A reflection for the 2017 Fisher House Advent Retreat at Mount St Bernard's Abbey, Leicestershire by Sr Ann Swailes
Almost exactly a year ago, I was sitting, with a group of pilgrims from Fisher House, in the Paul VI audience hall in the Vatican, listening to Pope Francis talking about the season of Advent which we had just entered. The Holy Father spoke movingly about the way in which hope sustains us in the Christian life, not by offering us an escapist fantasy, denying the darkness and terror of our world, but by shining a light on precisely that world, the light that came into the world to be born among us at Christmas. And he underlined insistently the difference between secular optimism and Christian hope: optimism, he said disappoints, hope does not. Hope, on the contrary, makes the desert of our world, the desert of our lives, bloom, revealing beauty and fertility in a landscape we might previously have found arid and lifeless.
It's no coincidence, I think, that when I started thinking about what I wanted to try to say about the meaning of hope during Advent, I felt led to begin with a memory, one of the many beautiful memories I brought back from Rome that have nourished me during this past year, because I want to talk about the relationship, precisely, between memory and hope. I want to suggest, first of all, that memory that can help us to hope even when all seems hopeless, and then to explore how and why Advent is in a particular way a season of both memory and hope, how Advent can restore our hope even when our memories themselves seem the stuff, not of hope but of despair.
Pope Emeritus Benedict, in a very beautiful and thought-provoking meditation for the beginning of the Church's year makes what seems at first sight like a rather unpromising, even depressing, connection between memory and hope. He points out how our memories shape us, by moulding our responses to the world around us, and how, very often, this can be in a way that is damaging and difficult to bear, for ourselves and sometimes for others. If there is too much in the storehouse of our memories that is painful or frightening, we are at risk of shutting down emotionally, withdrawing into an inner environment where we will be safe, perhaps, from sustaining further hurt, but also unable to respond to the wonder and the beauty of the world with the joy and delight it should evoke. Unable, too, to help others to bear their sufferings: it is true that our own pain can lead us to compassion for others, but it is far from being an automatic process. If memories of our own suffering are too intense, we can literally forget how to sympathise, to suffer with, those who are similarly burdened. Too long a sacrifice, as the poet W B Yeats said, can make a stone of the heart.
Thus much is a fairly self-evident psychological truth, though perhaps one we'd be wise to pay more attention to, not least at this time of year. For every one of our friends, for instance, for everyone of ourselves, perhaps, for whom the thought of Christmases past evokes a warm fug of comfort food, soft-focussed candle-light and songs of pleasurably tear-jerking sentimentality, there will be another whose memories are decidedly more ambiguous. Festering wounds dealt in family arguments long ago, where emotion was sharpened, and sense of proportion blurred, by tiredness or alcohol, the rejection experienced when gift-giving is used not to mirror and make present the abundant generosity of God, but to settle scores, to delineate who is in and who is out; the ragged bewilderment of bereavement the first Christmas when a loved one is no longer there to play the silly but sacred accustomed part in family rituals. For many such reasons, the weeks of Advent can be a time of waiting, not in joyful hope, but in more or less paralysing fear, and we should not be unduly surprised, or alarmed, therefore, if our own responses at this time of year, or those we encounter in others, fail to conform to the conventional expectations of the perfect yuletide cheer thrust upon us by the advertising industry, if Christmas leaves us cold, and even shivering with anxiety .
Memory determines to a considerable extent, then, our identity, and if our memories are bleak ones, the world can seem bleak indeed. But, the good news of Advent is that there isn't some grim, relentless determinism at work here, impervious to divine grace: Advent shows that, astonishing as this sounds, we can be given new memories, which will transfigure and heal us, without this threatening our identity, without it turning us into someone we are not, but rather revealing our true identity as something we could never have dared to hope.
I once heard a sermon at this time of year in which a wise priest pointed out a key difference between Lent and Advent. It's not an absolute dichotomy, of course, but I think it is helpful to think about: in Lent we discipline our desires, we try somewhat to restrain our appetites, to quieten a little the insistent voices of our longings so we can hear more clearly our deepest longing: the desire we all have for the love of God - that, as I understand it, is the point of our giving up chocolate, or booze, or whatever it happens to be for Lent. In Advent, though, it's not so much about training our will, as about purifying, or allowing God to purify, our vision, so that we can truly see, with greater clarity each succeeding year. If our memories colour our perception in the way I've been suggesting, Advent is then, about forming new memories, giving ourselves new lenses through which to see the familiar past, and to face into the unfamiliar future. We learn to see a new landscape: or, perhaps better, we learn to see the same landscape, the landscape of our own lives, from a different perspective.
So much of the imagery from the Old Testament texts we hear read at Mass during the first part of Advent is all about this transfiguration of familiar vistas: the desert blooms, the valleys are lifted up while the mountains tumble down, melting like wax; ferocious predators live peaceably alongside their natural prey; the people sit in darkness and see a great light. And there are narratives of reversal too: towards the end of of the season, we are let into the secret of the birth of John the Baptist, the great patron of Advent, who calls the Church, as he called the people of Judea 2000 years ago, to prepare the way for the Lord's coming among us. John's parents, Zechariah and Elizabeth, have served their God faithfully all their lives, watching for the coming of the promised Messiah, and longing for a child of their own, a gift they were not given until long after it was rational to expect it: Elizabeth, St Luke tells us, was barren, and they were both of advanced age, when the archangel Gabriel appeared to Zechariah to tell him of his wife's pregnancy. When the news finally sinks in for Zechariah of what God has done for him his dumbstruck tongue breaks forth into singing, and he utters the rapturous poem with which the Church in the divine office still greets the dawn of every new day: Blessed be the God of Israel, for he has visited his people and redeemed them. Elizabeth puts it more quietly, but equally compellingly: "the Lord has done this for me, now that it has pleased him to take away the humiliation I suffered among men". Our church gives us these wonderful images and narratives of the seemingly incredible, pictures of radical reversal, to help us when our minds are insistently filled with other , apparently more realistic, pictures. They help us to dare to reach out to something our own memories of shame and failure might prevent us from accepting: the insight that nothing is impossible to the ever-active creativity of God. There is no barrier he can’t tear down, no captivity he can’t overthrow, no darkness he can’t illuminate, no sterility he can't make fertile. Nothing is impossible for God.
It's also worth reflecting on another at first sight rather counter-intuitive quality of the texts the Church gives us during at this time of year, counter-intuitive, at any rate, if we are thinking of them as providing us with a harvest to store in our memories which will feed our hope. The reading we heard this morning, for instance, speaking of swords being hammered into ploughshares, spears into pruning hooks. It is poignantly painful to read this today, when nations show no sign of ceasing to lift up sword against nations, and when training for war is in as full swing as ever it was. But, of course, this was equally true when the text was written, probably in the 8th century BC, when the Kingdom of Judah was threatened by the political power and military might of the neighbouring Assyrian empire, and it has never consistently ceased to be true in the intervening centuries. And yet, through all those centuries, the prophecies of Isaiah have been a profound source of consolation; the promise of a future peace reaching back into present turmoil and making it bearable, and the gift of this promise in turn becoming part of an inherited memory of God's gracious ways with his people, an assurance that all time is in his hands from creation to the return of Christ in glory.
But all of these memories point, to quote Pope Benedict again, to the most "profound and basic emotional memory within us, namely, the memory of the God who became a child". To know that God is THIS God is indeed, as the Pope Emeritus calls it, a healing memory, helping us to banish those false images of God to which we all, at least from time to time, give houseroom, and which can sometimes do us terrible damage. In some of us - and this has nothing to do with the orthodoxy of our belief or the accuracy and sophistication of our theology - there is a terrible, shameful fear that God is remote and uncaring, deaf to our prayers in a soundproofed heaven; others wrestle with, or run from, a God who, on the contrary, is all too close, but is a tyrannical master, compelling our fear rather than our awe, the God who manipulates and crushes our spirits. We are told, and of course, we believe, that God is love, but if our experience of human love has been destructive and frightening, we may find ourselves doing all in our power to evade even the love of God. Our God, however, will not leave us in our hiding place, because he is the God who becomes a little child, with all the relentless and infectious energy that implies. Children have a way of squeezing through the barriers we construct to defend our wounded hearts. The vulnerability and littleness of children of course rightly calls out of us an adult desire to use our strength to protect and comfort them. But it also - and equally rightly - recalls us to our own childhood. As we get down on all fours to play with a toddler we find we are given permission to let ourselves go, as we say, to shed the layers of gravitas under which we habitually mask the weakness we dare not let the world see. Perhaps that is one reason why there is a persistent Christian instinct to greet the coming of the child who is God into the world with reversals of conventional decorum and hierarchy, in which the mighty are cast from their thrones, and the humble and meek, at least for a little while, exalted. In the Middle Ages in England and elsewhere, for instance, the Christmas season was marked by the election of "boy bishops", who would, for one day, have the chance to boss around the cathedral chapter. In my congregation of Dominican sisters, there used within living memory to be a tradition, on the feast of Holy Innocents, three days after Christmas, of the novices reorganising the timetable of the convent to their own satisfaction. Perhaps, dare I suggest, it is also why this is the time of year when conscientious Cambridge undergraduates, eminent professors of divinity and chaplains junior and senior perform in pantomimes. Something of the childlike beauty of our God can be found even in outrageous wigs and silly shoes.
But we have still, I think,not penetrated to the heart of Advent hope. Advent is not just about memories that remain, in the end, other people’s memories, not just a matter of retelling inspiring stories from the family history, important as that is . It might compel a kind of awe to know that long ago and far away God took away the shame of Elizabeth in her old age and blessed her with a child, and it might encourage us, powerfully encourage us, to believe that he can reverse our fortunes, too, making us fruitful when we feared we had nothing to give. But more than this is offered in Advent.
Nor is it even just about God coming and shattering our idols by reminding us what he is really like. The Word was indeed made flesh and lived humanly among us, and because of this we can relate to him in ways that heal our fear of God, replacing it with the liberating joy and tenderness we feel in the presence of a child. All of that is breathtakingly beautiful and consoling, if we allow it fully to take hold of our hearts. But there is still more.
The astounding truth of Christmas, that we prepare for in Advent, is that God came to live a human life among us so that we might live in him, inserted into his very life. As members of Christ's body, the body of the God who became Incarnate at Nazareth and was born in the stable at Bethlehem, our stories are gathered up into his saving story. This means that the experiences we undergo, and the actions we undertake, here and now, are freighted with a meaning we could never have imagined, and therefore we have a dignity we could never have guessed. Our sufferings are one with the sufferings of Christ that redeemed the world. Our joys, even the most mundane and apparently trivial, come to glow with a kind of sacramental significance and beauty. Our giving of time, care and attention to the lonely student in college, the homeless person outside Sainsbury's, our family members in need, these become opportunities to offer our brothers and sisters nothing less than the love of Christ. And, being members of Christ's body, inserted into his story, means that we can be confident that however wintry the places we are called to walk through, they will open up into a Eastertide vista of light and peace. In his resurrection, Christ has overcome the world, and, as members of his body, his resurrection is ours too.
But there is something else that is given us as members of Christ's body. We are given a share in Christ's memory, Christ's imagination. And, if, as I have been suggesting, our memory shapes us, moulds the way we respond to the world by informing the way we see the world, this means something extraordinarily exciting. It means that we come to see the world as Christ sees it. We see the world, first of all, then, as Jesus did, as the arena of God's saving acts, from the first moment of created time to the end of all things. We see ourselves not as passive recipients of a deterministic fate, but, in Christ, as instruments of those very saving acts. And we see the world, and ourselves, as beloved and therefore beautiful, because we see ourselves, and the world, through the eyes of Christ.
Sacred Infant, all divine/what a tender love was thine - the old Christmas hymn exclaims- thus to come from highest bliss/down to such a world as this? I think, when we hear these words, or others like them, we often focus on the darkness, the bleakness of our world: such a world as this, in which swords remain swords, and spears remain spears, and the training for war goes on unabated. Such a world as this, in which distortions and parodies of love destroy innocence, and maim the tenderness of children's hearts. Such a world as this world, the world of human trafficking, addiction, unspeakable crimes committed in the name of God, such a world...But, perhaps the emphasis should be slightly different. It is precisely the tender love of the divine child that brings him down to this world, and that love, which as members of his body we are invited to share, transfigures our vision until it comes to be one with his.
We may all of us have a hint of this in our own experience. Profound experiences of love have a kind of porous quality spreading a patina of hitherto unknown loveliness over our entire worldview. We discover, gradually or suddenly, another human being to whom we feel called to give ourselves, and our happiness in being in love spills over, so that all the musical comedy clichés are true: the street where the beloved lives is different, does glow with a reflected glory we would never previously have guessed. We have one of those experiences which the Lord does sometimes give us in the confessional, when the love we receive in the assurance of forgiveness calls forth from us a love in answer that embraces not only God but any of those made in his image whom we happen to meet as we stumble not entirely dry eyed out of the box. We are brought to realise, perhaps, that there is even something that can be called love in the passion for truth we are occasionally granted to bring to our studies, and it makes us see not just the essay we are struggling with or the chapter we are writing, but all of natural creation and human culture, as an echo of the divine Word. These things happen to us occasionally, and we are tempted to dismiss them for the rest of the time as romantic illusions. But - surely - to see the world like this is to see it with the eyes of Christ, because it is to see it through the lens of tender, creative love. And to see the world like this, to see ourselves and each other like this, is indeed to lay hold of a memory that will heal us, a memory that will feed our hope through the coldest winter and the darkest night.
It is a memory that will strengthen us, in a few short weeks, to welcome the Christ who renews and transforms our memories, not by magicking us away from such a world as this, but by living with us in it and loving us from the inside.
I began this talk with a Jesuit. But I'd like to leave the last word, in this place, with a Cistercian, a Cistercian who was, of course, not only an alumnus of the best college in Cambridge, but also shared his name with the best college in Oxford. Thomas Merton, in an essay entitled Advent, hope or illusion, invites us to unflinching honesty about the world into which Christ comes and about the cost of following him through that world, but also holds out to us the astonishing promise upon which all our hope is based. The more we reflect on these words, I suspect, the more our memories will be renewed and configured to the memory of Christ this Advent and beyond.
"The certainty of Christian hope lies beyond passion and beyond knowledge. Therefore we must sometimes expect our hope to come in conflict with darkness, desperation and ignorance. Therefore, too, we must remember that Christian optimism is not a perpetual sense of euphoria, an indefectible comfort in whose presence neither anguish nor tragedy can possibly exist. We must not strive to maintain a climate of optimism by the mere suppression of tragic realities. Christian optimism lies in a hope of victory that transcends all tragedy: a victory in which we pass beyond tragedy to glory with Christ crucified and risen.
The Church in preparing us for the birth of a “great prophet,” a Savior and a King of Peace, has more in mind than seasonal cheer. The advent mystery focuses the light of faith upon the very meaning of life, of history, of man, of the world and of our own being. In Advent we celebrate the coming and indeed the presence of Christ in our world. We witness to His presence even in the midst of all its inscrutable problems and tragedies.
The fact that the world is other than it might be does not alter the truth that Christ is present in it and that His plan has been neither frustrated nor changed: indeed, all will be done according to His will. Our Advent is a celebration of this hope."