Even from smallest childhood, I understood that the arrival of the Christmas season struck something that hungered in me. Something wild and beautiful invaded our ordinary in those early December weeks when the Christmas tree arrived and filled the house with festivity. Suddenly the world was framed by fairy light and music, the whole house spiced by Christmas baking and the keeping of merry secrets and the singing of carols I hadn’t heard in a whole year. I revelled in it, the glimmer and strangeness. Sometimes I’d crawl under the Christmas tree so that I could look up through the tangle of light and branch and colour as if into a different world, because that’s what Christmas left me wanting—a “taste and see” encounter with the world just beyond its radiance.
But the beauty brought an ache. There were moments, in the dawn light when I lay in bed, or in the dusk as the daylight died on the hilltop, when yearning hollowed out my little chest. Something, I could tell, lay beyond all the splendour, something I couldn’t name. And that something, whatever it was, proved elusive no matter what treat or gift I grasped. In these moments I found myself with an anguished desire that felt a lot like homesickness.
One December afternoon (I must have been in my early teens), I walked into our living room right at the hour of dusk. I was alone, the rest of my jolly, noisy family out in the yard or a different part of the house. We lived in Colorado in those years, and I stood unmoving, mesmerized by the silence as I watched the last light die behind the mountain guarding our home. The room filled with both shadow and the luminescence of snow at night; the Christmas tree lights blazed out in a brightness almost like sound. The sense of desire always with me at Christmas pulsed out more powerfully than I had ever felt it before.
But so did the quiet, this rare quiet; it was a potent and spacious presence that got right inside my eyes and mind and made me still. I pulled a wool blanket around my shoulders and sat on the ground at the foot of the Christmas tree, back to the couch, face turned to the lights but also, increasingly, to the crouched dark of the mountain night beyond. I found myself strangely cradled by the growing quiet, as if a room had been carved out for me there in the starlight and silence in which I could sojourn with my questions.
I found I could give my hunger a name: A goodness great enough to heal all the hard things I was beginning to understand were part of life in this world. Friendship. A life of beauty and worth. Love larger than the darkness that visited my dreams and frightened me with its depth. My hunger was a thousand things and a single thing—a thing that seemed also to be a person whose face I’d never yet seen. So I sat there, aching, and watched. My breath slowed, my eyes gentled. The quiet worked inside me so that some inward scrabbling was eased and I settled down to wait. I wasn’t sure for what, but what else could I do? I sat and waited for something to answer me.
We are so ceaselessly summoned by the screen into realms where many voices shout and sing that we struggle to ever step outside the noise.
I think that was my first real keeping of Advent.
I think the spacious and cradled quiet of that moment is what, in essence, we are invited each year to inhabit in the Advent season. However crammed or colourful or happy our lives, we are all, I think, waiting for a voice to speak out of the long darkness of our yearning. We are all waiting to be answered in the inmost rooms of our hearts, where the questions roil and the sorrows brood. We have all, at some time or other, been struck with a wild, joyous ache by the sight of some vast beauty that sets us hungering for a loveliness that nothing has ever satisfied.
Advent is simply our invitation to remember it.
But that is a work almost impossible without the kind of quiet that I found in that mountain darkness. If that childhood memory is my inmost image of Advent, it’s also one of my foremost ideas of what it means to be formed by spaces and times of deep quiet. That hushed moment of grace is now something I’ve learned to pursue by discipline and choice. That quiet is what I seek in all my Advent disciplines.
But each year I find that quiet harder to come by.
For almost two years now, I’ve been wrestling through the writing of a book on quiet—a simple undertaking in conception, a difficult battle and journey in execution. We live in a profoundly unquiet world, and I am only beginning to come to terms with how disquiet my own mind has become. Quiet is hard to come by in my current season partly (I’ll admit in good humour) because I have three children under five and moments of solitude are rare as a blue moon. But it’s not the quiet of the ear that concerns me. It’s the quiet of heart and mind, the quiet that is a capacity to listen profoundly, to wait, to hunger and watch for a goodness larger than all the small dramas of my life.
It has become commonplace to say that we live in an age of distraction. Neil Postman was saying it back in the eighties (in Amusing Ourselves to Death, among other books) before iPhones were even imagined, and the proliferation of screens and technological engagement has mushroomed since then. But it’s true. We are distracted, or rather we are so ceaselessly summoned by the screen into realms where many voices shout and sing that we struggle to ever step outside the noise. The nature of the internet and the presence of our personal technologies means we are not saved from the noise even by darkness or cold, those ancient enforcers of stillness and sleep.
To love God means to be one who waits on the Word made flesh, spoken into our darkness with the first words of a new story whose telling remakes the world.
It was during the first year of the pandemic that I began to notice my incapacity for inward quiet. I told myself it was just a crisis season because I needed to keep up with what was happening in the wider world, keep tabs (most hours, of course, most minutes, really) on the people I loved and the possibility of disaster. But the lockdowns stretched long here in England, and though most days didn’t contain a headline drama, my mind and heart were still fevered. By the time we reached the Advent season that year, I’d sit in the darkness, putting my baby to sleep, striving for quiet, trying to pray, my mind aflame with a hundred images, my hand itching for my phone, my inner being incapable of listening. The “crisis” season, I realized, never came to an end. It never does.
The moment I understood that, I also grasped that I had come to a split in the road, because I may not know many things, but I do know this and I’ve known it since I was a child: you can’t keep Advent if you can’t be a listener. You can’t really keep faith at all, because to love God means to be one who waits on the Word made flesh, spoken into our darkness with the first words of a new story whose telling remakes the world.
What is quiet, and how do we keep it?
Studying these questions for the past couple of years, I’ve read this Scripture and that book, contemplated the works and lives of mystics and missionaries and artists, all in search of what it means to root myself in that larger, listening space that is the homeland of my faith. At first I thought I could perform quiet, check off a certain number of quiet spaces in my day, build up a certain number of meditative minutes. I wanted discipline and clear results. And I’ve had none of it. I’ve had two of the least quiet years of my life, with multiple crises and moves, with sick children and stressful work and a mind so constantly exhausted I’ve felt often incapable of resisting the siren pull to a screen.
My concept of quiet has changed as I’ve wrestled, because despite all my failed efforts, God still managed to reach me with his gentleness when I felt the least accomplished in the discipline of quiet. One morning, after our second move in six months, as I held a fussy baby and tried to type an article, I picked up a book of poetry in sheer exasperation. I told the Lord I had nothing to offer and couldn’t look at my Bible. I flipped to a random page in a thick tome of poems by Denise Levertov and found these lines:
I do nothing, I give You
nothing. Yet You hold me
minute by minute
Lord, You provide.
And in one swift, immersive moment I understood that quiet was not, in essence, a thing to do but a grace to receive. As Hans Urs von Balthasar, the brilliant theologian who also believed all theology must be conducted “on one’s knees,” once wrote, “The silence required of the Christian is not fundamentally and primarily of human making. Rather, believers must realize that they already possess within themselves and at the same time in God the quiet, hidden ‘chamber’ into which they are to enter.”
What if quiet is not something to be done but a home to be sought? What might we find there, and what might it mean for the long weeks of Advent, when quiet is both our journey and our return to native ground?
In the autumn of this year I reread two novels that helped me answer those questions.
The first was George MacDonald’s strange and beautiful novel Lilith. It’s a hard book to describe, a work not so much of fairy tale or fantasy but of pure spiritual symbolism, in which the reader moves through the realms of heaven and hell and the human heart, clothed by the writer in fantastical shapes and landscapes. Lilith is fundamentally the ancient story of a soul on its journey out of death and into a selfless, trusting life. The hero of the tale is guided by Adam, the first man, and by Mara, Adam’s daughter, whose name means “bitterness.”
What if quiet is not something to be done but a home to be sought?
Lady Mara is, I think, one of the loveliest of MacDonald’s many wondrous inventions. She is a veiled woman of hush and grief, whose house sits in the middle of a desert. Early in the novel, she is an almost dreadful presence, her face hidden so that both reader and protagonist wonder with apprehension what horror might lie beneath. No one can escape her, for in Lilith all travellers must eventually sojourn in her house, tasting the bitterness of their fallen humanity.
But Mara is beautiful. When she removes her veil, her guests find a face of compassion, one that leads them to examine what is bent and broken within their own hearts, a grief that makes possible their healing. Her bread is self-knowledge, and the cold, clean water she offers is the cleansing sorrow of repentance. Mara is sorrow, but Mara opens the door to redemption, because the sorrow she nourishes in her guests is the kind that reveals the possibility of health. Her sorrow points to the remaking love of a Father who can and will make them whole.
Quiet leads us into the presence of Mara, and Advent is a sojourn in her desert house.
We forget, sometimes, in the noise and frenzy of the world, that waiting is central to Christian identity. Advent isn’t a season in which we force ourselves to be quiet and sad; it’s the season in which the long, cradled quiet reveals how hungry and grieved we are. In Advent we remember that we are still waiting. Christmas is when we remember that Christ has come to renew the broken world, but Advent is when we remember that we are still in that world. We are children of God, inheritors of glory, and we still get cancer, we still fight wars, we still suffer loneliness and death and mental illness. Advent is when we have the chance to stop running and be still, the season that allows us to recognize our need for Christ’s final coming to right the suffering of children, the loneliness of the poor and forgotten, the grief of the sick, the darkness crouched in our own hearts.
Advent isn’t a season in which we force ourselves to be quiet and sad; it’s the season in which the long, cradled quiet reveals how hungry and grieved we are.
But the very moment that Mara lays our hunger bare, as quiet grows around us in an almost threatening intensity, we find a gracious hand already outstretched with wondrous bread and potent, healing wine.
That’s where the second novel comes in: The Scent of Water by Elizabeth Goudge. It’s one of my favourites, a quiet, contemplative story of a woman who inherits an old English house deep in the countryside just after the Second World War. Mary is a professional woman of competence and achievement, but the unexpected inheritance allows her the chance to leave the bustle of the modern, political world and choose a life of quiet in a place where she can “make her soul.” Included with her inheritance of the house are all the old journals of the woman who lived there before her, a woman who grappled throughout her life with seasons of devastating depression and mental illness.
Mary, who finds herself beginning to navigate her own past griefs in the vast quiet of her new home, begins to read these journals one night and finds a heartbreaking description of a particularly bad season. The walls of the old woman’s mind seemed to be closing in on her; she felt, she says in her journal, “imprisoned in stone. . . . The hardness pressed against me upon each side in a horrible way, as though trying to crush me.” But a light like a sword cut through that blackness, and she followed it as if down a dark tunnel of her own mind and found a cave with a floor “of trodden earth” where there was “a man and a woman caring for a girl who lay on a pile of hay. And for a newborn child. As I watched, the woman stooped and put Him into His Mother’s arms.”
In the heart of her darkness, at the very core of her broken and anguished mind, the old woman discovered a vision of the Christ child, fragile and gracious, at home in her broken heart. He is here. He is already here, at home in the mazed ruins of our own broken hearts, beginning the restoration of all things merely with his presence. Those hungers we bear at the sight of all things beautiful, the ache we bear for healing—they are all affirmed and answered in the presence of the Christ child at the heart of our darkness.
Mara’s healing sorrow and Mary’s grace—these are the gifts to which quiet leads us each year as we journey to the homeland where the Child rests within our hearts.
I know because I found him there all those years ago.
For even as I waited in the quiet of that childhood evening by the Christmas tree, the silence grew around me into a fullness that was a presence. I who watched knew abruptly that I was already seen, that my watching was a response to the loving gaze of the Child whose presence was announced by all the shimmery glory of Christmas. I knew for a moment—ah, I knew—that all the wild beauty I desired was true and that someday that unmet Person who was the desire of my heart would come to me, would come to the world and make all of our hunger a feast. But the feast hadn’t quite begun. I understood that. And in that moment I knew that one of the primary postures of my inmost self throughout my life would be that of a watchful, hungering quiet. A healing quiet. An Advent quiet.