It was a chilly March night in a small Midwestern town. Maybe it was windy, because in my memory the Great Plains are always windy.
I had a room-and-board arrangement in the tiny upstairs of an old lady’s house. She was sweet, but bordering on senility. She was probably lonely and wanted my company, but I didn’t particularly enjoy hers and, at least initially, wished I could be anywhere else.
I had graduated from a Jesuit university the spring before and narrowly missed out on a teaching job in a large Catholic school in the city. That was where I wanted to be. But I needed a job and this small town Catholic school needed an English and history teacher. So, here I was, seemingly at earth’s end.
Advent began for me in that small upstairs bedroom. You might wonder what a windy, lonely night in March has to do with Advent. Advent, I think, can be more than the few weeks before the feast of Christmas, more than a liturgical season, although of course it’s all of that, too. Advent can be an idea born of hope.
Advent is the beginning. Advent is joyful expectation, when you accept that miracles happen, when you grasp what it means when we say we believe “in things seen and unseen.” Mostly, Advent is the time when we accept Jesus. What’s the point of this crazy season, this preparation, if we don’t think that this Jesus whose birth we celebrate was the best thing that ever happened? What does it all mean if we’re not waiting for him?
I had grown up Catholic on this side of the Second Vatican Council. But in the rural area where I lived, Vatican II hadn’t yet taken root. My childhood image of God was frightening. Yes, God was loving, but he had a brutal hell prepared for transgressors. My childhood confessions were full of angst, guilt, unhappiness.
This was long before the internet, and I realize now how woefully limited was my Catholic catechesis. So, when I got to college, I soaked in diverse ideas. I remember, as a 17-year-old freshman, being struck by James Joyce’s description of the Irish as “an unfortunate priest-ridden race.”
I left college thinking I must be agnostic but, remembering those images of hell, I kept going to Mass just in case.
This small town Catholic school was brimming with religious sisters and employed two full-time priests. Most of them were young and very kind to me. They drew from me, slowly and in embryonic stages, a new spirituality. They too were in the midst of change, growth and uncertainty in the turbulent wake of Vatican II. Nevertheless, they introduced me to a Jesus I had never really met.
So, on a night in March, as the school year labored on, I surrendered. I discarded my faltering agnosticism and, in some kind of act of faith whose words I no longer remember, I accepted Jesus.
I’m much older now. I’m not sure how well I’ve gotten to know this Jesus. I have friends who talk about casual conversations with him, but I often find myself sitting like a shy student in his classroom. Or like the character in Flannery O’Connor’s “Wise Blood,” seeing Jesus dart from tree to tree, “a wild ragged figure” in the back of my mind.
Nevertheless, despite me he’s been faithful. Meister Eckhart, the medieval mystic, said, “We are all meant to be mothers of God … for God is always needing to be born.” May God be born in and from each of us this Advent.