Having completed the liturgical year with the celebration of Christ the King and looking forward the First Sunday of Advent, it is an appropriate time to reflect on the need to break from the “ordinary”, the sense of routine which can often accompany our spiritual life and religious practice. This regularity no doubt has its place. It provides order and carries us through the highs and lows of enthusiasm, tragedy and monotony. But, it can also obscure.
God has not called us to be Christian for the sake of attending mass, saying the rosary, reading scripture or even doing good works. Rather, these are all important means to human fulfillment, the life of the blessed, towards which we are genuinely called. As Christ constantly reminds the scribes and Pharisees people were not made for the Sabbath, but the Sabbath for people. In the midst of routine, and the struggle to fit our spiritual life into what remains of the day when our work and family obligations are completed, it is easy to lose sight of the grandeur of an authentic Christian life. Advent reminds us that we are called to be saints. We are called to make a home for the transcendent God here on earth, here in our hearts.
The theological vision of Pulitzer Prize winning writer Annie Dillard often highlights this paradoxical tension between divine hiddenness and the expansive awe-inspiring power of God. In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek she reflects on Pascal’s pessimistic phrase Deus Absconditus that describes God’s creating the universe only to turn away from it. Dillard asks rhetorically: “Is this what happened? Was the sense of it there, and God absconded with it, ate it, like a wolf who disappears around the edge of the house with the Thanksgiving turkey?”
In our lonelier moments we might, no doubt, be tempted to think this could be the case. But, she presents an alternative thesis: “It could be that God has not absconded but spread, as our vision and understanding of the universe have spread, to a fabric of spirit and sense so grand and so subtle, so powerful in a new way, that we can only feel blindly of its hem.” It seems to me that much of our life wavers between these two visions of God, and it is all too easy to fall into believing, if only implicitly, Deus absconditus, God has left the building, all the while carrying on the external trappings of our prayer, our ministry, our good works…
In her later collection Teaching a Stone to Talk, Dillard returns to this notion in a provocative way. In one of her most quotable passages she writes:
Why do people in church seem like cheerful, brainless tourists on a packaged tour of the Absolute? … Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning.
This hidden God lies just below the surface, and even a glimpse of him can unleash dangerous and unforeseeable forces. C.S. Lewis captures the same notion in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, when he describes the lion Aslan, who is presented as a figure of Christ: “He’s wild, you know. Not like a tame lion”.
How often do we try to tame God’s action in our life? If we truly heard what we profess in the Creed and lived out what we read in the Gospel, how different would our lives, and indeed our world, be? As Dillard continues:
It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us to where we can never return.
Reading this passage always reminds me of my own conversion. As an atheist in grad school I became fascinated with the thought of St. Augustine. Eventually I realized I knew nothing about his life as a Bishop. I had no experience of the Church that gave the genuine context to his thought. To remedy this deficiency I asked a friend and colleague who I knew was Catholic if I might tag along with him for mass sometime. Experiencing the liturgy for the first time was quite moving, so the next week I looked up the Church nearest to my apartment and went on my own.
As I was leaving after the celebration I happened to pass by a priest in the lobby greeting parishioners and when we shook hands, without any prior intention of doing so, I found myself saying, “Can I talk to you sometime about joining the Church?” To this he gave an answer I will never forget: “The forms are over there.” From the expression on my face he quickly realized I meant something deeper than how to sign up in the parish and get tax receipts. He paused in a moment of prayer and we arranged to start meeting to discuss how I could become Catholic.
This was a moment in which God awoke, drawing me to a place from which I could never return. Yet, it is just a small example of the way God can burst into one’s life and unleash profound grace when one opens up to the possibility that new and unexpected things can and should happen. But it also reminds us how these tremendous moments in one can be seen as utterly ordinary from another perspective. In a paradoxical way God’s presence can’t be separated too much from his absence; they tend to be a package deal. It is a matter of our own habitual outlook and disposition, a matter of keeping an alert awareness to the fact that the supernatural is more real and powerful than the comfortable and familiar world of what comes naturally.
The Incarnation did not shrink the divine to human scale, rather it elevated Christ’s human nature through a unique union with a Divine Person, the Son. The time of Advent will be well spent if we draw closer to him, making a deliberate effort to cultivate a more supernatural perspective. If we look beyond our routine and expect that Christ can and will enter into the fabric of our lives and world, moving them in new and wonderful ways, he just might begin to do so.