Saturday, December 5, 2009

Monastery Advent

In his Rule Benedict says that the entire life of a monk should be a continuous Lent. He never mentions Advent, but I suspect that the same principle applies.

In Advent we wait for a new birth of God in our lives. Sounds simple, but you may think about it and ask, “isn’t God already in our lives?” Perhaps that is the question of Advent. Is God truly in our lives? Is God a compelling presence in our lives or is God like a piece of our spiritual furniture that we take so for granted that we barely see it any more?

The God of Advent is not a comfortable God, not a God of complacency and easy reassurance. In Advent we are told that everything is about to change. The fortunes of the oppressed will be reversed, God will restore Jerusalem, a savior will be born.

In the monastery we prepare for this coming in silence, waiting and anticipation. We ritualize this sense of preparation as we enter deeply into the profound listening that characterizes Advent.

At the beginning of Advent we went to our woods to cut the boughs for the Advent wreath. In the cold and snow evergreen branches are a sign of continuing life, green in the midst of a landscape that appears to be sleeping. Many volunteers then gather to form the boughs into a wreath. Advent is not a solitary event, it is a communal endeavor, God comes in the presence of many people, into the midst of our world. And so we work together, on behalf of the world to construct the wreath, the sign of our waiting and hope.

The Advent wreath is about three feet and diameter and is suspended on ropes from the ceiling. It hangs in the middle of chapel above the readers stand. Like the wreath we are suspended in time and space during Advent. It is a time of waiting, watching, being silent and open, neither here nor there as we await the new coming of God. The wreath is round, a circle that has no beginning or end. It is a symbol of eternity, our God who is beyond all human measurement of time and space but who will come and be born in humility and limitation into human reality.

The wreath is suspended above the Advent candles of the four weeks of Advent. When we gather for Evening Praise we begin in darkness. After the clock chimes we sing, still in the dark: “holy darkness, blessed light, heaven’s answer hidden from our sight, as we await you, O God of silence, we embrace your holy night.” The leader lights the candle and prayer begins.

Darkness is very appropriate for Advent. We wait without seeing, without understanding exactly what will happen, we wait in hope and trepidation. What will happen will be the initiative of God. It is our job to be still, to be open and let God come in God’s own time. As we light the candles we manifest our hope and assurance that God has come, is present and will come again into the darkness of our lives and our world.

These are profound mysteries and so during this season of Advent we set aside time to cultivate this attitude of silence and waiting. In the afternoons there is a special time set aside for lectio, the Benedictine practice of prayerful reading. It is a time to let go of the frantic busyness that this season tends to evoke and to be still, listening in hope for the coming of our God who will make all things new.

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