prepare the way
you do not know when the lord of the house is coming,
whether in the evening, or at midnight,
or at cockcrow, or in the morning.
May he not come suddenly and find you sleeping.
What I say to you, I say to all: "Watch!"
Mark 33: 35-37
Today marks the first day of Advent in the Catholic church calendar, and though I am a proud heathen, the fact that I also play piano and organ means that I attend church more often than any other nonbeliever I know.
Advent (from Latin, "coming to," "arriving") is the four weeks before Christmas, which marks Jesus' arrival on Earth. Though most of us spend the month of December waiting for Christmas, it has a different significance to Christians who observe it: it is a time of preparation, of deep spiritual work.
The priest at one of this morning's services described it thus: waiting is often a source of frustration for us -- waiting in line, waiting for service at a restaurant, waiting for a package to arrive -- because it is a situation in which we have no control. Advent is not like that. It is like waiting for a beloved house guest: we clean, cook, prepare, present. It is an activity, rather than a period of passivity.
Passive waiting, the priest explained, is a source of many problems for us. Waiting for someone else to change. Waiting for inspiration to be dropped upon us. Waiting for our jobs to become less busy, or for "more time" to work on a project. These things sometimes come. But when they do, will they find us sleeping?
Mystics - believers in destiny, divinity, fate, whatever it may be - often advocate for a humble sense of surrender. They tell us to put our faith in the Thing which will deliver these blessings: the change we have been passively waiting for. But even if those things do arrive, have we prepared the way?
Sen no Rikyu, the 16th-century tea master credited with perfecting chado, the Way of Tea, famously declared seven rules for the art of hosting the tea ceremony which are widely considered to be nuggets of wisdom for the art of living as well. The list includes treasures like, "Arrange the flowers as they are in the field," and, "Lay the charcoal so the water boils efficiently." Perhaps my favorite is, "Always be prepared for rain." Chajin, tea people, will often say that the Way of Tea is 90% cleaning: your space, your instruments, and your self. What better way to prepare for a moment that celebrates purity of heart and spirit?
Artists in many different media say that their creative work is something closer to transcription: listen and write down the music you hear. Look closely and paint what you see. Live with the characters and record their desires, not your own. But even those who believe that inspiration chooses when to visit practice in their sketchbooks every day. When the muse arrives, your heart and your technique must be ready to work.
I've been casually studying feng shui for some time, and while I am turned off by the prescriptive interpreters who spread myths like, "Hang a crystal here and your wealth will grow," the fundamental principles of the practice are quite moving. Foster a sense of safety and intimacy. A clean space allows energy to flow. Living things, glowing things, and beautiful things refresh the soul. Amanda Gibby Peters (founder of Simple Shui), often says something like, "Make space with clear intentions, and the Universe will over-deliver." I wonder how many opportunities, ideas, and potential loves have wandered through our lives only to find us sleeping.
The prophet Isaiah wrote, "In the wilderness prepare the way; make a straight path." It is good advice for all of us -- to hew a clearing through our monkey minds and crowded lives. To be receptive, with open eyes for what may move, change, or strengthen us. To say no to burdensome tasks, so that when joyful opportunity knocks, we have the freedom to say yes. To keep refining and refining, building our characters, and preparing both for beloved guests and for rain.