The dark season is here. Darkness falls early, and there was an expectant hush in the air. Yesterday I drove my daughter back to college after the Thanksgiving holiday. As we ate an early dinner with her in the Haymarket café in Northampton, Massachusetts, and in the midst of all those college students on laptops or talking in groups, I received a text message from a high school friend who left high finance for the seminary. He wished me an Advent full of hope.
Yesterday was the first Sunday in the Christian season of Advent. Advent comes from the Latin word “adventus,” which means “coming.” It is a time of waiting and preparation for the coming of Jesus at Christmas. It is a time of waiting for something marvelous and out of this world—for the Son but and for the return of the Sun.
It was remarkable to receive this text in that cavernous hippie café, surrounded by young people who—based on long conversations with my daughter—were full of uncertainty and anxiety about the future. As we sat cocooned against the surrounding darkness, I was full of the feeling of the brevity and speed of life (how could my daughter be a senior in college?) yet I told her that pretty much everyone shares a sense of uncertainty these days. After the text from my friend, I remembered that marvelous things can happen when we open to the unknown.
The act of meditation is the movement of letting of the well-worn thoughts or favorite feelings (even bad feelings can be like cherished old sweaters, cozy and ugly at the same time). It is the act of remembering that we are here, alive and breathing, a movement of return to the awareness of the present moment. Bringing a sensitive, observant awareness to what is here and now, inside and out, we realize (one moment at a time) that reality is wild and vast and beyond our wildest dreams.
As some of my loyal readers know, I have been reading and reflecting on the dharma of Jane Eyre. Ever since the recent black out, I’ve been drawn to repurpose things, as well to simple comforts. During the Thanksgiving holiday, I was reading the harrowing scenes where Jane Eyre flees the passionate adoration of Mr. Rochester and the grand estate of Thornfield to endures utter desolation and destitution. Suddenly it struck me as strange and fascinating that this young woman who was described as so perceptive and refined and pure of heart had to wander alone and defenseless in the great unknown—while poor crazy, vice-ridden Mrs. Rochester was safe in the attic.
Think of it. For days, Jane wandered in the moors, exposed to the elements, soaked to the skin, reduced to the very line between life and death, absolutely unsure what the outcome would be. And all the while, Mrs. Rochester was kept warm and dry and fed and so insensible to her surroundings. She paced back and forth in the narrow and repetitive groove of her thought. This is a very different kind of suffering from Jane’s, which was freely and consciously undertaken.
Why did brave, pure-hearted Jane have to leave the known and brave the unknown? Why did she have to peel herself away from all those beautiful and comforting words to descend into the depths of darkness and despair? And why do we, for that matter? Why endure difficult feelings and times of waiting? Why not keep ourselves entertained and distracted—which, come to think of it, our benumbing technology-driven consumer culture tends to do? Jane learned that daring to feel, daring to open herself to reality without any buffer, led her back to the kinds of perceptions that a very young child has of what is good and essential. It led to that there is a kind of love that wasn’t passion but compassion. Braving homelessness, she discovered what it means to come home.
How difficult it is to leave the known for the unknown. How hard it is to wait and not know what will come! It took all of Jane Eyre’s famous will to do it: “I care for myself. The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself. I will keep the law given by God; sanctioned by man.”
In other words, she was holding out for something greater than living in lavish comfort as Mr. Rochester’s adored mistress. Sustained only by her self-respect and the dream of a higher mother, supporting her wish to hold out for something more real, she took off into the wild unknown. Our fantasies and our culture rarely (ever?) include the season of darkness and expectant waiting, of opening to the unknown. Yet this is what we do when we sit down to meditate or kneel in prayer: we affirm that there is something greater to be discovered than we have ever thought. This is what the season of Advent is for.
Here is a wonderful quote from our recent Parabola newsletter from C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity: “Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on; you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently He starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make any sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of – throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were being made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself.”
One thought on “Advent”
You wrote: “Why did brave, pure-hearted Jane have to leave the known and brave the unknown? Why did she have to peel herself away from all those beautiful and comforting words to descend into the depths of darkness and despair? And why do we, for that matter? Why endure difficult feelings and times of waiting? Why not keep ourselves entertained and distracted—which, come to think of it, our benumbing technology-driven consumer culture tends to do? Jane learned that daring to feel, daring to open herself to reality without any buffer, led her back to the kinds of perceptions that a very young child has of what is good and essential. It led to that there is a kind of love that wasn’t passion but compassion. Braving homelessness, she discovered what it means to come home.”
My study of Simone Weil has convinced me that there are a select few that truly seek the pearl of great price, the experience of human meaning and purpose in relation to higher consciousness and become a part of it. It requires the heart’s longing for a quality of reality which the world is incapable of providing.
I was surprised to learn that she felt this when she was three and a half years old and never changed. How to explain this? I think you’ll appreciate the following account:
“As Weil would later admit, her belief in the value of sacrifice was shaped in great part by a story she heard as a child. Sitting at the bedside of her three-and-a-half-year old daughter, who was in the hospital recovering from surgery for appendicitis, Selma Weil entertained Simone with the tale “Marie in gold and Marie in tar.” As Weil friend and biographer Simone Pétrement explains,
The heroine of this fairy tale, who was sent by her stepmother into the forest, reaches a house where she is asked whether she wants to enter by the door in gold or the door in tar. ‘For me,’ she replies, ‘tar is quite good enough.’ This was the right answer and a shower of gold fell on her. When her stepmother saw her bring back gold, she then sent her own daughter into the forest. But when asked the same question, her daughter chose the golden door and was deluged with tar.”
Some with this need of the heart for truth somehow know that the world is limited to the truths of the world’s mechanics and the karma associated with it. They are willing to experience the results of this collective karma for the sake of becoming free of it and receiving help from above in pursuit of the “good,” (gold).
This reminds me of the parable of the wise and foolish virgins in Matthew 25:
1 “At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. 2 Five of them were foolish and five were wise. 3 The foolish ones took their lamps but did not take any oil with them. 4 The wise, however, took oil in jars along with their lamps. 5 The bridegroom was a long time in coming, and they all became drowsy and fell asleep.
6 “At midnight the cry rang out: ‘Here’s the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!’
7 “Then all the virgins woke up and trimmed their lamps. 8 The foolish ones said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil; our lamps are going out.’
9 “‘No,’ they replied, ‘there may not be enough for both us and you. Instead, go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.’
10 “But while they were on their way to buy the oil, the bridegroom arrived. The virgins who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet. And the door was shut.
11 “Later the others also came. ‘Sir! Sir!’ they said. ‘Open the door for us!’
12 “But he replied, ‘I tell you the truth, I don’t know you.’
13 “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour.
It seems that a certian quality of waiting (watching) provides oil for our inner lamp. There is foolish waiting and wise waiting.