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[Chalice] Living the Peace of Advent with [Chalice]
Catholic Mystic Thomas Merton and Father Delp

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Presented December 2, 2007, by Rev. Dr. Rob Manning

This is the first Sunday in December, which means that in terms of the Christian calendar this is the beginning of Advent. Advent tends to mean very little even to Christian churches and Christian communities in America today, so it probably means even less to us, to our Unitarian community and church. Does Advent mean anything to us? Does it make us think of anything other than a little calendar with doors or windows, one of which we open every day as we count down to the big day, December 25th?

Unitarians in our church and Unitarians across the country and in other countries too, as different as we all are and as much as we want to celebrate and embrace our differences, all of us in significant ways are in the same situation. All of us are in a way staring at the banner we hang in our church with the symbols of the world's great religious traditions, and we are all of us wondering how these religious traditions can speak to us, what they have to give us, say to us, that can help us, challenge us, bring meaning to our lives. I teach about Buddhism and Hinduism, Taoism, Confucianism, have been doing that this semester and have really benefited from doing so, but like most of you the religious tradition I am most familiar with is Christianity. And at this point in my life I have come to the very strange conclusion that the most important thing, most meaningful thing that particular symbol of the cross and that particular religious tradition, Christianity, gives to us is not Easter or Christmas but is Advent.

Christianity gives us a great deal by giving us Advent; through Advent Christianity gives us, invites us to live this time now according to the rhythms of nature. It is December, cold, windy, dark. Nature itself is forcing us, compelling us, calling us to come inside, to stop so much activity, to embrace dark, stillness, quiet. Advent calls on us to follow the rhythms of nature and to live this season of cold and shortening days and more darkness as a time of quiet, reflection, contemplation. Christianity through Advent reminds us that this is what we need, time for quiet, time for contemplation, to think not only about ourselves and our lives, but to think about the life of the world. Christianity through Advent reminds us that this quiet contemplation about the life of the world is true spiritual preparation for Christmas.

Preparation for Christmas why the very phrase might fill us with anxiety, make us think of all we have to do between now and December 25th. Do you have any idea how many Christmas decorations I have up in my attic? It would take me most of the free time I have between now and December 25th just going up and down the stairs bringing it all down. I have to have at least two Christmas trees downstairs and one upstairs, and I am hosting First Friday in only 5 days!!! And the Christmas shopping! How much shopping do you have to do? Several years ago the women in my family tried to move us to a grab bag system where each person only bought something for one other person because all the Christmas shopping had gotten out of hand. My sister Lauren in Phoenix reported that with all the in-laws and everyone she was shopping for 75 people. Now how could you find the time to shop for that many people, and if you did how would you have time for anything else? I want you to know that years ago I voted strongly against our family making this change to the grab bag system because I didn't want to let go of our childhood Christmases when our basement back in PA was flooded with gifts and it took hours for all of us to open our presents on Christmas Day. Yes, I am an idiot. I have fully repented of my idiocy and want for myself and all of my family and loved ones and you all, I want these weeks leading up to Christmas to be lived by us all not as the Christmas shopping season but as Advent, as the time to draw inside, into ourselves, and find there our connection to the world. Advent is the time both nature and Christianity gives us to slow down, be still, quiet, contemplate the life of the world.

If we combine the Christian spirituality of Advent with our own Unitarian principles - and why should we not? - I would say that what Advent gives to us is a call and a time to contemplate our 8th principle: that the world is an interconnected web and we are but a small but responsible part of it. Advent invites us to slow down and to contemplate the life of that interconnected web and to contemplate our own responsibility for it.

But what does it mean to contemplate? This is where we are I think aided in our attempt to live Advent, to contemplate, by that great 20th century Catholic monastic Thomas Merton. Merton can rightly be considered a great master of contemplation. He chose to leave the normal, busy, hectic, loud world for the Trappist life of quiet, prayer, seclusion, contemplation. In a certain sense, Merton chose to make his whole year, his whole life, Advent. So he's rather well qualified to give us good advice about our own attempt to live Advent. He's got something very important to say about advent and about contemplation especially for us, for our Unitarian church community. Because many of us would embrace the invitation and nature gives us at this time of the year. Many of us would say, yes, this time of the year when we are drawn inside is great and we don't squander it by being too busy and doing too much shopping. This time of the year does draw us inside and does slow us down and does give us more time, more of a chance to read the papers, and magazines, understand what is happening in our own country and the world. We do embrace the chance to have more time to read the latest opinion piece on Musharraf or watch the presidential debates on CNN or C-Span or listen to NPR. Many of us are that kind of people and we welcome the chance to have more time to think and to inform ourselves, and if you want to call that Advent then that is fine. But you see that is precisely where Merton is speaking to us about Advent, about contemplation. In this very interesting essay titled "Events and Pseudo-Events, - he writes that contemplation is not keeping up with things, reading, listening, informing yourself all the time, knowing what is happening, all this frenetic activity to make sure we haven't fallen behind, that we know what is happening. To do all of this and to immerse ourselves in this is to inundate ourselves with what he calls pseudo-events. When we do this we run the risk of not understanding the difference between pseudo-events and what he calls real happenings. Contemplation is a quiet, slow, deep, prayerful awareness of real happenings.

Merton, I think, is so right in leading us to think the difference between pseudo-events and real happenings, between informing ourselves and contemplation. So much of what we do, we listen to, we see, we talk about--in this season and in every other - immerses us in pseudo-events. We watch the Democratic and Republican debates on CNN and C-Span. What are the democrats saying about Guantanamo, about torture. Who wants to shut it down completely? Which candidates are more aggressive in condemning Guantanamo and reinforcing the Geneva Convention? Or on the Republican side, who is appearing the strongest, the most anti-terrorist, by defending Guantanamo and vowing to expand it? What is each candidate saying about torture? How are they defining it? How does each candidate squirmingly respond to McCain when he talks about torture through his own personal experiences? These are such fascinating moments; we are drawn to them and want to know about them all, but they are all, I think, in Merton's sense pseudo-events. That there is a Guantanamo, that part of our reaction to September 11th was to establish it, that there we have incarcerated people, many of whom for no reason, with no evidence, provided no defense or trial. That we have taken years of people's lives away from them and caged them as if they were animals, that we have tortured, that in the eyes of people around the world we Americans are torturers, these are real happenings. Real happenings demand not to be drowned out by pseudo-events; they demand quiet, stillness, contemplation.

We are so incredibly swamped by and immersed in pseudo-events. How did Barack respond to Hilary's attack or visa versa? What is each candidate's position on Iraq? Will he or she pull the troops out right away or leave them in there and how many and for how long? And what does each candidate say about the surge? About funding for the troops? Political creatures that we are, we gobble up every last detail, but in a certain sense they are all pseudo-events. That there is a war, that for the most specious of reasons our country supported agreed to it and did it, and that because of that tens of thousands of people have died--these are real happenings. The Christian spirituality of Advent demands that we recognize the difference between pseudo-events and real happenings. It demands that we have to do more than simply keep up with the news. We have to let real happenings shock us into quiet, into stillness, into meditation, meditation about that interconnected web, about its life, and about the damage we have caused to it.

The Catholic mystic who decided to make his life a perpetual Advent, a space/time of contemplation, Thomas Merton, tells us about another person who had a lot of time to contemplate: Fr. Delp, a German Jesuit who resisted Nazism and was imprisoned for it for several months and then executed. He lived his last Advent in this Nazi prison, and it seems to have given him a deep, contemplative awareness not just about him, about this horrible and unfair thing done to him, but about the interconnected web that is the world, and how much it had been damaged by humanity. He wrote, no doubt inexplicably to a society that does not live and does not contemplate Advent: "Unless a man has been shocked to his depths at himself and the things he is capable of, as well as the failings of humanity as a whole, he cannot understand the full import of Advent. -

©2007 Rev. Dr. Rob Manning

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Manning, Rev. Dr. Rob. 2007. Living the Peace of Advent with Catholic Mystic Thomas Merton, /talks/20071202.shtml (accessed July 4, 2020).

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