Friday, November 27, 2015

Advent Listeners

Advent is the season of the Word.  We sometimes muse on its contemplative character as a season of quiet expectation.  But look around:  Christmas tinsel and trees and stars flash gold and red and green from storefronts and neighborhood porches, Santa and the reindeer, complete with Rudolph’s red nose, gallop across rooftops to the tune of Jingle Bells, crooners dream of a white Christmas over in-store speakers.  Blinking lights, sound systems pouring out endless variations of familiar nostalgia, boisterous crowds cramming the aisles and competing for holiday bargains:  our Christmas preparations are nothing if not noisy!

How can we hear the Word coming amid all that racket?  We might look to Mary, the Mother of Jesus, as she prepared for the birth of her Child in Palestine over two millennia ago.  Life in a small village like Nazareth or a larger town like Bethlehem was far from quiet.  People lived together in large families crammed into homes that rarely had more than one room, maybe two at most, and a flat roof.  People spent their days in the street  a lot of the time, drawing water at a communal well, carrying dough to a communal bake oven, standing in doorways shouting conversations to one another above the din of passing donkeys and yelling children.  Artistic renderings of a young woman seated alone in an empty room with an open book on her knee are probably wishful thinking. 

That said, we actually have no gospel account of how Mary spent the nine months preceding Jesus’ birth except the story of her trek over the hills to visit her elderly pregnant cousin Elizabeth and the story of her second trek from Nazareth to Bethlehem before her son was born.  Neither journey could have been solitary, allowing her simply to soak in the silent scenery as a backdrop to her inner musings on the angel’s startling words.  Young women didn’t travel around the countryside unchaperoned and unprotected.  Even had Joseph gone with her, they would have needed other companions for safety and propriety.  And, later, the road to Bethlehem was no doubt crowded with many travelers headed there, as Joseph and Mary did, to register for the Emperor’s census.  People shouting greetings, drivers loudly cursing stubborn pack animals, dogs barking as they passed through villages, donkeys braying, flies buzzing, maybe even children clamoring for alms or trying to sell fruit to the travelers:  that trip to Bethlehem hardly provided a quiet milieu for maternal reflection. 

In a later in the story, after the shepherds had left the stable where the little family from Nazareth was housed, Luke’s gospel gives us a clue about Mary’s pondering:  “Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart” (Luke 2:19). Mary, in Luke’s gospel, was a listener par excellence.  When the angel disrupted her life with news that she would conceive and bear a Son, and an extraordinary one at that, she took God’s Word not only into her mind but into her heart and, literally, into every fiber of her being because this Word was not just the sounds the angel made but the very Word of God later understood to be the second Person of the Holy Trinity.  Every mother can say that she nurtures her child to birth with her love, certainly, but also with her life’s blood, her endocrine system, her muscles and nerves, her energy, her emotions—everything she is.  Mary listened to the Word with an intensity and focus of mind, heart and being that gives us a hint of what it really means to listen to the Word with the ears of the heart, even from the lesser intimacy of people not called to mother the Word physically.

Advent, the season of the Word, is therefore also the season for honing our listening.  St. Benedict never mentions Advent or Christmas.  It is impossible to date the origin of the Advent season.  Scholars suggest it was in place in the West by 480, the year of St. Benedict’s birth, but we don’t know how widespread it was during his lifetime.  Nevertheless, St. Benedict gives us some guidance for honing our listening skills in preparation for the coming of the Word—whether during Advent, at Christmas, or in everyday life—in Chapter 49 of the Rule on Lent and in fact throughout the world.

Let’s take a look at some of what he proposes to make us better listeners.  In RB 49, he tells us to give up “evil habits.”  These need not be immoral practices.  It seems possible to read into the unfolding chapter the notion that any habit can become “evil” if it takes over so much time, energy, and physical capacity that it prevents us from turning readily to “holy reading” and to prayer. Too much food and drink and too much sleep are examples. (Ah, those pre- Christmas parties overflowing with goodies!) That may be an unwarranted stretch in reading Chapter 49, but it surely fits the general approach of the Rule in structuring a way of life where “holy reading” (lectio divina) and prayer are given pride of place.  St. Benedict’s structures, taken literally, won’t fit life outside a monastery and sometimes don’t actually fit life inside the monastery today, but they do give us food for thought in this season of learning to listen more deeply to the Word by seeking a more balanced life.

St. Benedict also tells us to quit making so much noise ourselves.  He recommends that we give up “needless talking and idle jesting.”  We can’t listen if we’re always chattering!  And neither can those around us.  St. Benedict does not confine this advice to Lent.  Chapter 6 on “Restraint of Speech” sets taciturnity as a valuable goal for the everyday life of a listener.  The chapter makes good Advent reading.

Finally, not in Chapter 49 but throughout the Rule, St. Benedict urges us over and over to pursue relationships of peace:  to live together in humility, to seek forgiveness for offenses given, to respect one another, to grow into a people characterized by love.  Chapter 4, Chapter 7, and Chapter 72 are prime sources here.  We cannot listen intently to God’s word when we are busy rerunning arguments, defending ourselves against slights, stoking up anger, climbing over others’ heads to get ahead, or engaging in any of the other ways in which we focus on ourselves at the expense of others.  The God who speaks is, in every such scenario, the voice in the background that we are blotting out.
This brings us back to Mary, the Listener.  It is easy for us to excuse ourselves from intensifying our life as listeners on the grounds that the world around us is always noisily on the go, especially in this pre-Christimas season.  However, Mary does not seem to have waited for a noise-free environment to listen to the Word within her.  She must have been able to withdraw from the noisy surface of life into a quiet heart where the ears of her heart were always attuned to God’s voice.  The Rule does try to create a quiet environment for those who live in monasteries, but far more important for all of us is the wisdom St. Benedict offers us on the asceticism of becoming listeners by withdrawing from all the ways in which we ourselves cultivate inner as well as outer noise. 

During Advent, then, think about picking out relevant passages from the Prologue, Chapter 6, Chapter 7, and Chapter 72 and “reflecting on them in [your] heart” (Lk 2:19) so that at Christmas you are better able than you are right now to receive God's Word in the depths of your being.

Copyright 2015, Abbey of St. Walburga