LISTEN, WATCH, AND WAIT: AN ADVENT MEDITATION

Photo by Anne Nygård on Unsplash

One of the oldest traditions of Christian worship, one that stretches back for centuries, is that of beginning the day with reciting the psalms.  This practice strengthened in the 4th century when men and women began to leave the cities of the Byzantine Empire, becoming hermits and monastics, living alone in the “desert,” where they devoted their lives to God.  When monastics began to live together (the technical term for a monastic who lives in community is “cenobite”), liturgies were developed for collective prayer at fixed times of the day.  

The prologue of the 6th century Rule of Benedict urges the monks living in community “to open our eyes to the light that comes from God, and our ears to the voice from heaven that every day calls out this charge: ‘If you hear his voice today, do not harden your hearts.’”(Psalm 95:8)

The first service of the day was called Vigils, or “praises.” It occurred in the middle of the night, usually between midnight and 3 A.M. During Vigils, all are reminded that if they hear God’s voice that day, not to harden their hearts.  If there ever is a time when one’s heart is hardened, it is just after awakening in the middle of the night to pray.

All of the retreats I have made in the past five years have been to monasteries that lived according to the Rule of Benedict. At the monastery of Christ in the Desert in Abiquiu, New Mexico, Vigils begins at 4 A.M.  At Mepkin Abbey in Moncks Corner, South Carolina, the monks rise at 3 A.M. and begin Vigils at 3:20 A.M.  While I was a guest of the monastery, I lived in accordance with this schedule. It is quite a shock, as you might well imagine, to move from a world in which going to bed between 11:30 P.M. and midnight is quite normal to a world in which one retires at 8 P.M. and arises at 3 A.M. But that is how it is in the monastery 365 days a year. 

The monastic schedule follows the rhythm of nature more closely than does our modern world of artificial light, endless movement and activity, and of global business and commerce that works relentlessly around the clock. The monastic day is tailored to a more ancient and more natural rhythm of going to bed when the sun goes down and arising before sunrise to work and to pray.  It always takes some time for a visitor to adjust to the schedule and pace of life in the monastery. I found it the most difficult to fall asleep shortly after 8 P.M. knowing that I had to rise at 3 A.M.

While I can’t say it was always easy to wake up so early in the morning, there was something exhilarating about the sounds and sights of the middle of the night. The first night I awoke in the high altitudes of northern New Mexico, I was astounded by the vastness of the starry sky. It is one of the few places I have been where light pollution from nearby cities has not blotted out the Milky Way and the numerous stars in the heavens. Each morning I had a five-minute walk with a flashlight from my lodgings to the monastery. On the way, I watched for fire ants and snakes, not really expecting to find one, but just to be safe. One day another person who was also making a retreat at the monastery asked me if I had seen the coyote that was right next to me on my walk through the sagebrush.  I hadn’t.  I had heard the coyotes but had not seen them. The rest of the week, I kept my eyes open and remained alert whenever I made this trek in the dark. 

In South Carolina, on the other hand, I awoke to the clammy humidity of a warm July night. As I walked from my lodging to the monastery, through the Spanish moss hanging from the trees, I heard the sounds of tree frogs, frogs, insects, and other assorted creatures.

At both places, when I entered the monastery for Vigils, I was reminded to listen to God’s voice, wherever I was and whatever I was doing.  God might speak to me that day and I needed to be vigilant to that voice. At Vigils, one is watching not merely for the dawn of the new day but also for the advent of God in one’s own life. As the psalmist wrote, “I wait for the LORD, my soul waits, and in his word I hope; my soul waits for the Lord more than those who watch for the morning, more than those who watch for the morning” (Ps. 130: 5-6).

The season of Advent is a time of special vigilance for all Christians as they prepare themselves for the Christmas feast.  It is a time in which we put ourselves in the place of the generations of people who waited and longed for the coming of God’s anointed one, God’s Messiah. At Christmas, we will celebrate the birth of the Messiah, the first advent of God in our human history, as we remember and give thanks for what happened in Bethlehem so long ago.  

In the season of Advent, we also are to be vigilant for the return of our Risen Lord in our history, his second advent.  The gospels remind us throughout the season to live our lives as if Jesus might return at any moment. We are urged always to be vigilant and prepared for the return of our Messiah and Lord at any time.  

Finally, in the season of Advent, we are to prepare our own hearts so that our Lord may find a place to be born within us.  Every day is a day in which God might speak to us.  Every day is a day to watch and wait for God to speak to us.  Every day is a day of vigilance. “Today if you would hear his voice, harden not your hearts.”  This Advent, try every day to pay special attention to the moving of God’s Spirit within you.  Harden not your heart—listen, watch, and wait and prepare to be surprised by God. 

 

In the booklet, for which you will find a link below, you will find a short Advent service that you can use as a private devotion or as a service with family and friends around your Advent wreath. You might even use it along with your blessing at dinner. You also will find activities for all ages.

May you have a blessed Advent season in preparation for the coming of our Lord this Christmastide.

 

ADVENT— A SEASON OF PRUNING

One of the most difficult and daunting tasks gardeners face is that of pruning. After months of coaxing, tending, fertilizing, watering, and the like, working to get a plant to grow, there comes a time when the gardener needs to prune some branches. Pruning removes dead, damaged, or diseased branches from the plant and, in the long run, helps the plant to produce more flowers or fruit. Advice on when and how best to prune rose bushes varies to a degree but all the sources agree that rose bushes are fairly resilient and will recover from most pruning errors.

Over the past few years, I have been tending five rose bushes in the backyard garden. A few of them are of the sizeable Knockout variety. All spring and summer I nipped the flowers past bloom so that the rose bushes would produce more flowers. I watered and weeded around them, and encouraged them to grow. I hate to think that next spring I will have to cut some of the very branches I watched grow this year. Yet if the roses are to flourish—and flourish is the key word here—they will have to be pruned.

In his teachings, Jesus used pruning as a metaphor for the spiritual growth of his disciples.  He said, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. …My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.  (John 15:1- 2; 8).

Advent is a season in which we make room for God in our lives. Advent, in other words, is a season of pruning.

For generations of Christians, prayer, fasting, various forms of self-denial, examination of conscience, and subsequent confession of sins have been integral to the preparation for major days of celebration in the church calendar. The fact that these days were called “feasts” is no accident. They were days of celebration accompanied food, fun, family, friends, and fellowship. Feasts, the church must have realized, are like flowers on rose bushes, they flourish and bear fruit most after pruning.

How, then, do we go about this spiritual pruning? We begin by turning away from the things that we know separate us from the love of God. We repent, we turn away from, things we know are not good for us, not good for those around us, and not good enough for God.  We open our hearts and minds to God and pray that God will allow us to let go of the branches in us that need to be cut and discarded.

We also may need to forgive those who have hurt us. When we are unable to forgive we carry the weight of that around with us wherever we go. We again should open our hearts and minds to God and pray that God will help us to forgive so that we can let go of these branches that need to be cut and discarded.

In one of the prayers of confession in the Book of Common Prayer, we confess the sinful “things we have done” and “the things we ought to have done.” Spiritual pruning may involve eliminating some of the internal clutter in our lives so that we are ready and able to respond to the new things to which God is now calling us. It may be painful to let go of those old branches, but when we do we are more able to bear fruit.

Pruning helps us flourish, flower, and bear fruit. Perhaps it’s time for you to do some spiritual pruning this Advent.

ADVENT HOPE

piano keys illustration
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And the ransomed of the Lord shall return and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.   Isaiah 35:10

When I was sixteen years old, I sat on an airplane next to a man I have never forgotten. He was seated in the center seat of a crowded set of three seats. I was seated in the aisle seat. The man was returning from a trip to Venezuela where he had been given a circular brass shield, at least three and a half feet in diameter, with an intricate pattern pounded into it. The flight attendant asked me if I minded such a large object in front of my feet since it would not fit under the seat, in the overhead bins, or in the airplane closets. I said that I didn’t. Without this obstacle in front of us, we might never have spoken.

He was a balding man in his fifties with a fairly prominent nose, dark glasses, and a strong Eastern European accent. As we began to converse, we came to the topic of music. I do not remember everything that was said during our first conversation on the plane. I remember that he asked me if I played the piano. I told him that I had from the age of eight or nine until I turned fourteen and then had focused all my attention to the trombone. Somehow our conversation came around to the music of Frédéric Chopin and he asked me if I had any particularly favorite artists or recordings of Chopin. Undaunted by his presence and unaware of his musical prowess, I told him that I liked the recordings of Van Cliburn, whose “My Favorite Chopin,” a best-selling RCA album in the 1960s, was in my parents’ record collection. He seemed to wince as I told him this, perhaps, although he never said anything negative about van Cliburn, because his interpretation and playing of Chopin’s music was antithetical to his own. Little did I know that I was speaking to the Polish pianist Andrzej Wasowski (1919-1993), a man who Time Magazine in 1946 called “the greatest Chopin interpreter of modern times.”

A few weeks after the flight, I greeted him at the door of my home. After our in-flight conversation, knowing that I would appreciate his abilities, or perhaps to prove to me without words that his playing far exceeded that of van Cliburn’s, he invited me to his upcoming recital.

Andrzej Wasowski was a pianist who had emigrated to the United States from Poland. He came from a wealthy Polish noble family. His mother was a Princess and his father a vast landowner. In 1939 his dreams were shattered when the Nazis invaded his country and his family’s lands and property were forever taken from them. He told me how he was forced to play piano at the private parties of Nazi officers and on concert tours in Russia, where he was allowed to play anything but the work of Chopin, for fear that the nationalist sentiments raised by Chopin’s fiery and emotional piano music, would enflame the populace against the army of their occupiers.

Even at my young age, I sensed a certain sadness about him. I knew that the well of his emotions ran deep. The music of Chopin seemed to connect him to his lost homeland, his people, his mother, and the vast tradition of musical artists and performers. He played Chopin like no other!

I can only imagine what it would be like to have lost as much at once as he did. His sadness never seemed self-absorbed. It seemed to express itself in his music and in his kind and gentle manner to his students and friends.

As a child, I was surrounded by two very good piano players, my grand-mother Phillips and my mother.  I would play a tune and my grandmother, ever the severe critic, would tell me that I need to play it with expression. I had played all the notes correctly but that was not entirely what it was about. Expression is what separates the good piano players from the spectacular—and Mr. Wasowski was spectacular.

Maestro Autori, the Italian conductor of the Tulsa Philharmonic Orchestra, lived around the corner from our house. Before an upcoming recital, Andrej Wasowski, after visiting the nearby conductor, would stop by our house and invite me and my family to attend. I still have the programs from two of the recitals we attended in the 1970s.

At the intermission of one of his recitals, my father and I went up to greet him and commend him for his artistry. He showed us an enormous fluid-filled blister on his thumb, the like of which I have never seen. It stretched from the palm of his hand to the tip of his thumb. He had practiced and practiced for the recital and had played his heart (and his fingers) out during the first half of the concert. Perhaps the Beethoven piano sonata that had been played with such vigor was the culprit. He showed the blister to us privately, as if only to us, and soon was back without the audience ever being the wiser and played the entire second half of his recital with a few encores—never telling the audience of his physical handicap that day.

Sadly, I lost track of him during my years in seminary. A few years ago, while listening to the piano music of Chopin and Scriabin, I was inspired to find recordings Wasowski’s piano playing. Much to my surprise, I found recordings of Chopin’s 51 Mazurkas and 21 Nocturnes. I bought them immediately and went home to listen to them. At the same time, I discovered that Wasowski had died in 1993 in Washington, D. C.

The memories of his piano playing and his personal kindness came back to me at once.

In the season of Advent, we read the words of the prophet Isaiah in which he foretells a time in which God will restore all things. In the midst of the world in which war, famine, torture, death, and evil abounds, the arrival of the Messiah provides hope.

In the midst of a world in which it is so easy for us to become discouraged or even to give up hope, the music Andrej Wasowski played provided hope both to himself and to others. I wonder sometimes if it was the piano music he played that kept him from despair. Andrej had a kindness and gentleness borne of the immensity of loss in his life and the fact that in spite of all that he and his wife had raised a family. Even in an undeserved obscurity in the United States, he somehow still had hope, a hope that he quietly shared with others, that is until he began to play the piano. And how he could he play!

Even now when I hear his recordings of Chopin, I hear the wings of hope ever ascending. I’m not sure if it is the music of angels, but it comes pretty close.