Waiting, as an Advent spiritual exercise, is harder than it seems
Indeed, while following the way of Your judgments, O Lord,
We have waited for You eagerly;
Your name, even Your memory, is the desire of our souls.
At night my soul longs for You,
Indeed, my spirit within me seeks You diligently.
— Is. 26:8-9
Last year, I wrote a blog post about the practice of waiting. Concretely. Here and now. It’s one thing I found to meditate on waiting in this expectant time of the liturgical year, it’s quite another to choose to wait in the secular season of “free two-day shipping.”
Just how anxious does it make you to think of letting the person behind you in the supermarket go ahead of you? Now imagine actually doing it. After work. Three weeks before Christmas. It makes me quiver just thinking about it, which is why I keep doing it. Practice, I hear, makes perfect.
As the semester spins to a close and the holidays race toward me, the chances to practice waiting seem to proliferate. When only two cars managed to get through each cycle of the light on Haverford Road — as I’m trying to tuck a run into my office between dinner and ferrying kids to and from choral events; when I call the AAA to come jump my mysteriously dead battery only to hear, “due to high call volume, please wait,” I’m doing a lot of waiting at a time of year when I feel have little time to spare “just waiting.”
A friend commented on my blog post about waiting that it’s hardest to wait for something that you don’t know when, or even if, it will unfold. He quoted composer John Cage, famous for writing a piece of music that does nothing but wait — silently for 4 minutes 55 seconds: “If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen. Then thirty-two. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all.”
Waiting itself can change us, even before what we are anticipating arrives, even if it never arrives. Perhaps there really isn’t such a thing as “just waiting.”
After work I had a mad list of errands to run. No time to wait, I thought, relieved that the lines at the grocery looked short. I pulled into a line, then realized I’d forgotten the milk. Abandoning the cart, I dashed for the dairy section, returning to find a grandmother merrily amusing her preschool grandson now in the queue behind me, and the checker just finishing the customer ahead of me. Perfect timing.
But I thought of John Cage, and of a fourth century bishop who wrote to a friend “of the utility of vigils” — the practice of waiting — “It’s easier to begin a work if we keep before our eyes how useful it is,” and I turned around. “Would you like to go ahead?” I asked the grandmother. She would. She did. I waited. It was hard.
Madeline Delbrel, who gathered a small community of contemplatives in Paris in the early 20th century, similarly used the tiny ever-present irritations of life as a contemplative practice. Bad weather. Late buses. Like John Cage, she too discovered that persistence in the practice slowly changed her view of the irritations, expanding her sense of time, until it seemed to her as an “epic film in slow motion.”
I’m slowly learning to see the utility of vigils, the shifts in perspective that come when I wait even as waiting doesn’t come easily, when the signs I am watching for are obscured by the night. I wait even when I think I have no time to wait. In lines, in traffic, for packages, for answers. I continue to practice waiting, to diligently seek He whose day is near, whose coming is certain, He who is the desire of my soul.
My soul is waiting for the Lord,
I count on his word.
My soul in longing for the Lord
more than watchman for daybreak.
— From the De Profundis