Recently, I've been avoiding a variety of things for some reason: Christmas card writing, cleaning out the refrigerator, paying bills, even getting a haircut. What's up with the delay, I ask myself? Is it busy-ness … or laziness … or lack of interest … or something hidden deep in my psyche that I haven't yet been able to identify? (I doubt the spoiled broccoli in the fridge has much to do with any lingering resentment from my childhood, but who knows?)
Most of the things I've been avoiding are activities or traditions that I really enjoy — I love preparing and sending out Christmas greetings, I get a kick out of the details of bill-paying, and what's not to like about that great feeling of being shorn and freshly coiffed? So why the delay?
I could wax poetic about the season of Advent and the need to wait, to watch, to sit in the sense of anticipation. In this season, we pray, "Come, Lord Jesus!" "Do not delay, O God," "Wait for the Lord with courage," "Prepare the way!" All of these verses indicate that waiting patiently but expectantly is part and parcel of our annual Advent experience. We sit in the darkness and await the Light; we light Advent candles and await Christmas; we journey with Mary and await the birth of the Christ-Child. "More than watchman waits for the dawn, my soul waits for you, O Lord" (Psalm 130).
Is this sense of waiting what underlies my very mundane sense of delay? Maybe, maybe not. I have come to realize that there are really three main reasons for the delays I've been choosing.
The first reason (the most virtuous one) is because I am opting for something else. I haven't sat down at my desk to pay bills, for example, because I have given that time to other ventures that I deem more valuable — hospital visiting, spending unhurried time with loved ones, preparing special gifts. I have chosen how to spend my time and attention, and the cable company bill has not made the cut. This has Advent overtures — discerning what has real value in my life and giving it the reverence it deserves. People over projects; relationship over routine; quality time over obligation.
The second reason for my delay has very little connection to the Advent season. In the simple examples of avoidance I gave above, the delay is simply about not wanting to lose what I deem to be valuable hours of the day. Why spend an hour taking myself for a haircut when I could spend it answering email or squeezing in another committee meeting? These choices of procrastination are not discerned by virtue of the activity's value; these choices are about pragmatism, pure and simple. All in all, they are pretty benign.
The third experience of delay, however, is not so benign. This delay has to do with dread. When delay is about dread, something very non-Adventy is going on, something that I believe actually threatens to undermine all that Advent is intended to nurture. Dread is heavy and dark.
Think about something you might be dreading right now. Maybe the experience of dread is about having to face a difficult conversation or decision, maybe it is dread of losing a valuable relationship if certain topics are discussed, or maybe it's a dread of being lonely or lost or left behind. "Don't bring it up. You know it won't end well." "What if I bring this intention to prayer and really entrust it to God … and nothing happens?" "If I forgive him, he may just hurt me again." This brand of delay is not the hopeful expectation of Christmas morning and it is not the choice for something of value over something less worthy. This brand of delay is colored by dread, filled with darkness and characterized by fear.
Darkness doesn't have to be scary — there are plenty of "dark" experiences that most of us actually look forward to: dark skies that allow starry nights to emerge; rooms that are darkened so we can sing "Happy Birthday;" and, of course, dark chocolate! Darkness in and of itself is not fearful. As the popular liturgical song goes, "Longing for light, we wait in darkness.
Darkness is natural; it is a very normal part of our everyday experience. It is not inherently scary, even though it is not always comfortable. (Those lights had better come back on after the candles are blown out!) We rely mightily on the inevitability of the dawn's victory over those dark, dark nights. Darkness is tolerable because we know it is temporary. We have been promised the light, and we long for its return because we are not made for darkness. This promise is what takes the dread and the fear out of our experiences of the dark.
I remember believing as a kid that monsters lived under my bed. I wasn't exactly afraid of the dark; I was afraid of the monsters that came out in the dark! They would never emerge as long as the hallway light could shine under the door. Even the teeniest bit of light would ward them off. And so I came to understand the saving power of the Light. And I learned how to perceive even the dimmest light source in a dark place. Finding even the darkest light (or the lightest dark?) provided a sense of hope, a sense of relief, and a sense of promise. My big sister taught me that the darkness, even if fearful, need not be dreaded. It can be endured. And I was able to emerge on the other side of it. Every morning. Every single morning.
No small lesson, that. The darkness is real and it will return on something of a regular basis. But it will never — ever — gain the victory. "The light shines in the darkness and the darkness will not overcome it" (John 1:5). Welcome, Advent! Remind us again of the power of darkness. Teach us anew of the beauty it holds as it beckons us beyond our dread and into the unremitting dawn. Every day. Every single day.
[Virginia Herbers is an Apostle of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. She has master's degree in pastoral studies and has ministered in education at both the elementary and high school levels in Connecticut, New York, Missouri and Taiwan. She currently serves as the vice-provincial for the United States province of her community.]