As soon as Thanksgiving is past, we all know that Christmas is near at hand, and then New Year’s. These special celebrations all flow together in our minds in what we call “the holiday season,” probably forgetting that “holiday” comes from “holy day.” Most of us are probably too caught up in time to be mindful of what is genuinely holy, and what is merely passing away, or “secular,” “profane.” Now it is December, and the Church would have us celebrate the season of Advent, the season of waiting for the “Coming of God.” God comes and does not come. Advent is here now, and will be gone in a few rapidly fleeting weeks. And we may wonder, “Where was God?”
As time flies by, and Christmas draws near, the prayers and Scripture readings at Mass tell us to wait in patience “for the Coming of the Lord,” to wait in prayer, to wait in silence. Nature itself tells us to be silent and still, as we in the Northern Hemisphere are in the darkest eight weeks of the year. But our consumer culture, our families, our duties, our habits tell us not to be quiet or still, but to enter into constant busyness and “celebrations.” We probably do not even consciously feel this tension: be still and wait in silence; get hyper-busy shopping, celebrating, drinking, eating…. Time just keeps flowing, carrying all things in its wake. Quoting from Eliot’s “Four Quartets:” “When is there an end to it, the withering of withered flowers?” “Ridiculous the waste sad time, stretching before and after…”
We cannot stop the flow of time, although some foolishly try to do so by wishes, dreams, and sundry magic acts. Time is not our enemy, or evil. For Time brings ever new possibilities; yes, and in time every moment and every thing passes away. Time leaves one little time for consciousness, just time to rush around in a dizzying flurry. How can one break through the passing of time? Not in time, not in the world—“not in this twittering world.” How can one become conscious, and live a more wakeful life? How does a human being break through the chains of bondage to time and passing away? How does one on his or her way to death enter into life? These are the great questions of human spiritual life, and they are implicitly raised in Advent, but rarely addressed carefully. For even the prayers and celebrations of Advent pass away too quickly, leaving but a few fleeting moments for consciousness—if we dare to attend at all. In the familiar words of St. John of the Cross, “Muero porque no muero.” “I die because I do not die.”
Letting the waves pass over one’s head, sitting in silence, is the way to die well before dying. Only by choosing not to attend to the fleeting grindings of time, does one become conscious, awake. There is no other way. Or is there? Pain can be so intense that one has no choice but to have one’s consciousness filled up with pain. Agony does this: it rips one’s mind to mind nothing but the overwhelming agony. And certain mind-altering drugs have the same effect: they fill one’s consciousness with imagined realities, and make all of the real world seem dull, stale, flat, and unprofitable. I wish neither pain, grief, nor drugged realities on anyone. There is a far better way to be ready, to enter into life, even as the body ages in time. It is a way that celebrations alone, however sacred, cannot do for us. Not even the most beautiful Advent and Christmas Masses can wake us up, as long as we do not learn to sit still in the emptiness of silence, awake and alert.