Advent Listening

Today’s blog is by Mary van Balen

I am poring through Scripture readings and books while preparing for an Advent retreat, revisiting favorite writings and discovering new ones. As readers do, I filter the words through my current state of mind, faith, and being. A passage that held deep meaning five years ago provides little inspiration this time around. On the other hand, something I had passed over before jumps out from the page and speaks to me. Of course, there are passages that always touch the heart.

An essay in Madeleine L’Engle’s Miracle on 10th Street: & Other Christmas Writings provided the “word” for this reflection: “Advent is about listening.”

I usually think of this season as a time of waiting or keeping watch for something that is coming. While listening is part of active waiting and of remaining alert for what is to come, lately I’ve noticed my lack of practice—at least of the deep listening Madeleine writes about.

I listen for things like the washer or dryer buzzer alerting me that the load is finished. The oven timer lets me know food needs to be checked or removed. My mobile phone signals the arrival of a text message, email, or call with a distinct sound for each. But really, I don’t actually listen for these. They are loud enough that the intricate inner workings of my ear (a miracle in itself) hear them whether or not I’m paying attention. These examples are more “hearing,” I guess.

Then there is the “mother’s ear” that is remarkably attuned to her children’s soft whimpers or cries that alert her that some loving attention is needed. Sometimes she just knows. This is closer to the “listening” of Advent, rooted not simply in sound waves and anatomy, but in soul and attention.

Advent listening attends to more than sound. It listens for meaning, direction, and movement deep down in our center. We listen with the ear of the heart as St. Benedict instructs in his Rule’s prologue. We listen for the Divine within us, the Christ, without knowing what exactly that will sound like or if it “sounds” at all.

A few weeks ago, I saw the movie “Harriet.” (See it if you can.) It revealed much about the most well-known conductor on the underground railroad, Harriet Tubman. She was born into slavery, escaped to freedom, and returned to the South 19 times, freeing around 70 others. (These numbers vary depending on the source.) A remarkable woman in countless ways, she seems to me to have been an “Advent listener.”

She said she didn’t travel alone. The Lord travelled with her, sometimes speaking to her and guiding her to safety. Many people thought she was delusional, but her story never changed. When asked what it was like to hear the voice of God, she said sometimes it was soft like a dream and sometimes it stung like a slap in the face. Either way, she needed to pay close attention to it before she knew what it meant. It led her by safe paths; it directed her to return to the South again and again.

The messages came unexpectedly, sometimes while she was leading a group, sometimes when she was asleep. The thing is, she heard it. Deep-down, she was listening with the ear of her heart, all the time. Open. Ready.

Harriet’s story reminds me of this passage in Isaiah: “Whether you turn to right or left, your ears will hear these words behind you, ‘This is the way, follow it.’” (Is 30, 21)

We will hear if we are listening.

Our world is noisy and keeps us busy. We “hear” lots, but listening is difficult. These weeks before Christmas are even louder and busier than usual, filled with marketing messages bombarding us from television, radios, and computer screens as we hurry about our preparations.

Advent is about listening deeply. Dark nights, candlelight from our Advent wreaths, sweet smells of holiday baking, or long winter walks can provide a bit of quiet. But even in the midst of activity, with practice, the ear of our heart listens to the whisper of the Sacred within: Have hope. God-with-Us is here. Follow the Word.

You can buy Mary’s collection of columns, Reflections for Advent and Christmas: A Grace in the Moment Book, from Biblio Publishing at 614.485.0721.

©2019 Mary van Balen

December 12, 2019 by Mary van Balen
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