Once upon a time there was an ocean
but now it’s a mountain range.
Something unstoppable set into motion,
nothing is different, but everything’s changed.
A dear friend dies. Just like that. I get a phone call and she’s gone.
My mother dies. Just like that. Before the paramedics even get there. I get a phone call and she’s gone.
I’m in the locker room putting on my pants, and suddenly my back goes out. The next thing I know I’m in emergency.
We think we’re in control but we’re not. “We think our faith gives us security,” Anthony de Mello says, but it doesn’t. “Faith is insecurity,” and by that I think he means that all this a mystery and we can’t pretend it isn’t. “The unbeliever thinks he knows all about God,” Walter Kaspar says, “but the believer knows that he cannot provide himself with answers, and that the answer which God gives is a message about an abiding mystery.”
It’s almost as if the Church gets the readings wrong during Advent. It’s supposed to be Christmas. “If the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming he would have stayed awake,” Jesus warns us in Matthew (24:37-44). What? It’s supposed to be cookies and cocoa and roaring fires, not thieves in the night and fires and floods and the end of the very world. But no. For one thing, it’s Advent, not Christmas. We have to delay our gratification. For another, the whole meaning of the season of Advent and Christmas is keyed to the season in the real world outside us. It’s keyed to winter. It’s keyed to the bare trees and the cold air and the dying of the year.
Eating is fine, but not orgies. A drink or two is fine, but not drunkenness. Sex is a wonderful thing, it’s from God, but not promiscuity and lust. And the culture every Christmas is trying to sell us orgies and drunkenness and lust, and it’s doing that, I think, because it fears what’s really out there. It fears reality. It’s trying to make us fall asleep, and we really have to resist that, in that sense we really have to “make no provision for the desires of the flesh,” as Paul puts it in Romans (13:14).
Before we can put on the armor of light, we have to face the darkness.
I loved the Nestucca Sanctuary, the Jesuit retreat center on the Oregon coast, the trees, the view of the sea, the smell of it and the feel of it, and I loved the man who directed the place, Andy Dufner, a Jesuit. I spent many weekends there over the years, and once a whole month. It was like my second home in a way.
And now Andy is dead, for many years, and the sanctuary is closed, locked up, and all the buildings burned to the ground for fire-fighting practice, and a metal gate bars the road in, where I used to walk and pray.
Nothing earthly remains, not people or places or even churches. The very stones of the temple will be cast down, and that’s a blessing, as Andy knew and St. Ignatius, the founder of the Jesuits, knew, because it teaches us again and again what we most need to learn: detachment. Detachment from the things of the world, even the good things, detachment from anything that might distract us from God or substitute for God.
And with detachment, joy, and confidence, and a wonderful freedom. Because nothing now can hurt us. The stars are falling and the temples are crumbling and yet, the Lord says, as he always says, be not afraid.
Lord Jesus Christ, take all my freedom, my memory, my understanding, and my will. All that I have and cherish, you have given me. I surrender it all to be guided by your will. Your grace and your love are wealth enough for me. Give me these, and I ask for nothing more.
This is the great Jesuit prayer. An astonishing prayer, really. It asks for so much. It asks for everything. Every time I pray it I think how h=impossible it is in a way. And yet how incredible, how wonderful.
I pray for that kind of faith.
Or here’s how St. Ignatius puts in the beginning of his famous Spiritual Exercises, in what he calls the “Principle and Foundation”:
Man is created to praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord, and by this means to save his soul. All other things on the face of the earth are created for man to help him fulfill this end for which he is created. From this it follows that man is to use these things to the extent that they will help him to attain this end. Likewise, he must rid himself of them in so far as they prevent him from attaining it. Therefore we must make ourselves indifferent to all created things, in so far as it is left to the choice of our free will and is not forbidden. Acting accordingly, for our part, we should not prefer health to sickness, riches to poverty, honor to dishonor, a long life to a short one, and so in all things we should desire and choose only those things which will best help us attain the end for which we are created.
And so the passing away of things doesn’t matter. Death doesn’t matter. Or it does: it’s part of God’s infinite grace. It prepares us. It helps us towards the final dissolution, the letting go we could never achieve on our own.
This is the world into which Jesus was born. In a stable. in the darkness. And we can’t really see him if we’re too busy making merry. in the midst of all the city lights, we can’t see the stars. We really have to tone ourselves, quiet ourselves, limit ourselves, if we are to hear the cries of that little child. If we are even to find him.
In a stable. In the darkness.
This is the sudden, unbelievable change, the thing we never expected, this birth into darkness, into silence, and we’re going to miss it entirely if we don’t stop, and wait, and look out the window, at the bare trees and the snowy ground.
At this dying world, this frozen world, this world that one day, unbelievably, will turn into spring.