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.”