What is my strength that I should wait? And what is my end, that I should be patient? — Job 6:11
Advent aside, it is the season of waiting in my house. A month ago, Mike clicked “submit” on the last of his early college applications — his hopes for the next four years of his life gathered into a swirl of electrons and sent forth. Now, he waits.
Waiting is a way of life. We wait on line, we wait for news — good and bad — we wait for a change in the weather, we wait for the weekend and a chance to sleep. Like most us, I suspect, I find waiting is easier if I can find something else to think about besides how long I’m waiting.
I can still remember most of the words to “My Little Sister Ate One Hare,” a particularly long and silly counting poem I would haul out while waiting in long lines with the boys when they were small. It was a great distraction.
Advent brings me face to face with the practice of waiting undistracted. The waiting we are called to in Advent is one that focuses on our destiny, our hope, not one that tries to turn away from what is coming. And as Job laments, it is not an easy practice to undertake. It requires strength and patience.
Now that Mike’s college applications are sent off, the inevitable questions come from family and friends: “So where are you going to college?” All Mike can say is, “I won’t know for a while yet.” “When?” “I don’t quite know.”
Mike’s uncertainty about his future — and Job’s — makes me wonder if Advent’s steady countdown to Christmas has obscured the most difficult aspect of waiting. Waiting is different when we don’t know what precisely the future will bring, and when and how it might unfold.
Father Henri Nouwen writes in his essay “The Spirituality of Waiting,” that a practice of undistracted waiting is not only attentive to what will come, but is alert to the present moment. Mary carried Jesus, hidden from the world who waited for Him to come, yet Elizabeth sees her, attentive to the stirrings within her and knows that Jesus is already here.
Perhaps Advent can teach me, too, to be attentive to what is stirring within me, to the encounters with God who is hidden from my sight, and like Elizabeth, be moved beyond passive acknowledgement, to prayer and to action.
An ancient commentary on this passage in Job suggests a similar practice of attentiveness in the face of open-ended waiting. To wait is “to be in love with the roughness of this world in hopes of the eternal.” To wait is not to be relieved of anxiety or difficulty, but to be alert to signs of hope rustling, to the breath of the Spirit upon chaos.
The last line of Psalm 27, sung at Mass on the first Friday of Advent, acknowledges the difficulty of waiting attentively. “Wait for the Lord with courage,” we are advised. “Let your heart be bold,” offers another translation of the same verset.
And to what end do I wait? What do I boldly ask for? What I am looking for amidst the roughness of this world? This I seek: to dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life.
Almighty God, please grant that your people may watch most carefully for the coming of your only Son. As he himself… has taught us, may we be vigilant, with our lamps burning; and may we hasten to meet him when he comes. Amen. — Martin O’Keefe, S.J., in Oremus
Michelle Francl-Donnay is a member of Our Mother of Good Counsel Parish in Bryn Mawr. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.