Tomorrow, Sunday, November 27, is the first day of Advent, my favorite liturgical, seasonal and contemplative time of the year. Liturgically it is the four weeks leading up to Christmas and the observance of the birth of Jesus. Seasonally it includes the winter solstice on December 21st this year, the shortest day of the year in the northern hemisphere. And for me Advent is synonymous with contemplative waiting and reflective and spiritual preparation. It is a quiet time for a deferred “not yet;"; a pregnancy for the soul. And I find Advent especially evocative for soul searching and spiritual reflection.
For a number of years I was able to observe the first week of Advent at Weston Priory, a Benedictine monastery in the Green Mountains of Vermont. The quiet of the woods, and often the first snowfall, in addition to the silence of the monastery itself, invited me to take long morning, solitary walks and afterward to journal my way through the past year and into the next. The Advent retreat allowed me to establish a reset for the coming year. What has my soul been teaching me? What am I yet to learn?
Outside the window of my little room at the monastery there was a rhododendron bush full of buds waiting for the spring thaw. I often wondered why nature would do such an improbable thing of setting buds that would have to survive the freezing conditions of mid-winter in Vermont. Whatever the scientific reasons for such a remarkable cycle, it was for me always a profound lesson in enduring hardship while living in anticipation and hope for not only survival, but for a recovery and release to follow, like the rhododendron bush in full bloom with the arrival of spring. (And parenthetically, I learned that although the bud-laden branches above are facing winter hardship, the roots of the bush below earth were actually expanding and growing stronger. The image of the underground thriving roots completes a remarkable parable of our human cycles of our character, wisdom, and often our faith growing stronger during times of adversity.)
I have often encouraged the importance of creating opportunities for quiet renewal in these often all too distracting, busy, and stressful lives. Although most of us will not be able to go to a monastery, of course, I would like to encourage all to be intentional about removing ourselves with sufficient space and time to let our souls speak to us. Advent is the liturgical invitation to find that kind of respite. Nature sends such a clear message that just as it needs time to rest and renew, so do we. I suspect many of you already observe some form of prayer, meditation, and other ways to withdraw from our routines and various duties of your lives. But if you are not doing so, this quiet period of the year is the perfect time to explore how spiritual reflection might be integrated into your regular daily practice.
I want to close with a recent experience that represents well how we might find time for solitude and reflection. Because I am having some hip problems, my walks are now limited. So last week I set out for a short walk on a familiar path in the woods on a drizzly day. Suddenly I realized how profoundly alone I was yet mystically present to the surrounding, still trees, moss, ferns and the chitter of a distant squirrel or bird. I was simply immersed and frozen in the moment with a profound gratitude for simply being alive, and I felt the affirmation that my soul seeks this kind of sacred moment in my life as much as I need food and warmth to survive.
Just as I have shared my "Advent experience” of invoking spiritual reflection, I encourage you to share your own stories of quiet reflection, and then to inquire of each other about how and when others experience a reflective, “pregnant” time of anticipation for the surprises and miracles that await us on our life’s journey.