Anne Thurston explores the season of Advent using the themes of waiting and longing, hope and expectation. Pregnancy is the potent symbol here, along with stories of annunciations and visitations.
96pp. Columba press, 2004. To purchase this book online,go to www.columba.ie
1. A time of waiting
2. A time to be surprised by grace
3. And the angel waited: breathing time
4. The journey: a time of letting go
5. The encounter: a time to listen, a time to speak
6. A time of waiting
Advent and Beyond
Advent is a very short liturgical season and it has become increasingly difficult to register it as anything other than a pre-Christmas period. I am interested in looking at Advent as a time which evokes a longing and an expectancy which reaches far beyond the celebration of Christmas. Its symbols of darkness and light are perennially powerful as are its themes of memory and hope.
As our world has become ever more fragile, with the growing threat of terrorist attacks, with eruptions of violence and ecological disasters, we have become dulled by apathy and numbed by fear. The readings for the first Sundays of Advent seem surprisingly relevant. Luke talks of ‘nation rising against nation and kingdom against kingdom; earthquakes and famines… people dying of fear as they await what menaces the world.’ We are alerted to the need to ‘Watch… to stay awake.’ And at the same time we are offered words of consolation and promise: ‘In those days and at that time I will make a virtuous branch grow for David, who shall practise honesty and integrity in the land’. The choice is, as always, between fear and trust.
To enter into the space of stillness offered by the season of Advent is not to escape from the world but to come to see it more clearly. Everything around us conspires against the possibility of allowing us to walk in darkness and yet this is what we must do before we can come to the light. The longest night leads to the sweetest dawn. In a similar way our culture resists silence, refuses us a space of stillness, but this is also what we need before we can receive Wisdom’s word. The poet Patrick Kavanagh speaks of the ‘ Advent-darkened room’ which can restore the soul to wonder (1). The Dominican, Timothy Radcliffe quotes Pascal: “I have discovered that the unhappiness of human beings comes from just one thing; not knowing how to remain quietly in a room” (2).
Radcliffe insists on the importance of silence so that we may be ready to be surprised by the gifts of knowledge or insight. Only in silence can we be nudged by grace.
Advent offers a space of stillness, a time of darkness, a place of waiting in expectant trust. The liturgies of Advent do not cloak our fears but unmask them so that we may face the shadows and yet proclaim our hope.
From Darkness to Light
I have always looked forward to Advent. I spent time in Germany as a student and in a way discovered the season there. The homes I visited displayed their Advent wreaths and even if, for some, they had lost their religious significance the residual memory of evergreen hope remained, together with the ever potent wonder of candlelight. We introduced this practice with our own children and the making of the wreath and the lighting of the candles on each successive Sunday has always been an important ritual. My introduction to the Anglican Cathedral tradition of the Advent procession added yet another rich dimension. On the first Sunday of Advent the congregation gathers in a darkened church on a midwinter afternoon. They listen to the readings from Isaiah prophesying the shining of a great light on a people who sit in darkness. This becomes a present reality as the people sit in the expectant dark and wait for the light to come. As they are stilled, voices sound from far off singing the Advent prose: ‘Rorate coeli’, ‘Drop down ye heavens from above and let the skies pour forth righteousness.’ The flickering candles are carried as the procession moves slowly through the building while the words and music tell the story of humanity’s hope for salvation. These texts which express the yearning of generations for the birth of a Messiah also evoke our own needs and longing now.
The effect of this service is profound because we experience bodily what is being proclaimed. Even the simple matter of waiting for the choir to reach us, for our little candle to be lit, is a physical reminder of ‘Advent waiting’. The symbols speak.
There is a symbolic procession from west to east as the choir and clergy move from the very back of the church towards the altar, stopping along the way for readings and carols.
Of course, as in all rituals which have richness and depth, there is an ambiguity here, as this is not simply a recollection of a past event but a calling forth in the present, bringing us to reflect now not just on birth, but also on death and judgement, on heaven and hell, on darkness and light, on wilderness and hope, on desolation and joy.
Advent is ever more counter-cultural. A few paces from these cathedrals where people sit and wait in the darkness, the alternative cathedrals of the shopping centres shine their bright and relentless lights and blare out Christmas carols, already stale, and it is only the beginning of December. Here instead we listen to Advent carols and Advent hymns – from the fourteenth century Irish carol, ‘Angelus ad Virginem’ telling the story of the angel’s visit to the Virgin, to the well known Advent hymn, ‘O come, O come Emmanuel’. We hear the evocative sounds of, ‘I look from afar and lo, I see the power of God coming’ or that beautiful contemporary carol, ‘Jesus Christ the Apple Tree’ (3). With such a richness of Advent music we can happily wait until Christmas begins before we sing the familiar carols.
It may surprise some people to know that the cathedrals here and in other places are almost always full for this service. Indeed one English Cathedral, Salisbury, is so famous for its Advent service that people come from all over the world and queue for hours to get a place. There is clearly something powerful about the music and the ritual which resonates with people’s own yearnings and speaks to what may be unarticulated needs. This is a ritual which does not need to explain itself: it is what it does.It effects what it signifies. In that sense it is sacramental. Of course there is the aesthetic beauty of the music and the movement. There is the atmospheric space with the darkness illuminated only by candlelight. There is the stillness and the waiting, the sounds of choir and organ and the silences between. There is also, crucially, the communal and shared experience.
What happens here however is not confined to the sacred space of the cathedral; it is not simply a satisfying aesthetic experience but a potentially transformative one. It can reorient people away from that which fails to satisfy and towards a longing for God. It can awaken that spark in the soul as it touches into our darkness and moves us towards the light.
This Advent service and the keeping of Advent time both serve in different ways to mark Advent not simply as ‘the run-up to Christmas’, but as a preparation for Christ who is to come. The’ once upon a time’ is a fairy tale version which sentimental trappings of piety do not displace. ‘Christmas is really for the children’ we insist as we indulge, and not just in nostalgia. The sweet-faced Madonna with her cherubic baby and nodding animals do not challenge us but are yet another version of the consumer Christmas. Advent awakens in us the ‘not yet’ which is the other side of the ‘already’ of the incarnation. It evokes our longing and our hope, ‘Let the wilderness and the dry-lands exult, let the wasteland rejoice and blossom.’ To terminate this longing on Christmas Day, whether celebrated religiously or commercially, sells us short. Our human experience denies this attempt at closure and insists that the quest continues. Revisiting these themes at the end of this book, I refer to human beings as people who’ cannot get rid of the wish’. Weare oriented towards hope. Depression, which is essentially the absence of hope, is seen as a pathological condition. To hope, to look forward, is an essential part of what shapes us as human persons.
For this reason the focus of this short book is not on the liturgical season of Advent itself but on the deep structure of longing, the ‘Time of Waiting’ which is crystallised in that season, but which is ongoing. Advent is the time of quiet expectancy akin to that quiet just before dawn breaks. It is a time which offers us a ‘breathing space’. I have deliberately chosen not to reflect on the birth, on Christmas itself, because I want to draw the longing and the waiting beyond the nostalgic remembrance of things past to the realisation, in Meister Eckhart’s words, that ‘The Word is always waiting to be born’.
A colleague described recently how difficult he found it to ‘get a handle on Advent’. ‘Lent’, he explained, ‘is a lot easier. You have a definite penitential theme, and then a clear sequential narrative during Holy Week. You also have those themes of suffering, death and resurrection, the whole paschal experience with which people identify.’
Perhaps Advent might be described in terms of space as well as time. I see it as clearing a space, as ‘the work of winter’, waiting until the time is right (with apologies to those who live in the southern hemisphere, who have to translate these images into their different timeframe!). Is it possible that the male psyche is more comfortable with a linear model rather than a cyclical one,with a historical timeline rather than the lunar time of pregnancy, with death rather than birth as a primary theological resource? Waiting for birth and waiting for death belong more intimately together than we usually recognise. Simeon’s wisdom has been lost to us – but so too has the wisdom of Anna and of all women who have experienced the cycle of life within their own bodies.
I want to turn now to look at the shape of this book in terms of the stories it tells, the pictures it shows and the poetry on which it calls.
The Stories: Hearing the Word
As this book arises out of female rather than male experience, it seemed most appropriate to use the metaphor of pregnancy to bear this waiting and this hope. I look at this in the opening chapter. In Chapter 2 instead of turning to the traditional patriarchs and prophets I draw on the female wisdom figures of Hannah and Elizabeth as Advent’s foremothers preparing the way. In Chapters 3 and 5 I take the familiar texts from Luke of Annunciation and Visitation and seek not just to retell those stories but to see how they resonate with contemporary human experience. I look at the Annunciation story as set within the shelter of Elizabeth’s pregnancy. I see it as a story which suggests a sacred space which, to use a phrase of Rowan Williams, ‘attunes us to God’s communication’ (4). If the Annunciation is about the awakening of the divine spark, the story of the Visitation reveals the fact that we are essentially relational creatures. We all know the effect of words which deaden and drift past us, conversations which never connect, leaving a series of separate sentences, words hanging in the air, rather than an evolving pattern. The spark dies, the conversation is aborted. Then there is the opposite: that lively dialogue, word builds upon word, sentences weave in and out of one another, and so something new emerges. There is also the delight of discovering one who can really listen, who becomes the midwife to that which is struggling to come to birth in us. The Visitation is something like that. It provides the affirmation of what was an internal moment and affirms it. It does more than that – it opens a space where there is hospitality to the new, where the holy can be proclaimed, where grace can be named. You can’t do theology alone. You can’t be religious alone. Indeed you can’t be fully human alone. We depend on one another to call forth what is divine in us as Elizabeth calls it forth in Mary. Chapter 4 bridges the space between Annunciation and Visitation focusing on the journey. This is about leaving the safety of home, setting out, knowing only that nothing will ever be the same again. It looks at the risks of stepping out and the different choices, like those of Ruth and Orpah, to make the journey or to return to the ‘mother’s house’. The final chapter returns us to the beginning and the idea of waiting for the Word, ‘making space for the uncontained God’.
The Pictures: Seeing the Word
In the year 2000 the National Gallery in London mounted an exhibition exploring images of Christ entitled Seeing Salvation. I remember going to see it a few weeks after the death of my mother and being very moved by it. For me the gallery was transformed into a sacred space, not simply because of the subject matter, but because of the quality of the attention given to those religious images. It had a unique atmosphere – it was immensely popular and crowds waited patiently to get in but there was a quiet once one was there and, in Britain’s secular society, a surprisingly large interest in seeing those masterpieces of Christian art. The purpose was to show the paintings as exploring questions of faith, to see them not so much in terms of art history, in purely formal terms, but in a theological or religious framework. Works from different periods were placed together in conversation as it were, to offer alternative images of similar ideas. Neil MacGregor, then Director of the Gallery, in an introduction to the catalogue accompanying the exhibition, commented on the power of images. He described how the Protestant reformers, suspicious of the image, insisted on the word alone, whereas the Catholic tradition with its rich sacramental understanding had always defended representation. MacGregor offers a contemporary justification: ‘Theological concepts must be given human dimension and if only words can tackle abstract mysteries, paintings are uniquely able to address the universal questions through the intelligence of the heart’ (5).
In this felicitous phrase MacGregor recognises that we come to understand not simply through rational thinking but also through a felt intelligence, that of the heart. It is significant that when we have grasped something, the phrase we use to communicate our understanding is ‘I see’. Artistic images of theological ideas or scriptural stories should not be seen merely as illustrations, they offer another way of ‘ seeing’.
Neither should the pictures in this book be viewed as incidental- merely brightening up the text – but as ‘illuminations’, casting light, offering another way of ‘seeing the word’. They serve to take us beyond the word and yet at the same time they take us to where the word is rooted in material reality. There is something of the’ scandalous particularity’ of the incarnation in the way in which words become flesh in these paintings. Yet that very particularity gives intensity to the moment which allows it to speak universally. MacGregor talks of how:
In the hands of great artists the different moments and aspects of Christ’s life become archetypes of all human experience. The Virgin nursing her son conveys the feelings every mother has for her child: they are love. In the suffering Christ we encounter the pain of the world and Christ risen and appearing to Mary Magdalene is a universal reaffirmation that love cannot be destroyed by death (6).
Thus the work of art becomes a classic, offering fresh insight to each new generation. This was very clear in the exhibition as many came unversed in the scriptures and unschooled in the Christian tradition and yet the paintings spoke to them. The artist leads us behind the surface to explore the depth dimension of the experience. Paradoxically we fall back on words again to try and describe how the painting works. But we do this with a very firm sense of its inadequacy. Ultimately we might want to say something like, ‘This is what I see. What do you see?’ The power of a work to elicit a response is not limited by a commentary, although sometimes it may be inhibited by it! At its best such commentary initiates the viewer into the whole process of attentive looking.
I have become increasingly aware of the power of art to enable us to think analogically, symbolically about the mysteries of faith. Confronted with a painting, of the Annunciation for example, we are much less likely to be caught up in literalism and more open to the graced imagination at work. The Dominican artist Kim En Joong refuses even to title his paintings as he wishes to leave the imagination of the viewer completely free. So in the case of those paintings, in particular, one can certainly only say, ‘This is what I see. What do you see?’ I recall being brought before an Aboriginal painting in Australia. ‘Don’t respond with your head,’ I was told, ‘Just let the picture speak to you.’ I can still remember the strong sense of the sacred which the painting evoked. I recall the ‘feeling’ when I stayed and simply looked. MacGregor refers to the fact that the spectators become eye-witnesses to the events. This is very clear in paintings depicting the passion of Christ where the aim is to evoke pity and compassion. In one painting used in this book, the Fra Angelico Annunciation we are drawn into the ‘sacred space’ of the painting. It is once more a present reality. One of the works is contemporary; others are centuries old and yet all are still capable of addressing us now. Their truths are limited neither by the time of their origins nor by the time of the subject matter. They are classic works capable of being perceived differently but equally powerfully, in each generation.
In some ways galleries are like zoos – the paintings are in artificial surroundings, they are in captivity from their place of origin, from the context for which they were created.
In a very real sense the works of art are deracinated: altarpieces removed from churches are now beautifully lit and displayed in surroundings with due attention to humidity and other appropriate conditions for their preservation, yet they look oddly displaced, uprooted from their liturgical space; pieces of frescoes hang on walls looking like limbs amputated from bodies. Paintings intended as singular offerings crowd a wall and jostle for attention. There is of course no touching, so crosses hang in a space cleansed of ambiguity and no lips or hands reach the wounded feet. There is often something almost sterile and ironically artificial in these places.
The exhibition Seeing Salvation attempted to redress some of this disconnection by inviting us to see them again in their religious dimension. This did not lessen their power to address the human heart; indeed it may have increased that possibility. This was the purpose for which they were created. Understanding the context alters our perception of them. The paintings chosen here for example reveal very clearly the human dimensions of the experiences described. You can see this in the illustration of the Visitation (plate 3). The scene is so real that you recognise the emotions. It slips its purely spiritual trappings and becomes the human experience of every woman seeking reassurance from another. It is at one and the same time profoundly religious and deeply human. You see. You understand. In paintings such as these the Word becomes flesh and is revealed to us.
The poetry: breaking open the word
In the absence of music, which above all the arts opens us to the transcendent, I have turned instead to poetry which, while continuing to use words, stretches them to their limit and beyond. Poetry, like music, is intended for the ear as well as the eye. Just as the notes on the page call out to be played, to be sung, so the words of the poem call out to be read aloud, to be sounded. The poet too is the one whose very art embodies a ‘waiting for the Word’ . We look to the poet to ‘ see things’ for us, to take us deeper into the dark and draw us further towards the light. The art of the poet is an evocative one, drawing out from us memories and dreams, hopes and possibilities. Poetry at its best delights and enlightens us. It offers a distilled and imagined transformation of our human experience. The good poem refuses cheap grace and wrestles with the question which mayor may not find its resolution. And the poem refuses to be translated into prose. I can even now remember the profound effect of the first poem which evoked that kind of response in me, where to return to MacGregor’s phrase, the intelligence of my heart was stirred. This was George Herbert’s ‘Prayer’ (7).The juxtaposition of different images works to tease the imagination, taking us from one possibility to another: ‘the soul in paraphrase, the heart in pilgrimage,’ ‘reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear’ finally coming to rest in ‘something understood’. Yet understood in what sense? Not through rational logical progression of argument, but through this evocation of possibility, through the realisation that no single image in itself would suffice but that somehow in the end what prayer is, is understood – and not by us but by the One to whom it is addressed. In this book I turn to contemporary poets sensitive to the pain of the world and yet clear about hope or, in theological terms, about the possibility of redemption, of salvation. Poets such as Denise Levertov are capable of expressing the yearning and the longing, the searching and seeking for Wisdom – that time of waiting for which Advent is the primary metaphor.
(1) Patrick Kavanagh, ‘Advent’ in Collected Poems, Martin Brian & O’Keeffe, London 1972, p.70.
(2) Timothy Radcliffe OP, Sing A New Song: The Christian Vocation, Dominican Publications, Dublin 1999, p.184.
(3) As a useful resource for Advent and details of these carols, see Advent for Choirs, compiled and edited by Malcolm Archer and Stephen Cleobury, Oxford, Oxford University Press 2000.
(4) Rowan Williams, Silence and Honey Cakes: The Wisdom of the Desert, Lion Publishing, Oxford 2003, p. 76.
(5) Neil MacGregor, Introduction to the Image of Christ: The Catalogue of the Exhibition Seeing Salvation, National Gallery Company Limited, London 2000, p.7.
(6) Ibid, p.7.
(7) George Herbert, ‘Prayer’ in The Metaphysical Poets introduced and edited by Helen Gardner, Penguin Books 1967, p.124