Monday, December 04, 2006

Advent: Watchful Waiting & Being Here Now

How can we be prepared for what's coming from the future while at the same time be fully present? It's a paradox, a koan if you will, at the heart of the Christian call.

As a convert to Roman Catholicism, I did not grow up with the liturgical year which begins today with the first Sunday of Advent. Every December, since I was confirmed more than twenty years ago, I scratch my head and try to remember what Advent is all about. My faith has yet to be fully formed. The word means "the arrival of something that has been awaited." For Christians, this is the birth of God on earth. So during the four weeks of advent we anticipate the coming of Emmanuel, "God with us," on December 25, Christmas.

Right away there is a problem. Christianity, like Judaism and Islam, is a linear religion, with a beginning -- the creation of the universe -- a middle -- the incarnation of the divine in a human being -- and an end -- the Second Coming and Judgment Day. But the liturgical year, the birth of Jesus and his death and resurrection, are cyclical celebrations. Linear time is a relatively new, Western concept. You can't have Progress without history. Clocks are sacred objects. In the philosophies of most of humanity, however, time is cyclical. The doctrines of karma and reincarnation are more forgiving. If at first you don't succeed, you have an eternity to make it right.

This paradox of time and eternity pervades Christian dogma. The Kingdom of God is coming, but it is already here, within us. Jesus was born in time but is reborn in the hearts of his followers, and he comes to us every day in our neighbor. In the Eucharist Christ is consumed, again and again, an eternal sacrifice for our salvation. And, we are told in the scripture readings for today, he will come again "in a cloud with power and great glory" to judge us at the end of days. We pray that God will "protect us from all anxiety as we wait in joyful hope for the coming of our savior, Jesus Christ." But we are also told by Jesus that "I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you." We bear the divine within the cave of our hearts; for the Muslim, Allah is "closer than our jugular vein." How can we possibly reconcile linear time with cyclical time?

Despite having to live in it, I am not very fond of linear time. And even though I have a doctorate in history, I do not have much faith in reconstructions of the past. No, I am more attracted to the idea popularized in the 1960s by Ram Dass: be here now. Buddha taught that dwelling on the past and the future brings added suffering. We desperately try to avoid pain and relentlessly pursue pleasure, and in the process we ignore the present. But in cyclical time, presence is everything.

"Watchful waiting" is the sonorous description of the treatment I've chosen for my prostate cancer. It means keeping an eye on my PSA numbers from blood tests and noticing any changes in urinary function. But mostly it means living now, in the present, trusting that my cancer is slow moving and does not require invasive surgery or radiation.

Buddha means "the awakened one" and his teaching was designed to wake us up. In today's reading from Luke's Gospel, Jesus tells us to "be vigilant." Elsewhere he tells us to "stay awake," to be alert to what might come. This attitude does not dwell on the future but rather savors the present. For it is only when we are truly awake, and resting in the presence of the divine spirit within and without, that we are fully alive.

This Advent season I look forward (mindfully, in the present) to more than just the birth of Christ (stripped, hopefully, of most of its consumerist connotations). In two weeks I leave to spend the holiday in London followed by a pilgrimage to Shantivanam and several other ashrams in India. This is my third trip and I will be leading a group from my sangha in Santa Cruz. We met last Thursday for a ritual to inaugurate our pilgrimage, which included mass, seated on the ground Indian-style, and a feast. Last night several of the pilgrims gathered for a potluck dinner, and to trade travel tips.

Before my departure, there has been a flurry of activity. Yesterday was the annual Christmas parade in downtown Santa Cruz and there was a procession of antique cars interspersed with groups of kids
in costumes who showered parade watchers with candy (to the point where one child asked his mother if it was Halloween). There was a large blowup of Santa on a surf board (despite what Huntington Beach thinks, we are still "Surf City"), and, inexplicably, two bands of bagpippers. The merchants, unphased by Buy Nothing Day the day after Thanksgiving, were no doubt happy at this kickoff to the Xmas shopping frenzy.

After the parade, Shirlee and I went to see "Shut Up & Sing," the new documentary about the Dixie Chicks and the furor they caused by daring to criticize El Presidente Bush on the eve of the Iraq debacle three years ago. The film was made by Barbara Kopple, who won an Academy Award in the 1970s for her documentary "Harlan County U.S.A.," and Cecilia Peck, Gregory's daughter. Not only did "Shut Up & Sing" document the free speech issue in depth, but it is perhaps the best film I've ever seen about a musical group, managing to show the humanity of the artists while at the same time showcasing their music. After hearing that the conservative country music audience had boycotted their music, I bought the group's "Taking the Long Way" CD just on principle, even though I hadn't been a fan. This excellent film shows a group of strong women taking control of their lives.

Last night I was also in the company of a group of strong women, at a benefit for Shekhinah Mountainwater, an author and leader in the goddess and wiccan movement, who is battling uterine cancer. My daughter Molly, who read her book Ariadne's Thread when she was 12, was one of the performers, along with Shekhinah's son, Frey Faust, an internationally known dancer who is also Molly's dance teacher. The hall was filled with Shekhinah's tribe of crones along with younger women and a few supportive men. I confess to feeling a little out of place when feminists celebrate the goddess without mentioning any need for trans-gender community, but I was proud when my daughter sang two songs, one about witches, in a strong clear voice.

May this Advent season be a rich time of anticipations and presence for all.

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