At a loss for words
In truth, today’s official Advent Word is herald. However, other than a vain effort at wordplay because of the homophonic association with my father’s name, Harold, I could think of nothing original to offer for this assignment. Even my research into the hymn whose title was everyone’s immediate association revealed to me only that the original opening couplet of Charles Wesley’s 1739 hymn was “Hark how all the Welkin rings
‘Glory to the King of Kings!’”
So I decided to ignore the assigned word altogether, play a wild card, and ponder a poetic reference that has been on the peripheries of my Advent meditations ever since I saw it posted on Facebook several days ago, without context.
The poetry that followed T. S. Eliot’s 1927 conversion to Anglicanism has informed my life ever since my own similarly startling embrace of that faith 70 years later. The First World War-inspired despair of such poems as The Waste Land (1922) and “The Hollow Men” (1925) was always an integral part of my literary canon, but the humbly intellectual articulation of faith in his post-conversion poetry speaks directly to my soul.
Wait without hope
Wrestling with doubt—a prerequisite for spiritual growth—is at the heart of Eliot’s early Christian poetry, including “The Journey of the Magi” (1927), “A Song for Simeon” (1928), and “Ash Wednesday” (1930). But it is the mature expression of Eliot’s faith in The Four Quartets (1943) that provides the surest ballast for my seeking, doubting, wandering heart.
And so the seemingly bleak lines that follow (from the second section, “East Coker”) offer me guidance through these days of Advent preparation:
I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.
Whisper of running streams, and winter lightning.
The wild thyme unseen and the wild strawberry,
The laughter in the garden, echoed ecstasy
Not lost, but requiring, pointing to the agony
Of death and birth.
Where can we find a more appropriate expression of our Advent yearnings? Waiting becomes the goal because it is unsullied by our desires. And this focus on waiting as the purest activity of Advent–without hope, love, or thought, all bound up in Ego–is reminiscent of the philosophy of the Stoics, who remind us that hope and fear are the same thing because they are projections into a future which is by definition beyond our control.
I realize that I am straying from the biblical focus of our usual Advent teaching. However, I believe that we can sometimes benefit from new ways of thinking–or old ways in a new guise. So perhaps we can take a moment for Seneca and Eliot and simply wait. For what? That is always the question of Advent.
Waiting for the dance
Waiting is surrender. Waiting is acceptance. Waiting is making ready. And then? And then . . . “The darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.” And then, the waiting in Eliot’s poem can reach its true fruition: