Desire, Distilled – Br. Keith Nelson

Isaiah 40:1-11
2 Peter 3:8-15a
Mark 1:1-8

I was blessed in the second year of my novitiate to work with a spiritual director who was a Trappist monk. Once a month, he patiently listened to the many words I would summon as I circled around my inmost experience of prayer. With a verbal precision sifted by silence, and great love, he would wait. And at the right moment, which would always come, he would name the heart of the matter. Suddenly, words would feel small and superfluous, and the way forward obvious, in the presence of a God whose one desire was simply to be with me.

He shared with me an adage I still remember:

Filled with ardent desire
yet not pressing the point
we become a place
where the Lord may rest.

The words capture the essential invitation in swift, clean strokes. We let our thirst for God rise up from within. We refrain from any agenda of our own contriving, any attachment to this or that experience. And we wait. As we wait, it may happen that God rests – and we rest in God, drawn by this harmonious alignment of wills.

In this light, the Advent exhortations to wait are inviting: a refreshing antidote to the demands of a world filled not with desire but craving, and constantly pressing its point. God waits with us: “The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.”

But these exhortations are accompanied by words like “prepare” and “purify.”

“See, I send my messenger – my angel – before your face.
Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”

When the broadest path forward is winding and bent, this is hard work.

When the conditions for God’s life to flourish seem absent, we are asked to be angels – messengers – forerunners – first responders.

In the Collect for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, we will hear:
“Purify our conscience, O God, by your daily visitation.”

The words of the prophets, like those of John to the people gathered at the Jordan, scour the heart clean and demand a response. “Forsaking our sins,” which often will not forsake us so easily, is hard work.

So, which kind of waiting is Advent waiting – resting in God, or really hard work?

It is possible that preparing and purifying – or the anxious imperative to do so – may so fill up our Advent waiting that there is no empty space left on the calendar, much less at the center of our hearts, where the Lord may rest. Sometimes, preparing and purifying can slowly mix with planning and perfecting, until the thought of waiting for anything outside our own agency – even God – is unbearable. That is a hard place to live life, because most things fall outside our own agency.

John’s message was clearly irresistible, even consoling, to those who needed the relief of a clear change and a fresh start. Is there a posture toward preparation and purification that honors the seriousness of that work, but also flows from the recognition that Christ’s coming has changed our essential posture toward saving ourselves?

In some seasons of our spirit, preparation for Jesus purged of our own will looks like trusting that all is prepared, enough has been done, and now is the time to entrust the work to God.

In some seasons of our spirit, purification to meet the coming Christ looks like allowing God to distill every desire to its essence, and let all that is not essential fall away.

The occasions that draw forth the image of God in us usually require this kind of trust, and this kind of distillation, refined over time. We dream, we pray, we imagine; we set to work, and the work becomes part of us; and one day, the work bears fruit. Sometimes the fruit is very much what we had hoped for, or even more. Sometimes, the fruit is not at all what we had hoped for, or comes in a different form than we expected.

Allow me to speak from the heart of my personal experience.

In nine days’ time, God willing, I will be ordained as a priest in this monastery chapel. As many of you know better than I, a priest is not made over night. For three years I have been preparing, studying, fulfilling requirements, learning from many wise and holy people near and far about what it means to accept this calling. The day is now near enough that it is intensely real: I am not dreaming, the time has come. I am filled with wonder and gratitude.

So … am I prepared?

Yes, I cannot imagine what further preparation is necessary; I trust that all is prepared, enough has been done, and now is the time to entrust my preparation to God. The time of my formation has borne the fruit I hoped for, and far more.

AND:

No, of course I’m not prepared! I have so much more to learn; the journey has only begun. I cannot predict how God will use me as a priest, what it will require of me, or exactly how becoming a priest will shape my journey as a member of this community and a follower of Jesus. As with any vow made before God and God’s people, crossing that threshold, with you, will make me ready for all that is to come by distilling my desire and joining it to God’s desire for me. Or so I am told.

I ask you: For what have you been preparing – perhaps for a long time – that you can now entrust entirely to God, confident that God is doing more for you than you can ask or imagine?

On a much different note: Just twelve days ago, Brother Jack and I moved back to the monastery from Emery House, the land in West Newbury entrusted to our care. The community has discerned the genuine need to place a pause on our residential ministry and vision for that place. I am in wholehearted agreement with that decision. It is not the right time. At the same time, accepting this reality and its implications has been, for me, a time of spiritual trial. Life and ministry alongside the web of God’s creation in that place has asked great love and great labor, of me and of us. I am left asking God many questions: Were the last ten months merely a dream? If not, what fruit have they borne? What was your plan and your purpose in sending us there? I am listening.

I have returned again and again to a line in our Rule that speaks hard truth, the kind of hard truth John the Baptist knew from the inside: “Our love must be purified and tested by many times of darkness, loss, and waiting.” Longsuffering love emerges from these seasons in a distilled form – stronger and more available to God’s will. I trust that will be so, in the mystery of time.

I ask you: What labor of love has God asked of you, only to bear fruit far different than expected or imagined? How has your desire been distilled in response?

Trust, allow, distill. This is how God prepares and purifies our desire, beginning with our most modest hopes and needs and gradually enlarging our hearts to encompass more and more of the world’s suffering and joy. Until one day, we awake to find we desire nothing less than the Day of the Lord.

The prophet Amos interrogates this desire: “Alas for you who desire the day of the Lord! Why do you want the day of the Lord? It is darkness, not light; as if someone fled from a lion, and was met by a bear.” (Amos 3. 18-20)

In a quite different register, the author of 2 Peter asks, “What sort of persons ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and eagerly desiring the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set ablaze and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire?”

Both of these writers envision suffering: the suffering of inescapable confrontation with our conscience; the suffering of a cosmos distilled to its final essence. But it would seem that the subtle difference is this: for the author of 2 Peter, it is our longsuffering desire rather than our goodness that is drawing the far horizon of God’s eternity closer, nearer to this present moment. Our waiting is what prepares and purifies us. In the process we are given the capacity to desire God in the way God desires us.

Until one day, a Savior appears, though in a form far different than we expected or imagined.

In the words of Julian of Norwich, let us pray:

God, of your goodness, give us yourself. For you are enough for us.
And we can ask for nothing that is less, that can be full honor to you.
And if we ask for anything that is less, we shall ever be in want
for only in You have we all. Amen.
Amen.


Year B, Second Sunday of Advent

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