By Father Thomas Esposito
Special to The Texas Catholic
The first noble truth of Buddhism asserts that life is dukkha: an unrelenting barrage of suffering, impermanence, anxiety, and pain. The subsequent noble truths affirm that the cause of this suffering is desire, and that the way to eliminate suffering is to eliminate desire. The goal espoused in the Buddha’s teaching is the achievement of the “not-self,” an awareness that what you think is your “I” is merely an illusory collection of feelings, memories, and consciousness that keep you miserable by maintaining a personal sense of self. Indeed, a common image illustrating the attainment of nirvana, the state beyond pleasure and pain, is that of a snuffed out candle, the extinguished flame representing your very self. The Buddhist wants to extinguish the flame of burning desire; in this effort, however, what comes about is the diminishment of one’s own humanity.
The Christian must appreciate the Buddha’s penetrating psychological insight. From the immense anguish we cause our mothers as we emerge from the womb wailing and flailing to the innate fear of our inevitable death, our lives are indeed dominated end-to-end by dukkha. These foundational truths about human existence, so marked by the ravages of time and selfishness, strike me as profoundly true and consistent with the lived experience of many, myself included. I was pondering a fruitful Christian response to the Buddha’s noble truths when I came across an unwitting answer in an unexpected place. Sitting in a Nazi solitary cell awaiting a martyr’s death, the German Jesuit Fr. Alfred Delp wrote, “More, and on a deeper level than before, we really know this time that all of life is Advent.” Father Delp was not addressing the teachings of the Buddha directly, but he confronted the identical question of suffering while awaiting his death sentence for resisting the mad might of Hitler.
Even before his arrest, Delp had long been fascinated by the concept of Advent, which he regarded as the proper lens through which to view life itself, especially his own, defined by unjust persecution. The coming of Christ into the world to sacrifice his life for our sake strikes Fr. Delp as the perfect Advent meditation; after all, “candles give light at the expense of their own substance.” Alluring parallels are present here to the Buddhist image of the extinguished flame. Delp’s Advent insight about the candle, however, highlights the central mystery of the season, indeed of the Christian life: that God wished to give light to a people walking in darkness (see Isaiah 9:1), and elected to bring that light to us Himself.
Advent comes amid deep winter darkness. While the actual date of Jesus’ birth will never be known, the early Christians were wise to commemorate it when the sun’s rays are briefest, and night lingers longer than in other seasons. The period of preparation for Christmas finds us positioned awkwardly between two comings of the Lord: we look back in history to trace the arrival of the infant Son of God lying in a manger, and forward to the definitive coming of the Lord in glory at the consummation of history. The birth of the author of life reveals God’s desire to share our human suffering as one of us, and to guide us to the fullness of life. Christ is born, as Fulton Sheen wrote, in order to die, and to help us look toward our personal encounter with him beyond the veil of death and judgment.
Christians look to the light of Christ, the true light that knows no darkness or extinguishing (see John 1:4-5), to irradiate the gloom of their own suffering. Our efforts to purify the weak and fluttering flame of our heart from the ravenous cravings of selfishness, lust, and greed dim the light we radiate to others, and can bring us to brink of despair.
Yet in the Incarnation, God asserts that the ultimate enemy to be vanquished is not the self, but rather the forces of sin and death, and that suffering, though an inescapable fact, is only conquered when it is embraced for others. We do indeed suffer, often on account of our misguided desires; but ours is a suffering of love that contains within itself a foretaste of joy. As Christ the true light conquers the forces of death and darkness, so too we await our own Advent to enter his presence forever. That is the future promise of Advent perceived clearly by St. Paul, who reminds us that we burn with a borrowed flame in order to shine, not to be extinguished: “Awake, o sleeper; rise from the dead, and Christ will illuminate you” (Ephesians 5:14).
Father Thomas Esposito, O.Cist., is a monk at the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas and teaches in the theology department at the University of Dallas in Irving.