And so the season of quiet begins. Advent, the season of preparation. It is a time for waiting, for silence and stillness, for contemplation. It is a time for sitting in hope, lighting one candle in the darkness, anticipating the coming of the full light to the world. It’s a season to have quiet like we just had here together, tuning our hearts toward God.
And – yesterday was the Saturday Kitchen 40 th anniversary celebration, and today we’ll have a workshop and make Advent wreaths, and Tuesday Linda Russell’s marvelous concert will be in the Recital Hall, and next Saturday is the tree lighting at the cemetery, and there are rehearsals for the pageant and sign-ups for the Christmas brunch which are in just two weeks, and the choirs are practicing for Christmas and meanwhile we’re all shopping for presents and the parties are beginning, and and and. The Times ran a weirdly un-ironic piece in last week’s Thursday Styles section about how this year people are choosing to stay in and rest up in preparation for the holiday festivities, quoting one young woman saying that she usually goes out 5 times a week but she’s only doing 2 right now so she can rest and prepare for ‘more eating, more drinking, more late nights, more energy in showing up for other people.’ I was exhausted just thinking about that.
And the bombs are falling in Gaza again, and they never stopped in Ukraine; we
just expelled a member of the House as our government continues to malfunction; the climate summit is being hosted and led by the oil industry. If you’re having trouble sleeping these days, there’s good reason for it.
Jesus tells us, look for the signs of God to come: ‘…know that he is near, at the very gates…Keep awake!’ By ‘keep awake,’ I don’t think he meant insomnia at 3:00 am. But then again, maybe he did.
We need the quiet that this season is supposed to hold. But where can we find
A poem I found this week:
A Portable Paradise, by Roger Robinson
And if I speak of Paradise,
then I’m speaking of my grandmother
who told me to carry it always
on my person, concealed, so
no one else would know but me.
That way they can’t steal it, she’d say.
And if life puts you under pressure,
trace its ridges in your pocket,
smell its piney scent on your handkerchief,
hum its anthem under your breath.
And if your stresses are sustained and daily,
get yourself to an empty room – be it hotel,
hostel or hovel – find a lamp
and empty your paradise onto a desk:
your white sands, green hills and fresh fish.
Shine the lamp on it like the fresh hope
of morning, and keep staring at it till you sleep.
You might know what it is like to carry Paradise within you, concealed. I think anyone living in a place like New York knows something of what it feels like to hold a little quiet within yourself, someplace you can retreat to when the noise and smell and chaos get to be too much. When I first moved here I always noticed with some amazement what it felt like to leave the city and drop the protective shell around that quiet – only when I let it go did I realize what an effort it took to keep it up every day. Even the most extroverted among us needs an inner self, a space within where we can ground ourselves. There’s so much coming at you, all the time.
The poem is written by a British Trinidadian living in London, writing to respond to the horror of the Grenfell fire there, the catastrophic public housing fire that killed 72 people because no one took seriously the fire hazard of the building. That gives you a little different context for understanding the poem, doesn’t it – the need of an immigrant to hold onto pieces of home, the protection a Black man in a white culture must put up to withstand others’ hatred or indifference, the necessity of clinging to a little light in the face of devastating tragedy. In Gaza right now, in hospitals right now, in homeless shelters right now, people are having to draw on this inner peace and strength to get through each hour. It amazes me to think of it, what we human beings can survive. We each need Paradise within us, concealed, ready to sustain us in the darkness.
That, actually, is what Advent is for.
We let our Hallmark movies color our ideas of this season, painting these vast pictures of home and family and peace and goodwill that have very little bearing on the reality most of us are living. We cling to those visions for good reason, of course, because sometimes a little escapism is what gets us through the day – the mental glass of wine or two that softens the edges. My family has taken to saying I’m against Christmas, trying to hold it off as long as I can, but I’m as inclined as anyone to an early viewing of ‘Love Actually’ or ‘Elf.’ Sometimes a little sweetness is nice, even if we know it really isn’t real.
But those visions come up hard against the apocalyptic rhetoric of the scriptures we read in church each Sunday during this season. There’s no Christmas glow beyond the austere sobriety of this one candle, Santa is far less prominent here than John the Baptist. Advent is a season with edges, not softly blurred contours. For all our efforts to rush past it and jump into the treacle, the church stubbornly forces us into a different way. Not because the sweetness is wrong – but because we know that in the end, sugar can’t sustain us. We need more nourishing fare to get through our days. There’s more coming at us than we can weather with make-believe.
I love Robinson’s image of carrying Paradise like a concealed weapon. It’s fierce, it takes seriously the threat of the stresses around us. And as he says, We need to carry it, we need to nurture that Paradise within us, each one of us. We need the quiet of a few moments in the midst of noise, and a hope that does not depend on external circumstance. We need the empty stillness that holds a place for God.
TS Eliot’s poem ‘East Coker’ notes the emptiness that comes upon people in a train that pauses too long between stations:
And the conversation rises and slowly fades into silence
And you see behind every face the mental emptiness deepen
Leaving only the growing terror of nothing to think about
He’s talking about people ‘distracted from distraction by distraction,’ who can’t deal with the emptiness of the quiet. But there’s something important about that emptiness, I think. There’s something in it we need to hear.
Perhaps this Advent we need to make use of such pauses. The few hours in the
middle of the night when we lie awake; the times we’re stuck on the subway; the evenings with no plans. These are the moments that allow us to nourish that quietness within ourselves, that give us the space to be attentive to what is truly happening around us – not just on the surface or in the headlines, but deeper, in the faces of people we see, in the nuances and contexts of the stories, in the stirring of our own hearts. If you don’t already have a practice of quiet, this is the season to make one. It’s a good time for truly silent prayer. Not just to use the words of the prayer book, excellent as they are; not just to speak to God out of the longings and needs of your heart, important as that is; but to sit for a minute, five minutes, more, with your heart and mind empty, with nothing to think about. To let the thoughts and distractions float away, to let go of the worries and the rehearsing of old arguments and the to-do list, and to hold yourself still. That is where Paradise can come forth within you; there, in that small light, you can see. It may not feel like anything is happening or anyone is there. But all the same, sit in that quiet, allowing God to do whatever it is God is doing within you, and within the world around you. Keep listening, keep watching, and wait.
Keep awake, Jesus tells us; keep alert. God works for those who wait for him. Even now, in the emptiness, God has you in hand. May the space within you be filled with hope. Amen.