I have a deep and abiding love for Advent. The texts for the monastic offices pick up my interior longing for God and sing it to the most beautiful of Gregorian melodies. And though we have a fairly modern adaptation of monastic style in this community, this is one of the places in which we are unabashedly old fashioned: we celebrate Advent while it's Advent and we don't get around to celebrating Christmas until it's Christmas. The tree didn't go up until this morning, and it won't get decorated until Tuesday and Wednesday. We party very merrily on Christmas and the days afterward, but not until then. We're implacably reactionary about this time of the year. Whatever may be the cultural situation, we devote the four weeks before Christmas to the longing for the appearance of the One on whom all history is focused. Oh come, Oh, come Emmanuel.
And one of our most treasured customs, at least as far as I'm concerned, is taking 3 days for retreat towards the end of Advent, usually Tuesday through Thursday of the week before Christmas. The guesthouse is closed, the buildings are quiet and silence reigns. One of our friends who used to be rector of a local parish said that she delighted in coming in for services during the busiest shopping days of the year and seeing the sign on our Bookstore: "Closed for Retreat". This is one of the ways in which our counter-cultural identity most delights me.
If you read this column regularly, you will know that the second part of this year has been a difficult and stressful time: the reconfiguration of the household, with some brothers leaving and others arriving to take their place, the deaths of 3 members of our community in about 7 months, and the destruction by fire of our monastery in Santa Barbara, all with the international financial crisis looming over us, as it is over many, many people. So I have been looking forward to this retreat even more this year. I really craved the quiet and the time to savor it. The Advent Retreat really called to me.
It wasn't easy getting into the retreat, nor had I expected it to be. The change-over was too great to do suddenly. But I was working away at it, relaxing as best I could and trying to be patient with myself while my body and soul discovered that yes, I really could take it easy, and I really could be quiet.
And then................................. on Wednesday all hell broke loose in the Incense Department. Normally I expect to have to cope with last-minute orders during this retreat, and because I love the incense work so much, it just adds to the joy of the retreat - packaging the last of the stray orders for people who have forgotten to do their ordering earlier and really need to get incense for the Christmas services. I can do it leisurely and enjoy all of the process, and get incense off to those who have asked us to rush it along.
But this surpassed anything I have ever seen in all the years I have been running the Incense business. They faxed from Seattle and from Florida. They left voice mail messages from Maryland and Georgia and North Carolina. They wrote notes from Pennsylvania and Connecticut and New Jersey. No corner of the United States was left unheard from. They needed incense for their services and copies of St Augustine's Prayer Book for presents. AND THEY NEEDED IT NOW !!!!!
What to do? This is one of those times when I have to figure out how the observance of the Advent Retreat and the compliance with the demands of business can possibly go together. So I set to work. "Take your time. Be mindful. Pay attention to each detail. Remember how much you enjoy this. Pray the Jesus Prayer over each order. Keep going, and keep your awareness in gear. Be alert. Use your meditation skills. Come back to the center every time you need to."
All very true. All very important. All worth paying attention to. And, when it's 9:30 at night and you're still at it, having been going strong all day long, it begins to wear a bit thin.
But I got it done. At 10:00 pm I wheeled the last of the packages to the UPS pick-up dock and dragged myself to bed. I forebore (is there such a word? The spell check doesn't think so) to question myself about how faithful I had been to the spirit of silence.
Then on Thursday, I went back to the retreat. And it was there waiting for me. I had to work at getting into it again, and though I can't claim three uninterrupted days of bliss, I can say that I was really into it by the end of the retreat. Advent was really Advent for me at that point and I was rejoicing in the quiet of anticipation. I don't know if Wednesday was an interruption or not. It certainly wasn't what I had hoped for in a retreat. But then, it didn't drag me away from the retreat either, at least altogether. I did apparently emerge from Wednesday with some shreds of my recollection and my longing for God intact.
Also, there hasn't been an incense order since then. Hooray!
And I think that I may have been more successful in how I practiced during the frenzy of Wednesday than I was aware of. I slipped into the closing hours of the retreat with surprising ease, even if it took some concentrated effort. And the effect of the retreat has lasted through the days since then, and that doesn't always happen when a retreat ends. This has been helped along by the winter's first major snow storm and the fact that most of our scheduled guests canceled out, so it has been very low-key, even after the retreat finished. I really have been free to enjoy the closing days of this season.
Could it be that things sometimes happen just so that we can learn the lessons we need to learn? Or maybe there's just always something that needs to be learned, if we look for it.
Happy Advent! Merry Christmas!