Advent is a short season, yet it covers a long distance. It is the road of a soul from Nazareth to Bethlehem. It seems such a short distance as we are accustomed to thinking of distances. Yet it is a road into infinity, into eternity. It has a beginning, but no end. In truth, Advent is the road of the spiritual life which all of us must start if we do not want to miss the way.
We must start with a ‘fiat’ that re-echoes Mary’s fiat (“Let it be done, O Lord”). It is a fiat that each of us should say in the quiet of our hearts. Let us arise, then. Let us shake the sleep out of our eyes—the sleep of emotions run amuck; the sleep of indifference, of tepidity, of self-pity, of fighting God. Let us arise from that sleep with its dark nightmares, and begin our journey to Bethlehem.
But let us understand that this ‘Bethlehem’ we seek is within our own souls, our own hearts, our own minds. Advent is a time of standing still, and yet making a pilgrimage. It is an inner pilgrimage, a pilgrimage in which we don’t use our feet. We stand still; yet, in a manner of speaking, we walk a thousand miles across the world—just because we choose to stand still.
So, then. Let us enter, you and I, into the pilgrimage that doesn’t take us from home. For ours is a journey of the spirit, which is a thousand times harder than a journey of the feet. Let us ‘arise and go’.
Catherine de Hueck Doherty, Donkey Bells
Reflection – I think there are few things Catherine wrote about that were misinterpreted than her writings on pilgrimage. She wrote a book—Strannik—on the Russian notion of pilgrimage, which very much is encapsulated in the above passage.
It was a source of considerable dismay to her that she received dozens of letters from people telling her that she had inspired them to leave their homes and families and responsibilities to go marching off on walking pilgrimages to the Holy Land or one of a dozen other shrines.
It was the inner pilgrimage she was writing about, but people stopped reading her at the word ‘road’ or something, and went haring off without a thought to good spiritual order or charity for others. Of course, actual physical pilgrimages were a facet of her Russian Christianity, but these had to be done within the context of one’s state of life and the duties and obligations that it contained.
And of course, the point she was making was precisely that this interior pilgrimage is a deep event that is meant to be ongoing in all our lives all the time. It is a spiritual matter, and as is often the case with spiritual matters, she writes in a very symbolic vein—this was the language of spirituality for Catherine, poetic and biblical imagery being for her a better vehicle for the truths of the spirit.
But what does it mean, stripped of the images and put into plain language? Well, I’m not sure I personally get the whole of Catherine’s meaning; she was a woman of prodigious depth and holiness, after all. But it seems to me that this interior pilgrimage, this notion of our life being a continual journey towards Bethlehem, essentially means living without complacency.
Complacency, the sense of ‘having arrived’ is the death of the spiritual life. I was just reading a Chesterton Fr. Brown story in which the priest defines the one spiritual ailment as ‘to think oneself quite well.’ The truth is, we are not in Bethlehem yet. ‘Bethlehem’ is the spiritual state of childhood, of totality of trust and acceptance of God in a simplicity of surrender, out of which comes that divine-human encounter which is the wellspring of joy and peace and all good things.
We are not there, not quite, not yet. We have our moments when Bethlehem comes to us, so to speak. Christmas Day, for example. Or those truly holy moments in our lives, sitting at the death bed of a beloved one praying the rosary, or holding a newly baptized baby in our arms, or kneeling before the bishop to be ordained a priest, or one’s own wedding, at the exchange of vows. Moments when ‘all is calm, all is bright’, and there is little within us but our own beating hearts and the drawn nigh presence of God. Bethlehem moments, each of them, when God’s simplicity embraces ours for a brief space of time.
But meanwhile… we are on a journey. And it is sheer death to us to stop journeying, to give up and settle down and forget about Bethlehem all together and settle for living in Toronto or Ottawa or Combermere. There is a continual action of ‘arising and going’ within us that is necessary for a vibrant, living spiritual life. Shaking off the dust of where we are and how our life is now, and seeing what the next step is towards the simplicity of the child.
I’m sure there is more that Catherine means by all this, but I think that is the basic idea. So, let’s get cracking today, and see where the journey takes us.