N’ allez pas trop vite. (Let us not go too fast.)
-- Marcel Proust
Love, the new moon, grows slowly, stage by stage;
We should progress like that, deliberately, with patience.
I hear the new moon whispering, "Impatient fool!"
It is only step by step you climb to the roof.
Be a seasoned cook, let the pot boil little by little;
A stew cooked in mad haste tastes terrible.
The volume is turned up this year. All the feelings are heightened. That can be a strain but it also puts things in bold relief so that we may be able to read them better. Take resistance to Advent. There’s nothing new in that. Even people who plunge masochistically into Lent each Spring, have been grumbling and kvetching about Advent for as long as I can remember, but perhaps this year they are pleading more desperately to skip go and rush straightway to Christmas. More clergy than ever are ready and willing to do exactly that. As I say, this is nothing new. The last Church I served greened the Church for Christmas services the day before Advent I. Obviously, December is the commercial Christmas Season, the market shapes the culture, and the Church wants to conform, fit in, be accepted. Hence, we take our orders from Wall Street. But I sense there is more afoot than being manipulated by the market (a market which by the way I have nothing against).
Do not push delete yet. I am not going to bemoan change such as the demise of the liturgical year like the curmudgeonly retired bishop I am. It is the nature of the world to vanish before we have left it. I will not shout against that tide. But since resistance to Advent now by laity and clergy alike shines in such bold relief, this is a chance to ask a question, perhaps learn something, whether we choose to let our learning influence our life or not. Knowing things is more satisfying than not knowing them.
So I want to ask: what is Advent saying that we are so desperate not to hear? I do not pretend to know the answer, at least not all of it. But I will suggest a couple of strands from the Advent theme that pose interesting challenge to our usual way of life in this Year of Our Lord 2020.
I. PACE AND PERCEPTION
This may seem far afield but stay with me. When I was an adjunct law school professor teaching client interviewing and counselling, I realized how seriously wrong I had gotten it when I was practicing law. My legal training had taught me to recognize the issues. I knew which facts were relevant (!!!). My clients did not, so they wanted to tell me a great deal more than I wanted to hear. They wanted to tell me rambling tales that were not relevant to the legal issue that I had already decided was the nature of their case. I did my dead level best to hurry the meeting along – time is money – guiding the conversation through the strait and narrow gate of relevance as I had defined it.
Through teaching client interviewing, I realized that my approach was grievously defective. First, I was failing to get to know my client. And the client is more important -- even to the outcome of the case -- than is the issue. Second, I was cutting off conversation that might have revealed relevant facts I had not anticipated. Third, if I’d been willing to hear the whole story, I might have learned that there were other issues that I was missing. By rushing clients through interviews, I was aggravating my tunnel vision and erecting a barrier against personal relationship. I was instrumentalizing my client, reducing the living person to a litigation party. This was my failure as a lawyer and as a human being.
I now look back over my 70 years of life, including my years as clergy, and am struck by the speed at which I have moved and the corresponding narrowness of my vision. Granted, I was more goal-oriented and project-focused than many people. But today’s world teaches most of us to rush toward our goals. Life is a race. It’s all about speed, and as the highway signs used to say Speed Kills! My analogy is this: We know Advent is leading to Christmas, so let’s just get on with it. Celebrate Christmas now. But what might there be in Advent, like my clients’ stories I did not want to hear, what might there for us to learn; and if we learned it, might Christmas arrive in a new and unexpected way?
Three times over the years I tried to read Proust and simply could not endure his ambling, rambling, verbose attention to detail. The first publisher he approached with his great novel was a friend but said he would not publish a book that spent 30 pages telling how a boy went about falling asleep. Now, however, I am reading, marinating in Proust, not marching through to see what happens next. He doesn’t write that kind of book. It is more a matter of soaking in the experience, and soaking takes time.
Alaine de Botton in How Proust Can Change Your Life, tells the story of Proust meeting a young diplomat at the Versailles Peace Conference at a party. Proust asked him to describe his days at the Conference. He began with neat summaries, but Proust kept interrupting, N’ allez pas trop vite. (Let us not go too fast.) He wanted as much detail as possible. He wanted to look closely at the diplomat’s experience because he was interested, he valued it. Proust learned that each morning the diplomats ate macaroons with their tea. The young diplomat found the conversation quite gratifying. It’s good to be heard.
What we do not deign to notice does not matter to us, and that turns out to be most of our life. This is why Rumi teaches us, It is only step by step you climb to the roof.
Be a seasoned cook, let the pot boil little by little. And Max Ehrman begins his classic Desiderata
Go placidly amid the noise and haste,
and remember what peace there may be in silence. . . .
Speak your truth quietly and clearly;
and listen to others,
even the dull and the ignorant;
they too have their story.
The Southern novelist Walker Percy asked, Is it possible for a man to miss his life as he might miss a bus? The answer is all too clearly yes, and the way we miss our life is by rushing through with our eyes closed. Our life is all we’ve got and we are apt to miss it through speed. The foundation of Jewish, Christian, and Islamic spirituality is hospitality, making space, taking time for each other. This is a discipline of sitting still and waiting. The practice of hospitality is openness to others, but not just others – it is also openness to our own experience.
Even if we want to push on toward our goals, speed can get in the way. In this June’s issue of Forbes, Chris Cancialosi said we sometimes need to stop and reboot if we hope to move on.
In a recent discussion with one of my colleagues, she compared the work she is doing with teams to rebooting her computer. Every once in a while, we realize that we have opened so many files, folders, web pages, and software programs in the course of our work and life that things just aren’t operating as smoothly and quickly as we might expect. To get things back in working order, we need to carve out some time to reboot- to close everything out and to start over. To go slow in order to go fast again.
Stillness is our Advent practice. We slow down, reboot if you will, as we begin a new year. But the prospect of slowing down to take in Reality prompts an anxious response. We want to rush onward, eat our Christmas raw. Why is that? I don’t know but I’ll ask this. When we are running so headlong, so desperately toward a goal, is it possible we are actually running from something? Is it possible the goal is a way to keep whatever is behind us out of our consciousness?
Proust’s Recovery Of Time Lost explores the power of memories, especially repressed memories, to shape our lives, but also with the power we have through memory to redeem the past, to forge meaning that was not apparent at the time. I wonder this Advent what we may be avoiding by rushing toward a feel-good Christmas. I wonder if slowing down and letting our past catch up with us might not be a way to heal. But we cannot heal what we will not face.
II. LOVING AND LONGING
The Feast of the Incarnation, aka Christmas, ritually enacts God with us. It celebrates our experience of God’s presence. But we also have the experience that God isn’t fully manifest yet. If God is fully manifest, then why is there carnage in Azerbaijan and Ethiopia, why is a plague killing us by the hundreds of thousands, why are suicides, gun violence, drug overdoses, and political insanity so prevalent? New Testament scholar, Krister Stendahl, said the New Testament characterizes the era after Jesus and before the final consummation of history as the time of Already/ Not Yet.Both are part of our experience. We live in that tension. Jesus taught us to pray Thy Kingdom come precisely because it hasn’t come yet. And our experiences of God, blessed as they may be, are not the full experience of God. We are not ready. Paul said, Now I see as through a glass darkly, but then, face to face. T. S. Eliot called what we can know of God in this life hints and guesses. Christmas celebrates the Already. Advent acknowledges the Not Yet.
This goes to how we hope to love God. How, in this mix and muddle of mortal life, do we love a God whom we know only a little. I said in a recent essay that there are different ways of loving God, for different times and different people. All are good and holy. But the one we practice in Advent is not comfortable. It’s just real. Advent is a season of longing. Part of love is longing and the Bible is rich in expressing human longing for God who is not yet fully with us.
As the deer pants for streams of water,
so my soul longs after You, O God.
My soul thirsts for God, the living God.
When shall I come and appear in God’s presence?
O God, you are my God, and I long for you
My whole being desires you;
like a dry, worn out and waterless land
my soul is thirsty for you.
Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down,
that the mountains would tremble before you!
As when fire sets twigs ablaze
and causes water to boil,
come down to make your name known to your enemies
and cause the nations to quake before you!
This is no blissy everything’s all right spirituality, but an acknowledgement of our nagging sense that something is missing. St. Augustine’s love of God is first a foremost a longing. The God Augustine loves is shaped by the God Augustine seeks. He says, Thou hast made us for thyself, and our heart is restless until it rests in thee. Augustine is restless. He looks within himself and finds something missing. God is the missing piece, the deus absconditus, the hidden God.
Paradoxically, Augustine’s love of God has a quality of longing for someone far away even though he is looking for God within himself. At the same time, he senses that God is longing for him, that God is not the one who has left. It is Augustine who has left God. His love is a kind of homesickness and a restlessness. His love is not a self-satisfied I’ve found it as evangelical bumper stickers used to proclaim. It is more of an I’ve lost it and yearn to find it again. It is love as a discontent and aspiration. This inner search for God, not as an answer but a question, not a Presence but a Poignant Absence, will live on in the Christian Tradition. In the 17th Century, Blaise Pascal would say in Pensées VII (425),
What else does this craving, and this
helplessness, proclaim but that there was
once in man a true happiness, of which all that
now remains is the empty print and trace? This he
tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking
in things that are not there the help he cannot find in
those that are, though none can help, since this
infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and
immutable object; in other words by God himself.
So what is the message in Advent we do not want to hear? It is the message of longing which utterly defeats our pretense that everything will be all right if we just imagine it to be so. If the President persists in saying loud enough and often enough that he won the election, he will be inaugurated again. We cling desperately to denial as a way to deal with all we experience as Not Right. Advent leaves no room for denial. It sings,
O come, O come Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
Which waits in lonely exile here . . . .
Advent acknowledges the Not Right of lonely exile, but immediately transforms that Not Right into Not Yet.Advent carries a certain emotional contradiction. On one hand, there is a distinct pleasure in deferred gratification. As Andy Warhol said, Waiting for something makes it more exciting. The adage goes, Anticipation is half the fun. But it also faces up to the Not Right in this moment. And in a time of pandemic, racial injustice, and political instability, we would much rather sing Silent Night on a Sunday morning and pretend it all away.
III. HOW IT COMES TOGETHER
Slowing down in order to be hospitable to each other and to our own lives opens our consciousness to the reality of things as they are. It faces facts and feelings, the ones we actually have in our gut. It allows our memories to catch up with our consciousness. It’s always a hard time. This is an especially hard time. So we want to hit the fast forward button. But I wonder something. My wondering about Advent has made me wonder about something broader, perhaps deeper. If the Jews had skipped the Exile, we wouldn't have Ezekiel or 2nd Isaiah, two of the high points of Hebrew Scripture. So, I wonder: is there something of value in this hard time, something we might not want to miss? Might we learn something? Might we change and grow in some vital way? If we hit the pause button instead, what might we see? Do we dare to see it?