I'm excited that we're entering Advent. Which is funny, because this is such a busy time of year, usually I don't get to enjoy it until pretty close to Christmas. I'm lucky if I manage a single evening sitting under a lit-up Christmas tree, taking it all in.
But I look forward to this season every year, more than any other, I think because the ideas I associate with it speak to me all year round: Hope. Darkness. And more than any other, Waiting.
When I was living in Australia, I spent 30 days on a long retreat. Jesuits do that twice in our lifetimes, generally, when we first enter and before we take final vows. 30 days of silence might sound like a prison sentence for some, but it can be a very privileged time of walking with the Lord.
I came away from my first retreat with a hundred stories of biblical passages that had come alive on my retreat. To be clear, this wasn't unique to me. One of Ignatius' essential retreat ideas is to imagine stories of Scripture unfolding before you, like a movie, and even to place yourself in the story in some role, and let it unfold as it will.
My second time around, I expected something similar, although I was also nervous about the possibility of that. Age had made me more wary of how much meddling I was capable of doing within meditations. (It's remarkable how much Jesus seemed to tell me at times exactly what I wanted to hear!) My fundamental prayer had become a quiet centering, and for the most part that felt like enough.
Still, as I said, I did expect something akin to my first long retreat. And instead, what I got was many, many days of nothing. Emptiness, and not of the Zen kind. Desolation, for days upon days, until I was pulling my hair out, trying to figure out what I was doing wrong, what I must be holding back. I would go to my spiritual director and confess things, just to see if that would loosen anything up, assuming it must be. Still nothing.
My director, an incredibly capable man, was obviously perplexed himself. But at one point he just threw up his hands and said, we're just going to have to wait. And rather than urging me to push harder, he asked me to step back and be gentle with himself, give it ten minutes here and there and trust that something good would come of it.
Now, by the end of the retreat I realized that there had been a lot going on all along, just not in the places I was used to looking. But honestly, that didn't become clear to me until the very last days of the retreat.
Even so, I look back now on the many days of absence in between as a great blessing. Somehow the waiting for God became a sort of experience of God, a way of being with him even though paradoxically he didn't seem to be there.
I don't know if that makes any sense, but it's something I return to a lot. It's nice to have consolation, the wedding banquet, etc. etc. etc. But I can get by with a lot less. In fact, waiting can be absolutely wonderful.
I can forget all that in my hunger for answers and certainty and all sorts of other things. It's nice to get to Advent and let it reassure me once again that it's okay not to have all the answers, and that in fact trying to dwell in that place of mystery is often a great blessing.
In one of his great little books of Advent and Christmas reflections, Bishop Robert Morneau, auxiliary bishop of the Diocese of Green Bay, asks the question, "What words are in my Advent dictionary?"
If you're looking for a way to enter into the season, might be worth asking yourself that same question. What words speak to me as I enter into this season?