Preparing for Advent 2016

Every year I pen a brief post about preparing for Advent; and every year I wonder whether what I write conveys anything of value to the readers. For example, last year I wrote:

Already we are preparing for Advent, for that ‘wilderness time’ when we go into the darkness and emptiness of the desert to seek God, with the prophecies of the Old Testament and the haunting chants of the liturgy to act as compass-points along the way. Every year the coming of Advent is greeted with suppressed excitement in the monastery. It is, paradoxically, full of joy and longing. Advent culminates in the brilliant mid-winter feast of the Incarnation, but in the meantime we plumb the depths of our humanity and the yearning of every generation for peace and holiness. How do we do it?

If you’ve read our guide to Advent, you’ll know that St Benedict has nothing to say about Advent or Christmas as such. He does, however, have a great deal to say about prayer, silence, lectio divina, liturgy, life in community. In short, he has a lot to say about seeking God, and we try to take our tone from him. So, our lives become simpler again during Advent. Our liturgy is sung unaccompanied; our food is (even) plainer; and the Friday fast really bites. We read more; we talk less . . . .

The internet is our chief form of hospitality — by design, not accident — so we don’t give it up altogether or become strait-laced about it (it would be quite impossible for me personally to avoid all jokes and humour!) but we do try to think twice about what we post and when. It is a ‘house rule’ that no one should connect to the internet or engage with anyone on the internet without praying first. Christ must always be part of the connection. Of course, there are times when I, in particular, fail; and then one must ask the Lord to help one make good whatever misunderstanding or hurt may have ensued. Note I say ‘help one’. Sometimes only the Lord can put right what we have done wrong, but we need to make some attempt ourselves.

Advent is all about reconciliation: God putting right what humankind has got wrong, renewing his covenant of love with us, but he is humble and trusting enough to invite us to be part of that process. There is both a personal and a communal aspect. As individuals, we reflect on our lives, on our need for the Sacrament of Penance, on the little negligences that, with the best will in the world, tend to creep into our observance. As a community we reflect on how we are living the gospel, our fidelity or otherwise to the Rule of St Benedict, how we can serve others. Above all, we try to listen. (abridged)

What I wrote is true and valid, I think, but this year I’d want to put a particular emphasis on the importance of silence. Here in the monastery we begin Advent with three days of near-perfect silence. Most people know nothing about it because our prayer tweets and FB prayer intentions are pre-programmed, but the house is as silent as we can make it and all unnecessary noise or conversation avoided. In the past, I’ve tended to see this as the watchful, expectant silence of those awaiting the Messiah, a chance to plumb the depths of our inadequacy and emptiness that Christ alone can fill and transform. This year, however, I think our silence will take another cast. So many brutal, treacherous words have been spoken; so many brutal, violent acts have followed; there is so much hatred and anger being expressed, even in the Church. Only silence, the silence of repentance, of the desire for conversion of heart, for real change, can turn this violent wordiness of ours into a preparation for the coming of the Word. St Benedict talks about setting a permanent clamp on our lips (aeterna clausura RB 6.8) to avoid the kind of speech that leads both ourselves and others astray. Clamping our lips tight may not look like the most obvious preparation for Advent but it could prove the one we most need to make — and the most difficult.