By Michelle Francl-Donnay
O Lord, we look to you; your name and your title are the desire of our souls. My soul yearns for you in the night, yes, my spirit within me keeps vigil for you. — Isaiah 26:8b-9a.
I’ve been suffering from an ear worm all afternoon, five measures of music that I can’t shake out of my head. The more firmly I try to squelch the annoying snippet, the wilder the cognitive conga dance becomes, snaking through my thoughts as I listen to a talk about organic chemistry and chasing me as I chop onions for dinner.
Experience tells me if I just ignore the cerebral itch, it will have vanished when I wake up in the morning. The same cannot be said for the recurring fragment that has been haunting my prayer for almost a year.
The metaphorical itch began last Advent, when Jesuit Father Paul Campbell posted a wisdom tale on his blog, “People for Others.” The story begins with a hermit meditating by a river when he is approached by a young man who wants to know how to find God. In response, the hermit pushes the young man into the river and holds him under water. When the young man comes up gasping for breath, the hermit asks him what he most desired. “Air!” He responds. “Go home,” says the hermit, “and come back to me when you want God as much as you just wanted air.”
I can’t shake the question out of my head: do I want God as much as I want air? Can I say unhesitatingly, as does Isaiah, that God is the desire of my soul, who my soul yearns for in the night? In one form or another the question has threaded its way through my prayer from Advent to Easter and into the long stretch of Ordinary Time. I have no answers; I can only say that I am unwilling to banish the question.
As Advent rolls around again, the question continues to insinuate itself into my meditations, but it’s taken on a new urgency. This is, after all, a season replete with anticipation, a season that looks to the time when God will come. What am I waiting for? Exactly how eager am I for its arrival?
Anticipation comes from the Latin capere, to seize. To anticipate means more than to expect, more than looking forward to what will come. To anticipate is to grasp the future possibilities now, not when they finally arrive. The prophets anticipated the reality of Christ’s coming, waiting for God to fulfill His promises with such an “aching intensity” that they became part of what was yet to unfold. St. Jerome called Isaiah more evangelist than prophet, and counted him among the apostles. Some ancient commentators have gone so far as to suggest that if all four gospels were lost to us, the whole of the Good News could be found in Isaiah; it’s a “fifth gospel!”
Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer worried that in our almost routine expectation of the glad tidings of Christmas, we no longer felt “the shiver of fear that God’s coming should arouse in us.” We forget that in His coming God lays claim to us. I wonder if my unwillingness to let go of the question of whether I long for God as for air is a step toward a deeper awareness of what Christmas brings to earth. And if my inability to wholeheartedly answer “yes” reflects a touch of fear, an awareness that such an answer is an offer to let God be at work within me.
In the readings this second week of Advent, Isaiah’s words glow with promise, “the eyes of the blind will be opened” but are also tinged with God’s claim on us, “if you hearken to my commandments, your prosperity would be like a river.” These are words meant to arouse our longings — and our consciences.
I still have no answer to the question that hovers over my prayer, but I can imagine that the spanine asker is anticipating my reply. The Holy Spirit is not waiting on my “yes” or “no” but offering me the prophet’s way of anticipation. A way that cannot help but live and breathe what it awaits. Reflecting on the tale of the hermit and the young man, Father Campbell has no answers either, “This much I know, I want to want God as much as air. That’ll have to do for the present.”
I, too, am willing to want to want God with all my being. Isaiah reminds us that God anticipates our desires: I am the Lord, your God, who grasps your right hand; It is I who say to you, “Fear not, I will help you.” That’ll have to do.
Michelle Francl-Donnay is a member of Our Mother of Good Counsel Parish in Bryn Mawr.