By Natalie LaValley
In the previous blog, I wrote about waiting. I’m going to return to the lines I quoted from T.S. Eliot’s poem “East Coker.”
I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hopeFor hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faithBut the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
In the first line, Eliot connects waiting to stillness. Or rather, stillness is a prerequisite to proper waiting. That can be hard to pull off during Advent. December is notorious for its busyness–there’s so much shopping, wrapping, decorating, baking, and traveling. It can become a time fraught with stress from financial pressures, activity, year-end deadlines, and family drama.
Why is stillness important in Advent? Stillness clears our minds so that we remember what we are waiting for. We typically blame consumerism for taking away from the “real meaning” of Christmas, but busyness is just as much the culprit. In fact, busyness and consumerism feed into each other. When you’re stressed, buying things or shopping online can create an addictive sense of temporary excitement or accomplishment. But shopping adds to the busyness, and so the vicious cycle begins. All the activity and consumption serves to overload our brains. When we practice stillness, we give our brains a chance to calm down so our minds can recenter on Christ.
There’s copious amounts of research showing why stillness is good for mental health, and it makes perfect sense that what is good for our souls is good for our bodies as well. Many people practice meditation purely for the health benefits. So if secular people are practicing stillness, shouldn’t we also be practicing it for our spiritual as well as physical health?
You don’t have to go to a monastery to incorporate some stillness into your life. Maybe it means shopping ahead so you have less to do during December (I know, too late for that now). Or maybe it means deciding you don’t have to put up all those lights or go to all those stores when a gift card will do. Perhaps with that extra time, you can spend thirty minutes reading and meditating on the Psalms. Or spend the first fifteen minutes of your morning in prayer.
The point is not to follow a legalistic procedure that you feel guilted into because some Christian writers are telling you that Christmas is too consumerist and busy. Stillness is so much deeper than that. It’s the place, the timeless moment, where God can quietly reorder your mind and heart.
By Natalie LaValley
I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hopeFor hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faithBut the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.- T.S. Eliot, “East Coker”
I’ve been meditating on this difficult passage from T.S. Eliot. After all, Advent is all about waiting. But what does Eliot mean by waiting without hope or love? Eliot, as an Anglican, was familiar with the ancient Christian tradition of the via negativa, or way of negation. This tradition recognizes that when we seek God, we often are actually seeking feelings of peace or love, and when we think of God, we are actually imagining our own earthly images. In the via negativa, Christians find God through absence–the absence of those things that we cling to but are not God Himself. Christians have often referred to this experience as “the dark night of the soul” (beginning with St. John of the Cross). The via negativa is a hard road, and not everyone needs to take it. But in this time of Advent, we do well to remember what we are really waiting for. We are not waiting for the arrival of hope or love as feelings or experiences. Even better, we are awaiting the birth of Christ Himself. The Psalms and other places in the Bible exhort us to wait on the Lord. When we wait for the Lord, we do not have wait while trying to generate feelings of hope or faith or love. Rather, as Eliot says, our waiting is our hope, faith, and love. Advent is a hard season for some people. It may mark the anniversary of a loved one’s death or a traumatic event. Or you may simply be having a stressful year, full of busyness or sickness, and you’re struggling to feel the joy that you’re told you’re supposed to feel in this season. If you find yourself in this place, you don’t need to feel bad. Although it has changed with time, Advent was traditionally a time of fasting, much like Lent. Seasons of waiting are often hard, because they are the absence of the thing you are waiting for. Moreover, you might be waiting on something particularly painful–a health breakthrough, a job, or a loved one’s return to Christ. It doesn’t make it any easier that we’re waiting on someone for whom “a thousand years is like a day” (2 Peter 3:8). These experiences, culminated in Advent, remind us of when the whole world was waiting for the Messiah. Whatever you may be waiting for, remember that there is something of immeasurable value that we no longer have to wait for: Jesus Christ, His salvation, and the Holy Spirit. We have an incomprehensible privilege in that Emmanuel has come into history, and His Holy Spirit dwells in us. The absence of joy or peace, though hard to endure, is not the absence of God. God is never absent. God is with us.
“Wait for the LORD; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the LORD!” Psalm 27:14.