baptismal consecration and our service to others bring us in serenity and praise to the joy of Christ’s Nativity. May we be formed in him, as he is born again in us to make all things new, in the renewal of his mysteries. May we awaken to the light of his Divinity, that in the silent grafting of our life to his, we may come to that tranquil offering of ourselves, that is the praise of God our Father, and the fullness of our peace. (Terre Haute Carmel)

Our space to wait and watch can be an Advent area in our home. It need only be a corner, or other simple quiet area, with an Advent wreath, or purple candle, a bible, and a favorite picture, icon, or statue of Mary. If we spend twenty minutes a day in the silence and solitude of our Advent space, it can keep us aware of the profound mystery of the Son of God unfolding during this sacred season, and of Mary of Nazareth who leads us to Him. Our Advent resting place reminds us how Mary’s faith shines like a beacon in a dark winter’s night. She lights the way for us, and beckons us to follow her. She takes us by the hand, and helps us understand the true value of this holy season. When we dwell on her pregnancy, we remember the primitive times in which she lived. What was her life like without electricity, running water, gas, lights, toilet, shower, a washing machine, sink, stove, medical care, or other things we take for granted? Mary teaches us how to look and overlook, forget ourselves, and give without strings, to listen and be patient, and to forgive, and be forgiven.

The Annunciation is an initial reflective point. We watch and wait with Mary as she ponders the mystery of what happened to her, and feels the first signs of life in her womb. Our twenty minutes is a holy time, where we lay aside personal cares, and are open to calming, Catholic spiritual practices. We have a treasure trove from which to choose, from gazing at an icon, to praying a litany, to reflecting on the “O antiphons,” to the joyful mysteries, to pondering Advent Companion by Magnificat, or to anything else that refreshes our soul.

Lord, keep me still … Tough stormy waves may blow and waves my little bark may overflow, or even if in darkness I must go; Lord keep me still. The waves are in Thy hand … the roughest seas subside at thy command. Steer Thou my bark in safety to the land and keep me still. Keep me still. (author unknown)

By being alone and quiet, we can be more receptive to, and have a greater appreciation for, that which is beautiful, good, and holy in the Advent season, and in the ordinary days of our lives.

Advent invites us to become serious about integrating two requirements of spiritual development into our day. Silence and solitude are two practices that can calm us down, and nurture Advent waiting and watching. Kierkegaard wrote:

If I were a physician and if I were allowed to prescribe just one remedy for all the ills of the modern world, I would prescribe silence.

Jane Frances de Chantal advised,

It is good when a soul loves solitude; it’s a sign that it takes delight in God and enjoys speaking with Him.

These two practices help promote what is good, true, and beautiful in the Advent and Christmas seasons. Silence and solitude give us the refreshing opportunity to be still, to wait, and to ponder the unfathomable wonder of what happened between the Annunciation and the birth of Jesus.

If we look at Mary in silence and in solitude, we find that these disciplines must be cultivated so that Jesus, hidden in the womb of Mary, remains the center of our Advent season. Silence can be more powerful than words. The flora and fauna of nature grow in silence. The earth orbits in silence. The stars shine in silence. God is found in silence. Mysteries deepen in silence. Prayer is a fruit of silence. We look around and at the empty crèche. No one is there yet, but they are coming. Where are Mary and Joseph on the road to Bethlehem? What are they thinking? What are they talking about? Responses elicit a deeper meaning within the Christmas mystery than ringing sleigh bells or roasting chestnuts. God speaks to us in silence. We must look and listen with our heart, or else we will miss His quiet message of love.

The Father spoke one Word, which was his Son, and this Word he speaks ever in eternal silence and in silence must it be heard by the soul. (John of the Cross)

We learn to know Jesus through many good avenues, but a very good avenue is being with Him in the silence of the soul. It is here where we receive the light of God’s love and, therefore, can see God’s love shining in others. John Henry Newman wrote:

The Christian has a deep, silent, hidden peace, which the world sees not, like some well in a retired and shady place.

Like water has many forms, this hidden well has many gifts. A quiet, God-centered time gives us a respite from intellectual dilemmas, work overload, annoyances, and aggravations, and time to discover our hidden gifts. Because life is difficult and uncertain, there is great value in clinging to God in silence.

Solitude is the state of being alone without being lonely. In sacred solitude, there are no regrets. It is a positive and constructive orientation. Solitude is advantageous, because it can offer a treasure trove of unexpected benefits. Solitude is not an escape from the problems of humanity, but an opportunity to understand them better. It may resemble a heart-warming, soft light at dawn that restores the body, mind, and soul. Solitude is a special time when we hold others and their concerns in our prayer. The silence of solitude allows for a clear concentration on this service of the heart.

We need solitude to find ourselves, as well as to find others. Only after we find Jesus in ourselves, can we find Him in others. What is more precious than a woman quietly pondering the growth of the child in her womb? Jesus was in Mary’s womb for nine months, an unimaginable precious time for her. Jesus is in our hearts for our whole life. Time becomes tranquil when we think of this. William Ward said:

Practice the art of aloneness and you will discover the treasure of tranquility. Develop the art of solitude and you will unearth the gift of serenity.

Mary faced who she was with a gentle serenity. With God’s help, we can face the who, what, and why of our existence. Facades are dropped when we see our own deep need for conversion. In solitude, we realize God brings good out of our failures, and works in our messes, even if we do not see them. While we wait, God brings wholeness to our fragmentation, and strength to our weakness. Yes, we have disappointments; but in time, we find that they can be the shadows of God’s protective wings. Whatever caused a disappointment may not have been good for our soul. God knows things about us that are unknown to us.

Our times of quiet stillness during Advent can direct our thoughts on how to close our eyes and ears to negative influences that lead to sin, and how to keep them open to what is good and holy. Today, there is an excess of visual and auditory stimulation, especially during the months before Christmas. We need to take great care regarding what we look at and listen to, in order to resist buying more, and eating more. The Christian practice of controlling sensory input to the eyes, ears, and other sense organs, is called “custody of the senses.” Since the majority of the information in our mind comes from what is seen and heard, exercising this daily discipline helps keep our focus on St. Paul’s message:

Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. (Phil 4:8)

When we monitor what we see and hear, our spiritual foundation becomes stronger. Custody of the eyes and ears does not mean limiting our horizons, or living with our head in the clouds. It is a lifelong habit that nourishes inner peace by looking at, and listening to, only what contributes quality to our existence. Little by little, we can learn more about Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. Today, there are many ways to augment one’s Christian information resources, such as sound instructive programs, helpful reading material, DVDs, websites, blogs, and podcasts.

Doors
The ears have been said to be the doors of the soul. Sounds, for good or ill, echo in the recesses of the soul. Sounds can be remembered for a long time. If a person is only aware of rock music, and likes it, that is the music of his choice. That is all he knows. However, if he expands his musical horizons by learning more about music styles, he has a wider musical horizon.

Unless the door to noise is closed, we will not hear God, and not come to know Him. We need to watch, wait, and listen, like Mary during the time of her pregnancy. If we want God, we will find a time for soul-enhancement listening. Without it, there is not much hope in developing a relationship with God.

A Christian needs to be a prudent listener. There are people who talk a lot about God, but do not talk to Him. If they like to talk about God, but do not pray to Him, they can be pompous windbags. It is better to be a holy breeze than a portentous wind. “Holy-breeze” people are quiet, so they can listen to what God, and good people, have to say.

How do we do this? The ancient Sufis had a saying:

Speak only after your words have passed through three doorways. At the first doorway ask: “Are my words true?” If they are, let them pass. At the second doorway, ask: “Are my words necessary?” If they are, let them pass. At the third doorway ask: “Are my words kind?” Only then let them pass the third gateway.

This orientation halts many areas of unconstructive talk, such as gossip, bad jokes, tale-bearing, stretching the truth, chronic complaints, and other forms of dark talk. What if we speak as if Mary were listening? Indeed, our words would be few, and would inspire, strengthen, encourage, and support others. In the words of Elihu Burritt,

I would say to all: Use your gentlest voice at home. Watch it day-by-day, as a pearl of great price, for it will be worth more to you in days to come than the best pearl hid in the sea. A kind voice is joy, like a lark’s song, to a hearth at home. Train it to sweet tones now, and it will keep in tune throughout life.

Windows
The eyes have been said to be the windows of the soul. Windows can be viewed in two ways. When we describe someone, we may say his or her eyes are warm and inviting, or cold as ice, or burning with anger, or soft with concern, or clouded with sadness. In these cases, the eyes may reflect what is going on in the person’s soul. The soul is partially seen in the window. The person’s soul can also look out of the window. What does the soul see? Everything we see makes an imprint in us. An individual can recall visual images of enjoyable memories that comfort and console, or repulsive memories that upset or frighten. To focus more on goodness, beauty, signs of love, and symbols of hope, does not ignore negative aspects of society, but often prompts a person to do something constructive about them. Media that depicts sin, evil, and other diminishments, darkens vision. To limit visual images to those that are clean and bright is no easy accomplishment. The entertainment industry would not be so popular, or wealthy, if more viewers boycotted dehumanizing programs. With appropriate custody of the eyes, Christians slowly become reflectors of God’s love for others, and mirrors of a holiness, that all Christians are called to be.

A story is told about a professor who gathered his students together before the dawn. It was still very dark outside. He told them to pay attention because he had an important question to ask:

How could they tell when night had ended, and day had begun? One student replied: “When you see an animal, and can tell whether it is a sheep or a dog?” “No,” said the professor.

Another student replied:

“When you look at a tree in the distance and can tell whether it is a fig tree or a peach tree?” “No,” answered the professor.

After a few more guesses the students said,

“Tell us, what is it?” The professor responded:

“It is when you look into the face of any man or woman, and see that he is your brother, or she is your sister. If you cannot do this, no matter what time it is, it will always be night.”

The professor poses a hard challenge to humanity. How often does an individual look at others and think of them as brothers or sisters? Thomas Merton offers some help in this quest:

His one image is in us all, and we discover Him by discovering the likeness of His image in one another.

The likeness of His image can take on many forms. Mother Teresa saw His image in the poor. It is said that John Vianney, the Cure of Ars, had a weak voice. Thousands came to hear him speak, but many could not hear him. However, those who could not hear were converted to a better life by the sight of him. A lawyer was so visibly changed that he told his friends, “I have seen God in a human.” Indeed, we see the attributes of God in human beings.

Mary knew in her teens that she was the most favored one of the Lord. Did she know then that there would be such a heavy price for this infinite dignity given to her? She made a promise, “Let it happen to me as you say,” and never strayed from her resolve. She never turned away. Mary’s hands tenderly caressed Jesus when He was a baby. They fed, clothed, and cradled Him. They covered Him during cold nights, and encouraged and supported Him when He took His first steps. What were her heart ponderings? As we strive to stand by Mary, we experience exquisite wonder, profound peace, and unspeakable graces. She takes us beyond our own strength, and infuses in us transcending desires. She moves our hearts in unexpected ways, and takes us deep into the mystery of the beginning of life, and the beauty of birth. As mother of all humanity, she holds all her children in her heart, even those who do not know her. We know she stands by us with motherly closeness, in happy days, and hard days that pass through our lives. As we walk forward, we silently dwell on her minor litany:

Ladder by which we climb to the sublime.
Star by whose bright light we brave the night.
Mirror in which we see eternity.
Key that will unlock the house on the rock.
Tower by which we stand, strong in a strange land.
Rose in whose rustling stirred the eternal word.
Lady of quietness.
Queen of mysteries.
Remember us.

Carolyn Humphreys, OCDS About Carolyn Humphreys, OCDS

Carolyn Humphreys, O.C.D.S. O.T.R. is a discalced Carmelite, secular and registered occupational therapist. She is the author of the books: From Ash to Fire: A Contemporary Journey through the Interior Castle of Teresa of Avila, Carmel Land of the Soul: Living Contemplatively in Today’s World, Mystics in the Making: Lay Women in Today’s Church, and Living Through Cancer, A Practical Guide to Cancer Related Concerns.