It amazes me how our active dog, who shoots from room to room and always passes through the kitchen in doing so, can freeze into statue-like stillness when I begin petting his humbled head. This image of the prophet Isaiah petting Israel’s head and heart with words of “comfort” begins our liturgy and our Advent musing. As long as I pet the dog, no other invitation or tasty stimuli distract him. Israel’s being in captivity brought them to a condition of needing some hope that all was not lost.
St. Ignatius, the founder of the Jesuits, was physically stilled by a cannonball to the leg. This physical immobility brought him eventually to a spiritual freeze in which he came to a deep awareness that much had been lost in his life and did he want to have some saved. There is a quieting of voices when an announcement is about to be made which allows for increased hearing and understanding. There is a calm before the storm, we say and a silence before a great act of physical achievement in athletics or artistry.
We are invited by the season of Advent to almost hold our breath as God does a fantastic athletic act of leaping from eternity into time, from heaven to earth, and from mystery to history. We are invited to stand still as the Divine Artist begins painting and sculpturing our image within His.
I remember standing with several members of my family in front of the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris while the tremendous bells above pealed away our need for words. We walked to the Louvre after that and not one of my witty brothers could match the voices whispering from the Mona Lisa.
The famous American writer and columnist, Will Rogers, once wrote, “Never pass up an opportunity to shut up.” Listening takes “shutting up” and silence takes some “opening up”. Silence is golden only after we devalue noise, especially of our own making. Being quiet does not mean that nothing is going on; rather, something is going in. The more two friends must speak to each other, the more they should be doubting their friendship. Actually, the more there is intimacy, the less there is the “must” to say words. Good friends can talk, but silence can be a deeper experience and expression of their trust, ease, and commitment.
The prophet Isaiah invites Israel to quiet their personal and collective cries of guilt and shame as they sit in exile. As long as their inner voices of self recrimination keep shouting, the words of “comfort” cannot be heard. The good news of their going back to their homes would be drowned by their tears of abandonment. “The mouth of the Lord has spoken.” “Cry out at the top of your voice” and “cry out” so that all might hear, “Here is your god!”
The good tidings center around the reality that the mountains and valleys and deserts are all in the past and their rough ways home have been readied for a safe return, but they must stop complaining, guiltifying and bemoaning.
John also cries out to the people of Israel and to us, “prepare,” “One mightier than I is coming after me.” His message was hard to listen to, because listening might involve a change, a “repentance”. Keeping on the move and keeping our minds full is a wonderful defense. What we listen to will determine what we hear. What we hear does form our attitudes and hence our actions.
We do not want to hear bad news, but good news can be dangerous as well. The Good News of Jesus’ birth might not be as good, because He will be saying something by His arrival and permanent stay which, if listened to, would rearrange my ways. All the more reason to keep Advent at a distance by keeping stillness only a convenient concept.
Being still does not eventuate into being stale. Taking action out of time and allowing simple truths to amaze us is the spice of living. The very place from which we would most desire to flee is the very place where we should kneel, or sit and do nothing, but receive that which we would desire from being unstill and busy.
My Irish grandmother would often chide us, “Just don’t sit there; do something!” Advent reverses that. Advent becomes a way of living more gently. We love to sit by a quiet stream. We love to be close to a person who has a gentle stream within them. Perhaps the best gift each of us can purchase is a quieter-inside self whose mountains of resistance have been leveled, whose valleys of inferiority have been filled in and whose roughness has been smoothed by God’s gentle presence. We do prepare for Christ’s coming to us that He might more gently flow through us.
“Be still and know that I am God.”
Ps. 46, 10
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