Is Joyful Waiting Possible?

by Fr. Robert Pelton, deceased member of Madonna House

Wait for the Lord,

whose day is near.

Wait for the Lord.

Keep watch; take heart.

antiphon from Taizé song

***

This is what Advent is all about. This is what our Advent penances, our Advent prayers and traditions, our Christmas preparations are all about. We are waiting for our Bridegroom; the whole Church is waiting for our Bridegroom.

As Advent was beginning, I was thinking about waiting, and suddenly I remembered an experience which gave me a great revelation about waiting.

It was about twenty years ago when friends asked me if I would like to be present at the birth of one of their children. I had never had this opportunity before, so of course I said yes.

And, of course, the phone call came very early in the morning. (I am a night person.) Not “of course” really, but anyhow that’s how it happened.

I was up like a flash and jumped into the car and went to the hospital in Barry’s Bay, a town 18 km. away. That hospital had a special birthing section that consisted of two rooms—the waiting room and the birthing room.

So all three of us—the father, the mother, and I—sat in the waiting room while the birthing room was being prepared. Her delivery was not imminent. Very not imminent!

After about an hour and a half or so, maybe two hours, they took the mother into the birthing room and got her prepared, and still we waited.

There were magazines there, but it didn’t seem appropriate to me to be reading a magazine, and I hadn’t thought to bring my Breviary. I had thought that “let’s go” meant “let’s go!”

As I was waiting there, I found myself thinking, saying to myself, “I never wait. I never wait. I mean at a stop light, maybe, but if somebody is late, I do something else. I pick up the newspaper; I pick up a book.”

In those days, I wasn’t doing the computer; I would go to the computer now. I would do something else. I wouldn’t just wait.

Even at the airport, I don’t wait. I read something. I walk around. I eat something.

So I had a little revelation then that the Lord might be asking me to learn something. Wait. Wait.

Well, this was a pretty simple wait and it was so worth it. Finally, the mother began to go into serious labor, and the father and I went into the birthing room.

And finally the baby appeared. I was so stunned. I said to myself, well, what did you think was coming? But a human being appeared! Suddenly!

So I pondered about waiting. Usually when you are waiting, there is not only some kind of annoyance, like in a traffic jam, for example, but also some kind of anxiety is connected with the waiting.

Are they really going to come? Is she really going to come? Is he really going to come? Have they forgotten me?

And I think this is true when we are waiting for the Lord, too. We think of Scripture quotes as we try to reassure ourselves one way or another, that no, no, of course the Lord hasn’t forgotten me. But the thought is there. Is he really going to come? Is he really going to come to me?

And then there are even worse thoughts: is he going to like me when he comes? Is he going to tell me all my sins?

What is it that makes real waiting possible? Peaceful waiting. Gospel waiting. It’s trust. Trust that the Lord really will come to us, to me, that he really is our Savior, that he has really come to us and lived for us and died for us and has risen for us, ascended for us out of love and that he’s coming again out of love.

That he wants to come, in fact that he is on his way and that everything we experience as our effort to live as Christians is really our reception of his grace, his love preparing us for the great meeting.

I think that it’s rather rare, perhaps quite rare, that we wait like this naturally, because even when two people are very much in love with each other, waiting often creates anxiety.

Where is she? Where is he? Why hasn’t he come? Why is she always late? Am I in the right place? We had a bad phone call the other night. What’s this going to be like?

We know that we cannot simply manufacture trust and beyond trust, real confidence.

Not everyone has experienced betrayal as a child, but many of us have, and even those who haven’t have experienced other kinds of betrayals or failures. The betrayal could have been done by me.

The Lord died to wipe away our betrayals. What is sin if it’s not a betrayal? This is what all of our asceticism is about. Learning to receive love. Learning to do this act of the expectation of love that we call trust. And in the case of the Lord and our waiting for him in Advent, to experience our longing for him.

Longing is something in us that is profoundly defiled by the ways in which we have been hurt and have hurt ourselves.

We almost always experience longing as simply an absence, an absence for which we are more or less guilty or might be guilty.

The longing is simply our condition. It’s meant to be the Song of Songs kind of longing—a longing that is confident that the Bridegroom is coming, a longing that is the desire to receive the one whom we were created to be loved by and to love.

So what do we need to do to purify our longing? To enable us to wait with joyful hope? Well, what does the little antiphon say? “Keep watch. Keep watch.”

We see in the Gethsemane scene exactly what is so hard about keeping watch. In that case, the whole world’s misery was on the plate, in a sense.

The most terrible thing that had ever happened was about to happen. And so Jesus was compassionate with Peter, James, and John for falling asleep and not being able to watch. So we shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves when we find it hard.

Keeping watch doesn’t mean just physical awakeness. It means that kind of interior alertness that we have when we are waiting for someone truly precious, truly beloved, truly needed. We need to keep our eyes open.

It’s not easy to live with open eyes, is it? One of the qualities in Catherine that I loved and admired the most was that her eyes were almost always open. She didn’t always see exactly what was there but her eyes were open. And she saw not only what was physically there but also what was there spiritually.

It doesn’t matter too much if we notice the clouds or the trees or the stars. Some people are so much better than others at doing this. But keeping watch does require open eyes—confidently open eyes.

The little antiphon says “take heart, take heart.” I think that to take heart means to listen. It’s not only our eyes that need to be open; our ears do, too. The inner ears of our hearts need to be open.

What are we waiting for? The one who is our Lord and Savior and our Bridegroom. We are waiting for the one whose love we were created for, to come to us and to speak our name.

Why did Catherine introduce poustinia to us? Why do we go there?

I think I would say that we go there to practice listening. We read the Scriptures to listen to the word of God, and we do our best—often it’s a feeble best—to listen, listen. Not to hear a word with our ears, but to hear something with our heart.

And usually what we hear, if we are able to listen with enough peace, is the mystery of silence, the silence that is not empty, but that is filled with God.

We usually or often at least, call it peace, but it’s more than what we usually mean by peace. It’s communion. It’s what Holy Communion is for, to create this other communion, the union of my heart with Christ’s heart.

This is what Advent is for.