Staying Awake & Beholding – First Sunday of Advent
The 19th century Jesuit poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, has a line in Hurrahing in Harvest that resonates with me as we come to the beginning of Advent. Hopkins says: “These things, these things were here and but the beholder wanting.” Although it’s an autumn poem, that sense of beholding is a good grace for us to pray for in these opening days of Advent.
The Gospel for the First Sunday of Advent has Jesus remind us to stay awake and alert, to be attentive to the ways in which God can be discovered. He says, “For you do not know when the time will come.” We can be surprised by God’s gifts at any time. That requires that we be vigilant, attentive and alert.
Hopkins is reminding us that the possibilities of God’s graces are there. We just need to behold them or be attentive to our experiences so that we don’t miss the meaning in them. Beholding is more than a casual glance. It is allowing the object beheld to speak to us.
We have experiences that move our hearts in some way. But a common problem is that we fail to reflect on what these things mean. We sometimes wander half asleep through our lives, missing things that have the potential to surprise us. What can they teach me? What spiritual movements do they evoke in me? What is God saying to me in this? Can I gain some knowledge or insight that can help me in other dimensions of my life?
Let’s take an example. A woman was the victim of bullying and taunting years ago. She survived the experience and moved away, so that she rarely associates with former schoolmates. Instead of reflecting on the experience and growing from it, she buries the past experience. But as a manager, she can be tough with employees.
There’s a missed opportunity for personal growth and the possibility of being a source of good for society, by speaking out against bullying. Perhaps as she reviews her day, she can ponder why she is so demanding of her employees.
Or, take a man who has been cold, mean and impersonal all his life. Then he is diagnosed with cancer. He comes within millimeters of death. But an experimental procedure works and he is restored to health. A reflective person would probably grow in compassion and understanding. Instead, this man continues to be cold, almost meaner than he was before, possibly because he resents what has happened to him.
I think he missed the Advent reminder to stay awake and, to use Hopkins, behold the experience he has been through. He has missed an opportunity to be kinder and warmer.
Let’s keep our eyes and ears and heart open this Advent season. Beholding and staying awake don’t take a lot of work. It just takes a few minutes to pray and reflect, using something like the Ignatian consciousness examen.
Here are a few simple questions that I can apply to any situation in my life. First, select the situation. At the end of the day, ask yourself what experience in this day has spoken most strongly to me, either in a consoling way or a desolate way? In other words, where was I most energized? Or, where did I find the life being sapped out of me?
Spend a few minutes reflecting on the experience, asking questions such as these. What is God trying to say to me in my reflection on this experience? Does this experience connect to a bigger pattern in my life? What am I learning about myself in this? Is there anything I can do differently in the future? Do I need to forgive someone else or even myself?
Try, this week, to be attentive and alert. Let’s behold “these things” in much the same way that Mary treasures in her heart all that she sees and hears about Jesus.