The Time of the Master's Coming

Cultivating a Spiritual Vigilance

 Fr. Raymond Lafontaine  December 3, 2017

In a small country town, a stranger stopped outside the general store and saw a big sign reading: “Danger!  Beware of dog!”  As he entered, he stepped over Rocky, the shopkeeper’s big bloodhound, sound asleep and blocking the entrance.  Looking down at the snoring dog, he turned to the owner and asked, “Is this the dog people are supposed to be afraid of?”  “Yep, that’s him,” the owner answered.  Amused, the man responded, “He certainly doesn’t look very dangerous to me.  Why would you ever post such a sign?”  The owner explained: “Because before I put up that sign, people kept tripping over him!” 

 “Beware, keep alert: for you do not know the time of your Master’s coming.  Keep awake!”

Ironically, as I was preparing for this weekend’s homily, I found myself tired and sleepy, lacking in energy.  There are a number of reasons for this.  With my many responsibilities at the Archdiocese during the week, meetings and lectures in the evenings, parish visits and confirmations on the weekends, responding to e-mail and keeping up with social media, and still trying to stay on top of what’s going on here at St. Monica’s, life fills up very quickly!  The colder weather and shorter days don’t help either, so with too many late nights and early mornings – a fatal combination! – and a higher-than-usual level of stress in my work, I often find myself dragging, feeling as if I am “running on empty”.  And I am sure that many of you must go through periods like this as well.   

Still, no matter how tired we feel, Jesus says to us: “Wake up!”  Be vigilant.  In our multitasking, always plugged-in and perpetually on-line society, this is a counter-cultural message indeed, but one we need to hear.  We are called to stay awake, alert, focused.  And since Advent is only three weeks long this year, we better get onto it right away!

How can we cultivate spiritual vigilance?  How can we “keep awake”, as Jesus invites us to do, when we are deluged by so much information, distracted by so many tasks, overwhelmed by so many expectations?  In a world where there is so much despair and so much noise, where can we turn so that hope may be renewed within us?  Well, obviously, Advent invites us to turn to Jesus with these big questions, and see where he leads us to find an answer.  To find Jesus, to choose him, to respond to him in the many tasks, responsibilities, and relationships which make up our daily lives, we need silence, and stillness.  As much as we may resist this invitation, it is indeed the only path that will lead us to as life which is calm, centered, focused, rooted, and hopeful.   

We find this hard.  But let’s be serious: 20 centuries ago, the people Jesus spoke to also found it hard.  Yet he still insisted on it.  Just think: when you don’t watch—don’t pay attention, don’t focus—then what happens?  Well, among other things, supper is burned, the child wanders into danger, the marriage falls into jeopardy, the dog eats your homework, the appointment is forgotten, the wrong word slips out of your mouth, the opportunity to heal or reach out is missed.  And the consequences are usually swift, and often unforgiving.  “Not paranoia, not chronic anxiety, but an uncomplicated, focused spiritual vigilance is fundamental to the Christian life.”

Obviously, we don’t get there just by pulling up our bootstraps, adopting some esoteric meditation practice, or willing ourselves to stay awake.  (Have you ever noticed that when you’re falling asleep at a meeting or as movie – or dare I say, a homily – that never really works anyway?!)  St. Paul suggests as much in today’s second reading: “God will strengthen you to the end, because God is faithful.”  The constancy in faith and love to which Christ calls us is not something we can create by our own doing, or achieve all by ourselves.  It comes about as the result of God’s grace at work in us, the fruit of what Paul calls “spiritual gifts” more than any particular combination of talents we possess. 

It’s also deeply connected with gratitude: the capacity to name and to give thanks to God for all that is good in our lives, rather than becoming discouraged by what we perceive to be lacking or inadequate.  And if you’re not spontaneously grateful, take heart: gratitude can be cultivated through daily spiritual practice.  It’s different for all of us.  Some pray better alone; others like to pray with others.  Some use Scripture; others a website like Sacred Space or Pray As You Go; others still various forms of devotional prayer, or the use of a mantra or prayer word.  One very helpful practice is called the Examen: a prayerful reflection on the day that is rooted in gratitude, asking for light to see where we have met God that day, to ponder how we have responded to him, to ask forgiveness when necessary, to seek his blessing and grace for the next day. (There’s even an App to help you do it!)

In the Examen, Jesus invites us to pay attention. Pay attention to what?  The list is endless.  It might be the beauty of creation: of sun streaming through the window, the taste of fresh-brewed coffee, the smell of Christmas baking, a crisp breeze and snow gently falling.  Pay attention to yourself, to your body’s need for adequate exercise, rest, and recreation. Pay attention to your children, parents, spouse, friends, neighbours, colleagues - all the special people God has entrusted to you: not just to the words they speak, but the fear under the bravado, the vulnerability beneath the strength.  Pay attention to the needs of the world: the victims of terrorism and violence abroad, the homeless on our own streets, the needs of all those who go hungry for food, for friendship, for acceptance.  

But one thing is clear.  If we are always giving, giving, giving, without stopping long enough to receive; if we never engage in activities to replenish our physical energy, or take time to recharge our spiritual batteries, or tend the inner life which is God’s gift to us, then we may well find ourselves so “wired and tired” that we fail to see what God is really doing in our lives, and so to respond to him in love.    

This invites us to ask ourselves: How am I distracted, rather than alert?  How have I wandered from God’s ways?  What do I feel the urgency to change in my life right now?  Spiritually, what am I waiting and watching for?  What helps me remain alert and watchful?  Which of my habits work against that?   

We can spend not only the whole of Advent, but the rest of our lives exploring such questions.  But if God’s plan for us is “a future full of hope,” then we are called to keep this hope alive – in ourselves, in each other, and in a world which desperately needs the hope and new beginning which the season of Advent offers us each year.

So let us, in this Advent season of hope, turn to God with those beautiful words which conclude today’s first reading: O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand.

Advent invites us to take these words seriously.  Am I willing to let God be a loving Father to me?  Can I entrust myself to the Divine Potter in confidence, and trust Him to shape my life according to his plan?  Am I soft and malleable clay in God’s hands, or am I hard and brittle?   

So let us in this Advent season renew our desire to trust in the Divine Potter: to be vulnerable in his hands, to be shaped into whatever God wants us to be.  Let us be open to rediscover the wonder at the heart of life, thinking not only of what we will “give” or “get” for Christmas, but awake and alert to all the signs of God’s presence in my life right here and right now. 

So let us be awake, and alert.  Start small, if you must: even five minutes each day is far better than nothing.  Light that Advent candle, open your Bible, burn some incense, put on some soft music, do whatever works for you.  Cultivate vigilance. Pray to become, in every hour, wide awake.  Name your reasons to hope, to give thanks.  Then you will become beacons of hope to others in need.  You need not worry about knowing the day or the hour of Christ’s final return, for you will be accustomed to meeting him all day, every day, in the many disguises through which he comes to us.  Then even if you fall asleep during prayer – something which Pope Francis admits happens to him frequently (so I feel I am in good company) – it won’t matter.  Christ will meet you where you are, and you will know him.  And that is as good a reason as any to hope!! Amen.