A Few Thoughts for Advent

We’d just concluded a podcast discussion with Robyn Wrigley-Carr, an Australian theologian. Abby Thatcher, our Humanities Center intern who produces most of the episodes, noted how thoughtful Robyn’s answers had been. I agreed: “I love talking with people of spiritual insight. They’re so much more interesting than people who just know stuff.”

I began that comment thinking of Robyn, of the gentle grace and conviction she’d expressed during the forty-five minutes we’d spoken. But with that second sentence, in giving context to what I meant by “spiritual insight,” I couldn’t help but think of the profession of higher education and my evolving relationship with it. Higher ed requires one to “know stuff,” and I was wrong to downplay how wonderful that is. I’m often stunned by the capacious and retentive minds of colleagues at BYU and elsewhere, people for whom knowledge is raw material they shape into a wide array of arts of understanding (e.g., lesson plans, books, articles, and fellowships) as well as diffusive personal qualities (of affect, aspiration, and longing) that enrich those around them.

Spiritual insight is a close cousin of knowing stuff, a product of long attention to things we deem sacred, special, ultimate, or transformative. It is to knowledge what grace is to works, and so carries with it an air of company, of the source of its inspiration. When we share a spiritual insight, we speak as a chorus. I love the surprise of such insights, whether from one revelatory layer opening onto another or their flashes emanating from unexpected places (a reminder of the diverse company inspiration keeps): colleagues, neighbors, students, strangers . . .

Wrigley-Carr’s book, Music of Eternity, a collection of Advent meditations adapted from the voluminous writings of the twentieth-century English spiritual writer Evelyn Underhill, is dense with spiritual insight. So, in the spirit of Advent, and in longing for the company it promises, I thought I’d share a few favorite passages from the book, adding a dash of my own commentary.

***

God constantly comes to His people. However, if our lives are filled with activities and noise, it won’t be easy to hear the barely audible music of God’s loving Presence! He often comes softly, in places and ways that surprise us, and His comings are rarely what we expect, so we generally miss their “earthly disguise.” Cultivating a spirit of Advent is essential, for our spiritual lives depend on God’s perpetual coming to us. [1]

“God constantly comes to His people,” but “softly, in places and ways that surprise us.” I thought of this while attending a recent conference. The current president of an academic society to which I belong asked if we could room together the first couple days of the conference; I think he was curious about the “Mormon” guy now serving on his society’s board of directors. His faith community is Nazarene, and the first couple hours of conversation were spent comparing diverse religious perspectives. By the second day, the discussion had turned to the larger territory of shared spiritual understanding. The day after that, and from the unlikely locale of a local breakfast place, the vista opened again, this time onto some grave disappointments and recalcitrant character flaws, but it was set against a horizon of shared Christian hope. I was reminded again that “Christ plays in ten thousand places,” [2] and that his arrival is rarely when or how I expect it.

***

As we draw near Christmas, [the] sense of our own need and of the whole world’s need of God’s coming – never greater perhaps than it is now. . . [W]e seem to hear the voice of the whole suffering creation saying, ‘Come! Give us wisdom, give us light, deliver us, liberate us, lead us, teach us how to live. Save us.’ And we, joining in that prayer, unite our need with the one need of the whole world. We have to remember [however,] that the answer to the prayer was not a new, wonderful world order, but Bethlehem and the Cross: a life of complete surrender to God’s Will; and we must expect this answer to be worked out in our own lives in terms of humility and sacrifice. (11)

“Bethlehem and the Cross”: difficult words for an academic like me who prefers the views from places like Alexandria and Parnassus, or at least from the 5th floor of the HBLL. But the “Bethlehem and Cross” motif seems to be a theme of spiritual life. I see it in my own circumstances, my prayers for grace often answered in the form of hardship. And I see it in the lives of my colleagues, students, and friends. In them, however, I often experience it vicariously in the form of their dearly acquired wisdom, perspectives that almost invariably answers my prayers to “give [me] light, deliver [me], liberate [me], teach [me] how to live.” (One did just this morning in an email, as I was finishing this blog post.)

***

I review my life in the stillness . . . deepening my gratitude and awe. In every joy, grief, sacrifice, temptation, opportunity or relationship – I feel Your delicate touch and personal action. So my true life consists, not in self-development or self-chosen achievement, but in an ever-increasing correspondence with Your Life – loving, humble, recognition and acceptance of the Spirit’s action – especially when it prevents my best intentions, changing the shape of the creature I thought I’d be. (22)

Not “self-development,” not “self-chosen achievement . . .” BYU has spent a lot of time and money in recent years working up “learning outcomes” and “competencies,” most of which fall into those self-affirming categories. As they should. But when I think about the spiritual struggles of our students, I ask myself whether the lessons of an “ever-increasing correspondence” are ones to which we attend—to which I attend—with sufficient care.

***

It’s those who see much who realize how much remains unseen. That’s why theologians always have plenty to say about God, while the contemplative can hardly say anything at all. . . . Real prayer is an entering into ignorance. (31-32)

Contemplatives: the Socratics of the spiritual life, knowing they know nothing. I love the “brief theological introductions” to the Book of Mormon published by the Maxwell Institute, and I’m especially fond of the volumes written by members of our college. (Sharon Harris, Jim Faulconer, and Kylie Turley, well done!) But then I ask myself, mostly playfully, what a box set of “brief contemplative introductions” would look like—what it would mean to write in such a way that one entered into the sublime ignorance of a certain kind of answered prayer (see Job 38-41). Would such volumes contain any pages? Any words? If they did, could they be anything other than poetry?

***

Our Lord found great significance in the life of birds, in this freedom their self-abandoned trust, their release from mere carefulness. He held them precious to God, and as patterns for the faith and hope of humanity. I sometimes think that the Divine Gift of Hope—that confident tendency of the soul, that trust in the Invisible . . . poured into humanity by God to give meaning and buoyancy to their life—was first tried out in the birds, giving themselves trustfully to the supportive air. (56)

A lovely observation; a poet’s view. I sometimes float like a bird the way Underhill and Wrigley-Carr suggest here. Then I land like an albatross.

***

We see the new life growing in secret—the child in the carpenter’s workshop. This quality of quietness, ordinariness, simplicity—how deeply hidden, how gradual and unseen by us. To contemplate the proportions of Christ’s life is a terrible rebuke to spiritual impatience and uppish hurry. Christ’s short, earthly life is divided into 30 years for growth and two and a half for action. The pause, hush, and hiddenness which intervene between the Birth and the Ministry is part of the Divine method. (78)

If I’d taken (even) more time, would I have written better scholarly books? I like to think I didn’t write bad ones, but still, I might have written better. But the more profound question is whether I might have written different books altogether. Our modern-day profession rarely rewards that degree (the long “pause” and “hush”) of preparation. At some level, then, any scholar’s career—certainly mine—is a shadow of its prism of possibilities. Does that then make my imagined accomplishments a cause for . . . repentance? (No, that doesn’t quite seem right either. I probably need another 30 years to think this through.)

***

We can’t forecast the path God’s rescue will take. It is never any use saying, “I am getting desperate! Please answer my prayer by the next post and send an open cheque.” He will answer . . . more probably He will transform and use the unlikely looking material already in hand—the loaves and tiny fishes—looking up to Heaven, blessing it and making it do after all. (86)

Like many a Latter-day Saint, I believe that God hears and answers prayers. And one of my most impactful experiences of that principle was, in effect, an impression of a kind of divine yawn. I was worked up about something, God seemed not to be, and the message was that I already had the resources—a few loaves and fishes I didn’t particularly want—to deal with the imagined crisis. So many of the lessons of my middle age have been about presence, about becoming more aware of what’s here—and thus about what things are, who people are, who I am . . . in short, about things I’ve struggled to face, things for which, and people for whom, I’m learning deeper gratitude.

***

Called upon to practice in their fullness the two great commandments, you can only hope to get the second one right if you’re completely controlled by the first. And that depends on the quality of your secret, inner life, the quality that makes people catch the love of God from you—that means giving time, patience, effort to cultivating your attention. Do you see the great facts and splendors of religion with the eye of an artist and a lover, or with the eye of a person of business? (127)

For many of us, that answer is easy: we adopt a transactional relationship with religion (i.e., obedience = blessings) and therefore unwittingly play out, again and again, Max Weber’s Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. I’m so grateful, though, for the artists and lovers of religion with whom I worship—and many with whom I work. I won’t name them for fear of embarrassing them. But if in reading this you wonder whether I might be thinking of you, I probably am.

***

If we give ourselves to God’s purposes, we’ll develop such depths of devoted, peaceful love as passes beyond the need of being fed by mere [religious] feeling—the chocolate creams of the Christian life. Don’t make the mistake of thinking, if you sometimes feel cold and dead, that you don’t know how to love. (146)

An important lesson for the never-ending wintry season in which we seem to be living given the existential cold suffered by so many around us. Still, we probably bear more light and song than we realize – a blessing in waiting.

This post was written by Matthew Wickman, founding director of the BYU Humanities Center.

 

[1] Robyn Wrigley-Carr, Music of Eternity: Meditations for Advent with Evelyn Underhill (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2021), 9. Subsequent references are cited in the text.

[2] Gerard Manley Hopkins, “As Kingfishers Catch Fire,” The Major Works, ed. Catherine Phillips (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 127, l. 12.

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1 Comment

  1. David Stock says:

    Thank you, Matt, for sharing this inspiring compendium of spiritual reflection, and for framing it with your equally inspiring commentary. Makes me want to suggest adding “by contemplation” to BYU’s “by study and faith.”

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