It had been a long day. After the morning service, there was a special program at church. That was followed by a meeting and a couple of hospital visits. Not surprisingly, the evening service was not well attended. It was the Sunday before Christmas and people were simply busy with preparations.
Having locked the doors of the church, I began to turn off lights. I paused and returned to the dark sanctuary. Lighting the four blue candles of the advent wreathe, I sat alone and in silence. After a time, in the stillness, I pulled open a hymnal and began to slowly sing the verses of the ancient hymn: O Come, O Come Emmanuel. With each line, images from the prophetic verses of the Hebrew scripture came to mind. In that vigil, watching and waiting, I prayed the verses of the hymn for peace, for wisdom, to unlock what has been bound, longing for the realm of the Ancient One to be real in some deep and mysterious ways.
I don’t recall how long I stayed there. But the time I sat in vigil on a fourth Sunday in Advent is one of those touch stones in my spiritual life. It’s a mental image of what it is to watch and wait, knowing something is about to happen.
It’s now more than ten years since that vigil in a Tucson, Arizona church. Yet, that vigil continues to inform the vigils I keep each day. I rarely sit in candle light, but the last five years of my life have been marked by the need to be vigilant. Over these years, I have been my frail mother’s primary care giver.
My partner and I have often discussed it. Having her with us isn’t a burden. None of the work involved is difficult or demanding. But her presence in our home calls for a continual vigilance: watching and, yes, waiting.
My mother is now 84 years old. Blind from a stroke, her mobility is very limited due to arthritis. She lives with chronic pain. Despite her infirmities, she’s warm, pleasant, and very engaging. Having a contemplative spirit, she’s rather content being in her room listening to National Public Radio throughout the day. I truly don’t know if I will be as gracious as she as I age.
Perhaps it was like this for her when I was young, when she kept vigil for me as an infant. I’m always aware of her presence. I listen past the radio to hear if she stirs in her room. Unexpected noises cause me to move quickly to her door way to see if she became confused and lost in her room or, worse yet, if she had a fall. At night, if I wake from my sleep, which I often due, I listen carefully: is the radio playing? What else do I hear? I often use a late night trip to the bathroom as an excuse to check in on her once more.
My partner and I now joke about a frequent moment in our first year with mom in the house. Checking on her as she lay in bed, we’d see the relaxed muscles of her face and perfect stillness and wonder: is she still breathing? Then she’d leave out a loud snore and we’d laugh realizing that we had become hyper-vigilant.
In the advent season, we romanticize images of keeping vigil, of watching and waiting. Now I understand a vigil from a very different perspective: a vigil is watching for change, very real change. Of course, change is a part of life. Yet, change can present difficulties.
The changes we watch for in keeping vigil for my mother are difficult. The changes mark her further decline. In face of that decline and her ultimate passing, she looks forward to the day when she will rest in peace next to my father on a hillside in Western Pennsylvania. She also looks forward to the day when all her pain will be gone.
In watching and waiting during Advent, preparing for the coming of the Christ in our midst, perhaps our musings are too romantic. Or perhaps it’s just more comforting to focus on the prosaic story of the birth of a child. Anthony Bloom explores in his book, Living Prayer, that the coming of God in our midst is a dangerous thing because, as the scriptures note in many places, God is a consuming fire. While that fire can warm us, it can also burn us. Sometimes we get confused by the comfort of the warmth and fail to realize that we are actually getting burned. In Advent, we keep vigil with hope for an experience of the Divine that will change us by warming us. At the same time, that change has the ability to burn and hurt us in ways we don’t expect.
While I suspect that Bloom is right about encountering the Holy One who is like fire, I know from my experience over these years that my daily vigil with my mother is both a graced opportunity to care for her as well as a source of pain as I watch her slip away. Yet, as a person of faith, I also keep vigil in hope for her wholeness and peace … as well as for my own.
And so I remember sitting in the darkened church with the flickering Advent candles:
O come, O Day-Spring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Your drawing near
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.
© 2011, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.