I wasn’t sure I’d write this post, mostly because I didn’t want it to be mistaken for yet another “war on Christmas” diatribe. Because those make me extremely uneasy. It’s not that I don’t want to be free to celebrate Christmas and wish others a Merry Christmas, without worrying about offending someone. But, those “war on Christmas” warnings have become yet another politicization of the Sacred, and I’m just not down with that.
But, something has been troubling me this Advent. At the same time as I’ve been focusing on what Advent means to me, I’ve been noticing a peculiar trend: the rise of the Advent-calendar-that’s-not-an-Advent-calendar.
When I was growing up, the waiting time of Advent was made just a little bit more bearable by an Advent calendar hanging on the wall. It usually consisted of one large picture of the Biblical Christmas scene — barn, manger, animals, Mary, Joseph, Wise Men. And, of course, the Baby Jesus in the center of things. Poked into the picture were a series of perforated doors, one for each day of Advent, that you’d open up on the appropriate day to reveal another aspect of the events leading up to Christ’s birth.
If you had siblings, like I did, your parents usually set a schedule for who could open the next door — to mitigate bickering, of course. Nerves were taut enough leading up to Christmas, you didn’t need an argument busting out over who got to reveal that day’s Advent blessing.
As I grew up, there were rumours that other kids had CHOCOLATE behind the doors of their Advent calendars. Some didn’t even have the Christmas story on theirs; there were Star Wars, Looney Tunes, Scooby Doo and all manner of kid-themed Advent calendars. I can’t speak from personal experience about those, though. We were strictly observant in our house when it came to the Advent calendar. I can’t say I wouldn’t have wanted a chocolate Advent calendar, or one focused around the holy adventures of Scooby Doo, but it simply wasn’t going to happen in our house.
In recent years, I haven’t given Advent calendars much thought. I don’t have kids, and so never had the need to seek one out. Then my nephew was born and my sister began her annual fall hunt for a religious Advent calendar. They’re harder to find these days than you might think. Her hunt almost always ends with a plea to my mom to go pick one up from our local Catholic book store and mail it to her. We seem to be the only source of religious Advent calendars.
At the same time, there have been a few Advent calendars showing up that have got me thinking about what we call an Advent calendar. Last year, I came across a distillery selling an Advent calendar where each day had its own small bottle of whiskey to find upon opening a door. This year, a brewery got in on the act, though, to be fair, they called theirs a “Snowcase,” but media articles referred to it as an Advent calendar.
I know several people who bought these, and other similar Advent calendars and are currently enjoying sipping their way through to Christmas. That’s fine with me. Whatever gets you through the dark and drearies.
However, to me, these are not Advent calendars and I kind of wish those selling them would find another name. I know Christmas has gone secular, and it’s not technically a religious holiday for everyone. I get that. No worries.
But, Advent, that’s different. Advent names a specific liturgical season that’s all about waiting for the light, for Christ, to come into the world. When you wait, you get quiet. When you wait, you focus on the lack of something that has yet to happen. When you wait, there’s a slight uneasiness, as if you’re not quite complete. Advent is about living in the tension of that uneasiness, that period of incomplete-ness, so when Jesus is born, you can know the wondrous feeling of being whole. This is Advent. It is a season of quiet yearning. Unlike Lent, you’re not usually abstaining from anything, but, still you’re not engaged in conspicuous consumption, either.
What Advent isn’t, at least not for me, is a time of cracking a cold one to make waiting for Christmas easier. If you are counting down to Christmas and presents and family gatherings and turkey, that’s one thing. I have no problem with a tipple each day pulled from behind a little door.
I didn’t realize that I never posted a link to the video that Jim Conlon produced to go along with his book “Sacred Butterflies”. It’s a great piece, and does a lot to illustrate what the book is about. It also has a few of my classmates from the Sophia program.
I haven’t written poetry for awhile. But, tonight, I was silent for a time, present to the Divine. And this is what bubbled up.
To Know the Name of God
by Kevin Aschenbrenner
I’d like to know your name, God.
Your true name.
Not what we’ve called You,
down the millennia.
Names that, at best, never truly fit
or conveyed all that You are.
Or, at worst,
names wielded as weapons,
of power, and prestige,
subjugation, oppression, and exclusion,
by those who claimed to know Your will,
and never could.
In truth, I’d like to know your name,
to prove to others
for having these feelings,
these soft murmurings,
in my deepest deep,
that I know
but that I can’t explain,
as much as I try.
It would make things so much easier
if you could just tell me Your name.
What should I call you
in the middle of the night,
when worries press and sleep eludes,
so I know
(Which, though, perfectly useful,
is not of much emotional support).
Whisper Your name to me,
I can be trusted.
I’ll keep your secret.
It will be enough
to have heard it just once,
and to know,
I would form it silently on my lips,
imagining how it would feel,
to have Your true name
flow through my mouth
out into the world,
a solid thing,
as all words are,
That would be enough.
Or would it?
For, even as I write that
that to know Your name,
Your true name,
would be like biting
all over again.
For, should I give in to temptation and speak it,
(which, let’s face it, I would)
I’d not only know too much,
I’d know everything.
In one breath, I’d know You,
what a child of the cosmos
For if speaking your almost-names, God,
can wreak such havoc,
what would Your true name do?
I cannot be trusted with that.
No, it is better to not know
Your true name,
For I think I understand, now,
why we are not meant
to name You.
For You are not a fixed point that can be penned in by mere words,
You are force and movement,
sweeping through me,
when I call out in the night,
or laugh during the day.
It snowed this week where I live. Just two or so centimetres, but we don’t get snow here that often, and it’s always an event when the white stuff falls.
As the snow fell, one of the first things I noticed — when I wasn’t preoccupied by thoughts of when it would be most efficient to go out and shovel my driveway and walk — was the silence. Fewer cars were on the road and the noise from those that were was muffled. There was the odd sound of a sliding vehicle or a revving engine warming up, but, aside from that, it was pretty darn quiet.
I thought about how that silence was so noticeable, and realized it said a lot about my life. Logically, I would think noise would be what drew my attention, not the lack of it. Instead, silence was a unique event.
Maybe I just live in a noisier than normal neighbourhood, but I don’t think that’s the case. In fact, as I look more carefully, I can see that I’ve made my life far too noisy all on my own.
I’ve realized that I rarely let myself be in silence. From waking up to going to sleep, I immerse myself in noise. One of my first actions in the morning is to blindly reach out to my nightstand and feel around for my phone, to check my email. Then I might check Facebook and Twitter, just to make sure I haven’t missed anything while I’ve been self-indulgently sleeping. I get up and do my morning things. Then I make breakfast and coffee, usually consuming them in front of my computer. The next hours are filled with emails and phone calls. I try to get out for a walk, but I almost always have my headphones on, with music or an audiobook accompanying me. At night, I’ll eat dinner in front of the TV, while also checking social media. Sometimes, I have to rewind a scene in a show several times because I am focused more on what’s happening on Twitter than the TV. I go to bed, try to read, but almost always give in to the siren call of my smartphone screen to engage online some more. I even fall asleep to the BBC, the news of the world pouring into my brain.
Just writing this down makes me uneasy because it shows how noisy I’ve let my daily routines become. I’m no longer in right relationship with silence. It didn’t happen overnight; I gradually fell into this pattern over many years. Looking at it objectively, I think I’ve become addicted to noise, both internal and external. Noise, for me, is numbing; when it’s noisy I don’t have to think about uncomfortable things, or face difficult choices. I just turn on the TV and it all goes away. But it doesn’t. Not really. It just adds to the background, well, noise.
There’s also something else I’m crowding out with all that noise — my relationship with the Divine. Where in my routine day have I built in time for prayer, of any kind? Never mind 20 minutes or so dedicated to mindfulness or centering prayer, I’ve ensured I can cruise through the day on a mental autopilot, without attention or intentionality. In all that chatter, there’s no dialogue happening with God. I’m too busy plugging my ears and screaming “nah, nah, nah, I can’t hear you!”
I have a choice in all of this. I could continue living in noise, and I might do OK. I’ll be anxious, but I won’t miss anything that’s going on, or so I’ll tell myself.
Or, I could put my fears aside and embrace silence, a little more each day. Maybe I’ll start with 30 seconds, of just sitting still. I’ll try not to plan, or worry, or think, or write blog posts in my head, or check Twitter, or make a witty comment on Facebook. I’ll just be. Baby steps.
I’ll remind myself that the Divine is with me in every moment, and I’ll embrace the Beloved for just half a minute. I’ll probably manage only a nanosecond, but it will be a truly silent nanosecond.
The noise, of course, will start up again, but maybe I’ll try 45 seconds the next time, and then a full minute. And maybe, just as I’ve let noise creep in over time, a companionable silence held in the Divine will come to shape my days.
I know it seems odd to end a blog about silence with music, but this Peter Mayer song always stills me. Proving, I guess, that there’s noise, and then there’s sound that leads to silence.