Advent has always seemed to me like a study in polarities. Darkness and dawn, the soaring promise of the Magnificat — “He hath put down the mighty from their seat, / and hath exalted the humble.” Light overcomes darkness; hope overcomes despair (or, more often in my case, acedia). Toward the end of Advent the darkest night passes, and the days begin to get longer. On his Twitter feed, Fr. James Martin, editor at large of America magazine, captures the spirit of the season when he says:
In the face of despair,
#Advent brings hope. Trust in that bud blossoming, as Isaiah says; be encouraged, as Paul says; and listen to John the Baptist’s message, and prepare the way, in your heart, for hope to take root, in Jesus Christ.
But this year it seems like hope and optimism are harder come by than usual.
Case in point: Wednesday night we had our weekly soup supper at my small-town Lutheran church in downstate Illinois. The food was delicious — a home-cooked taco soup blending ground beef, tomatoes and corn simmered in beef broth — parish fellowship hall cuisine at its best. The service was reflective, meditative, interactive … as we explored how we find hope in dark times, for example the anniversary of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School just the week before. We closed with a scripture reading from Revelation 21, echoing the voice from the throne in the holy city, the new Jerusalem, proclaiming:
See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.
And the closing hymn was Rory Cooney’s Canticle of the Turning, one of the most inspiring to come out of the liturgical renewal that followed Vatican II. Set to the tune of “Star of the County Down,” it’s essentially a rewrite of the Song of Mary from the Christmas story in the gospel of Luke, “Though I am small, my God, my all, / you work great things in me … Your very name puts the proud to shame.” The refrain echoes both the Magnificat and the text we read that night from the book of Revelation:
My heart shall sing of the day you bring.
Let the fires of your justice burn.
Wipe away all tears,
For the dawn draws near,
And the world is about to turn.
But I wasn’t feeing it. For one thing, we’re fighting colds at home and I was already on antibiotics for a cat bite. (Yes. A cat bite. Don’t ask!) Also on Wednesday night, at the same time we were gathered together for worship — and the soup supper — the U.S. House of Representatives was winding up the legislative process that led to the impeachment of President Donald Trump. A solemn moment, thrown into chilling relief by contrast with Trump’s behavior at a campaign rally in Michigan, urging supporters to “vote [House Speaker Nancy] Pelosi the hell out of office” and throwing slurs at Democratic congresswomen by name. I didn’t find out about all of this until later, when I read the next day’s newspaper websites. But the zeitgeist wasn’t exactly in my favor.
Closer to home our congressman, who used to be a perfectly reasonable farm belt Republican, echoed Trump’s abuse of capital letters, exclamation points and divisive rhetoric with emails urging his supporters to “CHIP IN … TO STOP THE LEFT’S POLITICAL GAMES.” And in tones more appropriate for a middle school lunchroom, claiming “Nancy Pelosi and her band of coastal elite lieutenants … despise President Trump SO much they are both impeaching him and doing everything they can to keep him off the ballot in 2020!” He’s been churning them out daily for more than a month now.
None of which gives me very much reason to hope we’re about to see the new Jerusalem, the dawn drawing near — or even a reasonable outcome to our ongoing constitutional crisis.
It turns out, though, that help was on the way. If not help, at least a healthier perspective. It came in the unlikely guise of an article in the Guardian on a Northern Irish novelist by English literary critic Alice O’Keeffe. Its headline: “Wait, be patient, keep faith: an unlikely mantra for life.” Welp, I thought when I saw it on the Guardian’s website Thursday morning, that’s for me … it sounds like what I need to be reading.
So it was.
But first some background.
O’Keeffe is a free-lance writer, literary critic and copywriter based in London. Her first novel, On the Up, was published in November. Earlier this month, just as British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government was elected on a promise to “deliver Brexit” — a profoundly dispiriting development with strong parallels in America to Trump’s white nationalism, spitefulness and contempt for foreigners — O’Keeffe happened to attend a talk given by Anna Burns of Belfast, author of Milkman, a novel set during the Troubles in Northern Ireland. O’Keefe wrote:
Sometimes, for us bookish types, a particular moment in time requires a particular author, as surely as a bout of winter flu requires paracetamol [the generic ingredient in Tylenol and other OTC pain-killers]. So I was very glad to find myself, last Thursday – in that nervous/tragic/hopeful gap between voting and seeing the exit poll [for that day’s parliamentary election] – at a talk by Anna Burns … I’ve been thinking about her perspective on life and art a lot this week, and it has been medicinal.
On Thursday, Dec. 12, Johnson won a solid majority in the House of Commons. And the opposition Labour Party, riven by conflict over anti-Semitism and discord between moderates and Corbyn’s hard-left supporters, had its worst showing since the 1930s. O’Keeffe, who was already concerned about “a divisive election looming and rising rates of hate crime” in the “deeply divided country in which we find ourselves,” was deeply disappointed. (The day after the election, she announced, “I’m off Twitter, in the name of sanity and writing time.”)
So for several reasons, O’Keeffe was ready to hear a writer from Northern Ireland, whose novel Milkman is set during in the Troubles. Also, and more importantly, Anna Burns said during her lecture that she is willing “to wait – sometimes for years – for her characters to start to talk to her” rather than try to force the creative process. O’Keefe paraphrased her: “[T]he real task, she told us, is to ‘wait and hold’ – to create the mental space, to stay patient, and to keep the faith that eventually the characters will appear and take her where she needs to go.”
As with novels, so with life. And so with lost elections. O’Keeffe added:
[Burns’] message of persistence and patience has helped me get through a week of otherwise bitter disappointment. It is quite a radical approach in an “everything now” society. After all, we are conditioned to think that the way to get what we want is to do more – to work longer hours, to knock on more doors, to shout ever more loudly on social media. But we can’t actually force the world to give us what we want. There are times when we need to push, but there are also times when we do just have to wait, and create the space, and keep the faith that if we hang in here, eventually something will shift. [Link in the original.]
O’Keeffe said this message was especially timely because Burns’ novels are set in the north of Ireland. “Burns’s novels show,” she said, “in terrifying detail, what happens to a society when people close their minds.” While the UK as a whole hasn’t “reached those extremes” (and Northern Ireland voters may be pulling back from them), sitting back and thinking things over — meditating — isn’t such a bad idea. It may be appropriate on both sides of the Atlantic, as Americans are further divided by spectacles like impeachment, the sneering, divisive tone at Trump’s rallies, and partisan screeds from down-home politicos who don’t mind sowing a few seeds of discord themselves. We’re not as far down the path in America as in the Northern Ireland of Burns’ novels. But, as O’Keeffe says:
An important weapon against this small-mindedness is the kind of contemplation that Burns uses in creating her work. Extended periods of contemplation play an important role in many different religious traditions because they can help open us up to new and different perspectives. And writing and reading fiction – perhaps appreciating any kind of art – similarly requires us to open our minds. When Burns sits and waits for her characters to speak to her, she is creating space in her head for a new perspective on the world. And when we read her books, we are allowing those characters to speak to us. As we look for ways to resist the seemingly unstoppable tide of division, perhaps trying, like Burns, to “wait and hold” is the most important work that any of us can do.
Which brings me back to our Advent soup supper in downstate Illinois. What happens if the world isn’t about to turn? At least not quite yet? If the dawn isn’t drawing near anytime soon? If the new Jerusalem isn’t on the horizon? Well, there is that promise of the Magnificat, the Song of Mary. Though I am small, my God, my all, / you work great things in me. I think it’s the same promise of my favorite T-shirts from ELCA and the Old Lutheran online gift shop. God’s work. Our hands. (I keep coming back to those T-shirts. Sometimes I think they sum up my whole theology.) And now there’s that headline in the arts section of a British newspaper. Wait, be patient, keep faith. An unlikely mantra for life. Unlikely, yes, but maybe the one most readily available to us at the moment.