…Keep awake, for you do not now on what day your Lord is coming But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming he would have stayed awake and wound not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at un unexpected hour.
This gospel passage appointed for today begs a question: How? How does one “keep awake”? as we’ve just heard Jesus say. Jesus’ words here are one of a number of ways and times that he tells us about what is coming – what Jesus calls the coming “kingdom of God.” It will come upon us suddenly, and with surprise, and that we could miss it because we’re asleep. How does one cultivate a kind of attentiveness to God whose ways are undeniably mysterious and surprising, but whose presence (I would say) is undeniably real and recurring? How to be attentive and awake to the coming of God? ( That, by the way, is what the name of this season means: “Advent,” the coming, the coming and coming again and coming again of God.) How is God coming to you this season?
There is this ancient story of an inquirer seeking spiritual advice from their guide, “What action shall I perform to attain God?” the seeker asked. “If you wish to attain God,” came the response, “there are two things you must know. The first is that all efforts to attain God are of no avail. God will be God.” “And the second?” the seeker asked. “The second thing you must know is that you must act as if you do not know the first.” [i] I would suggest that a way into this mystery is through a kind of spiritual discipline. Our English word “discipline” comes from the Latin word for ‘learner,’ discipulus, a derivative of the verb discere ‘to learn.’ And, I would say, a key thing to learn about discipline is that authentic discipline yields liberation, not incarceration. In college, I remember my English composition teacher telling us students that it was essential for us to diligently learn the rules of grammar and syntax so that we would always know when we were bending the rules, and with intention, so as to be able to express ourselves most freely. And in music, the same. I remember my trumpet teacher drilling us on meter and scales, endlessly, not so that we could appear in concert to play beautiful scales, but so that we were in shape to play anything with energy and with confidence. And in sports, the same. The warm-ups, the weight-lifting, the other repetitions in training is to bring focus to our eyes, and agility, coordination, and tone to our muscles so that we can play our sport with delight and freedom and energy. So in all discipline, including spiritual discipline: authentic discipline is a means to an end, and authentic spiritual discipline yields an attentive freedom to be whom God has created to us to be. Authentic discipline yields liberation not incarceration.
I would say that spiritual discipline has more to do with a posture of attentive learning rather than a posture of retentive fixation on some form or formula. Now, mind you, I’m a monk, and you need only look at the schedule of our chapel services to see how many times we show up to church every day. I think showing up is a very important spiritual discipline, but the form has to be complemented by God’s ongoing work of formation: what God is giving us the ability to see and hear and savor and desire now. So that’s the first thing that comes to mind in responding to the question, “How to be awake or stay awake to God?” Attend to the question: “What is this season of your life about.” “What is the most important thing?” Is it about relationships: your relationship with someone else or with yourself; is it about your work – too much work or the too little work or the wrong mix of work; is it about letting go of something or taking on something? Is it about your world? What is it? What is the most important thing for you to attend to this season of your life? That’s important. Begin where you are. What season is this for your soul? What is now?
A second thing about wakefulness or attentiveness that comes to mind is quite counter cultural. It’s about waiting. What grows tall and strong must also grow slowly and deep, or it will tumble… Depth takes time. I would say that God has all the time in the world. Though we live in a culture and time that so highly values instant access to everything, at least in the spiritual realm it seems to me we can only bear a little at time. I find this rather modest image in the psalms so reassuring: “[God’s] word is a lantern to my feet and a light upon my path.” [ii] This sense of God’s light on our path is not that of, say, a 500,000 watt beam shining down a roadway. It’s rather the image of an oil lamp, enlightening the next step, and only the next step ahead. Is it that we are waiting on God or that God is waiting on us? I’m not sure sometimes, but I suspect it is something of a slow dance that we’re doing together. God is certainly not in a rush. The American novelist Margaret Runbeck writes, “Happiness is not a state to arrive at, but a manner of traveling.” Consider looking at the road you’re on just now and everywhere you’re having to wait. See the scenery, which includes waitings or delays, as appreciation points that open up wonderful new vistas that you might have missed were you moving at your normal clip.
I think there’s also an invitation to wait on others. Simone Weil writes that the heart of a moral relationship to other human beings is “hesitation.” It’s a reminder to wait and listen before we impose solutions, interpretations, condemnations or whatever. “Just as in our relation with God our not knowing what to say may be what speaks most eloquently of God, so with others. The moment of hesitation, the patience of attending, shows what might be meant by believing that women and men are created in God’s image. [iii] The great English Jesuit, Cyril Martindale, wrote a century ago, “One approaches these [other] souls with, O, infinite respect, affection, slow study, self-distrust, and more than all else, prayer (because, left to oneself, one will remain a clumsy, meddlesome mischief-maker to the end of one’s days.” [iv] Waiting, living with the questions, may be how God is keeping you attentive just now. From my experience, God is more generous in giving us questions than answers. Waiting. The gift of waiting, quite counter-cultural.
Another thing that comes to mind in being attentive to God is a kind of gentle, non-condemning acknowledgment that “you are where you are.” There’s an old Buddhist koan that I find very endearing: “You cannot fall off the path.” I think it is a deadening waste of time to fixate on the past, whether it’s to be stuck on the good ‘ole days or the bad ‘old days. And, likewise, it’s a snare and delusion to be obsessed with the future, which has not yet been created. I’m not saying that the past is not to be reverenced nor the future anticipated, but I am saying that life is now, and that we live out both our memories and our dreams out of the context of now. God is now. It seems to me that forgiveness is the most important key to opening up the gift of life now: forgiveness of others, perhaps forgiveness of God (could that even be an option?), maybe forgiveness of ourselves. I would say that forgiveness is the key to reconciling us to where life is for us now. The Benedictine Sister Joan Chittister writes about reverencing where we have ended up now: “There is nothing we can lose in life that does not teach us something worth knowing. Sometimes we learn to pick our friends more carefully. Sometimes we learn not to be so committed to what the world calls “success.” Sometimes we learn that we have been about the wrong things entirely in life. But there is no such thing as failure as long as we learn something from it. It’s what the French essayist Michel de Montaigne calls “triumphant failures.” He writes, “There are some defeats more triumphant than victories.” [v]
Another thing about being attentive to God this season of your life: not to counterfeit prayer. Prayer is about relationship with God, and God is always the initiator of that relationship. Prayer is a response to God. Prayer is a gift from God. There is “common prayer,” which is the spirit in which we come together this morning; however there is also something very personal and unique about our relationship with God and the prayer that God is giving you now. I would say, if you find your own prayer or your pattern of prayer boring, then I would say, that’s probably not your prayer… If your prayer is boring, you’re probably off the mark a bit, because of all the things we may say of God with certainty, God is certainly not boring! If your prayer is [vi] Otherwise, it seems to me, what we’re prone to call our “prayer” – the motions, mantras, postures, lists, whatever – these things could actually get in the way of our authentic, ever-changing relationship with God. I’ll appeal here, once more, to the insight of Sister Joan Chittister: “It would be impossible to have spirituality without prayer, of course, but it is certainly possible to pray without having a spirituality at all.” How do you know the difference? For Sister Joan, the litmus test is, ‘Am I becoming kinder?’ That’s a good place to start. [vii] boring, maybe you’re trying to pray someone else’s prayer (or your former prayer or your future prayer) and it simply doesn’t fit now. It isn’t now. There’s a wonderful English Benedictine monk named Dom John Chapman, remembered especially because of the simple, wise spiritual letters he wrote in response to inquiries about spiritual disciplines. I recall one of his letters where he is addressing the fretfulness of a woman who is certain that her prayer isn’t good enough. One line from Dom John Chapman’s response comes to mind. He writes, gently: “Pray as you can, and do not try to pray as you can’t. Take yourself as you find yourself, and start from that.”
It seems to me that there is a season of the soul like autumn, which comes before the dead of winter. Life as we know it on this earth includes death: everything dies. Trees and seas die, mountains die, people die, relationships die, careers die. There are countless endings. It seems to me we can work to avoid or deny these inevitabilities or we can live into these inevitable deaths as part of the gift of life, as God has given it to us. There quite a wonderful word in the vocabulary of prayer called “detachment,” which is a spiritual discipline of reverencing and enjoying the gifts of life in the face and form of people and in the glory of God’s creation… Detachment is about cherishing while at the same time not about clinging or clutching at what we cannot hold on to. The great poet Mary Oliver writes:
To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go. [viii]
And then, one last thing I’ll say. This gospel passage appointed for today gives us only one picture, only one set of metaphors that Jesus uses with regards to our spiritual discipline: to be attentive by being awake. Some of you here today may need to wake up. There may be events in your life right now – very full events or very vacuous events – that God is using to speak to you or lead you. Wake up to it! For others of you, the invitation that God may be giving you now is from another side of Jesus’ personality and another side of his teaching: an invitation to rest in the peace of Christ, to savor the sampling of food that shall last forever, to drink deeply from life, to relax, to abide, to enjoy, to reincorporate the word “leisure” into your soul. There’s a story told from the desert tradition of the early church. Once upon a time the greatly revered monk, Abba Anthony, was relaxing with his disciples outside his hut when a hunter came by. The hunter was surprised and mildly shocked and rebuked Anthony for taking it easy. This was not the hunter’s idea of what a monk should be doing. But Anthony said, “Bend your bow and shoot an arrow.” And the hunter did so. “Bend it again and shoot another,” said Anthony. And the hunter did so again and again. The hunter finally said, “Abba Anthony, if I keep my bow always stretched, it will break.” “So it is with us,” replied Anthony. “If we push ourselves beyond measure we will break; it is right from time to tie to relax our efforts.” Maybe your discipline just now is to relax, from the Latin verb, relaxare, which means “to open” or “to loosen.” Perhaps for some of you, the discipline of leisure would be the most thing for you to cultivate this season.
What is the ultimate end for our lives? What is the end for which we’ve been created and around which all spiritual discipline circles? I recall those wonderful words in the Westminster Shorter Catechism: The end for which we’ve been created is to know God and to enjoy God forever.
[i] In a High Spiritual Season , by Joan Chittister, OSB. (Triumph Books, 1995), p. 63.
[ii] Psalm 119:105.
[iii] Source unknown.
[iv] C. C. Martindale, A Biography , by Philip Caraman. (Longman, 1967), p. 119.
[v] Chittister, p. 15.
[vi] Spiritual Letters , by Dom John Chapman. (Sheed and Ward, 1946), p. 109.
[vii] Chittister, p. 46.
[viii] “In Blackwater Woods” by Mary Oliver from her book, American primitive: Poems (Little, Brown, 1983).
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