I love Advent. This much. I love it, I think, because of its diversity. You can, literally, go anywhere you want to spiritually in Advent.
Just think of Advent calendars. Why just last year, in addition to taking things very, very seriously, I still opened up one Advent calendar that had cookie recipes in it from one of the best food magazines. And, because a movie of Les Miserables was due in the theaters, I opened an Advent calendar on the phenomena that is Broadway’s treatment of the book.
I mean, Advent is just the best.
And just look at Advent. We get John, the Baptist, my favorite person in the whole world. We get angels. We get really strange pregnancies. Well, just one really strange pregnancy.
And in the offing, we can just make out shepherds, a stable, wise men. A truly glorious star. It’s all coming.
Our job is to wait.
So, following on my path of reading all things Ignatian – the writing is so grounded, so tactile; I’m so abstract and cloud-headed; Ignatian writing, even in the littlest ways, has a tendency to shock me – I read an Advent imaginative prayer exercise.
Hey, it’s Advent. We can do all sorts of things.
The Mountain of the Lord’s House
Imagine you are climbing up the mountain of the Lord. As you start the path is wide with beautiful trees and flowers along the way. You fill your lungs with the cool, clean air. As you continue you notice the path is becoming narrow and steep. There seem to be more rocks sticking up from the ground. You find yourself a little out of breath as the air becomes thinner the higher you climb. You decide to rest on a large rock to catch your breath. You look up the path to see how much more you need to climb. You see someone in the distance. He’s looking at you. It looks like his hand is waving for you to come. Though you are alone, you are not afraid. In fact, you feel a pull, a desire to go this person.
You are standing in front of him. He is dressed in long robes that are moving gently in the mountain air. He smiles at you and asks, “What are you seeking on this path?” What do you say to him? What are you seeking?
“I am the prophet Isaiah. This is the mountain of the Lord. It is rich with life and dreams. What dreams do you bring to this place? What are the dreams you bring to this mountain? What are your dreams that you want to share with the Lord?”
Isaiah looks at you with eyes that know how to dream. “My dreams beat swords into plowshares. They are dreams of peace, of life, of hope.” What are the swords in your heart that need to be changed? What are the swords that wound you and hold you back from dreaming and from climbing the mountain of the Lord? Give those swords to Isaiah, the prophet, the dreamer. Ask him to help you change them into something life-giving.
“I will change your swords into plowshares so you can till the soil of your soul and know that God is with you. Are you ready for this dream to be real?” You look into the eyes of this dreamer, Isaiah, and you say,Yes. Yes, I am ready. Isaiah smiles at you and takes your hand in his. He looks at you with eyes filled deep with hope and life. He understands you. “Come,” he says, “let us walk in the light of the Lord!” (Ignatian Spirituality)
So, thinking it a good idea, I decided to take this exercise into my contemplative prayer and see what bubbled up from my soul.
Now, in a way, while generally shocked by Ignatian spiritual exercises, I am very good at visions. Which are a kind of imagining. Usually, I don’t originate them. But when I do, when I have something on my mind that I want to know about, I can plant the “thought” seed and see what response I get.
So I had all the confidence in the world that using this exercise as a jumping off point, I would breathe my way through a wondrous prayer. Perhaps even see something new.
Ah, the wonders of God.
So I started up the path. Nice and wide. I could see the trees, the little animals flitting about in the undergrowth. I was the only one on the path. Beautiful day. Intoxicating air.
Ah, so here’s Isaiah.
Well. It’s their exercise after all.
What are your dreams, Julia, he asks me.
I don’t know why I stumbled so on the question. I knew it was coming. I guess I had just packaged up the exercise to take me with over to the couch and didn’t give it any real thought.
Now I’m assuming Isaiah didn’t mean, what have you remembered about what was going on in your imagination while you slept last night?
Well, there was the image of me standing there (somewhere) listening to some music, and then all of a sudden beginning to sing my own song that I thought complimented the other music. And I was annoyed when I awoke because I never really remember my dreams and it would have been nice to remember the song I was singing because. . . .
No, not that kind of dream.
My ambitions, then? But they would have to be a certain kind of ambition to present to God, wouldn’t they? Like making sure that every puppy in the world had a safe home to live in. That kind of dream?
Well, kind of.
I’ve never felt so flummoxed in my life.
It was contemplative prayer, after all. So I know I had time to just relax into the vision and see where it went.
ME: Just how far are we up the path, anyway?
ISAIAH: Your dreams, Julia? Any swords that you want to rid yourself of, possibly?
I like swords. Really like swords. Truth. Justice. Humility. Piety. So, so many. Why would I want to give any of them up?
It became not quite a staring contest. More an admission of utter perplexment.
The time to pray was up.
There’s always tomorrow. Perhaps if I put a little more effort into it.
Effort into contemplative prayer? Going opposite directions at the same time, that.
So the next day dawns. I wait for my prayer time. (Prayer time #3: contemplative prayer. Begins with a short reading of Father Keating. Ends with a decade on the rosary.)
Up the path I go. I recognize it. I just know I’ll get past Isaiah this time.
Well, perhaps I could just sit by him and think it over. Good thing I put a nice rock there by the side of the path. I’m aware of other people walking up and smoothly passing by the checkpoint. I just need a little time.
I think of dreams as wants. And my mind twists around at the recognition of the word. Want. I remember a time, not that long ago, when I came to realize that my life had been made up of needs, as in, you always have what you need. But I came to an astounding observation that my life had had very few wants in it. I can remember wanting a bicycle once. And another time, when situations were changing around, wanting a friend.
Both wants, I remembered, were graciously awarded me.
This introspection came at the time that I realized that I didn’t understand what happiness was. Not the happiness of watching your child blow out her birthday candles, or of getting to sing Thanksgiving hymns.
Just pure happiness. Of breaking through that barrier of reservation and consideration to an experience of pure joy.
So if I didn’t know about wants in my life, how was I supposed to find a dream in me?
I could think of something that was a not-want. But I didn’t feel that turning that around worked: no matter what I did, it still had a negative in it.
I thought of something: I would like to crack a code of God. And I sat on my stone, watching the people dance around Isaiah on their way upward. And I saw myself as my father’s daughter. My father who accomplished things in his life. Who was one of the men who developed the first translation (aka, code breaking) computer deep in the ninth basement of the Pentagon. And who, later in life, developed the radio transmission system for the first space capsules. Sounds from outer space.
And I laughed. Sitting on my stone. Here I was: my father’s daughter. The one who works on cracking codes. Just not from enemies around the world.
And one who receives the signals from the real outer space.
But where is the dream?
So I asked myself, start at the end and work back. If you were there before God, what would you ask him for? What dream would you want him to fulfill?
And I realized that all I would want in that situation was permission to sit by his side and just watch.
Watch his people. His organization. His creation. His dream expressed.
As a young woman, walking away from God for a time, I came to realize that different people have different ambitions. Some want to play basketball. Others to play the violin. And still others to run the world.
It was then, away from God, that I told myself the truth: I wanted to know what was on the other side of the horizon.
But this couldn’t be the dream I presented to Isaiah and God. This was actually my life.
And while reading my prayers at night, I saw the words: I am one who sits and prays. Who prays for the sins of others, and who prays for healing in myself and in the world.
And I thought, yes, that’s it. That’s exactly who I am.
I sit and I pray.
Where is the dream in that? It must be there somewhere.
Heavenly Father, stay with me as I contemplate the invitation you hold out to me.