“I often find myself longing for a presence, but more than that something tangible. No matter how many times I read the bible, pray, and go to Sunday school I still feel unconnected and lost. Sometimes I get the feeling that it is my fault.”
One of my high school freshmen students at the school where I teach theology wrote these words in response to some lines from a poem by the Swedish Nobel laureate Pär Lagerkvist:
My friend is a stranger, someone I do not know.
A stranger far far away.
For his sake my heart is full of disquiet
because he is not with me.
Because, perhaps, after all he does not exist.
Who are you who so fill my heart with your absence?
In the season of Advent, and particularly in these final days of preparation, the Church, through her liturgy, fans the embers of this longing for God to be present: “O Radiant Dawn, splendor of eternal light, sun of justice: Come, shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.” (O Antiphon for December 21). It is as if the Church wanted to make the pain of our yearning for a savior more acute. What Lagerkvist calls “disquiet” of the heart—the “inquietus cor” of St. Augustine—is not a problem; it is the indispensable condition for recognizing the presence of God.
In his latest Wednesday audience, Pope Francis invites us to let this restlessness grow in intensity, so that we can find and recognize God when He shows up in our life. Many of us think this sense of longing and agitation is an obstacle to overcome or a doubt to be resolved. But Pope Francis suggests instead that we embrace “the humility of seeking,” and reminds us, “Our work is not to snuff out that restlessness, but to allow it to grow because it is that restlessness that seeks God; and, with His own grace, can find Him.”
Young people don’t have much training in the art of ignoring their hearts, numbing their desires, and explaining away their restlessness with the correct answers. So when they are given freedom to ask their questions, they can help us give words to our own experiences. Another student of mine wrote: “Searching for God has always been hard for me, because I always feel like I’m chasing something that keeps running from me. I’ve always felt like He was closed off from me and no matter how hard I try, there’s never really been a connection.” How many of my devout Catholic young adult friends have expressed similar frustration in their search for community, for the breaking of a bad habit, or for an answer to the loneliness of parenting, only to quickly whitewash their yearning with a Catholic platitude? (“I know, I just need to pray more and be more virtuous.”)
In these final days of Advent the Church invites us to viscerally feel our own insufficiency for answering our deepest needs:
We have sinned,
and are as an unclean thing,
and we all fall as a leaf:
and our iniquities, like the wind,
have taken us away:
thou hast hid thy face from us:
and hast consumed us, because of our iniquities.
We sang these dramatic words of the Advent hymn “Rorate Caeli” in Latin during our high school Advent retreat at the end of the semester. The melody and the words of this song evoke deep yearning. They express open-ended sorrow, but this sadness is not despair because it is desire. It is a sadness that is often found in secular music as well. Shortly before singing “Rorate Caeli” the students sang “Evermore” by Taylor Swift (yes, her, and no, not during anything liturgical). The first two verses express the fear of thinking that maybe our pain “would be for evermore.” Justin Vernon of Bon Iver sings the bridge of this song in his signature falsetto:
Oh, can we just get a pause?
To be certain, we’ll be tall again
I’m on waves, out being tossed
Is there a line that I could just go cross?”
The slightest hint of an answer begins to appear, a “You” that brings hope.
“In the cracks of light
I dreamed of you
It was real enough
To get me through
You were there
It is not too much for us to yearn for God to show up in our lives in tangible ways, to be “there” with us. Advent is all about stoking this fire of desire in us. As a reasonably well-catechized Catholic, I risk reducing my experience of God’s incarnate presence to only his sacramental presence. It is easy for me to make others think I am always certain of God’s closeness because I know the doctrine of the incarnation. But this is a way to deny the restlessness that is necessary for seeing Christ. It can also lead those who are listening to me think there is something wrong with them when they struggle and doubt. The words of one freshman boy from the retreat merit quoting at length:
“As I have been growing and getting older, I feel like I should be getting closer to God. Sometimes it feels as if I just can’t. I can’t focus while praying and I continuously make the same mistakes over and over again. I grew up in a very Catholic family all my life and it feels as if I should have a better, deeper relationship with God, but it is like he is a stranger sometimes. One time in particular was my Confirmation. I was so ready because I believed that this was the time I was going to blossom in my faith and be able to concentrate and be the perfect kid and always do the right thing. But that didn’t happen. My family told me this will change your life, but for me it feels as if nothing happened. Like nothing ever sparked and I feel like I should have changed from this experience. And I feel as if sometimes I’m not good enough because some people in my family are so holy and are great about praying and concentrating and I feel like I’m lost sometimes. Why can’t I be like them? What is wrong with me? It feels as if God is right beside some of them but he is not beside me. Even though I know he is always with me it just feels as if he is not. Yes, I go to church every Sunday, confession often, and make pretty good decisions but something just doesn’t click. Maybe I need to put more meaning into what I do, but I feel like I do. Sometimes I just feel completely lost.”
This feeling of being lost is not a problem, but a gift that sends us on a search, as it sent the Magi on a search. As Pope Francis also said in his audience address, “Every person, in the depths of his or her heart, is called to seek God: we all have that restlessness.” Even young people raised in faithful Catholic families, with lifelong exposure to Church teaching and excellent role models, cannot escape the sense that, as the words of the famous Advent hymn say, they “mourn in lowly exile here until the Son of God appear.” Listening to these young people is an invitation to accept and cry out our own sense of exile, not to “snuff it out” with the correct Catholic answers.
Late one night during the Advent retreat, after adoration, I found myself with a group of students standing outside the mountain chapel, looking up towards a stunning sign in the sky: a “moon halo.” It was formed—so the scientists say—by moonlight refracting off ice crystals in the atmosphere. The students, who had (voluntarily) surrendered their cell phones, could not take pictures. We could only stand in wonder. Many said it felt like a sign that God was, indeed, close to them. One sophomore approached me with a question: “I feel like I do what I’m supposed to do. I say my prayers, I go to Mass, I’ve gone to Catholic school all my life…Why do I feel so far from God?”
These young men and women help me understand what Francis (echoing Benedict before him) means when he asserts, especially in Gaudete et Exsultate, that Christianity is so much more than a set of rules to follow or a list of theological concepts to accept. These students are looking for a presence in their lives, for something or someone to happen that changes them and makes them capable of facing life: “Disperse the gloomy clouds of night and death’s dark shadow put to flight.” In these last moments of Advent, may we put aside our platitudes, even the most theologically sound ones, and dare to express the impossible hope that God appear.
Images: Halo moon, provided by the author.