The Angel of Possibility

Harold Lloyd clock

My times are in your hand; deliver me.  (Psalm 31:15)

“Let me be the first to wish you a happy and blessed 1984.” This first salutation of the New Year was given, two minutes after midnight, by Bishop Desmond Tutu to several hundred Episcopal college students and campus ministers gathered at a snowy retreat center in the Rocky Mountains. He was preaching at a eucharist begun in the final moments of 1983. The gospel reading, spanning the stroke of midnight, accompanied our entry into the year of Orwellian dread, 1984. Then the bishop’s genial greeting at the start of his homily broke the fatalistic spell cast by the 1949 novel. Orwell’s terrible future had not come to pass. Instead, a man stood before us speaking eloquently and authentically about hope and possibility. A few weeks later he would win the Nobel Peace Prize. The God of history is yet capable of surprise.

But it remains an act of faith to believe this in earnest. Walter Benjamin, a German thinker in the darkest of times, gave a chilling description in 1940 of the “angel of history,” who can see nothing but the terrible past as he is swept backward into the future:

His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe, which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress. [i]

As we contemplate the wreckage of 2014, we might well share Benjamin’s despair. But there is another angel, the angel of possibility, who knows better. This angel says: Do not be afraid. Whatever twists and turns the story may take, it is in the end a story of life, not death.

And every New Year’s Eve, we ritually renew our faith in that story. There is an element of carnival this night, as we throw off the tyranny of good order for a bit of wild excess, declaring independence from the way things are in the name of things to come. But the night’s underlying theme is not chaos but renewal, as expressed in the traditional English carol:

The old year now away is fled, the new year it is entered…
Now, like the snake, your skin cast off… and so let the year begin.

This festival of rebirth, ringing out the old, ringing in the new, reflects an abiding human rhythm. Whether it’s every morning or every December 31st, we bid farewell to our flawed efforts and bad habits, resolving to do better this time around. Taken in isolation, New Year’s Eve has a whiff of doubt if not desperation. We know that the midnight noise and kisses will soon fade into the hangovers and broken resolutions of January’s new morning.

But New Year’s Day is also the eighth day of Christmas, the festival of Incarnation. What wants to be born is not a project of our own making, doomed to wither in the wintry blast of time. The Babe of Bethlehem is not the cartoon baby draped in the banner of “2015,” deposing the old man of “2014” in a melancholy preview of its own ultimate fate 365 days hence.

The holy Child is the Lord of the Dance “that will never, never die.” Yes, this new person will share our mortal condition; he will live and die as one of us. But in so doing he will accomplish what we can never do on our own. He will make our own stories part of the divine Dance. He will guide our own steps into the way of peace.

People often fuss about whether Christmas is pagan or Christian, secular or sacred. But the whole point of Christmas is that it is now impossible to tell the two apart. Ever since “the great angel-blinding Light” shrank “His blaze, to shine in a poor shepherd’s eye,”[ii] what George Herbert termed “Heaven in ordinarie”[iii] is the way this Dance goes. When the Christmas festival fades like Scrooge’s transformative dream, we will all return to habitual place and ordinary time. But if we have paid any attention at all, nothing will be quite the same again: neither ourselves, nor the world, nor the flow of time.

God with us. This changes everything.

On this last day of the year I rose early and went outside to see the stars. Orion, winter’s dominant constellation, had already left the stage. Leo, who rules the western sky on spring evenings, now roared in his place. To gaze on the night sky before dawn is to behold the future. Standing in the cold of winter, I looked upon the constellations of spring. And to complicate the metaphor, the starlight itself was a message from the distant past.

Time is a mysterious gift. Past, present and future keep changing partners in the everlasting whirl of the Dance. Breathless, we do our best to keep up. As W. H. Auden put it, “if there when grace dances, I should dance.”[iv]

The poet also wrote perhaps the best New Year’s Eve line of all, which I commend to you with my wishes for a most happy and blessed 2015:

Time is our choice
of How to love
and Why.[v]

[i] Walter Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy of History, q. in Hugh Rayment Pickard, The Myths of Time: From Saint Augustine to American Beauty (London: Darton, Longman and Todd Ltd, 2004), 75

[ii] Richard Crashaw, “Satan’s Sight of the Nativity,” in The Roads From Bethlehem: Christmas Literature from Writers Ancient and Modern, ed. Pegram Johnson III and Edna M. Troiano (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993) 148

[iii] George Herbert, “Prayer I”, George Herbert: The Country Parson & The Temple, ed. John N. Wall, Jr. (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1981)

[iv] W.H. Auden, “Whitsunday in Kirchstetten,” Collected Poems, ed. Edward Mendelson (New York: Random House, 1976), 559

[v] “For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio,” Collected Poems p. 297. This remarkable work, a must-read for the Christmas season, was performed live before the New Year’s Eve eucharist mentioned at the beginning of this post. Auden reminds us that, once we have seen the Child of Incarnation, our challenge is to redeem the “Time Being” from insignificance.

How can this be?

Cathedral Films producer James K. Friedrich on the set of Child of Bethlehem (1940)

Cathedral Films producer James K. Friedrich on the set of Child of Bethlehem (1940)

My mother Elaine, pregnant with her firstborn child Marilyn, rode to Bethlehem on a donkey (in 1936 around Jerusalem, cars weren’t safe – they attracted gunfire). My father, the Rev. James K. Friedrich, made biblical films, including several on the birth of Jesus. In Holy Night (1949), I was a shepherd boy at the manger, with a stupefied look on my face from the blinding lights behind the camera. But no one could top my sister Martha, who played the baby Jesus in Child of Bethlehem (1940). You could say the Nativity story runs in our family. Even the Episcopal parish church of my childhood was a converted stable.

The thing about Christmas, though, is that everyone gets to be in it. By virtue of the Incarnation, our human nature, our human stories, have become the place where God chooses to dwell. Meister Eckhart put this claim most vividly in the fourteenth century:

“There is only one birth – and this birth takes place in the being and in the ground and core of the soul…Not only is the Son of the heavenly Creator born in this darkness – but you too are born there as a child of the same heavenly Creator. and the Creator extends this same power to you out of the divine maternity bed located in the Godhead to eternally give birth.”

Of course I have been reminded by women friends that only a male could find the sublime in a labor lasting for eternity. But Eckhart’s image makes us uneasy in other ways, for in these disturbing times it may be hard to imagine ourselves as worthy vessels for divinity. Everywhere we turn, we see human life devalued and held in contempt. The poor, the weak, the wounded are marginalized and forgotten. Abuse, violence, cruelty and self-loathing are rampant. Overt racism is making a comeback. Even torture has its shameless defenders.

But Christmas tells a counter-story, about a God who remembers the glory for which we were made, who yearns to speak the word of Love in the vocabulary of human flesh. The seventeenth-century metaphysical poet Henry Vaughan expressed his astonishment at this fact in a memorable line:

Brave worms, and Earth! that thus could have
A God enclosed within your Cell…

Oh, we are brave worms indeed, to believe our frail flesh made for the Incarnation, for the union of time and eternity, finite and infinite, flesh and Word. “God became human,” said St. Athanasius, “in order that humans might become godlike.” And St. Paul told the Corinthians that “all of us, with our unveiled faces like mirrors reflecting the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the image we reflect in brighter and brighter glory.” (II Cor. 3:18)

In the face of such a wonder, we find ourselves repeating Mary’s old question: “How can this be?” And the best answer I know was given by the medieval mystic, Mechthild of Magdeburg: “Insofar as we love compassion and practice it steadfastly, to that extent do we resemble the heavenly Creator who practices these things ceaselessly in us.”

As we kneel before the Mystery this night, may we know how beloved of God we mortals are, and how very much the Glory wants to be born in us.

To you, dear readers, I wish the merriest and holiest of Christmastides.
God bless us every one!

Advent Adventures in Worship (Part 2: Homecoming)

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In Part 1, I explained the rationale for cultivating innovation and surprise in Advent liturgies, and described a multimedia preaching “performance” in 1968. The subject of Part 2 is an experiential journey taken by the congregation through a very early example of a worship installation, curated at a Los Angeles church on the Third Sunday of Advent, 1972.

St. John’s Episcopal Church, situated between downtown Los Angeles and the University of Southern California, is one of the most beautiful churches in the city. Modeled after a late 12th century Romanesque Italian church, it is a cathedral-sized longitudinal space with a high ceiling (it would later become the Pro-cathedral of the Diocese of Los Angeles). The interior walls are plain concrete, but the chancel is adorned with colorful marble and mosaics, drawing the eye of worshippers from the monotone of the nave toward the alluring colors surrounding the high altar, where a spectacular carving of the risen Christ is the terminus that completes and fulfills the spatial momentum.

Built by a prosperous white congregation in the 1920’s, St. John’s in 1972 was multicultural, with African-Americans comprising the majority, along with Anglicans of Belizean descent and a sizeable contingent of white liberals. For many of the members it was a destination church, known for both its liturgy and its social witness. I had attended seminary with its new rector, Bill Persell, who brought me in to start a monthly evening liturgy called The Third Sunday, a “liturgy lab” developing cutting edge experiential eucharists, grounded in the arts and organized around themes ranging from the liturgical year to politics and the environment. Every month about 200 people, many driving an hour or more, made a pilgrimage to those unusual and compelling evening liturgies.

For the Advent liturgy, people stood in the back of the nave, facing away from the distant altar, for spoken choruses from W. H. Auden’s Christmas oratorio, For the Time Being, interwoven with sung verses from the hymn, Sleepers Wake. After several Scripture readings, people were taken “eastward” (toward the altar) in small groups to begin a multi-sensory journey through the ambulatory, a long enclosed passageway circling behind the chancel.

The journey began in the baptistry, where each person (let’s call them “pilgrims”) was sprinkled with water from the font as the priest said, “Awake, O sleeper. Rise from the dead, and Christ will be your light.” (Ephesians 5:14) From there the pilgrims proceeded through a succession of sounds (mostly recordings of poetry) and images (projected film and slides). The first poem was the beginning of Dante’s Inferno, recited in the doleful voice of John Ciardi (“Midway in my life’s journey I went astray in a dark wood …”). Beyond that the path descended into the claustrophobic space of the boiler room, where “hell” consisted of seeing only your own image played back on several closed-circuit video monitors.

Ascending back into the ambulatory, the journey continued through a succession of projected images of a broken and longing world. At the halfway point an audio loop played Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” (“the Sea of Faith was once, too, at the full … But now I only hear its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar …”). Beyond that bleak utterance the path entered a section of total darkness, where the pilgrims had to feel their way along the walls toward a dim blue light somewhere beyond the curve. It was an experiential analogy of faith’s “dark night.”

Near the far end of the U-shaped passage, the voice of T. S. Eliot intoned the end of his Four Quartets (“And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time”). Leading the group to a curtained doorway, the guide then spoke words from Auden’s For the Time Being:

For the garden is the only place there is,
but you will not find it until you have looked for it everywhere
and found nowhere that is not a desert.[i]

Passing through the curtain, the pilgrims exited the cramped space of the ambulatory into the luminous openness of a candlelit chapel with golden mosaic walls, where they waited to welcome those who came after them. The luminous environment and the loving smiles seemed an apt icon for the future being prepared for the friends of God. Advent indeed.

Once everyone had made the journey, we gathered round the altar in the main church for the eucharist. My faded copy of the mimeographed bulletin provides a quote from Andre Hamman, D.F.M. as the epigraph for this “homecoming” section of the liturgy:

“The terminus of the Exodus is the reassembly of the people of God to celebrate the definitive and universal Pasch … The baptized can quit everything, lose everything, but [s]he has found the family where the living God resides.”[ii]

The ritual journey we made that night was a pioneering incorporation of installation art into liturgical practice. As Claire Bishop has written, installations, by being ‘theatrical’, ‘immersive’, or ‘experiential’, make the participation of the ‘viewer’ an inherent part of the work:

“… it addresses the viewer directly as a literal presence in the space [rather than] a pair of disembodied eyes that survey the work from a distance … Instead of representing texture, space, light and so on, installation art presents these elements directly for us to experience. This introduces an emphasis on sensory immediacy, on physical participation (the viewer must walk into and around the work), and on a heightened awareness of other visitors who become part of the piece.”[iii]

By disrupting the usual patterns of worship (starting the liturgy facing “backward,” getting out of the pews to explore the building’s “residual” spaces normally unused during worship), and initiating a journey of discovery, we allowed the worshippers to enter the ritual in a more embodied and attentive way. As I wrote at the time, “The one who journeys, discovers, overcomes ordeals and finally attains a center where he or she can dwell [becomes] more aware of what it means to be somewhere, to leave it and arrive somewhere else. “ Even if it is the same place “known for the first time”.

My influences in the design of this worship installation were the biblical Exodus, Dante’s 3-stage journey of Inferno – Purgatorio – Paradiso, and the major Advent theme of endings becoming beginnings. It was all about movement away from, passage through, arrival at … “The James Joyce Memorial Liquid Theater,” an experimental work created by Los Angeles’ brilliant Company Theater, also had significant impact on my thinking about ritual experience. In that play, each member of the audience was gently guided by actors through a series of mysterious spaces and multi-sensory experiences.

My conception was also shaped by childhood memories of the funhouse on the pier at Santa Monica’s Ocean Park, where I had loved the harrowing thrill of passing through narrow, zigzagging corridors (some of them totally dark), as the muffled sound of surf leaked through the floorboards. For me, the Advent installation was a kind of “theological funhouse.”

In the 1970’s, installation art was becoming a conscious practice, but I am not sure how early it began to be explored by liturgists. Worship installations are now a staple of alternative worship, but I suspect that what we did at St. John’s in 1972 was pretty rare. This is how I summed it up afterward:

The journey was a dying (baptismal figure, narrowing of space, sounds and images of a yearning world, an unknown way, darkness) and a rising (emergence into an open, “transcendent” space, and being gathered into the community of the eucharist). It was a losing (leaving the original assembly and the main space) and a finding (rediscovering the community and the original space).

In other words, our Exodus had brought us home.

[i] W. H. Auden, For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio, Collected Poems, ed. Edward Mendelson (New York: Random House, 1976), 274

[ii] Alas, I no longer have the source for this.

[iii] Claire Bishop, Installation Art: A Critical History (New York: Routledge, 2005)

Praying the O Antiphons

Théodore Géricault, The Raft of the Medusa (1818-19). Paris, Musée du Louvre.

Théodore Géricault, The Raft of the Medusa (1818-19). Paris, Musée du Louvre.

Today the O Antiphons begin. Part of the Church’s Advent prayer for at least12 centuries, they employ seven images from the prophet Isaiah to engage us with the names and attributes of the Holy One whose coming (‘Advent’) we await. Originally sung before and after the Magnifcat at Vespers, I find them to be a marvelous way to pray during these final days before Christmas.

There is one antiphon for each day from December 17 to December 23. Copy them on seven slips of paper, and put each day’s antiphon on a mirror, refrigerator, dashboard, screen or bedpost. Carry it with you during the day. Pray it at dawn, noon, sunset and night, in the midst of activity and the midst of quiet, in solitude and in the company of others.

Each antiphon is both greeting and supplication to the God who comes to save us:

O Sapientia, O Adonai, O Radix Jesse, O Clavis David,
O Oriens, O Rex Gentium, O Emmanuel … O … O … O …

O is such an evocative word. We use it when we come upon something outside ourselves, often unexpected; something that engages us face to face.

  • “O” can be an inhalation, a gasp, the cry of astonishment at the heart of every encounter with the Holy. If our place of prayer were suddenly filled with smoke and angels, or if the Holy called to us out of a burning bush, our first response might well be “O!”
  • There is also the O of understanding, or recognition: O, now I see, now I get it. Or even: O, it’s you!
  • And then there is the ecstatic O, expressing delight, wonder, the sigh of surrender: Ohhhhhhhh!

Each of these is a fitting response when we meet the divine:


You can find both the original Latin texts and English translations online. The best known paraphrase of the Antiphons is the hymn, “O come, O come, Emmanuel.” The following are my own variations. Use whatever version suits you best, or write your own.

(Dec. 17)          O Sophia, you are the truth of harmonious form, the pattern of existence, the shapeliness of love. Come: illumine us, enable us, empower us to live in your Wisdom, your Torah, your Way.

(Dec. 18)         O Adonai, ruler of time and history, manifestation of divine purpose to your chosen people, may your presence be our burning bush. Come: bring justice to the poor, food to the hungry, shelter to the homeless, protection to the vulnerable, freedom to the prisoner.

(Dec. 19)         O Root of Jesse, coming to flower in Jesus, who in turn bears fruit in all who  are grafted into the royal line of God’s family. Come: let us never be severed from the roots and branches that nourish us in every moment.

(Dec. 20)         O Key of David, you open, and none can shut; you shut, and none can open. Come: lead us out of the prisons that oppress body, mind and soul; welcome us into the open space of possibility; let us breathe again.

(Dec. 21)         O Rising Dawn, bright splendor of the light eternal, illumining all things with Love’s radiance. Come: enlighten those who sit in darkness, who dwell in the shadow of death.

(Dec. 22)         O Desire of all nations and peoples, you are the strong force that draws us toward you, the pattern which choreographs creation to Love’s bright music. Come: teach us the steps that we may dance with you.

(Dec. 23)         O Emmanuel, you show us the face of divinity; you reveal the fullness of our humanity. Come: enable us to become who we are.

Advent adventures in worship (Part 1: The Electric Eschaton)

Multimedia liturgy at Greenbelt Festival in 2006

Multimedia liturgy at Greenbelt Festival in 2006

When I engage in worship design, there is usually some kind of balance – or tension – between tradition and innovation. Tradition is valued for its accumulated wisdom, its hard-won knowledge of what works and what is fitting or ‘true.’ Tradition grounds worship in a shared language and culture by which we are deeply formed over time. And the stability of tradition as something familiar and repeated makes it a repository of meaningful associations, memories and feelings for the community.

Innovation is equally valuable, not only as an antidote for rigidity, staleness, and the idolatry of accustomed forms, but also as a welcoming of divine surprise and the freshening winds of the Spirit. Whenever we enter a new environment, our senses go on heightened alert until we get our bearings. We need to pay close attention. You can’t sleepwalk through strange territory. And so it is with innovative worship. As Jesus counseled, it is imperative to ‘stay awake,’ and even slight shifts in the forms and practices of worship can help this happen.

As the liturgical season when the old is judged and found wanting and the new is never quite what anyone expects, Advent seems particularly suited to a disruption of routine and the intrusion of novelty into the worship experience. Unusual texts and music, film clips, drama, choral readings, dance, and generous silences are among the options. I once showed up as John the Baptist, walking barefoot up the aisle of a congregation who (except for the rector who planned this surprise) did not know my face. I shouted about broods of vipers, warned them to repent, and urged them to keep watch for the One who is coming. Then I left as suddenly as I had arrived. Reviews were mixed!

The two most adventurous Advent liturgies I have curated were both a long time ago, when experiment was in the air for both the culture and the church. Whether such experiences now seem merely aberrant curiosities, relics of a vanished past, or pioneering models with continuing resonance for emerging forms of church, others can judge. But if you will indulge me, I would like to read them into the record, for what it’s worth.

The first took place in 1968 at the chapel of the Episcopal Theological School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where I was in my last year of seminary. Every senior was required to preach once to the community, and my turn came in the third week of Advent. Since I was experimenting at the time with both 16mm film and audiotape collage, I decided to do a multi-media sermon, which I called The Electric Eschaton.

1968 was a year of apocalyptic turbulence, so there was no shortage of material for Advent preaching. During the summer and fall I gathered hours of audio from television and radio: news, commercials, fragments of movie dialogue and TV shows, as though they were pieces of a great cultural puzzle that could collectively convey the dynamics of a world in upheaval. There was no Internet for searching and downloading. There weren’t even VCRs. Anything I taped was acquired during live broadcasts, using a cassette recorder with a microphone placed near the television or radio.

As a child I had been fascinated by the random sampling of sounds produced by the continuous slow turning of an AM radio dial late at night. Pulled out of context and juxtaposed with one another by pure chance, these slices of voice, music and static together created their own kind of coherence, both familiar and strange, like utterances from a Delphic oracle or the collective unconscious.

When an old school friend, John White, played me his own experiment with sound collage in June of ‘68, I was hooked by this fascinating art form. I would return to seminary in the fall with a box of tapes to begin the construction of The Electric Eschaton, mixing my collected sounds with bits of rock and roll, hymnody, and poetry recordings. From Wolfman Jack to Humphrey Bogart, Mick Jagger to Soupy Sales, E. E. Cummings to Frank Zappa, The Wizard of Oz to Johnny Guitar, the voices are wildly diverse. And the juxtapositions are often intense. A choir sings “O come, O come, Emmanuel” while a jazz singer screams in anguish. The sounds of police beating demonstrators at the Democratic Convention is accompanied by an ad for “the cleaning breakthrough of the century … with fantastic power to break down and disintegrate dirt and stains.” The collage begins with the blustering of a faux deity, the “great and powerful” Wizard of Oz, and ends with a plaintive supplication for deliverance to whoever might be listening (“please don’t be long, please don’t be long”).

You can listen to The Electric Eschaton (20:25) here (headphones recommended):

Is this all just sound and fury, signifying nothing, or as the postmodernists have it, an endless play of signifiers with no final meaning? Some may think so. But to me it was an explicitly theological project, where human longing and divine reality were foundational assumptions, though much of the work was a product of intuition and chance rather than formal design. It felt, like all art (and prayer?), both playful and serious.

Recently I read about a 1951 John Cage performance (“Imaginary Landscape No. 4”) where 12 people each sat by a radio on stage, turning the dials according to a “score” created in advance purely by chance (the throwing of coins). And whatever came out of each radio was in itself a matter of chance. For Cage it was an effort to erase all will and let the combinations of sound happen without his control. In doing so, Cage said, “I saw that all things are related. We don’t have to bring about relationships.”[i] The Electric Eschaton was not as random as Cage’s work, but it perhaps shared with him a sense of pattern underlying the flux of things.

In the laborious assembly of so many fragments, I kept hearing key Advent themes: “I am waiting” … “I can’t reach you” … “what took you so long?” … “it’s so hard loving you” … “so tired, tired of waiting” … “please answer the stupid phone” … “I hear you calling my name” … “here it comes.” A Dantean sense of humanity lost in a dark wood was also pervasive: “my burden is heavy” … “can’t we have something to feel” … “I see a golden calf pointing back at me” … “he could not live much longer with that poison in his system.” And there were echoes of Isaiah in all of it: The people that walked in darkness… What shall I cry? All flesh is grass …. Comfort, comfort my people.

The sermon was performed in a packed chapel at Evening Prayer. There was no one in the pulpit, only a silent, flickering television – a bit of subversive parody, challenging my own apparently absent authority as preacher. Slide and film images were projected on large screens while the sound collage filled the space. When the last strains of “please don’t be long” faded out, the projectors shut down and a jazz drummer began to improvise in total darkness while several female voices shouted out phrases from the liturgy (Lighten our darkness!). After a minute or two of this, drummer and voices ceased, and “Also Sprach Zarathustra” (the famous theme from the year’s trippiest film, 2001) came on full volume, followed by the joyous ‘na-na-na’ chorus of “Hey Jude.” The chapel lights were switched back on for the Beatles song. Most of the people began to dance and sing in a great spiral. The scheduled benediction and closing hymn seemed superfluous at that point, so the presiding minister just let the dance play out as the liturgical finale.

So what happened that night? The sound collage had been a great Advent cry in the darkness, often painful and stricken. What could a preacher have said at the end to counter the cumulative force of that collage? Beautiful words by one person to a seated congregation would not have sufficed. The divine “answer” had to be nonverbal and eventful: first the Strauss, then the dance. As it turned out, a community united in embodied joy proved unimaginably eloquent. The dance was not a rebuttal of the darkness, locked in the dualism of perpetual combat. It was rather an ecstatic overflow of being that the darkness could never comprehend.

[Part 2 will appear in my next post]

[i] q. in Kay Larson, Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists (New York: The Penguin Press, 2012), 175

Ten ways to keep a holy Advent

Camino de Santiago near Atapuerca

Camino de Santiago near Atapuerca

Advent is a time to keep watch for the unexpected comings of God, to prepare our own hearts to make room for the Blessed One, and to be ourselves signs to the world around us of divine compassion and justice.

Here is a list of ten general practices, each with some specific suggestions for the keeping of this holy season.

In a month that is already far too busy and rushed, these are not offered as one more to-do list to work through, but as ways to slow down, take a breath, pay attention, and make room in our lives for the birth of the Holy. These practices do not begin to exhaust the possibilities, but I hope they may stimulate your own thoughtful and prayerful responses. If anything here speaks to you, or prompts your own variation, try it out – for a minute, an hour, a day, and leave the rest to God.

Let every heart prepare him/her room.

1) Interrupting

Breaking the flow of habitual patterns can prompt new kinds of noticing and stimulate awareness. Once a week, or once a day, practice difference, welcome surprise.

Take a route to work/school/errands you have never used before. What do you see?

Take a walk in a place or a time that is not customary, and pay attention, trying to notice details of color, movement, and shape before words and labels start to fill your head.

Wear your watch on the “wrong” wrist, or not at all. Every time you look at the time and feel the interruption of automatic behavior, turn your attention to God’s presence in the here and now.

2) Silencing

Schedule a fixed time each day (between 1 and 10 minutes) for wordless silence in the presence of God.

Unplug yourself from all media one day a week, or at least for an evening. Pay attention to how your soul wants to use that quiet time.

Spend one whole evening during Advent, or at least one hour, in total stillness and silence. Turn everything off, light a candle or a fire, abstain from books and music, stop talking in your head. Listen. Who is knocking at the door of your heart? What does your deepest desire want to tell you?

3) Waiting

Make every experience of waiting in daily life a time of prayerful attention to the hope and desire within you. What are all the things your are waiting for? But what are you really waiting for?

Practice attentive and patient waiting. Sit or lie by a window where you can see only the sky. Wait for something to pass by: a cloud, a plane, a bird, an angel…

Wait for the full moon to rise (tonight). Wait for the first star to appear on Christmas Eve.

4) Listening

When you are out in the world, pause and close your eyes sometimes. What do you hear? Make those sounds the subject of a prayer.

Spend some time each day in a place of stillness where you can listen to your heart, and listen for God.

In conversations with friends, family, spiritual director, or stranger, listen for what wants to be heard.

Spend some time each day with music that awakens your heart and evokes the beauty of holiness for you.

5) Watching

Rise early one morning to watch night turn to day. Fit your prayer to the slow rhythm of dawning.

Pick a day to watch both the sunrise and the sunset, from a viewpoint that is unusual for you.

Notice the faces of strangers. Can you see in them icons of the holy?

Take a photograph of something that catches your prayerful eye. Write an Advent reflection, poem or haiku to go with it, and post on social media.

Watch a film that focuses your attention on the traces of God in our world or in our lives.

6) Praying

For at least part of one day each week, every time you enter a new space or begin a new activity, say this prayer: “Maranatha, come Lord Jesus.”

Four times a day (rising, midday, evening, bedtime), face the horizon and pray, “Maranatha, come Lord Jesus.”

Four times a day (rising, midday, evening, bedtime) say the Collect-prayer for the week from the Sunday liturgy.

Cultivate a daily prayer practice, at a set time if possible, and keep it faithfully, even when (or especially when) you are pressed or distracted.

7) Reflecting

Select a book for daily spiritual reading. Don’t skip a single day.

Meditate on the daily readings for Advent (Year 2) provided in lectionaries, Advent books, or online sources.

Journal at least a few times each week. Try beginning with “I am waiting for…” or “I am longing for…” and write what comes to mind.

8) Loving

Visit the sick, the lonely, the sad, the prisoner.

Practice random acts of kindness. Pray that you may be a sign of Christ to everyone you meet.

Pray every day for the person who is hardest for you.

Whenever you are in public space, spend some time praying for everyone you see around you.

For one day, or at least one hour, make a conscious act of seeing Christ in every face.

9) Giving

Do an act of volunteering which you have never done before.
Do something to make more justice and peace.
Send money to a good cause.
Take something to a food bank.

Make a change in your own way of living that will be a vote for “a new heaven and a new earth.”

Pick one social concern that engages your energetic attention, and pray every day that God’s will be done. You don’t have to list possible solutions – they are usually beyond our own imagining. Just entrust the object of your concern to God’s mercy and God’s imagination.

Give yourself to deep conversation with family and friends about the Advent season, the feelings it brings, the action it inspires.

10) Receiving

Pay attention.
Stay awake.
Be ready.

Open the door of your heart
to welcome
the Stranger who knows you by heart.