My Advent reading for this year is The Reed of God by Caryll Houselander. A twentieth century Catholic mystic, Houselander lived from 1901 until dying from breast cancer in 1954. She wrote several books, but The Reed of God is her most enduring work; published in 1944, it explores themes of waiting, pregnancy, seeking and beauty in regard to Mary’s relationship to Christ. Insightful and earthy, it transcends the theological horizons of its time and has come to be regarded as a twentieth century spiritual classic. Poignant in her frank description of life (and faith) during war time, her theme of suffering the apparent absence of Christ (expanding from the story of Mary and Joseph searching for the 12-year-old Jesus when he was in the temple) continues to resonate 70 years later.
So as we progress into the third week of this short, lovely season, I thought reflecting on a few words from Caryll Houselander makes all sort of sense.
Advent is the season of the secret, the secret of the growth of Christ, of Divine Love growing in silence. It is the season of humility, silence, and growth. (p. 28)
What does Houselander mean by “the secret”? I think she is referring to the mystery. We are moving into the dark time of the year, the days are getting shorter, the harvest is done, this is a time of letting go, of hibernation, of the old year passing away. But there’s a secret. In the midst of the cold, and the darkness, and the uncertainty, in the silence of Mary’s womb, a new life stirs — and not just any “new life,” but the life, the life of Christ. When things look their bleakest, God is secretly at work.
But because it is a secret, God keeps his mouth shut. The quality of God’s secret is that it comes to us in silence, silence and humility. The word humility means simple, down to earth, of the earth. And Jesus, who emptied himself of his transcendent being with God to take on the form of a baby, born in poverty, in a barn in a backwater town in a backwater province of the empire – that’s humility. And out of that secret, that silence, he literally changed the world, changed all things, forever.
So when we interrupt the noise and the craziness and the chaos of the secular “holiday season” to reconnect with silence, we are creating the space for each and every one of us to imitate Mary, and – entirely by the grace of the Holy Spirit – to open up a place in us, not in our wombs, but in our hearts, where Christ can be once again, born into a world that is so desperately hungry for Him. When we let our hearts be the new manger, the new crèche, where Christ can once again come into our lives, we become what Caryll Houselander called a “house” for Christ.
Let’s consider what she has to say:
Because He is in the little house of our being, we will learn to control our minds, to gather our thoughts to silence, and to crown them with peace, just as we learn to control our voices and to move softly when a child is asleep in the house of bricks and mortar. (p. 100)
Think about it. Houselander is writing these words decades before the modern explosion of interest in contemplative prayer, centering prayer, and so forth. This is a clear reminder that the western contemplative tradition has always affirmed silence as the heart of the mature spiritual life. This is why monasteries are havens of silence, and why churches up until recently were the same.
Houselander gives us a wonderful image: stay quiet inside our “house” — the house of our souls — like parents who lovingly keep quiet while their babies are sleeping. The “baby,” of course, is the presence of Christ, the Son of God, in our hearts. We remain quiet not out of fear of waking the sleeping baby, but rather as a way of lovingly tending to the humble presence of the Holy One within us, given to us in Baptism, fortified by the Eucharist and Reconciliation and all that we do to participate in God’s grace in our lives.
So the key to preparing for the silent night is, paradoxically, to find the night of silence inside of us. As important as it is to cultivate exterior silence by setting aside time when all the gadgets and gizmos are turned off, ultimately it is finding the interior silence that is the key to the contemplative life.
This does not need to be anything fancy, you do not have to become a monk or take a centering prayer class. Although those are wonderful things to do. But it can be as simple as spending a Holy Hour in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament, or dedicating the serenity of your morning walk to the unseen, unfelt, but truly real, presence of God.
To be continued… Click here to read part two.
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