Watching for Dawn

We begin another Advent. We open our minds and hearts to the coming of Christ.

Bernard of Clairvaux speaks of three comings of Christ: (1) his first coming in humility, in the manger at Bethlehem; (2) his coming again in glory to judge the living and the dead; and (3) the invisible way in which he comes to all true believers who desire him.  In the words of Jesus, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him” (John 14:23). Jesus desires to be present to those who desire his presence.

Advent is a season of presence. “Advent” comes from the Latin adventus (“arrival” or “coming”). But adventus is a translation of the Greek word parousia – often used to describe Jesus’ coming again in glory, but literally meaning “presence.”  It is easy for some Christians to slip into gloom and doom fantasies about a future apocalypse; it is challenging to abide in the present moment, to watch and wait with sober Hope.

That is the invitation of Jesus: “What I say to you, I say to all: ‘Watch!’” (Mark 13:37). In Greek, this command to “watch” is gregoreĩte. The Christian name Gregory is derived from this invitation to sober watchfulness, so frequent in the admonitions of Jesus as well as in other New Testament writings (e.g., 1 Peter 5:8).

Gregory the Great (ca. 540-604) is one of my favorite popes and saints. He was born into a prominent Roman family – during a time in which the faded glory of Rome was quickly passing away. Much that was good and beautiful had collapsed or was about to, and Gregory had no illusions that the clock could be turned back to “the good old days.” He answered God’s call to become a Benedictine monk, and his heart desired the peaceful prayer of the monastery. However, God and others kept tapping his talents for administration during a time of great crisis. He humbly describes his struggles to remain a man of prayer amidst the administration of stressful crises that were impossible to ignore. I can relate!

Gregory was profoundly aware that his name meant “Watchman” and that the words of Isaiah applied to him: Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the house of Israel. A watchman is called to stand upon the heights, to keep his mind and heart in a place of calm, peace, loving awareness, discernment, wisdom, and creativity – so as to be a blessing to others. Such was Gregory’s deep desire, even though he felt and expressed his struggles: “Who am I to be a watchman, for I do not stand on the mountain of action but lie down in the valley of weakness?”

Whatever his pain and struggles may have been, Gregory’s holy desire to be a watchman prevailed. Constantly renewed and enlightened by Jesus, Gregory’s foresight led to the establishment of hundreds of monasteries, which preserved so much of the beauty, goodness, and truth of Athens and Rome, and which became vibrant hubs of evangelization in the centuries ahead. Gregory’s sober watchfulness allowed him to continue doing works of mercy in the present moment, but without being consumed in a false fantasy to prop up structures whose time had passed. His sober watchfulness was both deeply pessimistic and optimistic at the same time – accepting the depressing truth that the good old days were definitively gone, and simultaneously seeing with optimistic Faith new rays of hopeful light where other more frantic people were blinded by their busyness, fear, or denial. Survival mode does not tend to bring the best out of human beings. Our field of vision narrows (both literally and figuratively), and we tend to keep going back to repetitive and predictable “solutions” – as though doing it for the forty-second time will somehow yield different results. True to his name, Gregory knew how to keep getting back into his watchtower.

When reflecting on the great mystery that is the Church, Gregory offers one of the most profound descriptions I ever came across during my doctoral research. He compares the Church to the dawn:

The holy Church, seeking the rewards of heavenly life, is called the dawn, for as she leaves behind the darkness of sin, she shines forth with the light of righteousness. But while we live, it is dawn, not perfect Day … For dawn or daybreak indeed announces that the night has passed, but does not manifest the full splendor of the Day. Rather, as it dispels the night and takes on the Day, the dawn holds a light that is mixed with darkness.

The Church, on her present sojourn through history, is indeed a mixture of weeds and wheat, darkness and light, sinners and saints. The same is true of our own hearts.  Gregory proceeds:

As long as the law of the flesh clashes with the law of the spirit, and the law of the spirit with the law of the flesh, light and darkness will blend together. Thus when Paul says, “The night is far gone” (Romans 13:12), he does not add, “the Day has arrived,” but rather, “the Day is near” … The Day shall arrive when no darkness of sin triumphs. Then the Church of the elect will be fully day, when no shadow of sin is mixed with her.

What wise and Hope-filled words! He can look truthfully at his own heart and at the Church and see truthfully both darkness and light. But there is Hope. The thing about dawn is that it does NOT turn back into night. So also with the Church. The gates of hell will not prevail against her. He will be with her always. No matter how deep the darkness may seem at certain moments, we can look for the streaks of light and be assured that the dawn will break into full Day.

Our present age is eerily parallel to that of Gregory. So much that we once took for granted has collapsed, and there is no turning back the clock. The only way forward is the way through, and we can easily get discouraged.

This Advent, we can join Gregory, not to mention the original twelve Apostles who first heard Jesus’ admonition to “watch.” Heeding the invitation of the Beatitudes, we can embrace our poverty and grieve our losses – getting past our denial and blame. We can abide in the present moment, even when it feels disorienting and scary. We can stay sober and vigilant. Jesus will open the eyes of our heart, and help us to see the new light that he always brings. As promised, his Spirit is always at work, shining in unexpected places.

Being watchful disciples means attuning to those first streaks of dawn, and allowing them to surprise us with joy. We tend to have tunnel vision about how Jesus is going to answer our prayers. Jesus always tends to surprise his disciples with joy in ways they least expect. If we are sober and watchful in the present moment, our vision can be broadened again and again. Noticing with true vision the streaks of dawn, we can become eager heralds of the full light of Day that is breaking into this world.

Untie the Ropes!

I recently read some sermons from St. Sharbel (1828-1898). I was blown away by his depth of spirituality and practical human wisdom. Drawing from his experience of monastic life, his pastoral ministry, and his final 23 years if life as a hermit, he came to understand the human heart at a deep level. Now in heaven, he seems to be one of those chosen miracle workers who (in designs known only to God) has become a “go-to” Saint in time of need.

Here in the United States, Sharbel Makhlouf is not exactly a household name. But he is immensely and intensely popular among those who know him. I first learned about him 25 years ago from my crazy Lebanese friends (you know who you are!). In many ways, Sharbel is in the Maronite Catholic Church what St. Anthony or St. Thérèse are in the Roman Catholic Church. You find their statues and shrines in churches everywhere – usually with multiple votive candles blazing and possibly even with keepsakes or personal mementos left behind. Half the pilgrims are storming heaven for help in time of need, and the other half are pouring out their thanksgiving for prayers answered. It seems that God chooses certain Saints to be heavenly miracle workers, close companions and friends to us here below, still bearing fruit in our lives as we learn from them to trust and surrender more deeply.

I remember visiting Mexico City in 2001, and noticing shrines of Sharbel in several of the churches there. These were not Lebanese churches. Somehow this obscure Arab monk and hermit had found his way into the devotional life of everyday Mexicans. The abundance of ribbons plastering the wall around him bore testimony that these Mexican Catholics had discovered a new and well-trusted heavenly friend. In that word-of-mouth culture, word got around that this is a Saint who gets things done.

Personally (and in this blog post) I am less interested in Sharbel’s miracles worked from heaven than I am in the divine wisdom he imparted while on earth. His preaching is profound. I hope to share several insights in the weeks ahead.

In one of his homilies, Sharbel offers the image of a ship setting out on a great voyage across the sea. Man is born from the heart of God and destined to return to the heart of God. Any time we allow ourselves to watch and to listen with deep attentiveness, we notice that movement – in our own heart and all around us. We hear that voice beckoning us to cross the ocean and come home.

But the ocean is scary, and our ship is still moored to the dock, held fast by many ropes. We untie several of the ropes with ease, but there tend to be one or two that we simply don’t want to untie. We resist. We insist that things will be more stable and secure if we keep those ropes tied fast.

Sharbel reminds us of our deeper truth: “The ship is destined to cross the sea and not to remain in port. It is made to navigate far and wide. It is necessary to untie all its ropes; if even one of them remains, it will prevent it from leaving the port.”

Four centuries earlier, St. John of the Cross made the same observation. A bird that has its leg tethered cannot fly free. It matters not whether it is a large chain or just a tiny thread– until it is severed the bird will not be free to fly.

Why is it so hard for us to untie all the ropes and put out into the deep? I have struggled so often with surrendering the last of my ropes to the Lord. I willingly reorder so many things in my life and make great sacrifices – but resist and resist letting go of that last thing or two. It’s a false security, rooted in ungodly self-reliance and pride.

Sharbel cuts through these lies with simple and effective words: “All security is an illusion without the peace of Christ.”

Our own best efforts usually leave a few ropes still tied fast. Sharbel encourages us to allow God’s Word, which is living and effective, sharper than any two-edged sword, to set us free: “Let the Word of God release you from your bonds by breaking them one after the other, even if it causes you suffering. Do not stagnate in your inclinations and thoughts, even if they offer you rest and security … Do not fear to free yourself from the shore and to leave the port; give yourself up to God in order to free yourself from your chains.”

How? How can we surrender in this way when it can feel so impossible? Sharbel urges us to deep and serious prayer.  “One who prays lives out the mystery of existence, and one who does not pray scarcely exists.”

He is not so much talking about reciting prayers as allowing ourselves to enter into deep silence, to be drawn into the movement back to the Father. He describes the experience: Listen humbly. Understand deeply. Witness modestly.

When we listen attentively, we begin to understand deeply. We realize and feel the truth that we are but a drop of water amidst the great current that leads back to God the Father. Apart from that volume of water, we are but a drop; within it, we find that we can keep moving back to him. We find that there is peace amidst the great movement – one that we do not in any way control. Sharbel gently but firmly admonishes us, “Do not agree to be outside this movement.”

That movement is always there, in the depth of our heart. But we so often prefer to step outside of our own heart – seeking false rest and security in things that will never satisfy. Sharbel warns us, “Rest far from the heart is a deception.”

In God alone be at rest, my soul. When I am tempted to let myself be tied down to false ports, pretending to offer me safety, may the Lord give me the trust and fortitude that I need to untie all the ropes and set sail on this great voyage back to the Father’s heart.

From Contempt to Content: Leaving Lies Behind

I love the Desert Fathers. In the solitude of the wilderness, they were anything but alone and isolated. They learned to abide in communion with Jesus and with his Body the Church. Through their spiritual combat, they systematically eliminated from their lives all forms of hiding and escape, and discovered the joy of living in the present moment with God.

In the 500s, in the desert of Gaza, there lived a truly wise monk named Dorotheus. His writings reveal a deep understanding of the human heart. Among other things, he describes our tendency to hold others in contempt, and offers a path to becoming content. It is the path of humility and truth, a path that leads us away from our pride and our lies.

Last time I shared about our human skill of storytelling, both in its greatness and in its pitfalls.

Dorotheus describes how the devil hijacks our gift of storytelling. The devil is the father of lies. He works by division, fragmentation, and isolation. In our storytelling capacity (great as it is) he finds fertile ground for sowing lies about God, self, and others. He leads us on a path that winds its way from unease to judgment to outright contempt.

Dorotheus describes a threefold progression of the lies the devil sows in us: from our thoughts to our words to our deeds.

First, the devil sows lies in our thoughts. He lures us out of the present moment and into fantasy thinking. Then comes the “if only…” train of thought. We begin telling ourselves the story that we would be so much less miserable and so much more content if only we had this or that pleasure; if only we didn’t have to be doing this present unpleasant task; if only we weren’t locked into this present relationship; etc.

Regarding God, we can easily begin hearing the whispered story that he is a cruel taskmaster who constantly makes demands of us, a fun-sucking God who steals all our joy away, an unfaithful God whose promises won’t be enough for us.

Regarding our neighbor, we begin conjecturing, filling in the gaps to tell a story about what we do not really know. Dorotheus shares anecdotes of many monks whose insecurity or jealousy or judgment led them into this pitfall – such as the monk who noticed that a brother was absent from prayer on Good Friday and began fabricating the story that the missing monk had been in the garden eating figs instead of fasting and praying. It turned out the brother couldn’t possibly have been in the garden because he was abroad on an errand!

The evil one loves to shade the stories in our mind until, little by little, we grow into contempt of our neighbor, contempt of ourselves, contempt of God.

Then comes phase two: lies in our speech. We do not know the full facts about our neighbor, but that doesn’t stop us from telling the story anyway, filling in the gaps without even realizing we are doing it. How easy it is to spread gossip and start rumors! Did you ever notice how we tend to go down to a whisper when we tell stories about others? Does that make it any less damaging?

Dorotheus also describes the lies we tell about ourselves in our speech. We manipulate the facts or conceal the truth to avoid blame. We selectively highlight partial truths to present ourselves as better than we really are.

I think it is rare indeed that someone tells the humble and candid truth, without any shading or skewing or selective narrating. I look back on past emails or writing, in which I thought (at the time) I was being totally objective, just reporting the facts. I begin noticing moments in which I started editorializing or injecting my own interpretation. It’s a very human thing to do!

As an administrator, I have definitely learned how important it is to gather more facts or to listen carefully to all parties involved. Isn’t it interesting how there is always more to the story?

Thirdly, Dorotheus describes how the devil tempts us to lie in our deeds. The two-tongued father of lies wants us to lead a double life. He who masquerades as an angel of light wants us to pretend to be someone we are not, keeping parts of ourselves in the shadows. Think of the damage this has caused in the Church – leaders pretending to be holy and all the while secretly sinning and covering up the evil.

As I mentioned last time, the full truth of our human story is complex. Jesus was sinless; each of us stands in need of redemption. When we allow parts of ourselves to remain in shadows, we begin hiding those parts of ourselves from others and from self and from God. We then become slaves of shame, and become easy prey for the endgame of the devil: discouragement and despair.

When parts of ourselves remain unknown, they remain unloved and unredeemed. The devil can then weave his webs at will, tempting us to tell dark stories about ourselves, stories in which there is no longer any hope.

But there is always hope, especially where there is humility and a willingness to be vulnerable with God and others. If we are open to it, God will help us seek and find a safe community of friends, to whom we can bare our souls and be known in the whole of our complex story. This was definitely a step that I needed in my own life, and began taking a few years ago. It has helped me, slowly but surely, to shed my shame – and others have noticed a difference. I continue on the long journey from contempt to contentment, but God is with me as I pray to resist the devil’s wiles.

Dorotheus shares some profound wisdom. The devil is real, and the combat is real. Thanks be to God, who delivers us through Jesus Christ our Lord!