Testifying to the Light: Merton, Gaudete and More
It’s always right around this time each Advent season that I move into high holiday spirit. I take that pink candle very seriously. Gaudete! Rejoice! And with that I break out Christmas boxes and begin to decorate the house. My kids, having been not-so-patiently waiting for a couple of weeks by now, finally get to light the lights and string the ornaments and push the buttons that play Christmas carols on endless loops.
I like the waiting time of Advent. I’m not a patient person, but in this season I tend to find my stride, enjoying the slowness of preparing for the feast, stepping out of character and trying not to rush things, knowing it will all be here and gone soon enough. But it won’t be gone, will it? Only the external trappings will be gone. If this season does what this season is meant to do, we will be left with the internal light that shines long after the ornaments and singing Santas are put away for another year.
This weekend at Mass, one line from the Gospel kept ringing in my ears:
“He came for testimony, to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.”
That role isn’t reserved for John the Baptist. We are all called to testify to the light so that others might believe. But how do we do that? It’s not always easy in this frantic world, where people steal our parking spots at the mall and smash into our cars without leaving a note (both of which happened to me this week).
I recently had an experience of light that jumped out and grabbed me. I was at Kripalu yoga center, attending a workshop called “Pray All Ways” by Paulist Father Thomas Ryan (which I posted about briefly last week). At the end of the weekend, Father Tom asked us to do a lectio divina exercise, using the weekend itself as the point of reflection. We were to find the thing that stood out to us, pray on it and share with the group. Although there were many, many gifts received that weekend, one thing kept coming to the front of my mind, from the very first session of our workshop. Here’s what I shared with my group (more or less):
As I sat in this circle, sharing faith stories and prayer with a group of strangers, my mind kept returning to the famous Thomas Merton story, where he’s standing on a street corner in Kentucky and looks around at the people surrounding him and feels complete love for and unity with them. I never really “got” that story because most of the time I’m standing on the street corner feeling frustration and wondering when all those people are just going to cross the street, for goodness sake. But here, at Kripalu, from almost the first instant, I knew exactly what Merton meant. I looked around and felt complete love for complete strangers, people from all different walks of life who are searching for the same thing — a deeper connection to God. Being in this place gives me hope. And Merton’s words keep echoing in my heart: There’s no way to tell people they are walking around shining like the sun.
When I returned to “real” life later that same day, I tried to bring that light back home with me. The truth is, I often withdraw to my sacred space to pray or do yoga or both and then emerge only to jump right back into the chaos without letting my prayer reverberate in my words and actions. But the point of the weekend workshop and the focus of my prayer life these days is to take what happens in that sacred space and let it influence everything else, because my children and husband and friends will never understand the power of God’s love in my life if I don’t let that love come out through me, if I don’t walk around shining like the sun, or Son.
It’s hard to keep that light shining through all the difficulties and frustrations and annoyances of life. It’s much easier to slip back into dissatisfaction, to take up my poor-pitiful-me position and wonder why everyone can’t make it easier for me to be prayerful. Sigh. It’s not supposed to be easy. What merit is there in being prayerful if it only sticks when times are good?
And then I went to Mass on Saturday evening, and my pastor hit the nail on the head with a homily focused on that same theme. He reminded us that to rejoice isn’t to be “up” all the time, outwardly bouncing around happily from one thing to the next. To truly rejoice is to remain inwardly joyful even when times are hard because our joy isn’t in things of this world; our joy is in God and what God has done for us. Amen.
When I was at Kripalu, Father Tom led us in many Taize chants at the start of each session. One of my favorites was this one:
“Our darkness is never darkness
in your sight.
The deepest night is clear
as the daylight.”
The play of light against darkness is so apparent during this season when the ever-increasing glow of the Advent wreath stands in stark contrast to the darkness outside. I am often all too aware of the darkness, sometimes even seeking it out when there’s light all around me. But once we realize there is no darkness with God, everything becomes clear, and we shine like the sun, even at midnight.
So rejoice! Testify to the Light that can never be extinguished.