Reflections During Advent, Part II
Isaiah 40:3. A voice cries out: “…make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”
Mark 1:2–3. As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way: the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths [in the desert] straight.’”
In some ways, my life in 2020 changed very little. Group activities—Master Naturalist meetings, Education for Ministry, Sunday worship—all simply moved to Zoom rooms. I still walk daily with my dog, sometimes stopping to chat (masked, socially distanced) with neighbors; monitor meadowlarks on the nearby NPS battlefield; and keep a watchful eye on the news. If someone asks how I am, I say, “Fine.” And I am, mostly. I am grateful for good health, a home, internet access, and safe ways to get food and other necessities. Aware of the enormous suffering many endure, I feel guilty complaining.
But about six months into this long, murky season I call “Coronatide,” I could no longer deny that something was wrong. Beneath the visible daily routine, I felt empty and distracted. My imagination had dried up. Writing, even in my journal, seemed impossibly hard. My prayers had turned lifeless and brittle. I finally admitted to being in an emotional and spiritual desert. I needed a John the Baptist-type figure, a voice to call out to me in my inner desert to “make straight a highway”—or at least construct a modest channel—that would re-connect me to the holy, the creative, the fruitful. In other words, to God.
That voice arrived in mid-September. It belonged not to the biblical John who dressed in camel skins and ate locusts and wild honey in the Judean desert but rather to a contemporary Franciscan Friar, Richard Rohr, who lives in Albuquerque—an oasis in the Chihuahuan Desert. Rohr’s voice came to me via a newsletter in which he offered a simple, soul-nourishing plan. His counsel was, first, to limit one’s consumption of news, preferably to no more than an hour a day; and second, to invest the time thereby gained in “some form of public service, volunteerism, mystical reading..., prayer—or, preferably, all of the above.”
Throughout much of 2020, my habit was to turn on the news at lunchtime. And again in the evening when I was fixing dinner, to see what more had developed. Many times the news stayed on, whether I was watching or not, until I went to bed. Meanwhile, I also received, via email or text, headlines from three major news outlets plus NPR. My consumption of news was nearly an addiction. Could I turn my curiosity in other directions? I would try.
I have not been perfect in adhering to Rohr’s regimen, but when I do, life improves. I go to bed earlier, sleep better, and wake without an alarm, usually before dawn, ready to write and pray while the world is still quiet. Moreover, this practice does seem to have opened an inner channel through which God can squeeze. I still have fears, worries, distractions. But I feel my imagination beginning to stir, and with it, the possibility of refreshment and hope.
Most people I know report the same: being “okay” on the surface; but being plagued below the surface by a pervasive malaise, a kind of soul-suffering characterized by anxiety, exhaustion, and uncertainty. If this is your story, too, I hope you will give some thought this second week of Advent to how you might begin opening a path through your own inner desert so that a bit more of the Holy can come in. Turn off the news. Call someone who lives alone. Give some money, or time, to a soup kitchen. Let loose your tears. Send a holiday card. Revive—or begin—a journaling practice. Listen to beautiful music. Take up drawing. Dance in your kitchen. Read a good book. But whatever you do, do this: Keep awake—and watch, and pray.