When It’s Time – The Trouble with Waiting
The season of Advent marks the beginning of the Catholic year. It is a time when we wait and prepare for the coming of the Lord at Christmas. In our November issue of Intercom, Father Bernard Kennedy reflected on the challenge of Advent and ‘the trouble with waiting’.
You can download and print a PDF of the article here.
When It’s Time – The Trouble with Waiting
Waiting is not a natural gift that I possess. As a priest, starting Mass on time; a teacher, class on time; a psychoanalyst, session on time; my hard drive is set on being on time. I have been shaped and therefore, when waiting occurs, as inevitably it has to, I feel like reaching for my blood pressure tablets. My late Uncle Frank, my mother’s brother, used to visit us at home in Rathfarnham, Dublin, when we were growing up. He would begin by telling us, ‘you will never guess who I met in town.’ Then he began relating the journey, the weather, the prices of things, the shoes he sought, the shopkeeper’s lineage, until my mother would ask, ‘Frank, who did you meet?’ His waiting to get to the point drew us all into the story. Waiting at the dentist, the headmaster’s office, the clinic, for the paper to arrive as you sit the exam, all bring their tension.
Handling tension stretches, as an athlete knows, the muscle, our spiritual muscle. In our present day ‘immediate’ is the demand, we want it yesterday and now. We are losing the tension of waiting and its benefit. Gratification, speed, target achievement, product, these are buzz words of consumerism, which we sometimes buy into. We lose waiting. We lose being drawn into God’s story of Kairos. Gardeners know the waiting game, that product is not all, and getting to the point is not the story, and Advent introduces us to waiting.
As a visitor to Holy Hill, Screen, in Sligo, I understand waiting, as I sit in the hermitage and … Wait, wait upon the Lord. ‘I waited on the Lord, and he stooped down to me.’ ‘all creation waits with eager longing.’ Scripture tells the story of waiting, ‘Mary pondered all these things in her heart.
Two spiritual books I read over the last decade, God of Surprise, by Gerard W. Hughes SJ, and The Underground Cathedral, by Abbot Mark Patrick Hederman OSB, illustrate the activity that occurs while we wait.
Teaching young Holy Communion children last year, during Mass, the meaning of the colour of vestments, red for the Holy Spirit and martyrdom, white for innocence, green for ordinary time, purple for Lent and Advent. I learned about childhood recall and sharpness. At the following Sunday Mass I asked, if anybody could remember the reasons for the vestment colours. One boy went slowly through each and hesitated on green. After a pause, waiting, as he searched his recall, he announced to us all, parents and congregation, ‘green is for when there is nothing going on.’ He was right; it was as if nothing, no thing, but all things perhaps, is happening. I love that Scripture line, ‘while you are awake, while you are asleep, my father goes on working.’
Namely, the prayers we make, in union with the Father, are working themselves out not in Chronos, but in Kairos. Not in our time, but in God’s time. Waiting can be the tension between our time, our demand for product, getting to the point, and ‘God’s time, ‘in the fullness of time’. My mother, when she was making some nice apple tarts, would be asked by us, her children, ‘Mom, when will it be ready?’ and her reply was, ‘when it’s time.’ When I was young, my father would take me hiking in the Dublin Mountains, and as I got tired, I would ask him, ‘dad, when do we get to the top?’ His answer: ‘soon.’ Going there, instead of getting there, like in the poem ‘The journey of the Magi’ where the journey is depending on the waiting to get there, or in Beckett’s ‘Waiting for Godot’ the waiting is the play, pure and simple, not whether someone is coming or not. Advent is about waiting, it reminds us of Kairos, we are not in charge of time, but the heavenly Father who watches over us. It is a reminder to us of the existence of the ‘not yet’, a reminder in our time.
But God’s time is Kairos, and waiting, its inbreaking, is the tapestry of that particular cloak of waiting. Waiting stretches the knitting to make it hold. Waiting and the Advent readings teach us, that although we know the story, there is a depth within it which we can only know by waiting. So that Advent and the awaiting it evokes, with all the tensions, is drawing us in, inwards, into what Gerard Manley Hopkins refers to as ‘Inscape’. Into an Other place, where waiting is about being. Saint Augustine attempted to describe what might happen in heaven, and this was his reflection: ‘there we shall sit and we shall rest, we shall rest and we shall see, we shall see and we shall love.’ In other words, we will wait and we will hang out together – Just doing nothing. As a caption I once saw said, ‘Don’t just do something, stand there.’
In the Eurozone, there is a strategy for farmers called ‘set aside’, whereby grants are given to let the land lie, remain fallow. The Bible tells us that farmers, every seven years, let land lie and so waited, so it could rejuvenate. Sunday, a rest day, until recently, is a waiting, and Blessed John Paul II, a philosopher pope, once wrote, being is more important than doing. Saint Ignatius of Loyola proposed, in the spiritual exercises, that to improve our spiritual lives, we needed to train, in waiting, and a method to help was, that if we allotted a half hour to silent prayer and found it difficult we should add another few minutes, and, conversely, if we found that half hour beginning to be rich, we should stop earlier. That way we stretched, through waiting, our desire. Desire is a spring within us of transcendence. Perhaps a better word is ‘await’ the Lord, in the now, by stopping at the side of the road. And perhaps the best understanding of prayer, for me, is ‘a-waiting.’ In our spiritual life, we can together, aim for a triple A rating: Advent-Awaiting-Awareness. Waiting is the envelope of gestation. Happy Advent, enjoy the wait. Find someone to hang out with.
Father Bernard Kennedy
(Father Bernard Kennedy is a priest of the Archdiocese of Dublin, a poet, and a psychoanalyst. His poems, and some of his other writing, can be found on google – Bernard Kennedy, poetry.)