[The words of this Advent sonnet are printed below.]
The season of Advent represents the most urgently important wisdom the Christian tradition has to teach us right now. It holds the key to the spiritual transformation that we need in order to heal our divided and damaged world.
The word “advent” means the approach or arrival of something. The season of Advent gives us metaphors to understand our current limited vision and way of being as a kind of darkness, and the more developed, mature heart and mind of Christ as a kind of light that can be born within us.
The season of Advent is about preparing to receive this transformation by opening our hearts and minds to the light as widely and purely as we can so that it will fill us and shine through us into the world.
We can seek and find the light in nature, or in art, or in the vulnerable, hurting or oppressed people and earth that we turn to with compassion and a helping hand, but in order to find light outside of ourselves we need to prepare to find it within ourselves.
Advent begins for me when I hear the first notes of the hymn “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” It is full of the yearning for freedom from our old way of being. It longs for the coming of light and wisdom, for the oneness and harmony of all life that is the ultimate gift of the spiritual transformation Christ calls us to undergo.
To gain the full benefit of that beautiful hymn we need the kind of preparation Advent offers. The following passage about music could be applied to Advent, Christmas and the spiritual life as well:
“In our time and culture, we approach music variously as an entertainment, ambient background to tune our environment, aesthetic and intellectual delight, sensual pleasure, remembrance of past and happy times, perhaps a cultural event. But music as medicine, instruction manual, prompter of conscience: these are less common views of Music.
“Also relatively uncommon is the notion that the state of the listener significantly determines the degree to which music may enter our world. Simply, music is only present in our lives to the extent that we are present to ourselves. This implies that the discipline of the listener is as rigorous as that of the musician.” (Robert Fripp in Harmonic Development, The Complete Harmonium Recordings 1948-1949)
Advent is a time for looking and listening deeply. It is a season for “putting the mind in the heart,” as the Eastern Orthodox tradition calls it.
Neuroscience tells us that this ancient mystical wisdom has a physiological grounding, as Cynthia Bourgeault describes in her recent book The Heart of Centering Prayer: Nondual Christianity in Theory and Practice.
A recent article by Robin Wright in The New Yorker quotes Jim Coan, a neuroscientist, clinical psychologist, and the director of the University of Virginia’s Affective Neuroscience Laboratory who explains that “‘the flow of blood, which brings nutrients to the brain, is finite. The brain moves blood around in short-term loans to its various parts as situations demand.
“’But the blood supply is not enough to run every part of the brain at the same time….When you’re running that prefrontal cortex at top speed, it’s sucking up a lot of blood from the brain….’ Myriad crises each demand attention—one eye on the virus, a second on political turmoil, a third on career and income, a fourth on kids and their education, a fifth on civil unrest, a sixth on wildfires and other climate catastrophes, and so on. That’s six or seven eyes, and we only have two, Coan said.
“Our brains have a way to ‘encourage us gently not to use the prefrontal cortex so much,’ Coan told me…. There are simple ways to relieve demands on the prefrontal cortex, such as getting enough sleep and basic exercise…. Another is a vacation that reduces the demand for focus to an activity that requires only one eye.”
Advent asks us to shift from the prefrontal cortex, and to see with the single eye of the heart. Cynthia Bourgeault says in her book A Wisdom Way of Knowing,
“The heart, in the ancient sacred traditions, has a very specific and perhaps surprising meaning. It is…an organ for the perception of divine purpose and beauty. It is our antenna, so to speak…to orient us toward the divine radiance, and to synchronize our being with its more subtle movements. The heart is not for personal expression, but for divine perception.” (pp 33f)
The wisdom of the Christian contemplative tradition and Centering Prayer says that when we practice emptying the mind of our self-awareness and busy thoughts and feelings we naturally shift to the heart part of our brain. This self-emptying is known by the Greek word kenosis, and it prepares us for the spiritual transformation known as metanoia, which in turn opens us to the light—the unconditional and universal love of Christ—that can shine through us to transform the world.
This poem is about making the shift to that Advent state of mind.
A Slow Approach
This advent, may I pause to watch for light,
the predawn glow, soft wall-hue, blue from snow,
or early morning gold, slow shadow flight
across the kitchen, pulsing as twigs blow.
May I look long enough for subtle shifts
or for my eye’s adjustment to the dark.
May I stand silent till my blindness lifts
and stars beyond the stars begin to spark.
May I let go the constant flickering
and fabrications, bright screens, frantic, fast,
addicted to my strain’s accomplishing,
vain satisfactions that can never last.
This Advent let me brave the humbler goal
to savor slow-found light—to save my soul.
copyright 2020 Thomas Cary Kinder
Here is a work of Advent music and art to contemplate and savor: