One of the principal truths of Christianity,
a truth that goes almost unrecognized today, is that looking is what saves us.
– Simone Weil, Waiting for God
“Be watchful! Be alert!” The words smack like a Zen stick as the stern command is issued to shake off the bittersweet beauty of autumn and awaken to the sober season of Advent.
Advent. The place on the liturgical calendar where I could most easily park my bones, the time of the church year when I feel most at home.
I once described myself as an Advent girl living in a Christmas world. What I meant to say, despite the glibness, was that I yearn for quiet, stillness, darkness in a world that is full of noise, lights, and garish distraction. That my soul hungers for a little more yin in a world skewed toward the yang. For simplicity and peace. For God. Temperamentally, I am more inclined toward the austere sacramentals of candles and psalter at midnight than carols and ribbons on a sunlit morn.
Like a well-crafted haiku, there is something stark and jarring about the demands of Advent. Something deep and piercing and clear that calls us back to the dark womb of God where we risk being born again and again and again.
Unlike Lent with its action plan of prayer, fasting, and alms giving, Advent requires a kind of letting go that precludes any pretense of spiritual accomplishment. An acquiescence to the discipline of active waiting, of clear-eyed attentiveness. A surrender to the terrible beauty of the unknown. An awful free fall into the wide arms of Love.
Yes, I am definitely designed for Advent. As an introvert, I can imagine nothing better than giving myself over to spiritual reading, a simple soup, and Celtic music on cold Advent nights. Of sinking into solitude . . . and staying there.
Like the disciples who are given a glimpse of mountaintop glory, I want to pitch my tent in the silence of Advent and remain there, but, like the disciples, I have been given marching orders to hike back down and get to work.
In my case, work is teaching and, while I love what I do, it is a soul-stretching proposition each Advent to leave the summit of solitude for an all-boys Catholic high school in Detroit where silence is hardly the order of the day.
It is one of the great mysteries of being human, this being called to work that is life giving and wonderful but so far from one’s nature. I have talked to scores of fellow teachers and activists who experience a similar tension between their contemplative instincts and their active and sometimes public ministries. I feel this tension most acutely during Advent when the academic calendar crashes into the liturgical calendar with all the subtlety of a shipwreck.
At the very time that Advent orders us to slow down, the school year pitches everyone – students and teachers alike – into ceaseless activity. Advent wreaths be damned – we have entered the waning weeks of the long first semester, a brutal time marked by weariness and the crush of projects, papers, and exams. The frenetic weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas break when exhaustion gives way to a manic edginess that militates against all things Advent.
And yet . . . in some inexplicable, blessed way, Advent can subvert the school year if we are able to muster the grace to look beneath the surface. If we can get beyond the noisy hallways and looming deadlines that hover above the building like a dreaded drone, we may find Advent waiting for us in unexpected ways.
While visions of the idealized Advent of my dreams – replete with late-night rosaries and scented candles – dances through my head, the Advent that is demands that I put down the beads and lace up my boots. It is the Advent discipline of waiting with dirty rather than folded hands. Of falling into the big arms of mystery in the midst of chaos and the quotidian tasks of the school day.
To paraphrase Dostoevsky, it is coming to see that Advent in reality is a “harsh and dreadful thing.” Not so much a retreat away from the mess as a diving more deeply into the thick of it where we find the One for whom our hearts have been waiting – often in strange and unexpected ways.
To put it simply, Advent meets us where we are. And where most of us are is far from the mountaintop. In my case, Advent climbs three long flights of stairs each day and grabs a seat in my classroom where I am asked to acknowledge her presence and submit to her discipline. Like the quiet kid in the back of the room, she waits for me to call on her. And when I do, her response is sharp and direct.
Advent slaps us upside the head and demands that we open our eyes and stare down reality. Like a bucket of ice water to the face, she jolts us out of our blindness and orders us to awaken and see. To be watchful and alert for the coming of Love in our broken and beautiful lives and in the lives of those around us.
Be alert! Watch! Look! See!
These are the radical, soul-shaking, life-changing demands of Advent and the heart of real education. “Looking is what saves us.” It’s as simple and scary as that. Advent knows that once we really see, we cannot un-see. This results in what I call the unbearable burden of knowing, the kind of knowing that “ruins us for life,” as the Jesuits say.
If we are not looking deeply and inviting our students to join us, we have failed as teachers and have not yet met Advent. Students watch us closely and if we are sleepwalking, they will follow our example. A teacher who is not awake may produce students who excel academically, but such a teacher will never be able to help students make the journey from head to heart. For many students, this is a foreign and frightening trek, but if we are to become fully human it is a trip we must make.
Over the years, I have known students who have been academically brilliant but stunted in their ability to see with the eyes of the heart. These students worship at the cold altar of logic in a hermetically-sealed world that lacks poetry, passion, and pathos. Wrapping their arguments in language that is simultaneously rational and chilling, they intellectualize the use of nuclear weapons, the practice of torture, and the neglect of the poor with detached and undisturbed ease. Steeped in a world-weary, self-protective cynicism, they dare not look deeply and mock those who do.
These are the students that keep me up at night. The ones that drive me to beg for the grace it takes to look deeply enough to find the lost coin of compassion that I know is buried beneath their steely exteriors, a coin that is priceless and worth seeking. This is hardcore Advent work that necessitates seeing, waiting, surrendering. If we discount the possibility of these students seeing differently and write them off as hopeless, we have ourselves denied Advent’s possibilities.
While I struggle mightily for the grace to see the softness beneath the hardened soil of such hearts, defensive hearts that are perhaps the most wounded of all, I find it easy to see the suffering Christ in the students who are vulnerable, in the ones who limp through life’s hallways saddled by backpacks full of pain and despair that are too heavy to hide.
I have been a teacher for twenty years and have come to believe that while the particularities of suffering may vary from place to place, the experience of adolescent distress is universal. I have taught at a small, co-ed Catholic school in Southwest Detroit, a detention facility for young women, and an all-boys Jesuit school. I have assisted at a peace camp in Cite Soleil, Haiti and at summer camps in Detroit. In each of these places, the youth with whom I have worked have converted me, humbled me, helped me find the face of God.
Over the years of looking deeply at the young people sitting before me, I have seen so much. Joy and laughter and spontaneity and celebration, to be sure. But also a great deal of grief and, at times, unspeakable pain. Brokenness beyond belief. Beauty beyond measure. The unbearable burden of knowing.
The sophomore with the dark circles under mascaraed eyes who is raising her siblings while her mother works midnights, the junior who can’t come to class without sneaking a drink, the freshman whose home has no heat, the senior pressured to forsake his dreams to follow a path forged by a domineering father. The beloved student sent to prison for carjacking a women while in an alcoholic blackout.
The unbearable burden of knowing that tomorrow a student will eat alone in a hidden corner of the cafeteria while tonight a kid is slicing up his arm to convince himself he exists.
Behind the neat rows of desks and the alphabetized roster there are so many stories. Stories of paralyzing depression, of hard divorces, of drunken parents. Stories of suicide and sexual addiction and shame. Stories that are sacred. Stories that save.
And stories that speak of Advent, that most stern and loving of teachers.
Over the next few weeks, I will be praying for the grace to leave the mountaintop of my Advent dreams and enter my classroom each day as if it were a monastery, a sublime place governed by its own unique schedule of bells and prayer. A holy place governed by love, hospitality, and the discipline of looking deeply. Very deeply. A place where seeds are sown in a spirit of surrender that may or may not take hold. A place of waiting for something new to be born. A place of possibility. A place of holding all that is broken and beautiful with as much reverence as one holds the host.
Advent asks me to look so deeply at the ones before me that, on a good day, I may catch a glimpse of them shimmering like the sun – beautiful reflections of the One whose birth we await during this holy season.
This is not a bad place to pitch a tent.
First published in On the Edge, a Detroit Catholic Worker Paper.