“O dark dark dark…I said to my soul be still and let the dark come upon you, which shall be the darkness of God” (“East Coker”). As we reflect on these poetic and familiar words of T.S. Eliot I am sure they conjure up many things for each of us. As we begin Advent, could we pray the grace to let the darkness come upon us, remembering, feeling into with faith, that it is the darkness of God, that it is a darkness describing a pregnant time for us very personally, for us as a community, for our world? The soul: veiled in darkness, where there lies a seed of life planted by the Divine hand. Our faith experience proclaims that God wants Life, new life for humanity and creation. The liturgical seasons of Advent and Christmas come at nature’s darkest time of the year. The darkness of Advent is not the darkness of death; it is pregnant with new possibility, new hope.
This new life, that is to be born, begins dark, small, hidden, deep within. We may ask what is the posture, the inner demeanor that will help us stay watchful and awake to these inner stirrings of God’s unfolding new life? Any contemplative practice is about cultivating awareness and attentiveness within and without. But Advent asks us to stretch even further for who wants to let ‘the dark come upon them’. We may resist this darkness at least initially until we can trust or sense that this darkness is about God’s Spirit hovering over our lives, like Mary at her Annunciation.
It is interesting to move from T.S. Eliot to John of the Cross. Eliot was influenced by the poetry of John of the Cross, especially his image of the ‘dark night of the soul’, as we can see in “East Cocker”, which I quoted above. Fr. Ian Matthew in his book, The Impact of God has this to say about “the right kind of emptiness” in the writings of John of the Cross: “The one thing needed now is some space, so that what is coming can come…for John, God is an approaching God, and our main job will be not to construct but to receive; the key word will be not so much ‘achievement’ as ‘space’. ‘Making space for God in order to receive’ (p.35). What Fr. Matthew says in reflecting on the spiritual experience of John of the Cross is so apt for Advent: ‘God is an approaching God’ and we are to be there to give ‘space’, interior space in order to ‘receive’. The emphasis is “not on our forging a way, but on our getting out of the way” (p.37). God is “lavish in bestowing himself ‘wherever he finds space’” (p.37). And God will not disappoint…
Here we are, at this first Sunday of Advent; here we are called to dwell within our heart’s depths, letting the darkness come upon us. Advent is preparation for the birth of Christ in the human soul once again. At Christmas we will celebrate the birth of Christ in history. But now the preparation is for this gift, for this new manifestation of Divine life, God’s gift of God’s very Self. We need this Divine birth, each one of us, and so does our Church and world. This birth within us and in our midst is about the birth of peace which only the Christ of God can give, it is about the budding forth of hope, mercy, forgiveness, love, inclusive love, a love that evil can not and will not overcome. Will we lend our flesh, give our ‘yes’, to letting Christ be born in us this Christmas? God is coming: do we have enough faith…just a mustard seed of faith is enough to move us to utter the words, ‘let it be done to me according to your Word’. Advent is about letting Christ’s life grow in us, root more in us, open our hearts more, expand and deepen our consciousness to be more like his.
Fr. Matthew writes that as John of the Cross allowed the symbol of night to speak to his heart, two words can be highlighted from John’s meditation: “blessedness and mystery. Night, that which comes and curtails control, is greeted as ‘sheer grace!’…a night of beatitude” (p.54). Letting the darkness come upon us curtailing our control, greeting the night as ‘sheer grace’: what powerful, stirring images. Attentive and watchful in the silent darkness, clearing the inner landscape, creating enough space for God’s new ‘gesture of love’: this is a way to describe the contemplative posture that I sense this first Sunday of Advent invites us to with its gospel call to ‘stay awake’ and the epistle of Romans, ‘now is the hour for you to awake from sleep’.