First Sunday of Advent: (Mark 13: 33-37)
Be watchful and alert is the strident call on this First Sunday of Advent. As monks we are familiar with Saint Bernard’s “three comings” of Christ—his first, at his incarnation, his second, at the end of time, and this third and interim coming, by grace in the present moment. His first coming is no longer something to watch or wait for, and his second coming at the end of time is simply unknown. Thus for us, perhaps, the most important coming of Christ is the one that occurs in the present time and, indeed, in this present moment. Watchfulness and alertness are thus not only for that sound of the final trumpet, but for the continuous and all too often unrecognized comings of Christ in our daily lives.
Although COVID-19 is going to make this Christmas period less typical, our increasingly secularized society is going to have little time, energy, or incentive to practice watchfulness and alertness for Christ’s coming—either at the end of time or in the present moment. If we are not careful, monastic life, structured though it is, to cultivate a continuous state of being on the watch for the coming of Christ in every moment, can mirror the distractedness of our contemporary world and fail to detect the approach and arrival of what the gospel terms the Lord of the House. The reasons for this are not all that dissimilar.
At its simplest, remaining watchful and alert is difficult to sustain over the long haul. During times of spiritual consolation and fruitfulness, watchfulness is usually not a problem. However, when acedia and spiritual boredom set in for long periods, we become a little like those wise and foolish virgins awaiting the arrival of the bridegroom—we become drowsy and fall asleep. When this state of heart and mind settles in as a semi-permanent state, then not only do we fail to remain watchful for Christ’s coming in the present moment, but we also forget his promised coming at the end of time—which for us will probably be the moment of our death.
In trying to reverse this unfortunate trend, and confront acedia head-on, it’s helpful to be aware that acedia’s strength comes from its ability to entrap us in time and obstruct our immersion in the eternal. Evagrius’ classic description of acedia describes eternity’s opposite—that is, being stuck in time that seems to move exasperatingly slowly in the face of spiritual boredom and lethargy. By opening up to eternity through that arduous growth in unifying prayer we call contemplative, we enter ever more deeply into that state that transcends time and in which all three comings of Christ merge into one reality—our living encounter with Christ who was, who is, and who is to come.
In this cherished and privileged state of what is now continuous prayer, watchfulness and alertness are no longer for Christ’s coming, but for anything that might threaten our living and constant union with him. In such a state, it is no longer possible to be surprised by Christ’s return because where he is, we are, and where we are, he is. With no place to come from and we no place to go to, death comes as a gentle and almost imperceptible lifting of mortality’s veil and our complete entrance into eternity. Thus, whether sudden and unexpected, or long anticipated, death finds us watchful, alert, and ready.