Waiting is never easy. Time slows down and the mind tends to run uncontrollably. Yet, the Church teaches the art of waiting and uncovers its meaning and importance. Advent is that time to await the coming of Jesus. What does that mean? St. John of the Cross has the answer.
Advent is a time of hope, of faith, of expansion of the heart’s desire to receive Christ: A time of waiting for and in love.
St. John of the Cross lived for the “adventus” (the coming) of his greatest love, Jesus, and sought him tirelessly, knowing his limitations and letting himself be molded.
“During Advent, the Church invites us to reflect on the coming of Christ, and that’s what St. John of the Cross focuses on,” said Sister Rita Therese of the Sacred Heart, local superior of the Carmelite Sisters of the Most Sacred Heart of Los Angeles in Denver. “We prepare for him by seeking, with our whole lives… to become more like him.”
Nonetheless, in this process, what the Christian can do through acts of penance and self-denial is limited, she explained.
God, in his mercy, steps in and purifies what man alone can’t cleanse, to lift him up to perfect union with himself. This purification is what St. John calls “the dark night of the soul.”
St. John systematically describes two different “nights,” or stages, of this purification to reach such union with God: the night of the senses and the night of the spirit, explained Father David J. Centner, expert on St. John of the Cross and Discalced Carmelite friar of the province of Washington, D.C.
The Christian’s job is then mainly to let God work in him, growing in desire and love for him, he added.
“In the night of the senses nothing satisfies,” Centner said. God’s love is at work, cleansing man of all sensory desires to help him see and love more.
During the night of the spirit, other challenges arise. Freed from all sensory desires, man can see more clearly, yet still struggles with his ego and truly loving God before himself, Centner continued. God steps in again to purify to perfection, taking away all gratification, even in religious practices.
“[It seems that people in these nights] no longer have anything to live for,” Centner declared. “In fact, they might die in a reactive depression if God did not draw them on from time to time through consolations that give them hope… until their desires are satisfied with nothing less than God.”
Advent and the Night
The relationship between this journey and the Advent season does not mean that Advent has to be painful.
The Dark Night is primarily about love, Centner said, “We often obsess over the darkness and miss the point entirely.”
What they hold in common is that Advent teaches the meaning of waiting in love for the loved one. An anticipation that is active but also passive: Allowing God to work in the heart, in the daily tasks man can’t control.
“Advent means awaiting, but it’s an awaiting that gives hope,” said Sister Juanita of Jesus and Mary, member of the Carmelite Sisters in Denver. “St. John of the Cross teaches us that even though [the night or our many difficulties] may feel terrible and painful, we always keep the hope that God is at work.”
“This hope and awaiting dilates our heart into the silence and quietness of Advent, so that our hearts are more able to receive God’s love when he comes at Christmas,” added Sister Faustina of Merciful Love, also a Carmelite and principal of St.’s Peter and Paul School in Denver.
God molds man’s heart when he awaits, when he prepares, when he lets himself be shaped. While the Christian is called to seek to love him actively, ultimately, God will have to come in and purify his love.
Advent is a time to hope and let the heart be transformed by the light that shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome.
In the many situations that a person can’t control, God wishes to work in him, so like St. John, he learns to desire God above all else, and desire everything else in him – as he expressed it in his “Prayer of a Soul Taken with Love:”
“The angels are mine, and the Mother of God, and all things are mine; and God himself is mine and for me, because Christ is mine and all for me.
“What do you ask, then, and seek, my soul? Yours is all of this, and all is for you. Do not engage yourself in something less.”