Watching for the Light: Awakening
“We teach our children one thing only, the same thing we ourselves were taught: to wake up.” I’m sure Annie Dillard’s words stir up colorful memories for parents, and for kids, and for parents who used to be kids about experiences of waking up or being awakened. They remind me of the summer our daughter Sarah was signed up for a volleyball camp that started at an unsummerly time of the morning—I think 7:30 a.m. Her plan was to get herself up—she was driving by then—to get herself up, get dressed, get breakfast, and drive herself to the gym.
Well, about 6:45 that morning, Liz and I heard an alarm clock from our bedroom. So far, so good. Then we heard another alarm clock. And then a third. And a fourth alarm clock. Sarah clearly knew that waking up at that hour, in the summer, was going to be a challenge, as it would be for many of us at that age. So to ensure she wouldn’t oversleep, she had set four different alarm clocks. I was proud of her ingenuity! Now they were all going off at once. After listening to this muted cacophony for a minute or so, I found my way to Sarah’s door, tapped on it a couple of times—no response— opened the door to find Sarah sleeping like a kitten. It was then I found new meaning to the phrase, “sound asleep.” She wasn’t fazed by any of this; just like Jesus asleep in a boat during the storm.
That story is found in Mark chapter 4; but this is Mark chapter 13, and here Jesus is anything but asleep; not only that, he’s cautioning his disciples—and all of us—against sleeping, too. “Keep awake” he says in one way or another, three times, including at the very end of his message: “What I say to you”—by which he means his disciples—“I say to all.”—by which he must mean us—“Keep awake.”
The name we give to passages such as this one is “apocalyptic.” The word means, literally, “to uncover,” and this passage is meant to “uncover” or reveal something hidden or obscure. But counter to our popular notions, the uncovering isn’t really a secret timeline of the future, predicting the end of an age or the turning of history, a specific time when Christ will return, something that you could plot on a graph. In fact, at the very center of this passage, Jesus makes a very strong declaration: “No one knows,” he says; meaning to discourage anyone who might be tempted to give dates and times to these eternal mysteries. Put away your graph paper, put away your calculator. The mysteries remain.
I tend to think that this passage is not so much about Jesus seeking to uncover specific events in the future, but about his desire to uncover our eyes and our ears. It’s as if he were saying, to borrow a phrase from Sylvia Plath: “Haul your eyelids up!” Be alert to God’s presence and moving in the world, and maybe even moving in your own life. Attune your ears, too, so that you might hear something that beckons you toward God or guides you toward the world—probably both at once.
In the spiritual life we sometimes call such experiences awakenings. Maybe you can identify such an awakening experience in your life. They can be life-changing, transforming. Spiritual awakening usually means something like a dawning insight, a revelation. It might mean a new way of seeing the world, or understanding our lives, of piecing together the fractured parts of our story in newly mended ways. Finding our way happens sometimes in the spiritual awakening, finding our way to the intersection of the world’s deep need and our own deep gladness, as Frederick Buechner might put it. It might mean rediscovering a deep yearning for God and the things of God, a yearning that has been dormant in us, perhaps for quite some time.
How does such an awakening happen? Obviously not with an alarm clock. That is, not by turning our ear in the direction of the loudest voice or the jazziest sales pitch. The philosopher Soren Kierkegaard once observed that some things are true when whispered, but not when shouted. How do we hear that whisper that lies beyond the shout?
One way I’ve discovered over the years comes from deep in the heart of Texas. In the tiny little south Texas town of Sarita is nestled a cloistered religious community and retreat center where you can go, anyone can go, to rest, to pray, to quiet the mind and the heart, to listen for God. You can go there, or, as is more practical for most of us most of the time, you can stay right where you are, and simply borrow the wisdom that is to be found in the retreat center’s name, lebh shomea. It’s Hebrew for “the listening heart.”
The heart, as it turns out, hears far more keenly than the ear. Now Annie Dillard’s words find their deeper meaning. We teach our children one thing only—what we ourselves are taught: to wake up—not by raising our head up from a pillow, but by raising up our awareness from life’s easy distractions, tuning our ear to listen with the heart for the whisper that may come to us indirectly by way of other awakening voices.
“No journey takes us far unless as it goes into the world around us it goes an equal distance into the world within.” Lillian Smith’s words remind us that while Advent is a journey across the calendar, four weeks that lead to Christmas, it is at one and the same time a journey that leads inward, a journey toward spiritual awareness, toward awakening.
And we might be thinking, awakening? This year? With so much else crowding in and complicating and conflicting our lives, too much going on. Too difficult are these days to try to manage, too fraught, too full. Too complex. Forget about it, let’s postpone awakening for another year. Maybe this year is precisely when awakening might happen.
That’s the idea that Pope Francis puts forth in a forthcoming book in reference to the pandemic. This is what he writes: These are moments in life that can be ripe for change and conversion. As in the Covid-19 lockdown, such moments generate a tension, a crisis that reveals what is in our hearts. In every personal “Covid,” so to speak, what is revealed is what needs to change: our lack of internal freedom, the idols we have been serving, the ideologies we have tried to live by, the relationships we have neglected.
When John Thornburg titled an Advent hymn “this is a light year” by light he didn’t mean breezy; he meant revealing. Maybe this Covid year in particular is a year for revealing or awakening. For you and me this might mean special practices for the season; prayer and silence; stillness, solitude—which is not quite the same as being alone; going for a daily walk with a breath prayer on our lips; listening to the sacred music of the season waiting for a note that resonates with the soul, or the stories the Bible tells that lead to the birth of Jesus, with an ear this time for where we imagine ourselves to be in that story, or where the story might speak our name, in the words beneath the words, a rumor of angels, overheard.
All that’s needed to have a spiritual awakening is something as quiet, as fleeting, as a whisper; maybe a whisper is just what is needed. Something so quiet that only the heart can hear it. Friends, this is a wisdom we already know; we sing of it every Christmas: “How silently, how silently the wondrous gift is given. So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of His heaven.”
I stood at the door of Sarah’s room, alarm clocks blaring, all being roundly, soundly ignored. I crossed the room, leaned over and whispered “Sarah.” Instantly her eyes opened; she looked at me, looked around the room, climbed out of bed, began silencing her alarm clocks, one at a time, and began her day.