Second Sunday of Advent 2020

This year I have been especially helped in preparing for Advent in two ways. Let me share them with you. The first is listening to a talk each day by John Main from his ‘Collected Talk’s series (available online and as old-fashioned CD’s). I was present as all these talks were given to the first meditation groups that met at the old Montreal priory, the embryo of the WCCM. In fact, I also recorded them, amateurishly, with an old-fashioned tape recorder on cassette. The effect that listening to them today is not nostalgia. It is more of what is called ‘anamnesis’, a term mostly used with regard to the Eucharist, a ‘making present’ of what was eternal, timeless in the original historical event. The opposite of amnesia. Time and eternity flowing together and mingling form the all-inclusive Now.

The talks on average are 15-20 minutes. Each time I hear one it has the effect of hearing it for the first time, familiar but new, like being there again for the first time. This is how the Gospel works on us when we are really present and truly listening I am not a particularly nostalgic person. Friends are often surprised that I need to be reminded about important moments we shared in the past. After a while, it is easy to let go of the past, even though one may still remember it. It is impossible, though, to let go of the present. As for the future, that’s a bridge too far and I am usually content to leave it in God’s invisible hands.

My other Advent practice is sharing the tradition we belong to with the younger members here at Bonnevaux. Some are birds of passage for a few weeks or months, pilgrims. But they can be serious seekers. Even if they were nominally raised in Christian faith, they may know little of what the foundation of our life is here and in the WCCM. What little they do know, however, is precious because it is a foundation for them to build on. Sharing the wisdom of the desert tradition, reading the gospel of Mark, discussing the Rule of Benedict each morning or celebrating the mass with them has a rejuvenating effect on them – and on tradition itself. It blows away the dust of deference and fear that have built up as accretions and restores the pure, illuminating doctrina, the teaching of Christ.

In one life we only have so many Advents and Christmases. Doesn’t it make sense to approach each one without sentimentality or nostalgia, but rather as a rediscovery and rebirth. Advent means ‘coming towards’. What is coming at us, at the speed of light, is therefore already here. What does preparing for it mean, then, except realising the eternal birth of the Word, the Son of God, within the historical birth in Bethlehem and, crucially, no less in our ourselves. 

In today’s gospel, today John the Baptist ‘prepares the way’ for Jesus. Though applauded by his contemporaries (before he was executed), his ego was not hooked by his audience. When Jesus appeared, he was humble enough to bow his head to John and be baptised. And John was humble enough to baptise him as a way of recognising Jesus as the one he was waiting for. The collision of these two personal humilities launched the public life of Jesus on his way to Calvary, even as it marked John’s leaving the stage. Meaning and purpose cannot be found without embracing mortality. The birth of Jesus includes the full reality of death and the whole cycle of birth, death and so ultimately of resurrection.

Laurence Freeman OSB

First Week of Advent 2020

Here at Bonnevaux – in the Northern hemisphere – Advent begins in the Fall. Christmas arrives in the dead and dark of winter when the sun, though imperceptibly, is reborn at the solstice. The wheel turns again. The end of the Christian year – and like all ends it is also a beginning – happens while most trees are silently losing their glory, shedding their leaves. They fall one by one, like shooting stars or dying souls. The magical palette of Autumn fades into the dark silhouettes of bare trees outlined against the sky: the art of nature at its most minimalist. On the ground the leaves are everywhere, blown around by the wind or slowly decomposing in what’s left of the warmth of the sun. The cats love curling up in them.

Then the most un-contemplative aspect of all this, Jean-Christophe arrives with his mechanical leaf-blower. Making horrendous noise (but saving a lot of time and effort), he blows them into geometrical patterns on the grass so that he can gather them more easily for disposal. I thought of this when I read the first reading of today’s mass


We have all withered like leaves

and our sins blew us away like the wind.
 

The reading from Isaiah may sound over-negative to the untrained ear, full of straying and hardened hearts, divine anger, rebellion and uncleanliness. However, we don’t read scripture merely to be consoled; but to allow the razor of the Word of God to slice through our mental games and arrogance. And to diagnose us. The Word of God reads us even if we think in our pride that it is only we who are reading. If we can feel this, reading because we are read, knowing because we are known, what a relief! It makes us feel better just to get a proper diagnosis; one that we can trust and that makes sense of all the symptoms we are feeling.

If we can deeply feel this interaction with the Word, we will read it more insightfully and be better enlightened by it. It is also easier to interpret – for example to see ‘God’s anger’ symbolically. God cannot be ‘angry’. But the karma, the inevitable consequences of our own misdeeds can indeed feel like someone’s anger directed at us personally. The ecological crisis, for example, is the result of collective sin – impersonal ‘punishment’ for greed and the desecration of nature. 

Reading scripture in this way, sometimes means we have to reverse the role-play described in the text: for example, Isaiah says to God ‘you hid your face from us and gave us up to the power of our sins’. This means that we hid our face from God. In seeing this, the sweet mercy of the Word brings us balm: “we the clay, you the potter, we are all the work of your hand.” Can you feel the sense of being restored to normality in those words? 

The gospel today, at the beginning of Advent, reinforces this with great economy. It has two messages to guide us into a good season of preparation for the festival of the Incarnation: 1. ‘you don’t know’ and 2. ‘stay awake’. Staying awake in a condition of unknowing. That is how we prepare to recognise and receive what is coming towards us at the speed of light. This speed means that what is coming towards us is here already.

Laurence Freeman OSB