Advent: become a witness of waiting Print E-mail
Word on Fire
Thursday, Dec. 21, 2017 -- 12:00 AM

This column is the second part of Bishop Robert Barron’s essay on Advent anticipation.

So when I’m told that waiting seems to belong to the heart of the spiritual life, I’m not pleased, for here, too, I want answers, direction, clarity — and I want them pronto. I desire to feel happy and to know what God is up to; I need my life to make sense — now.

I’m pleased to live a spiritual life, but I want to be in charge of it and to make it unfold according to my schedule: Run Barron Run. All of this is profoundly antipathetic to the mood and spirit of Advent.

So what sense can we make of the countercultural and counterintuitive spirituality of vigilance? The first thing we have to realize is that God and we are, quite simply, on different timetables. The second letter of Peter states this truth with admirable directness: “To you, O Lord, a thousand years are like a day” (2 Peter 3:8).

Building through mystery

To the God who stands outside of space and time and who orders the whole of creation, our hours, days, years, and eons have a radically different meaning. What is a long time to us is an instant for God, and hence, what seems like delay to us is no delay at all to God.

What seems like dumb and pointless waiting to us can be the way that God, in a unique and finally mysterious manner, is working God’s purposes out. Theologian Richard Rohr summed up the spiritual life in the phrase “your life is not about you,” and this insight is particularly important in terms of the present question.

“Why isn’t God acting how I want and when I want?” Perhaps because your life is part of a complex whole, the fullness of which only God can properly grasp and fittingly order.

God never gets lost

But we can make things even more specific. Is it possible that we are made to wait because the track we are on is not the one God wants for us? Author G. K. Chesterton said that if you are on the wrong road, the very worst thing you could do is to move quickly.

There is that old joke about the pilot who comes on the intercom and says, “I have good news and bad news, folks: The bad news is that we’re totally lost; the good news is that we’re making excellent time!”

Maybe we’re forced to wait because God wants us seriously to reconsider the course we’ve charted, to stop hurtling down a dangerous road.

Or perhaps we are made to wait because we are not yet adequately prepared to receive what God wants to give us. In his remarkable letter to Proba, St. Augustine argued that the purpose of unanswered prayer is to force expansion of the heart.

When we don’t get what we want, we begin to want it more and more, with ever-greater insistency, until our souls are on fire with the desire for it. Sometimes it is only a sufficiently expanded and enflamed heart that can take in what God intends to give.

What would happen to us if we received, immediately and on our own terms, everything we wanted? We might be satisfied in a superficial way, but we wouldn’t begin to appreciate the preciousness of the gifts. After all, the Israelites had to wait thousands of years before they were ready to receive God’s greatest gift.

Even if we are on the right track and even if we desire with sufficient intensity what God wants to give, we still might not be ready to integrate a particular grace into our lives or to handle the implications of it.

Joseph the dreamer clearly wanted to be a great man, but if he had been given political power and authority when he was an arrogant kid, the results would have been disastrous both for himself and for those under his control. His many years of suffering — his terrible wait — made him a ruler with both wisdom and deep compassion. And so, when his brothers did indeed finally bow down to him as he foresaw in his dream, he was able to react not in vengeance, but in love: “I am Joseph, your brother.”

Three Advent practices

What practically can we do during the season of waiting and vigil keeping? What are some practices that might incarnate for us the spirituality described here?

As you keep vigil before the Blessed Sacrament, bring to Christ some problem or dilemma that you have been fretting over, and then pray Lola’s prayer: “Ich warte, ich warte.” Say, “Lord, I’m waiting for you to solve this, to show me the way out, the way forward. I’ve been running, planning, worrying, but now I’m going to let you work.” Then, throughout Advent, watch attentively for signs.

Also, when you pray before the Eucharist, allow your desire for the things of God to intensify; allow your heart and soul to expand. Pray, “Lord, make me ready to receive the gifts you want to give,” or even, “Lord Jesus, surprise me.”

As you assemble the puzzle, think of each piece as some aspect of your life: a relationship, a loss, a failure, a great joy, an adventure, a place where you lived, something you shouldn’t have said, an act of generosity.

So often the events of our lives seem like the thousand pieces of a puzzle lying incoherently and disconnectedly before us. As you patiently put the puzzle together, meditate on the fact that God is slowly, patiently, according to his own plan and purpose, ordering the seemingly unrelated and incongruous events of our lives into a picture of great beauty.

Finally, take advantage of traffic jams and annoying lines — really anything that makes you wait. Let the truth of what 18th-century spiritual writer Jean-Pierre de Caussade said sink in: “Whatever happens to you in the course of a day, for good or ill, is an expression of God’s will.”

Instead of cursing your luck, banging on the steering wheel, or rolling your eyes in frustration, see the wait as a spiritual invitation.When you are forced to slow down, pray one of the great, repetitive vigil prayers of the Church, such as the Rosary or the Jesus prayer (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner”).

With this resolution in mind, hang a Rosary around your rearview mirror throughout Advent. Consider the possibility that God wants you at that moment to wait and then sanctify the time through one of those savoring prayers.

The entire Bible ends on a note not so much of triumph and completion as longing and expectation: “Come, Lord Jesus.” From the very beginning of the Christian dispensation, followers of the risen Jesus have been waiting.

Paul, Augustine, Chrysostom, Agnes, Thomas Aquinas, Clare, Francis, John Henry Newman, and Simone Weil have all waited for the second coming and have hence, all been Advent people.

During this season let us join them, turning our eyes and hearts upward and praying, “Ich warte, ich warte.”


Bishop Robert Barron is an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries. Learn more at www.WordOnFire.org