Father John Bayer
Special to The Texas Catholic
Advent is a season of expectation. The prayers and readings of the liturgy teach us to look forward to the coming of Christ, the bringer of every blessing. This involves conversion, or an effort to unite our affections into an undivided love for “God-with-us” (Emmanuel), Jesus of Nazareth, who brings with himself wisdom, justice and the harmony of all peoples and the whole of creation (cf. Is 11:1-10, the first reading for the Second Sunday of Advent).
Just as in Lent, we take a healthy look at our spiritual and material poverty – all the ways in which we cry out for the Messiah. We accept that our pursuits cannot satisfy the infinite desires of our hearts. And so, we look forward with longing, journeying with the hope that God himself will come to heal and to fill our hearts.
I am reminded of one of my heroes, St. Anselm of Canterbury. Hopeful longing shaped his every thought and decision, as all his writings show. His biographer says that he grew up, or “was nourished” (nutritus), among the mountains. As a boy, his mother taught him to know God as the transcendent Father ruling and encompassing all things. Thus, he learned to think of God as a summit, and that the journey to him led through the mountains.
I once visited his hometown, Aosta, surrounded by the Italian Alps. I went there asking myself, “What is it like to be nourished among the mountains? To think every thought and to make every decision with longing for such beautiful summits?”
A summit is first glimpsed from afar. It rises nebulously into the clouds. Its distance daunts us, and yet its attraction motivates and orients us. As we move toward it, false peaks fill our horizon and obscure our vision. Only by faith do we know that the summit is still there; by sight we know only the higher step before us. If we press on, our journey becomes an act of asceticism as we pass from one false peak to another. Striving for each peak, we learn at the same time to leave it behind. As we journey, we grow in single-minded love for the true summit.
What an image for our longing for God! We first glimpse Him from afar. If our eyes did not somehow reach this transcendent Summit – the fullness of truth, goodness, and beauty – we would lack lasting motivation and orientation. An honest person knows that finite goods neither satisfy nor help us to find our place in the world; we all have “God-or-bust” written on our hearts. In faith, we see the Summit above all in Jesus, the Word through whom all things were made (Jn 1:3) and thus the highest vantage point from which everything can be known and loved.
Our desire for Jesus sets us on a journey. We begin to walk through the mountains of life, on our path toward the Summit. Our most important task is to keep climbing and never to settle for the false peaks that fill our horizon. We will be tempted to idolize past successes. But graduations, promotions, honeymoons, achievements, retirements – these are false peaks. We cannot measure our lives by them nor return to them whenever our ascent becomes arduous. The sufferings of our ascent are invitations to grow in love for the Summit, not to turn back. When life forces you to acknowledge your poverty, just take the higher step and you will never truly fail.
Longing for God means learning both to love and to let go of our lives; it means embracing them as they unfold in His design. When we reach the summit, we will have every peak back again. The view from the Summit will be beautiful, and every peak will have its place.
So, look forward. If looking forward is difficult for us, it could be the case that we are like Lot’s wife (Gn 19:15-26). She longed for a past that had been taken away by God – and so she turned to bitterness, to salt. Jesus says that those who “look back” are not fit for the Kingdom (Lk 9:62). For whoever grasps his life anxiously will lose it; only those who receive their lives docilely with open hands are capable of living from God for eternity (Lk 18:31-33).
Father John Bayer, O.Cist., is a theologian and monk at the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas in Irving.