Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Summing Up Advent

The most famous 20th-century American monk, Thomas Merton (1915-1968), entered his Kentucky monastery on December 10, 1941. (Interestingly, he died exactly 27 years later, on December 10, 1968). In his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain (1948), he spoke of the symbolic significance of becoming a monk in Advent.

"Liturgically speaking, you could hardly find a better time to become a monk than Advent. You begin a  new life, you enter into a new world at the beginning of a new liturgical year. And everything that the church gives you to sing, every prayer that you say in and with Christ in His Mystical Body is an ardent desire for grace, for help, for the coming of the Messiah, the Redeemer."

The monastic vocation is distinctive, of course, as in its own proper way is every vocation in the Church. But every form of life in the Church participates in that same "ardent desire for grace, for help, for the coming of the Messiah, the Redeemer." As I have often observed, Advent is the liturgical season that most explicitly expresses the Church's - that is, our - present condition, in this interim between Christmas and the end.

As a monk, Merton experienced Advent in a heightened way - in a liturgical way. He took his place as a postulant in the monastic choir for the first time on Saturday evening, December 13, 1941. "It was the second vespers of St. Lucy and we chanted the psalms of the Commune virginum, but after that the capitulum was of the second Sunday of Advent, and presently the cantor intoned the lovely Advent hymn, Conditor Alme Siderum. ... That evening I saw how the measured tone took the old words of St. Ambrose and infused into them even more strength and suppleness and conviction and meaning than they already had and made them flower before God in beauty and in fire, flower along the stones and vanish in the darkness of the vaulted ceiling. and their echo died and left our souls full of peace and grace."

Almost 21 tumultuous years to the day later, Merton was still able to write in his journal: “The Advent hymns sound as they first did, as if they were the nearest things to me that ever were, as if they had been decisive in shaping my heart and life, as if I had received this form, as if there could never be any other melodies so deeply connatural to me. They are myself, words and melody and everything. So also the Rorate Coeli [Drop Down Dew] that brought me here to pray for peace. I have not prayed for it well enough, or been pure enough in heart, or wise enough. And today before the Bl. Sacrament I was ashamed of the impertinences and the deep infidelities of my life, rooted in weakness and confusion.” (December 9, 1962)

Only a few are able to experience the Advent liturgy in its fullness as Merton did. Most of us are challenged to appropriate Advent any way we can in the midst of the stresses and struggles of our ordinary lives in the world, with all the obstacles and opportunities that secular society throws at us. In other words, we live Advent more or less as what the liturgy celebrates Advent as - that is, an incomplete interim time which is (to use an overused but useful expression) already but not yet. The great Christmas feast with which we end our liturgical Advent celebrates the already part, while the challenge of another new year invites to enter hopefully into that not yet.

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