As we enter these four weeks of Advent, we cross into a holy time when the scriptures are filled with images of expectancy as we await the coming of a God who enters into the heart of this world. I invite you during these next four weeks to embrace this season as a time to tend to your relationship to creation. As we anticipate the way holiness becomes enfleshed, we are called to reflect on the ways we honor the sacred embodied in the world, what theologian Sallie McFague describes as God’s body.
In 2003, the Canadian Catholic Bishops published a pastoral letter on the Christian ecological imperative. They described three responses to which we are called: ascetic, prophetic, and contemplative. Reclaiming a healthy asceticism calls us to conversion and recognizing how we must live more simply to put less of a strain on earth’s resources. Cultivating a prophetic vision means to examine our collective impact and to name acts of injustice.
The third is nurturing a contemplative response to creation, which I will be focusing on here for the season of Advent. A contemplative response means bringing ourselves fully present to the sacred voice that speaks through trees, mountains, and creatures. It means cultivating a sense of spaciousness in our lives so we have time to nurture an intimate relationship with the natural world.
The readings for the first Sunday of Advent always convey a sense of urgency and the need to awaken and stay alert. This first week’s readings exhort: “It is the hour now for you to awake from sleep” (Rom. 13) and “Therefore, stay awake!” (Mt. 24). Where have you been asleep to creation as the very matrix in which you live and breathe? How are you being called to awaken to a deeper sense of kinship to earth and her creatures? Where have you fallen asleep to the holy presence shimmering through nature?
In the Cherokee tradition, the element associated with the time of dawn and awakening is air or wind. As we rise each morning we are reminded of our own call to awaken to the needs around us. We inhale that first deep breath of the day and remember that we are sustained moment by moment through the gift of breath. The dawn is the time of promise, when the world seems full of possibility. During Advent we are invited to awaken to hope and new beginnings.
The word inspiration comes from the Latin root spiritus, which means Spirit or breath. To be inspired is to be filled with the spirit or to be breathed into. The Spirit continues to move and breathe into each one of us, offering inspiration each moment of each day.
The ancient Celtic monks practiced peregrinatio, a form of pilgrimage where they would set out in rudderless boat without oars and let the wind carry them to the “place of their resurrection.” Perhaps part of the Advent call is to release our carefully constructed plans and awaken to the wildness of God’s creative call.
When we awaken and breathe deeply, we become alert and present to the grace of each moment, we feel ourselves inhaled and exhaled by God. The breath is ruah, the breath of God enlivening the world. In one of her poems, Mary Oliver asks the potent question: “Are you breathing just a little and calling it a life?” Or are you living in a way that draws deeply on the gifts that enfold and sustain you? Breathe in and allow the element of air to guide your response to these questions.
Practices for Advent
• Consider creating an altar for this season of Advent and include symbols from creation that are meaningful to you. You might include a feather for the element of air or wind as a reminder to breathe deeply of life each day. Hildegard of Bingen, the 12th-century Benedictine abbess described herself as a “feather on the breath of God.” Offer a prayer that during these four weeks you might be like a feather and surrender to the ways God calls you to respond to the suffering of creation.
• The practice of breath prayer goes back to early Christian roots and is found in other religious traditions as well. Begin each day by paying attention to the rise and fall of your breath. Gently deepen it into your belly, which creates a relaxing effect on the body. Imagine yourself being breathed into by God with each inhalation. With each exhalation, release what keeps you from being fully awake and present to this moment. The Jesuit and paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin poetically describes the “breathing together of all things.” Open your awareness to the rise and fall in each moment of the breath of every living thing. Join your breath with the breath of God sustaining all creation. Then remember that the trees take in our carbon dioxide and release oxygen in a sacred dance of mutual exchange. Ask yourself, “What is being awakened in me?” and pay attention to what stirs within.
• Play some flute music.
Return next week for more spiritual practices for Advent in the new column, Seasons of the Soul, at the Mainline Protestant Portal at Patheos.