“The feathers of some unimaginable bird”

Photo by Pixabay

I was reading the lovely winter poem “White-Eyes” by Mary Oliver for my last poetry seminar, and sort of expecting one of her characteristic detailed observations of a creature or specific scene—but by the end of the poem I felt like something had slipped past me or perhaps through the words on the page in a way that was unusual.

Does this happen to you, when you read it?

White-Eyes
BY MARY OLIVER

In winter
    all the singing is in
         the tops of the trees
             where the wind-bird

with its white eyes
    shoves and pushes
         among the branches.
             Like any of us

he wants to go to sleep,
    but he’s restless—
         he has an idea,
             and slowly it unfolds

from under his beating wings
    as long as he stays awake.
         But his big, round music, after all,
             is too breathy to last.

So, it’s over.
    In the pine-crown
         he makes his nest,
             he’s done all he can.

I don’t know the name of this bird,
    I only imagine his glittering beak
         tucked in a white wing
             while the clouds—

which he has summoned
    from the north—
         which he has taught
             to be mild, and silent—

thicken, and begin to fall
    into the world below
         like stars, or the feathers
               of some unimaginable bird

that loves us,
    that is asleep now, and silent—
         that has turned itself
             into snow.

Poetry Foundation

There is something about that transition going on in the middle of the poem, from what at first seems like a literal bird making music in the tops of trees, to clouds, to wind, to snow, and back to “the feathers / of some unimaginable bird” that “turn[s] itself / into snow” again. And this latter bird somehow “loves us”. It is strangely “asleep now, and silent”. With my Christian eyes I can’t help but think of Christ, and death, and the Holy Spirit.

Confused, I let my eyes slide back up the page to the title for some guidance, where I expected to be told the name of the bird (a name which the speaker tells us in stanza six she doesn’t know), and I was surprised to see instead “White Eyes”– a phrase of the second stanza that I had barely noticed during my first reading. What kind of bird has “white eyes”? What kind of animal has white eyes? Human beings do, around their irises–but not any bird I’ve ever heard of.

In the first stanza the speaker mentions the “wind-bird”, which at first I took to be yet another avian creature with which I’m unfamiliar, but just to see I googled “wind-bird,” expecting pictures of something lovely and “white-eyed,” and instead the first thing that came up was a description of the wuchowsen. This term is affiliated with the Abenaki, Penobscot, Maliseet, Passamaquoddy, and Mi’kmaq native tribes who evidently lived in what is now known as New England.

According to the site, the wuchowsen, “wind-bird” or “wind-eagle,” is

a gigantic immortal bird spirit whose wings make the wind. Though Wuchowsen is monstrous in size and the winds he creates can be deadly, he is not treated as a monster in Wabanaki legends, but rather as a natural force of the world that must be respected. In most legends, either Glooskap or a mortal hero attempts to stop Wuchowsen’s wings from flapping, only to find that the world cannot survive without wind; Wuchowsen is restored to power, but is either persuaded to moderate the wind he creates or forced to do so by having one of his wings tied or broken. (Native-languages.org)

I have a feeling Oliver knew all this.

In this poem, in what seems to me to be a rare instance for Oliver, her subject is not literal– or, at least, not physical. The wind-bird is perhaps a kind of metaphor for the wind itself that “sings” in the “tops of the trees” and “shoves and pushes / among the branches”—a kind of movement more appropriate to breezes than to birds, I realize now.

The bird has “white-eyes”, and, taking my cue from my previous discovery, I found that there was a leader of the Lenape (Delaware) people during the revolutionary war era named Koquethagechton, or “White Eyes,” who sought to negotiate a relationship with Americans, and who married a woman named Rachel Doddridge, the daughter of English colonists who was adopted into the Lenape people after attacking her family’s farm.

I’m not sure if Oliver had him in mind in the background of this poem, or if the titular character (?) has white eyes because he is a “wind-bird”, or because he is associated with snow and winter. But the historical association with this man is possible.

At any rate, the bird is “restless,” the speaker tells us— like the wind always is, and like we human beings often are in winter: sleepy, but somehow unable to completely succumb to hibernation. The bird “has an idea” which turns into “big, round music” that is “too breathy to last.”

I’m not sure in what sense this wind makes a nest in the “pine-crown.” But the word “glittering” the speaker uses to describe the wind-bird’s beak is an adjective more appropriate, I would think, for snow.

It’s easier for me to imagine wind “summon[ing]” clouds “from the north” — but then, once more, the movement of the poem gets dream-like and mysterious. The clouds turn into an (interestingly un-named) snow that is likened to “stars”.

There’s this strange, graceful, almost circular motion (like falling snowflakes?) as the poem wanders from the image of the “wind-bird”, to what wind does in trees, to how wind calls clouds and sends snow falling down to the ground like stars, and then also like the feathers of a bird, pulling us back once again to the opening image.

The speaker admits that her subject is, for all of these poetic descriptions on the page, “unimaginable”—perhaps most of all because he “loves us.”

Strange, and beautiful.

Augustine, Advent, and the “O Antiphons”

One of my all time favorite passages from the Office of Readings is Saint Augustine’s meditation on desire:

Why he should ask us to pray, when he knows what we need before we ask him, may perplex us if we do not realize that our Lord and God does not want to know what we want (for he cannot fail to know it), but wants us rather to exercise our desire through our prayers, so that we may be able to receive what he is preparing to give us. His gift is very great indeed, but our capacity is too small and limited to receive it. That is why we are told: Enlarge your desires, do not bear the yoke with unbelievers. (Office of Readings, Saint Augustine, “Letter to Proba”, emphasis added)

I remember reading this while I was studying in Rome seven years ago. I was praying a lot then, for many things, and the idea that my prayer was a means by which God was “stretching” my heart so that I could have the capacity to receive his gift really helped me.

It strikes me that this meditation describes very well what Advent is all about. We are waiting and hoping for God to finally come, just like Israel waited (and still waits).

Augustine continues:

The deeper our faith, the stronger our hope, the greater our desire, the larger will be our capacity to receive that gift, which is very great indeed. No eye has seen it; it has no color. No ear has heard it; it has no sound. It has not entered man’s heart; man’s heart must enter into it. (Ibid)

Because, of course, the “gift” which is “very great indeed” is the Emmanuel Himself.

If you read the Old Testament this way, it makes more sense. All of that wandering in the desert, the exile and return, the judgment of the prophets, the takeover by Babylonians and Greeks and Romans was an enormous stretching process whereby the desire of Israel for the Messiah was increased. By the time of Jesus, that desire was so intense that people were identifying messiahs everywhere.

We see this same desire in the Church as we look forward to the Messiah’s second coming. We see it especially in the “O Antiphons” and the repetition of the word “come” over and over again. Each antiphon has a different name for Jesus– “Wisdom”, “Leader,” “Root”, “Key”, “Radiant Dawn”, “King”, “Emmanuel”, and in each antiphon the speaker begs for the Messiah to “come”:

O Wisdom of our God Most High,
guiding creation with power and love:
come to teach us the path of knowledge!

O Leader of the House of Israel,
giver of the Law to Moses on Sinai:
come to rescue us with your mighty power!

O Root of Jesse’s stem,
sign of God’s love for all his people:
come to save us without delay!

O Key of David,
opening the gates of God’s eternal Kingdom:
come and free the prisoners of darkness!

O Radiant Dawn,
splendor of eternal light, sun of justice:
come and shine on those who dwell in darkness and in the
shadow of death.

O King of all nations and keystone of the Church:
come and save man, whom you formed from the dust!

O Emmanuel, our King and Giver of Law:
come to save us, Lord our God!

(“The ‘O Antiphons’ of Advent”, USCCB website)

Every antiphon is a prayer and an exercise in desire.

antiphons
via maryellenb.typepad.com

Advent is a season for this desire, as Fr. James Martin in his recent seasonal reflection explains. But of course, in some sense, we are always living in Advent, until the Second Coming itself or our own death–whichever comes first.

Augustine even alludes to “set times and seasons” in which we pray to God “in words” to help us “mark the progress we have made in our desire.” I think this is exactly what Advent is:

In this faith, hope and love we pray always with unwearied desire. However, at set times and seasons we also pray to God in words, so that by these signs we may instruct ourselves and mark the progress we have made in our desire, and spur ourselves on to deepen it. The more fervent the desire, the more worthy will be its fruit. When the Apostle tells us: Pray without ceasing, he means this: Desire unceasingly that life of happiness which is nothing if not eternal, and ask it of him who alone is able to give it.

(Office of Readings, Saint Augustine, “Letter to Proba”, emphasis added)

 

What are we waiting for?

I am sure you have heard it.

Advent is a season of waiting.

And for that reason I find this liturgical season very meaningful, because I feel like a lot of my life involves waiting. Waiting for my students to show progress. Waiting for a friend to call. Waiting to see my family at Christmas. Waiting for the next step in my vocation.

What are you waiting for?

In 2010, Pope Benedict asked this question. I was still in college and waiting to discover what would come after. I had a vague idea about teaching, but I did not know that in a few short months I would be moving to Louisiana and beginning life as a first year English teacher. I did not know how hard it would be – or how much love I would receive and learn how to give. I was anxious to know what was going to come next.

The Pope said during the First Sunday of Advent that year:

One could say that man is alive as long as he waits, as long as hope is alive in his heart. And from his expectations man recognizes himself: our moral and spiritual “stature” can be measured by what we wait for, by what we hope for.

Every one of us, therefore, especially in this Season which prepares us for Christmas, can ask himself: What am I waiting for? What, at this moment of my life, does my heart long for?

(Source: Pope Bendict Angelus, First Sunday of Advent 2010 via Vatican.va)

The Pope is right when he says “man is alive as long as he waits.” The implication of course is that “when he no longer waits, man is no longer alive.”

The people of Israel know about waiting more than the rest of us. Theirs is a history of faithful waiting on the Lord, the mysterious God who speaks through their Law and their Prophets. These people still live waiting for the fulfillment of God’s promises.

Christians, too, live in waiting – in the already-but-not-yet waiting for the coming of Christ.

And all of us – even if we are not believers – are waiting. Waiting for tomorrow. Waiting for the next good day. Waiting for the pay raise, or the job offer, or the family reunion.

And yet I have such little patience for waiting!

In fact, I had thought for a time that waiting was not a good thing. After all, you cannot just follow Freidrich’s advice in The Sound of Music and simply “wait for life to start” until the love of your life finally shows up.

giphy

As much as I love Julie Andrews, I’m not waiting for life to start, I assured myself – since it already started for me over a quarter century (!) ago now. Life keeps happening whether you realize it or not. And, in the wise words of Ferris Bueller:77166-life-moves-pretty-fast-meme-fe-5PdB

And the point behind carpe diem is, of course, not to wait. We are constantly afraid of missing out on life, so let’s seize it now before it gets away from us.

Advent, however, has a very different message. Yes, life has already started. But as Benedict says, really being alive means waiting.

He continues:

But no one would ever have imagined that the Messiah could be born of a humble girl like Mary, the betrothed of a righteous man, Joseph. Nor would she have ever thought of it, and yet in her heart the expectation of the Savior was so great, her faith and hope were so ardent, that he was able to find in her a worthy mother. Moreover, God himself had prepared her before time. There is a mysterious correspondence between the waiting of God and that of Mary, the creature “full of grace”, totally transparent to the loving plan of the Most High. Let us learn from her, the Woman of Advent, how to live our daily actions with a new spirit, with the feeling of profound expectation that only the coming of God can fulfil. (Ibid)

Waiting is difficult and painful, but it is not fruitless. It is the proper posture of man before life.

 

 

“The Spirit’s Right Oasis”

A World Without Objects is a Sensible Emptiness

Richard Wilbur

The tall camels of the spirit
Steer for their deserts, passing the last groves loud
With the sawmill shrill of the locust, to the whole honey of the arid
Sun. They are slow, proud,

And move with a stilted stride
To the land of sheer horizon, hunting Traherne’s
Sensible emptiness, there where the brain’s lantern-slide
Revels in vast returns.

O connoisseurs of thirst,
Beasts of my soul who long to learn to drink
Of pure mirage, those prosperous islands are accurst
That shimmer on the brink

Of absence; auras, lustres,
And all shinings need to be shaped and borne.
Think of those painted saints, capped by the early masters
With bright, jauntily-worn

Aureate plates, or even
Merry-go-round rings. Turn, O turn
From the fine sleights of the sand, from the long empty oven
Where flames in flamings burn

Back to the trees arrayed
In bursts of glare, to the halo-dialing run
Of the country creeks, and the hills’ bracken tiaras made
Gold in the sunken sun,

Wisely watch for the sight
Of the supernova burgeoning over the barn,
Lampshine blurred in the steam of beasts, the spirit’s right
Oasis, light incarnate.

magi
source: wendythomasrussell.com

I love this poem. Especially for Advent.

It seems to me Wilbur is wrestling with a philosophical problem–maybe Bishop Berkley’s strange insistence on the priority of perception over “objective” things which I learned about only recently–a problem anyway that involves a sort of Gnostic emphasis on the “spiritual” over the material world. This is, indeed, a problem to which Wilbur continually returns. His poetry is often about the dignity and goodness of the world in all it’s messiness and decay–making him rather a literary brother to Flannery O’Connor, and rather an appropriate poet to read during this Season of the Incarnation.

Wilbur gets his title from Thomas Traherne who says “Life without objects is a sensible emptiness, and that is a greater misery than death or nothing” (as quoted by Engel, here). Rather a strange sentiment for those of us who don’t want to be too materialistic during Christmas, no? Yet fleeing from “objects” is exactly what Wilbur wants us to avoid.

In this (Christmas?) poem, the “beasts of [his] soul,” dissatisfied with lowly corporeality, turn away from John the Baptist’s “shrill of the locust” in the “last groves” of trees, toward the golden “whole honey of the arid / Sun” (3-4). They  “long to learn to drink / Of pure mirage” and thus set out deep into the desert, often an image suggesting retreat from the world (10-11).

Alluding gently to the wise men from the East, here the “tall camels of the spirit” traverse the sands in search of some “sheer horizon” (1, 6).  It’s rather an understandable longing that we all feel–wanting to extract ourselves from the clutter and bustle of living, peeling away icky fleshiness so that we can wander peacefully in the clarity of intellect. Perhaps Wilbur is alluding to the common practice of Eastern religions and philosophies of trying to separate oneself from suffering and all forms of earthly attachment.

But Wilbur insists that such detachment is a horizon of impossibility. Such places of spiritual purity are nothing more than “fine slights of the sand”–the pun is rather irresistible–that “shimmer on the brink of absence” (19, 12-13).

He then turns, unexpectedly, to iconography: “Think of those painted saints” who were “capped” with halos (15-16). For the Eastern Church, icons are sensible ways to reach the divine. Yet you reach God by praying through them, not around them.

Similarly, Wilbur argues that going out into the desert of intellectual reverie is not the right way to arrive at truth: “[A]ll shinings need to be shaped and borne”–we should not look for the light apart from material things upon which it shines (14). And thus he calls back the “camels” of his own prodigal spirit from their arid deserts–go back the way you came, to the trees, to life, to the messy world you tried to escape:

Back to the trees arrayed
In bursts of glare, to the halo-dialing run
Of the country creeks, and the hills’ bracken tiaras made
Gold in the sunken sun

All natural, material things aglow (even halo-ed!) with the light you were looking for in the first place. This image of all things shining with heavenly light reminds me a lot of C. S. Lewis’ oft-quoted saying: “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” Loving Christ does enable you to see everything–even the most mundane things–in new ways. All things, especially the things you used to overlook, suddenly become important.

I hope, this Christmas, I can similarly turn back toward the messiness of living in a new way.

Wilbur concludes with the image of the Star of Bethlehem over the stable and the “right oasis” for our thirsty spirits–a humble, earthly oasis in the desert:

Wisely watch for the sight
Of the supernova burgeoning over the barn,
Lampshine blurred in the steam of beasts, the spirit’s right
Oasis, light incarnate. (24-28)

icone-noel

Observing Advent

We […] forget that in the Book of Job at the end of the drama God declares Job to be righteous–Job, who has hurled the most outrageous accusations at God–while he rejects Job’s friends as speakers of falsehood, those friends who had defended God and had found some kind of good sense and answer for everything. […]

Observing Advent simply means talking with God the way Job did. It means just seeing the whole reality and burden of our Christian life without fear and bringing it before the face of God, as judge and savior, even if, like Job, we have no answer to give about it at all, and the only thing left is to leave it to God himself to answer and to tell him how we are standing here in our darkness with no answers. (Pope Benedict, What It Means to Be a Christian)

Also, there is this beautiful video entitled “Evil Did Not Win” by the mother of Emilie Parker, one of the victims at Sandy Hook. It has been a whole year.

And still we wait for Him.

Advent-2
source: mastersdust.com

Memory and Faith Part IV

o-come-o-come-emmanuel
source: byronytaylor.com

Advent is concerned with that very connection between memory and hope which is so necessary to man. Advent’s intention is to awaken the most profound and basic emotional memory within us, namely, the memory of the God who became a child. This is a healing memory; it brings hope. The purpose of the Church’s year is continually to rehearse her great history of memories, to awaken the heart’s memory so that it can discern the star of hope…It is the beautiful task of Advent to awaken in all of us memories of goodness and thus to open doors of hope. (Pope Benedict)

Read the other posts in this series on “Memory and Faith” here:

Part I

Part II

Part III

The believer is one who remembers.

As a teacher, I really like this idea.

Maybe it’s because I know how important memory is to being a good student — remembering to study, remembering to do your homework, remembering where you’re supposed to turn it in, remembering your teacher actually loves you and doesn’t want to make your life miserable, remembering the directions given two minutes ago…

But can you really fault somebody if he has a bad memory?

Well, yes, I think you can.

Setting aside the instances where some people through disease or injury lose their ability to remember (something I would like to reflect upon in a later post), memory is integral to human life. And we are responsible for our ability to remember and for our memories.

Not that we all have the same capacity for memory. And for many of us, it’s a big struggle. I know it always has been for me. I forget to do things all the the time. Sometimes I even hurt people when I forget. I forget to call, to text back, to do that chore that really needed doing but for some reason I did not think was important enough to try to remember…

Memory is something like courage. Maybe you weren’t given a big dose of it at birth, but you can cultivate it if you try. Being a good student requires cultivating your memory – and not just your ability to remember certain tasks, either. It’s an ability to remember why you are doing all this work at all. It’s an ability to remember who you really are.

Memory can be a tricky thing, though. Sometimes we think we remember certain people or events more accurately than we actually do. Sometimes we allow our present emotions to invade our memories, to taint what was good and pure with our present cynicism.

Or other times, we let the memories themselves flood us and take over our present peace:

[…] we conjure from the ether of our past a solitary-but-sharply-outlined idea, and then suddenly, one after another, memories begin to fall upon us, like bright orbs called from galaxies far beyond, and much better kept in the distance. Our disappointing families and imperfect parents, our closely held secrets and sins and sorrows and regrets, given too much free reign, begin to dominate us. They wreak havoc on our emotions and then begin to drain our spirits until we are depleted and depressed — all trust, all hope diminished. (Elizabeth Scalia at The Anchoress )

We allow the past to control our present. We refuse the present good because we hold onto our disappointments. But this, too, is a kind of forgetfulness. Holding onto certain memories to the exclusion of others is not real remembering — it’s selective myopia.

Pope Francis (whom I insist really seems to be emphasizing this inseparability between memory and faith) says in his new Apostolic Exhortation:

There are Christians whose lives seem like Lent without Easter. I realize of course that joy is not expressed the same way at all times in life, especially at moments of great difficulty. Joy adapts and changes, but it always endures, even as a flicker of light born of our personal certainty that, when everything is said and done, we are infinitely loved. I understand the grief of people who have to endure great suffering, yet slowly but surely we all have to let the joy of faith slowly revive as a quiet yet firm trust, even amid the greatest distress: “My soul is bereft of peace; I have forgotten what happiness is… But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning. Great is your faithfulness… It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord” (Lam 3:17, 21-23, 26). (EG 6)

Or other times, our forgetfulness can take a more subtle (and I believe more sinister shape):

We settle into mediocrity–into bland contentment with our books and our friends, our jobs, our homes, even our families–whatever it is that we value. We forget ourselves in the present moment. You see this in obvious ways when people become intoxicated–but there are many things besides alcohol that can intoxicate us and make us forget and live only for the present moment: ideologies, objects, even people.

I suppose that’s a rather controversial thing to say in this carpe diem, live-in-the-present-moment culture. But I would argue that living in the present, to the exclusion of the past and the future, is also myopic and demeans us.

Even Pope Francis, famous for his freshness, his newness, his emphasis on evangelization by prophetic deeds, insists:

Nor should we see the newness of this mission as entailing a kind of displacement or forgetfulness of the living history which surrounds us and carries us forward. Memory is a dimension of our faith which we might call “deuteronomic”, not unlike the memory of Israel itself. Jesus leaves us the Eucharist as the Church’s daily remembrance of, and deeper sharing in, the event of his Passover (cf. Lk 22:19). The joy of evangelizing always arises from grateful remembrance: it is a grace which we constantly need to implore. The apostles never forgot the moment when Jesus touched their hearts: “It was about four o’clock in the afternoon” (Jn 1:39).

How beautiful, and how very curious, that the Gospel writer makes note of the time of day he met Jesus.

There are little details like this sprinkled throughout the gospels, showing some origin in human memory. So much of what was seen and heard about Jesus was passed down by word of mouth, as people recounted what they remembered from days, weeks, and eventually years before.

Before there was the New Testament, there was human memory.

Advent itself is very much a time of remembering.

I feel like Advent, in particular, is a very Jewish time for Christians. From my uninformed and outside perspective, Judaism to me seems to be very much a religion of memory–remembering God’s great deeds throughout history, and imploring God Himself to remember His Chosen Israel. And when Christianity is true to itself, it does the same thing.

In Advent in particular we are steeped in the prophets, especially Isaiah. The Christians remembered different things Jesus said and did, and recognized in those actions the hopes of Israel.

Jesus himself, on the cross, remembered Psalm 22 — perhaps at the sight of his Mother, who taught it to him when he was a little boy.

John the Baptist, this Second Sunday of Advent, reminds the people of his own time, and us, of the Prophet Isaiah: “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight’” (Isaiah 40:3).

Perhaps these “paths” he speaks of are the paths of our own minds. If our memories are crooked and blocked, than whatever it is we are meant to hear will not be able to get through. God wants to come to us, but we have to clear the way.

How easily we forget who we are. How easily we forget the hole in our hearts, and fill it with other things–sometimes very good things–but things nevertheless which aren’t big enough for our longing. We forget this longing, because it is painful. It is easier to be content than to be in love.

But it is better to be in love.

Advent, I think, is supposed to reawaken in us this longing for God. True waiting means waiting with hope and longing and expectation. Patience does not exclude this desire for–for perhaps we don’t even know what. But remembering our own hearts in this way is an essential part of being Christian–and, I would even say, of being human:

Together with Jesus, this remembrance makes present to us “a great cloud of witnesses” (Heb 12:1), some of whom, as believers, we recall with great joy: “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God” (Heb 13:7). Some of them were ordinary people who were close to us and introduced us to the life of faith: “I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that dwelt first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice” (2 Tim 1:5). The believer is essentially “one who remembers”. (Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium 13)

Sometimes music can help us remember. I think this is one of the most beautiful renditions of my favorite Advent/Christmas song I have ever heard.

It helps me remember.

He Comes

Advent, this powerful liturgical season that we are beginning, invites us to pause in silence to understand a presence. It is an invitation to understand that the individual events of the day are hints that God is giving us, signs of the attention he has for each one of us. (Pope Benedict, Homily at First Vespers of Advent, November 28, 2009)

Advent
source: theinspiredbudget.com

The priest’s homily yesterday for the First Sunday of Advent was very simple but very good. He told this story–which I am retelling as closely as my memory allows:

There was a monk who had been praying for a very long time, perhaps for years, to see the Lord face to face. Finally, in prayer, the Lord informed him that He would come and visit him the very next day.

Thrilled, the monk finished his prayers and went to bed, but it took him a long time to fall asleep because he was so excited. Morning came and he looked out the window at the beautiful sunrise and thought to himself, “Today is the day I will see the face of God!”

The bells rang for morning prayer and for Mass. The monk had gone every day for the last thirty years, but today he decided to stay in his room because he did not want to miss God when he came to visit him.

A long while later, about mid-morning, there was a knock on the door. The monk, trembling, opened it– only to find the concerned face of his brother monk, who was worried about him because he had not come to Mass that day. “Are you all right?” The monk assured his friend that all was well, and he hastily closed the door to continue waiting for God.

About an hour later there was another knock at the door. Again, however, the monk was disappointed– it was only another brother reminding him of his duties to care for the sick friars, to change their bedsheets, to give them their medicine. “Would you mind covering for me today?” pleaded the monk. “I am waiting for a very important Visitor!”

His friend agreed, and the monk continued to wait for God to arrive.

The day went on. Evening came. It was time for the monk to shut the gate to the monastery. He bustled out of his room to do this quickly, but before he could shut it some travelers called out to him not to shut the door. They begged him to let them in.

“I am sorry – can you please come back tomorrow?” the monk said. “I am very busy this evening. I am waiting for an important Visitor!”

The monk closed the gate and rushed back to his room.

The hours crept by. The monk was feeling more and more discouraged and upset. He watched in dismay as the clock struck midnight.

The day was over – and the Lord had not come as He said He would.

The monk knelt down to pray again. “Why didn’t you come?” he asked. “I waited for you all day long, and you never came.”

The Lord answered him, “I did come. In the morning when you woke, I was in the sunrise, but you did not see me there. I was there at morning prayer and in the Mass, but you were not there to meet Me. I was there in your brother monk who came to check on you, but you did not recognize me. I was there again in your sick and dying brethren, but you did not come to minister to Me. I was there in the travelers seeking food and shelter, but you did not let Me in. I did come.”

what-would-Jesus-cut-POOR
source: urbanchristiannews.com

I think there are several ways in which we can find this story very unsatisfying.

1) Our consciences are troubled. We recognize this story as being another version of the Last Judgment described in Matthew 25:31-46 – “For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, a stranger and you did not take me in…” We, with the monk in the story, reply, “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or ill or in prison, and not minister to your needs?” (cf. Mt 25:44). And we know that we do this all of the time, through our inattentiveness.

As a teacher I am bombarded by students for seven hours a day, sometimes nonstop, during class but also outside of class. It’s funny because during my off-hour or after school, I am sometimes sitting at my desk, reading a book by the Pope or a blog about the Gospel readings, and I find myself annoyed when students come in – “Hey Ms. Shea, I lost my copy of that homework.” “Hey Ms. Shea, I know I said I would come tomorrow to take that quiz, but can I take it now instead?” “Uh, Ms. Shea, do we have any homework for tonight?” And I swallow my annoyance and think to myself, ugh, I’m trying to read about God here–completely forgetting that God is knocking at my door at that moment through the needs of my kids.

2) Another reason we might find this monk story unsatisfactory in some way is a lot more subtle, and I noticed the temptation in myself as soon as the priest ended his homily. It was a kind of disappointment —  that God had promised to show that monk His face but really only meant showing it in ordinary and mundane ways. Huh. Typical. If that’s all He meant, when why didn’t He say so? And why does it always have to be this way? Couldn’t You show Your real Face just once?

We then feel a sort of fake sympathy for the poor monk in the story (who is, of course, ourselves). We think, I bet that poor guy always praised God for the sunrise, always went to prayers and Mass, always helped his sick brothers and took in the travelers. He messed up this one time because of an obvious misunderstanding, and now he’s going to be judged? How is that fair?

And, while we’re at it, why doesn’t God ever mean what He says? He gives so many extravagant promises (read the Old Testament) and they are never fulfilled in the ways we want them to be. Israel was waiting for a Messiah–and what they got was a poor carpenter, a weird rabbi, who was eventually killed by Rome anyway.

But if we step back a little, we can see how wrongheaded these complaints are. The monk was wrong to stay waiting in his room, just as we are wrong to stay waiting in our humdrum lives until some “sign” forces us out of our drab complacency into sudden holiness.

And the Israelites knew what a fearsome thing it would be to behold the Face of God. Moses was afraid he would die, and he covered his face with his robe when the Spirit of the Lord walked by his mountain. To ask to “see” God is really no small matter – and I wonder if perhaps we really know what we’re asking for when we make such a demand.

3.) The third reason for feeling this story is somewhat unsatisfactory is very similar to the second. We (or maybe just I, as the case may be) go back to all those supposed “appearances” of God’s face — God’s version of keeping His promise to the monk. Well, how are we supposed to believe that God comes if we only ever see Him in these ordinary things? Doesn’t the core of our faith rest upon Miracles, after all — the Incarnation and Resurrection? But that was 2,000 years ago. Can’t there be a miracle for us, today?

It’s a tough question. Why does God — if He exists — choose to remain so hidden from everybody. Why does He make it so difficult for us to see Him? If He wants everyone to be saved, then why doesn’t He do something about our blindness, our deafness?

The Church replies that He did do something about it. He became a human being. He died to save us. Read your Bible.

But even so we are unsatisfied. That was so long ago! I wasn’t there! How can I be expected to trust the (strangely) ordinary writings in the Gospels that I cannot verify for accuracy, by people I never met, in a language and culture so different from mine, and composed in a time when accuracy maybe even meant something different than it does now?

But that’s how He is, I realized as I sat back in my pew with a sigh yesterday. That’s  Who He is.

The Mass itself went on, and He came–as He always does–in ordinary bread and wine. Nothing spectacular. No show. No obvious suspension of the laws of nature forcing us to believe that He was there at all. Just ordinary bread and wine. Just the miserable faces of the poor. Just the annoying faces of your coworkers or family members. Just the stable and the manger.

God is humble — and perhaps even shy. He does not force us to see Him, or to love Him, or even to look for Him. He leaves that up to us and our freedom. And if we don’t really want to see Him, then we won’t.

Advent is all about our waiting, but it is also about His Coming.

And Christmas, we pray, is when those two movements meet each other.

This beautiful poem comes to mind:

He was born in an obscure village
The child of a peasant woman
He grew up in another obscure village
Where he worked in a carpenter shop
Until he was thirty

He never wrote a book
He never held an office
He never went to college
He never visited a big city
He never travelled more than two hundred miles
From the place where he was born
He did none of the things
Usually associated with greatness
He had no credentials but himself

He was only thirty three

His friends ran away
One of them denied him
He was turned over to his enemies
And went through the mockery of a trial
He was nailed to a cross between two thieves
While dying, his executioners gambled for his clothing
The only property he had on earth

When he was dead
He was laid in a borrowed grave
Through the pity of a friend

Nineteen centuries have come and gone
And today Jesus is the central figure of the human race
And the leader of mankind’s progress
All the armies that have ever marched
All the navies that have ever sailed
All the parliaments that have ever sat
All the kings that ever reigned put together
Have not affected the life of mankind on earth
As powerfully as that one solitary life.

(Dr. James Allan, 1926 – Source )