Advent is the liturgical season of vigilance or, to put it more mundanely, of waiting. During the four weeks prior to Christmas, we light the candles of our Advent wreaths and put ourselves in the spiritual space of the Israelite people who, through many long centuries, waited for the coming of the Messiah (“How long, O Lord?”).
In the wonderful avant-garde German movie Run Lola Run a young woman finds herself in a terrible bind: She needs to gather an enormous amount of money in a ridiculously short period of time. Throughout the movie she runs and runs, desperately trying through her own frantic efforts to make things right, but nothing works. Finally, at the moment when she finds herself at the absolute limit of her powers, she slows to a trot, looks up to heaven and says, “Ich warte, ich warte” (I’m waiting, I’m waiting). Though she does not explicitly address God and though there has been no hint throughout the movie that Lola is the least bit religious, this is undoubtedly a prayer. And in the immediate wake of her edgy request a rather improbable solution to her problem presents itself.
Lola’s prayer has always reminded me of Simone Weil, that wonderful and mysterious 20th-century French mystic whose entire spirituality is predicated upon the power of waiting, or—in her language—of expectation. In prayer, Weil taught, we open our souls, expecting God to act even when the content of that expectation remains unclear. In their curious vigilance and hoping against hope, both Lola and Simone are beautiful Advent figures.
Hold Your Horses
Their attitude is, of course, deeply rooted in biblical revelation. From beginning to end of scripture we discover stories of people who are compelled to wait.
The patriarch Abraham received the promise that he would become, despite his old age, the father of a son and through that son the father of descendants more numerous than the stars in the night sky. But the fulfillment of that promise was a long time in coming. Through many years, as he and his wife grew older and older, as the likelihood of their parenthood became increasingly remote, Abraham waited. Did he doubt? Did he wonder whether he had misconstrued the divine promise? Did he waver in his faith? Did he endure the taunts of his enemies and the pitying glances of his friends? Probably. But he waited, and in time the promise came true.
Abraham’s great-grandson Joseph, the wearer of the multi-colored coat, saw in a dream that he would be a powerful man and that his brothers would one day bow down to him in homage. But the realization of that dream came only after a long and terrible wait. He was sold into slavery by those very brothers, falsely accused of sexual misconduct, humiliated, and finally sent to prison for seven years. Imagine what it must have been like to endure years in an ancient prison—the discomfort, the total lack of privacy, the terrible food in small amounts, sleeplessness, torture, and above all, hopelessness. This is what Joseph had to wait through before his dream came true in a most unexpected way.
The people of Israel were miraculously delivered from slavery in Egypt, led across the Red Sea by the mighty hand of Moses—and then they waited. A journey that normally would have taken only a few weeks stretched to 40 years as they wandered rather aimlessly through the desert. The book of Exodus frequently gives us indications of what this time of vigil was like: “The people grumbled against Moses, ‘We are disgusted with this wretched food… Why did you lead us out into this desert to die? Were there not graves enough in Egypt?’” (Exodus 16:2-3) They were hardly models of patience.
Even poor Noah had to wait, cooped up in the ark with his irritable family and restless animals while the waters slowly retreated.
In the course of the Christian tradition, there is much evidence of this spirituality of waiting. Relatively late in life Ignatius of Loyola realized he was being called by God to do great things. But before he found his path he passed through a wide variety of experiences in the course of many years: a time of stark asceticism and prayer at Manresa, wandering to the Holy Land and back while living hand-to-mouth and sleeping in doorways, taking elementary courses in Paris alongside young kids, gathering a small band of followers and leading them through the Spiritual Exercises. Only at the end of this long sojourn—founding the Company of Jesus—did he realize the great thing God called him to do.
In Dante’s Purgatorio, the theme of waiting is on prominent display. Dante and Virgil encounter a number of souls who slouch at the foot of the mountain of Purgatory, destined to make the climb to heaven but compelled for the time being to wait. How long? As long as God determines.
God Has No Express Lane
All of this, I submit, is very hard for most of us. I suppose we human beings have always been in a hurry, but modern people especially seem to want what they want when they want it. We are driven, determined, goal-oriented, fast-moving. I, for one, can’t stand waiting.
As a Chicagoan I find myself unavoidably in a lot of traffic jams, and nothing infuriates me more. Usually stuck behind a massive truck, you have no idea when you will get where you want to be, and there is nothing you can do about it.
I hate waiting at doctors’ offices; I hate waiting in line at the bank; I hate waiting for the lights to come back on when the electricity fails.
So when I’m told that waiting seems to belong to the heart of the spiritual life, I’m not pleased, for here, too, I want answers, direction, clarity—and I want them pronto. I desire to feel happy and to know what God is up to; I need my life to make sense—now. I’m pleased to live a spiritual life, but I want to be in charge of it and to make it unfold according to my schedule: Run Barron Run. All of this is profoundly antipathetic to the mood and spirit of Advent.
So what sense can we make of the countercultural and counterintuitive spirituality of vigilance? The first thing we have to realize is that we and God are, quite simply, on different time tables. The second letter of Peter states this truth with admirable directness: “To you, O Lord, a thousand years are like a day.” (2 Peter 3:8)
To the God who stands outside of space and time and who orders the whole of creation, our hours, days, years, eons have a radically different meaning. What is a long time to us is an instant for God, and hence what seems like delay to us is no delay at all to God. What seems like dumb and pointless waiting to us can be the way that God, in a unique and finally mysterious manner, is working God’s purposes out.
Theologian Richard Rohr summed up the spiritual life in the phrase “your life is not about you,” and this insight is particularly important in terms of the present question. “Why isn’t God acting how I want and when I want?” Perhaps because your life is part of a complex whole, the fullness of which only God can properly grasp and fittingly order.
But we can make things even more specific. Is it possible that we are made to wait because the track we are on is not the one God wants for us? Author G. K. Chesterton said that if you are on the wrong road, the very worst thing you can do is to move quickly. And there is that old joke about the pilot who comes on the intercom and says, “I have good news and bad news, folks: The bad news is that we’re totally lost; the good news is that we’re making excellent time!” Maybe we’re forced to wait because God wants us seriously to reconsider the course we’ve charted, to stop hurtling down a dangerous road.
Or perhaps we are made to wait because we are not yet adequately prepared to receive what God wants to give us. In his remarkable letter to Proba, Saint Augustine argued that the purpose of unanswered prayer is to force expansion of the heart. When we don’t get what we want, we begin to want it more and more, with ever greater insistency, until our souls are on fire with the desire for it. Sometimes it is only a sufficiently expanded and enflamed heart that can take in what God intends to give.
What would happen to us if we received, immediately and on our own terms, everything we wanted? We might be satisfied in a superficial way, but we wouldn’t begin to appreciate the preciousness of the gifts. After all, the Israelites had to wait thousands of years before they were ready to receive God’s greatest gift.
Even if we are on the right track and even if we desire with sufficient intensity what God wants to give, we still might not be ready to integrate a particular grace into our lives or to handle the implications of it. Joseph the dreamer clearly wanted to be a great man, but if he had been given political power and authority when he was an arrogant kid, the results would have been disastrous both for himself and for those under his control. His many years of suffering—his terrible wait—made him a ruler with both wisdom and deep compassion. And so, when his brothers did indeed finally bow down to him as he foresaw in his dream, he was able to react not in vengeance, but in love: “I am Joseph, your brother."
Three Advent Practices
What practically can we do during the season of waiting and vigil keeping? What are some practices that might incarnate for us the spirituality described here?
How about the classically Catholic discipline of eucharistic adoration? To spend a half-hour or an hour in the presence of the Lord is not to accomplish or achieve very much—it is not really “getting” anywhere—but it is a particularly rich form of spiritual waiting.
As you keep vigil before the Blessed Sacrament, bring to Christ some problem or dilemma that you have been fretting over, and then pray Lola’s prayer: “Ich warte, ich warte.” Say, “Lord, I’m waiting for you to solve this, to show me the way out, the way forward. I’ve been running, planning, worrying, but now I’m going to let you work.” Then, throughout Advent, watch attentively for signs.
Also, when you pray before the Eucharist, allow your desire for the things of God to intensify; allow your heart and soul to expand. Pray, “Lord, make me ready to receive the gifts you want to give,” or even, “Lord Jesus, surprise me.”
A second—and more offbeat—suggestion: Do a jigsaw puzzle. Find one of those big, complex puzzles with thousands of small pieces, one that requires lots of time and plenty of patience, and make of it an Advent project. As you assemble the puzzle think of each piece as some aspect of your life: a relationship, a loss, a failure, a great joy, an adventure, a place where you lived, something you shouldn’t have said, an act of generosity. So often the events of our lives seem like the thousand pieces of a puzzle lying incoherently and disconnectedly before us. As you patiently put the puzzle together meditate on the fact that God is slowly, patiently, according to his own plan and purpose, ordering the seemingly unrelated and incongruous events of our lives into a picture of great beauty.
Finally, take advantage of traffic jams and annoying lines—really anything that makes you wait. And let the truth of what 18th-century spiritual writer Jean-Pierre de Caussade said sink in: “Whatever happens to you in the course of a day, for good or ill, is an expression of God’s will.” Instead of cursing your luck, banging on the steering wheel, or rolling your eyes in frustration, see the wait as a spiritual invitation.
When you are forced to slow down, pray one of the great, repetitive vigil prayers of the church, such as the rosary or the Jesus prayer (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner”). With this resolution in mind, hang a rosary around your rearview mirror at the beginning of Advent. Consider the possibility that God wants you at that moment to wait and then sanctify the time through one of those savoring prayers.
The entire Bible ends on a note not so much of triumph and completion as longing and expectation: “Come, Lord Jesus.” From the very beginning of the Christian dispensation, followers of the risen Jesus have been waiting. Paul, Augustine, Chrysostom, Agnes, Thomas Aquinas, Clare, Francis, John Henry Newman, and Simone Weil have all waited for the Second Coming and have hence all been Advent people. During this season let us join them, turning our eyes and hearts upward and praying, “Ich warte, ich warte.”