Advent and letting down our defenses

Today is the first Sunday, and first day of Advent. It is also the start of a new year.  Ever since one of my spiritual directors suggested it several years ago, I have also had the practice of praying an Ignatian Examen of the entire year on the last day before Advent. I spend time reflecting in the presence of God about where God was most visibly present in my life and relationships. Where did I grow to be more loving, and where did I resist? For what am I most grateful?

This year, my thoughts of gratitude ranged across on a variety of moments: a summer trip to Ireland with my husband and an especially beautiful afternoon walking in complete silence down a windy path on the island of Inis Oirr, surrounded by vines blossoming with flowers; a breakfast at our B and B in Dingle, where we were delighted suddenly to have a herd of cows walk right past the full length glass door where we were dining; a reconciled relationship that took place in a most surprising way; the gift of health and healing for a family member with illness; a stunning rainbow halfway through my summer retreat; creative energy for new course to teach and new writing project to write; and many more places where God was found, most of them totally unplanned.

This practice also helps to think purposefully about Advent. What do I hope for in Advent? Of course, what I desire most is Christ himself. But it helps us to consider what would that look like, more concretely? Where are the relationships and spaces that we would hope for Christ to enter into more deeply ? Or where we are resistant , what would it look like to surrender more fully to the Lord in those particular ways? A good Jesuit friend , who now lives in S Africa, once described his experience of Advent as “a time when God gently breaks through all of our defenses”. I have always liked that description. It helps for me to think about places where I can get a little defended, and to consider what further surrender might look like. “Surrender” here is not like the surrender of an army to an enemy, but rather more like the surrender of letting oneself be kissed by a lover, whose tender care is deeply known.

In the first reading for Sunday, the prophet Jeremiah writes about how God will fulfill God’s promise to Israel. Originally, Jeremiah was speaking at a time when the kingdom of Judah was threatened by external political forces such as the Babylonian empire. Destruction lay all around, yet Jeremiah said that God would eventually restore Israel. I imagine that this was hard for the people who heard Jeremiah to believe. The evidence around them did not give much reason to hope. But Jeremiah says the hope is not to be found in political forces. The reason for hope is God’s promise.

For us, too, God’s promise is trustworthy because God loves us infinitely: each one of us is completely loved by God– the way that a mother loves her newborn child, or like a couple deeply in love, or the way that marriage or friendship that spans decades grows deep roots—and much, much more. God’s promise is trustworthy because of who God is. Our human limits do not, and can not, diminish anything of that core, foundational Love that is God: “God is love” (1 John 4:16).

This is why we can let down our defenses in Advent—just a little bit more than last year— because God’s friendship with us is reliable and God’s care always faithful. As this Advent begins, we can also consider how we want to be more faithful to God, too, by considering where we might love a little more the way that God loves—unreservedly, unguardedly, without fear or trepidation. What would it mean to love in our personal relationships with a little more vulnerability? What would it mean to love others politically, with greater trust in the goodness and lovability of the stranger, the outsider, the one my community considers as “other”?

God wants to bring life and love into all of the spaces in our world. Where do we want to open the door a little wider to invite God in?

Self-Gift and a Wonderful Life

My favorite Christmas movie, hands down, is It’s a Wonderful Life. The film, well known to many, portrays a man named George Bailey who has lived a wonderful life but who doesn’t know it. In a moment of crisis, he finds himself in despair and must learn anew why his life is worthwhile.

George Bailey is a man who continually gives his life away. As a boy, he dreams of winning a million dollars and traveling around the world in order to escape Bedford Falls. When that doesn’t happen, he works hard and responsibly to save up funds for college and for travel. But at every point, just as he is about to fulfill his dreams, something comes up that requires that he stay behind in Bedford Falls: his father has a stroke and so he must take over the family business; he realizes that he loves Mary and so can’t leave without her; and to save the savings and loan during a bank run, he and Mary give away all their honeymoon cash at the last moment. George Bailey is not a do-gooder who just delights in all the responsibility and care giving. But when he’s faced with crucial decisions, he ultimately follows the words that we see hanging underneath his father’s portrait in the savings and loan: “The only things that we take with us are those that we have given away.”

When Uncle Billy loses a substantial chunk of cash and George faces a crisis of possible scandal and imprisonment, as well as the loss of his father’s legacy, he falls into despair. His despair is not so much about the prospect of jail per se, but about whether his life is meaningful. If he has done so much to be responsible to others, to do the right thing, and in the end the will of the evil Mr Potter triumphs, what does it all mean? At one point in the film, Mr Potter cynically challenges George Bailey, telling him to go ahead and approach all the “riff raff” that he helped over the years and see if they will help him. Potter declares that they won’t care for George and will just run him out of town.

Of course, Potter is completely wrong; at the end of the film, we know, Mary will approach all those whom George had helped in their community over the years, and they respond with generosity, lavishly. George Bailey will receive “a hundredfold” what he gave away. So why does George despair?

My husband’s theory is that the problem with George is that he knows how to help others, but he doesn’t know how to ask for help.  To this I’ll add, he also doesn’t really understand the wider effect that his life of giving himself away has had on others. Only after Clarence the angel arranges for George to see the kind of life that his town and friends would have lived without him does he learn how much each one of his small actions did matter.

But what George Bailey learns from all of this is not that he is a great guy despite his problems. Rather, George learns that he already resides in a community of love and that this is what makes his life (and theirs) wonderful. Both his actions and others’ actions multiply love through their generosity. The film is full of the generous acts of nearly all of its characters, except Mr Potter. We see George’s mother’s willingness to lend out her fine china to a high school dance party, to his father’s willingness to let George leave family and town behind to pursue his dreams, to Mary’s decoration of the run down house for their honeymoon and her easy sacrifice of the honeymoon money to help out others, to the police officers who sing a duet to them while standing out in the rain.

Bedford Falls is a community of generous people who forget themselves and give themselves away, trustingly, sometimes even naively. Like the trusty servants whom the master gives the many talents, to spend freely, Bedford Falls is about a community of persons who give away their talents, and are repaid a hundred times over, as a community, for their giving it all away. George Bailey learns that he’s had a wonderful life because the adventure for which he had always yearned was already there all around him, all along.He is the “richest man in the world,” his brother Harry tells him, and his wealth is in all the relationships of both giving and receiving that he has cultivated over his many years.

George lives an extraordinary life for all the ordinariness of it that he once despised. He discovers that the most ordinary, everyday relationships is where the sacredness and wondrous is. Jesus’ birth, which we await in Advent, affirms the sacredness of the ordinary human life that God took on in the incarnation. Most of Jesus’ life will not be spent in ministry or in the Passion and Resurrection, and while these are crucial to understanding Jesus’s identity, we can start with the wonder of the Incarnation, that God took on human flesh and so made the ordinary and the human forever holy. In this Advent and into Christmas, we can reflect on the “extraordinary ordinary” all around us, most especially in our interconnections with one another.

When we give ourselves away, and receive the generosity constantly around us, our lives are wonderful.

Being wakeful

Yesterday’s Gospel reading at Mass has Jesus telling us, “Be watchful! Be alert!” We do not know when the Lord is coming. This passage can point us to at attitude that we can bring to bear in our lives at multiple levels. We do not know when the Second Coming will be. We do not know when our own deaths will occur, when we hope to see the Lord face to face. We also do not know when we will meet Christ in another in this world: in the face of a homeless man, in the shape of a newborn baby, or in the morning rising of the sun. The latter kind of encountering of Christ requires a certain watchfulness on our part. Here are three ways to be watchful this Advent:

1. We can savor the sights and sounds of the season. Ignatian spirituality often uses this term “savor” to emphasize the need to slow down and to sink into the graces that we are given, and not to move past them too quickly. Like a good meal that we might savor slowly, we can savor our surroundings.

2. We can be hopeful. Hope is not wishful thinking or merely projecting our own desires into the future. Rather, Christian hope is based in God, based in the belief that God wants to continually give us good gifts, no matter what else is happening in our lives. Part of the watchfulness of Advent is bringing a conscious attitude of hope to our present circumstances.

3. We can practicing gratitude by giving thanks at the end of each day for the graces that God has offered us. God gives us sometimes unexpected gifts throughout the day—what Pope Francis names as the gifts of the “God of surprises.” By naming these gifts at day’s end we also become increasingly aware the next day of the presence of God in our midst.

Clay in the Potter’s Hands

The first reading for this first Sunday in Advent (from the second lectionary) comes from Isaiah. While the beginning of the readings stresses the sinfulness of all the people and their experience of guilt, the reading ends with this: “we are the clay and you are the potter; we are all the works of your hands” (Isaiah 64:8).

Advent is the season in which we prepare not only for the coming of Christmas, but also for the Second Coming of Christ. As we move into Advent, we can ask the question, am I ready for that meeting? The Isaiah reading resonates with me, as I consider all the aspects of my life that are not yet ready. Perhaps many of us have moments in our lives where we, too, feel like “polluted rags” or “withered leaves,” heavy either with sin or with a sense of loss and decay.

Our culture, and sometimes even our religion, encourages us to think that the right response to our own failings is to find a way to “fix ourselves.” Or we might try to repair a broken relationship, or act to help others with their problems. Our culture of modernity emphasizes the self-made man or woman. Yet Isaiah’s words are the opposite. “We are the clay and you are the potter.” These words from Isaiah invite us to surrender to God. To allow ourselves to be clay in God’s hands and to entrust our lives to God. We do not even get to choose what kind of clay we are. If we are honest, we know both of our own gifts and our own shortcomings, and often both sides of ourselves are beyond our own control. In Advent, we entrust ourselves to God and ask that God can create and re-create us so that we will be ready for the coming of Jesus.

In past prayers, I’ve connected to the idea of the “earthen vessel” made of clay that God shapes. In Catherine of Siena’s Dialogue, she describes the human soul as akin to a vessel of clay that must remain close to the Fountain. It’s only by remaining empty in one sense, and being engaged with our sense of internal poverty, that we make room for the One who is the Fountain of love to enter in. I recall with fondness a parish priest whose homily described us all as like cracked pots, to which he added: “We’re all crackpots!” much to the church’s amusement and nodding agreement. Advent, though, reminds us that we are still malleable, still in the process of being re-shaped, not earthen vessels formed once and for all but clay still in the potter’s hands.

As we enter into Advent, we can each ask: where in my life have I not yet surrendered to God? What part of my self, my relationships, my desires, or my activities can I give over to the gentleness of the Creator’s hands?