The arrival of the season of Advent brings thoughts of Thomas Merton and how words he wrote made the season a different time.
It brings memories of driving along a road in Co. Antrim feeling tired and jaded and listening to the BBC on the car radio.
Christmas was approaching and I had no appetite for it. The season seemed to bring out the worst in people; it brought to church people who had not been seen all year. Being defensive about their failure to appear on any other occasion, they would use their solitary appearance as an opportunity to moan about things. Moaning about things in the Church of Ireland generally means moaning about the Rector – for who else could be responsible? Services, pastoral care, management of the buildings, youth work in the parish, the parish magazine, ecumenical relationships, anything they might dislike could be attributed directly to the Rector.
There was a Radio 4 programme on as I drove. It had the atmosphere of one of those radio programmes that come from a world where old bigots don’t exist and whining church people are only to be found in the pages of Trollope. It was a programme about the great spiritual writer Thomas Merton, and how he had entered monastic life during the season of Advent.
Advent for Merton was full of rich symbolism and imbued with deep meaning. I have no recall whatsoever of the Christmas liturgies in the parish (perhaps a repression of unpleasant memories), but I do remember promising myself that I would try each year to find even a fragment of the meaning that Merton found in those dark December days.
Here’s what he wrote about waiting and expectation in “Advent hope or delusion”,
‘The certainty of Christian hope lies beyond passion and beyond knowledge. Therefore we must sometimes expect our hope to come in conflict with darkness, desperation and ignorance. Therefore, too, we must remember that Christian optimism is not a perpetual sense of euphoria, an indefectible comfort in whose presence neither anguish nor tragedy can possibly exist. We must not strive to maintain a climate of optimism by the mere suppression of tragic realities. Christian optimism lies in a hope of victory that transcends all tragedy: a victory in which we pass beyond tragedy to glory with Christ crucified and risen’
When I feel guilty about running into conflict, that I have not sought and do not like, and feel positively down-hearted rather than euphoric, Merton is a word of encouragement. His words are a companion in the tiredness of the coming four weeks.