How peaceful and moving it is to pray with the monks of the Abbey of Gethsemani. On Monday morning August 13, the first psalm of Morning Prayer was Psalm 5 with the haunting theme of “watching and waiting.” Somehow those words, when sung with the voices of 40 monks united as one, have a resonance that stays with you the entire day.
Watching and waiting has that quality of remaining in the present in expectation of something about to happen. The Season of Advent captures this quality as we wait in expectation of the coming of Jesus, both at the end of time and in the present. Saint Paul tells the Thessalonians (1Thess 3:12): “May the Lord make your love increase and overflow for each other and for everyone else, just as ours does for you. May he strengthen your hearts so that you will be blameless and holy in the presence of our God and Father when our Lord Jesus comes with all his holy ones.”
At a priest retreat that I directed earlier this month at my alma mater, Saint Charles Seminary in Philadelphia, I reflected on this theme. While so many times we are tempted to live either in the past (worrying about what just happened) or in the future (with hearts heavy with future duties), the Lord Jesus beckons us to remain in the present — watching and waiting with great expectation.
At the retreat, I spoke of a rich image in the book, “Into the Silent Land; A Guide to the Christian Practice of Contemplation” by Father Martin Laird, O.S.A. Father Laird evokes the image of a mountain and the changing weather on that mountain. In reflecting on the wisdom of the ancient Desert Fathers (insights also captured in modern psychology), he spoke of the ever-running video in our minds. He compares this “video,” which psychologists call “self-talk,” to the ever-changing weather on a mountain.
Some people, Father Laird surmises, are so focused on the self talk — the changing weather — worrying about what just happened or fearful about what might be — that they see themselves not as the mountain but as the weather itself. “For a lifetime we have taken this weather — our thoughts and feelings — to be ourselves, taken ourselves to be this video to which the attention is riveted. Stillness reveals that we are the silent, vast awareness in which the video is playing. To glimpse this fundamental truth is to be liberated, to be set free from the fowler’s snare. (Ps 123:7)” Later, he quotes Psalm 124’s first verse. “Who ever trusts in the Lord is like Mount Zion: Unshakeable, it stands forever.”
Recently I celebrated Mass for all the elementary teachers of the Catholic schools in the Archdiocese and used the image of the garden classroom in which the teacher is the gardener but God gives the growth. I spoke of the way a gardener looks at the plantings with great expectation — “watching and waiting.”
These images, fruitful within our prayer, need to penetrate our daily awareness. For sure, there are events of the past for which we do penance, and there are challenges of the future that will require all of our energy. In my last column, I wrote of the challenges facing the family of our Church with the recent disclosures of the violations of chastity and misuse of power by a retired Archbishop. These recent revelations strongly point to the need to renew our efforts to eradicate sexual abuse and harassment at all levels and to take action to purify our Church. Next week, our Archdiocese will participate in the annual audit of our sexual abuse policies and procedures, including our efforts to foster safe environments for children and youth who are so vulnerable and deserve to grow in God’s grace. We commit ourselves to this work knowing that God will be with us.
On the feast of the Assumption, I promulgated a second pastoral letter regarding the fruits of our parish discernments and the next steps to which we are called. (This letter will be published next month.) In the letter, I urge a day of prayer for the spiritual success of our undertakings on the first Sunday of Advent this December. Advent is a fitting time to take stock and renew our efforts as we “watch and wait” with great expectation for the coming of the Lord Jesus, both on the last day and into our hearts this day. With God’s grace, we avoid becoming the victims of ever-changing weather. Instead, like the mountain of the Lord, we trust and seek His kingdom.