Preparing for the birth of the Word
It’s really good to welcome you to this first in a series of four Advent talks.
Each evening will follow the same format: a talk for around twenty minutes, then we’ll meditate in silence for around 20 minutes, followed with 10 – 15 minutes of conversation.
This evening I’d like to introduce the main theme of these four Advent talks, which is the eternal birth of the Word within us. And also introduce a very simple and ancient form of Christian meditation, which we will practice this during these evenings together.
Over the next three weeks we’ll look at:
- What the Christian contemplative tradition has to say about this divine birth within us;
- How meditation can help us find freedom from all the noise, expectations and projections that steal our attention so much of the time (and especially at this time of year);
- At how the practice of meditation can help prepare the ground for this birth within us;
- And at what the direct implications of this divine birth might be for how we live our lives with each other; because the birth of God’s Word must be the birth of compassion.
It’s all too easy for the meaning of Advent and Christmas to become buried in all the busyness of life, and especially in the run up to the festive season. It all too easy, even when people appear to be realising in greater and greater numbers that so much of life and its meaning is buried within the busyness of life, the distractedness of life.
Books on meditation are increasingly popular. Papers and magazines are full of conversation about it. And it’s no wonder. People are hungry for what it offers, for peace. Distractedness, you might say, is the disease of our time. And people are suffering. The distracted person is cut off from themselves, from others, and from God.
And if anything I have to say affects you, unlike the BBC I’m not going to give you a number to call. I’m going to suggest you come back each week, and meditate. Because much of our time together over the next few weeks will be about addressing our distractedness, about coming back to ourselves, and so to each other and to God.
I’m hoping these weeks will be something of an antidote to the busyness of our lives – a small injection of something helpful.
The meaning of Advent
It goes without saying that much of the focus of Advent and Christmas revolves around preparing for and then celebrating the birth of Jesus roughly two thousand years ago. For Christians, Jesus discloses what can be seen of God in a human life. He is the “Word of God” become flesh, incarnated and embodied in a human life. He is the epiphany, the revelation of what God is like – of God’s character and passion. As the Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe put it, you might say that Jesus is God’s idea of God.
The Gospel readings for the season of Advent begin with John the Baptist warning that something extraordinary is about to happen; and end with the movement of divine life within the womb of Mary. The term ‘Advent’, from the Latin adventus, means ‘coming’, ‘approaching’. Something is about to be revealed, to be made present, manifest, disclosed to us. Advent is a time of waiting, of darkness, of anticipation, of warning and promise. Something extraordinary is promised that will challenge and undermine everything.
The messages of Advent are indeed deeply counter-cultural and challenging. One of these counter-cultural message is simply that we have to wait.
All around us enormous amounts of energy and ingenuity are being directed towards making us do anything but wait. Waiting is actively discouraged by the world we have created. Our credit-driven society urges us to buy now, have now, consume now. Waiting for anything seems to be a very odd and unattractive notion.
And yet, despite this, the church has something called Advent where four weeks are dedicated to waiting. This is deeply counter-cultural. I’m asking you to spend a good amount of time over the next few weeks doing something most people would think very odd indeed.
Now, part of what I want to draw out in these talks is that our waiting during Advent has a deep and essential value in itself. ‘Advent waiting’ is far from something entirely passive. Advent waiting is active, focussed consent, an expectant waiting that is our participation in and collaboration with a deeply creative act: not our act, but God’s act: the birth of the Word. And it is this birth that Advent anticipates and which this special type of waiting prepares us for.
Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus in the world. Advent prepares the ground for the birth of the Word within awareness.
The Eternal Birth of the Word
Listen to these words of the fourteenth century German Dominican Johannes Tauler from a Christmas Day sermon, reflecting on the reading from Isiah, ‘A child is born to us, a Son is given to us’ (9:5):
“It signifies that very sweet birth which should and does occur every day and every moment within every just a holy soul if only it directs its attention lovingly toward that goal”.
“We read in Holy Scripture that a child is born to us, and a Son is given to us, which is to say that he is ours. He belongs to us in a special way, above all ways; that He is begotten in us always, without ceasing. It is of this very sweet birth that we wish to speak first”.
Advent asks us to prepare for this birth within ourselves, within our own awareness.
There is no ‘before’ or ‘after’ with God. Creation is a continuous activity. We are sustained in being by the ceaseless self-gift of God. We are being born, moment by moment, in the eternal birthing of God.
Just think about that for a moment. In the prologue of John’s Gospel we read that through the Word all things came into being (John 1:3). God has made all things through the Word. The Word is the expressive, creative outpouring of God’s being. You might say, we only exist because God is speaking this Word in us and in all creation, right now. Each of us and the whole cosmos is sustained by this outpouring of being. God is ceaseless being born in us. We are just, generally speaking, unaware of this. Through all those times when God might seem at a distance, when we can’t sense God’s presence, God is pouring himself into us and is, as Augustine put it, closer to us than we are to ourselves.
Our work in meditation is simply to turn our attention towards this presence, this life which is the light of all people. A very simple practice (though not easy), and the most effective way I know to turn us from the noise of commerce and all that encourages us to live a life distracted from the most extraordinary truth about ourselves: that God is here, with us, pouring into us, filling us with his life.
Union with God
Christian meditation is not about achieving union with God, but realising this union is our deepest truth.
It can be helpful to think of there being two aspects of this union with God. The first aspect of our union with God lies simply in the fact that we’re here, in our ontological ‘givenness.’ We are here, we are being sustained in being by God moment by moment, even if we are not aware of this.
A great many of us spend our lives largely unaware of this fundamental union and we can spend a great deal of time and effort trying to deny it. It can be a hard thing to accept our utter, fundamental dependence on God. We don’t even own our own being, It’s a gift, on loan as it were. This is a truly radical poverty.
But it’s the second aspect of union with God – which all prayer is ultimately directing us towards – which we will be thinking about – the union to be achieved through our becoming aware of God’s presence. Becoming aware of this union is what is meant by ‘the birth of the Word within us’. It is the birth of truth within awareness.
In our next talk we’ll look a little more closely at how the practice of meditation turns us towards this birth in awareness. But I’d like to say just a few things tonight about the heart of the message and experience that this tradition seeks to transmit to us.
It is the experience that Jesus had of the Father, which he spoke of as Abba, an incredibly intimate term for the most fundamental of relationships. Abba, the ground of all that is, as pure compassion and love, ceaselessly giving itself away to us, overflowing into every created thing. You might say that the four Gospels set out Jesus’ program to guide us to the resurrection of our minds, to the gift of transfiguration in the beholding of the One who is pouring into us and the entire universe.
You might say that Jesus was born to tell us that God is continuously giving birth, that we’re already totally in the presence of God – we’re just unaware of this. Becoming aware of this must be the most exciting and challenging adventure we will ever face. It is, as the life of Jesus tells is, the challenge of becoming fully, radically human.
How do we do this?
Well, it’s worth saying at the outset (and it’s worth repeating this to ourselves on a very regular basis) that we have nothing to achieve or even to learn. We need to unlearn a great many things, and most especially we must let go of any thought that we have ever been separate from God.
We can’t do this ourselves. We are not in the driving seat, we are collaborating, participating, responding. And we do not initiate anything. All is grace and the act of God.
What we can do, all we can do, is learn to consent. Meditation is not a time for speaking, however beautiful and heartfelt our words might be. When we come to enter into the depthless depths of our communion with God, we must leave all our familiar supports behind. All we need is to be willing and to try to turn to the Word of God within us, through becoming more and more still and silent, through the practice of turning our attention away from the thoughts and distractions that we are normally so fascinated with.
And instead of trying to think about God, we cultivate the habit of simply turning to him in loving attention. St. Matthew (6:6) speaks of the practice in this way:
“…whenever you pray, go into your hidden room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
As we turn to enter the “inner room” of our heart we leave everything at the door, our words and concepts and preferences. We must be naked when we enter, as naked as God was when he was born to Mary, as naked as he is within us.
Silence is absolutely necessary if we are to flourish and respond to life, those around us and to our environment fully and creatively It is in the depths of silence that we meet God, who is like silence, in an embrace which transcends the intellect and all our words.
In the silence of God you just have to let God be God. You don’t have to justify yourself or excuse yourself and there is nothing to achieve. You just have to experience who you are, more a ‘becoming’ than a being, an unfolding truth, hidden with Christ in God. And in this experience you become aware that you are completely free and God is just hopelessly in love with you.
To know this is to be enlightened, to be lit within. To call it a cosmic light bulb moment would be an outrageous understatement. It is the renewal, the transfiguration of the mind. It is quite literally life changing, because a new life is being born.
We are temples of the Holy Spirit
Is this just for a few of us, for some spiritual elite? Not at all. This is what we are made for. This is what all of us are made for. We are all temples of the Holy Spirit.
Christ makes his Advent, his coming, depend on what the Jews call teshuva, metanoia in Greek, conversio in Latin – ‘turning’ in English (very often mistranslated as ‘repentance’).
We turn to God liturgically in church, in the physical temple. We turn to God spiritually, to his presence in the heart of who we are, which is his image and the living temple that we are.
As my teacher, Sylvester Houedard OSB put it, the entire point of the New Covenant established by Christ at the Last Supper and in his death and resurrection, is that the Torah, the Logos or Word that God inscribed on stone for Moses to keep in the tent or temple, is identical with the Word that God has inscribed on the heart of every human being. Every human being, without distinction.
And how do we come to ‘read’ this Word? Well, in the stone temple the High Priest had to lift or part the veil. For us to read the Word written on the heart of who we are, we need to deal with the veil that our egos have created and strive to maintain.
This is the purpose to meditation. If we’re looking to ‘hear’ God, so to speak, we have to learn to be silent. We have to learn to turn to the silent depths within us learn to listen. We have to tune into this Word, as it were, and learn to live with His silence. We need to let God bring his Word to birth in our awareness.
That means stilling ourselves to enter into the silence and know God’s love and mercy. “Be still and know” says the psalmist (Psalm 46:10).
Silence is how God speaks his Word. As Elijah discovered, God was not in the great wind that split mountains and broke rocks, or in the earthquake, or the fire or any sound or familiar show of power: God was in “…a sound of sheer silence” (1 Kings 19:12).
Silence is not an absence of something, but the ground, the womb of the unimaginable fullness of God’s creative and redemptive being, the Word, is spoken, is born. As we read in psalm 19, “Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard; yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the earth”.
We need to learn to be still and listen in expectant silence. We just need to begin. And we continue to begin each time we meditate. If I have learnt anything over the last 30 years of meditating it is to be content with always beginning.
Let’s listen to these words from the end of Tauler’s Christmas sermon to lead us into our time of meditation. I will ring the prayer bell at the start of our meditation and again when it’s time to finish. Then we’ll have some conversation.
“What is truly needful is the creation of inner stillness and peace, a retreat protecting us from our senses, a refuge of tranquillity and inward repose.
Cherish this deep silence within, nourish it frequently, so that it may become a habit, and by becoming a habit, a mighty possession. For what seems quite impossible to an unpractised person become easy for a practised one. It is habit that creates skill.
May God help us to prepare a dwelling place for this noble birth, so that we may attain spiritual motherhood.”