“The night is far gone, the day is near,” we hear in today’s Epistle reading for the first Sunday of Advent, from Paul’s letter to the Romans (13.12). The night was far gone indeed when I finally turned off my computer in the wee hours of this morning and took myself to bed. As often happens when I’ve worked far into the night, I lay awake for a long while. I generally think of myself as a good sleeper, but when I’ve kept my brain working past its usual schedule, it tends to punish me by staying in high gear even though I go through the usual rituals of quiet and reading that mark the ending of the day.
I’ve learned that the best medicine for my insomnia is poetry. There’s something about reading good poetry at night that often breaks the cycle of sleeplessness, something about its landscape that soothes my brain and beckons slumber. Opening a book of poems becomes a prayer for rest: incantation, benediction, their words coax the sleep that I haven’t been able to command.
Last night, Kilian McDonnell was my featured guest on The Insomnia Show. Father Kilian is a Benedictine monk of St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota, who became a poet in his so-called retirement. At last year’s retreat of the oblates of St. Brigid of Kildare Monastery, which we hold each summer at the Episcopal House of Prayer on the grounds of St. John’s Abbey, Fr. Kilian spent part of an afternoon with us, reading some of his poems and sharing about his life as a poet. He was enchanting; our session with him was one of my favorite parts of the retreat.
During last year’s retreat, which we hold over the Feast of St. Benedict, we attended the Feast Day Mass at the St. John’s Abbey Church. Fr. Kilian was among the jubiliarians that year—those monks being recognized for significant anniversaries of their monastic profession. Fr. Kilian, who is now 86 years old, was celebrating 60 years as a monk. His poems, and the language he finds to talk about his work as a poet, bear witness to how six decades of praying the Liturgy of the Hours can shape the soul of a poet.
Fr. Kilian’s second collection of poems, Yahweh’s Other Shoe, appeared last year, published by St. John’s University Press. It was this volume that I pulled out in the far-gone night. With the day near, I gave my brain over to Kilian’s words. Then I turned out the light, and I slept, his slim volume beside me like a talisman through the brief hours that remained of the night.
A few hours later, I was in church, where we heard the Gospel reading for this first Sunday of Advent. Matthew does the Gospel honors this year: “Keep awake, therefore,” he records Jesus as saying, “for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming” (Mt. 24.42).
Keep awake. Gotcha.
I came home and took a nap.
But of course Jesus isn’t speaking literally here; he is talking about being ready, about cultivating a state of soul that is perpetually ready to recognize and welcome him. Pondering his words about wakefulness, I’ve found myself remembering an article that Thomas Moore, known for such books as Care of the Soul, wrote for Parabola magazine a few years ago. Writing about threshold spaces as places that are crucial for our soul’s journey, Moore offers an intriguing take on our approach to consciousness. He writes, “Religion is in the business of finding and constructing methods of getting sleepy, feeling lost, arriving and departing: pilgrimage, procession, fasting, incense, chanting, illuminated books.” (I think again of Psalm 122, the song of pilgrimage and procession that we hear on this first Sunday of Advent.) Moore goes on to observe,
Often we attain thresholds best through inadvertence. If we want their benefits, we might not always aim for consciousness and awareness, but rather a gap in our attention. In my view, the emphasis in some spiritual communities on continuing consciousness defeats the purpose. (From Moore’s article “Neither Here nor There,” Parabola, Spring 2000.)
He’s not arguing against awareness, of course; he’s making a case that awareness and wisdom and soulfulness don’t arrive solely through perpetually vigilant consciousness. There’s a different kind of wakefulness that comes in giving ourselves to practices that cultivate a mindfulness of mystery. I love the litany of examples that Moore offers, and add my own: walking, lectio divina, lingering at the dinner table with friends, creating or encountering artwork.
The scriptures of the Advent season give us rich images of the value of getting sleepy in the way that Moore writes about. The people we meet in the stories of this season receive wisdom in dreams, they offer songs that are ancient poems, they go on pilgrimage and walk in ritual processions. In so doing, they become people who are deeply awake to the presence of God moving within and around them. They find that receiving God’s intense attention is not always easy or comforting but that it reshapes them at a soul level, calling them to engage and offer the very core of who they are.
I find myself wondering how I’ll let myself get sleepy in this season, what habits of inadvertence will take me across the thresholds that God offers in these Advent weeks. How about you? What practices help you be present to the God who delights in meeting us not only in our focused awareness but also in the gaps in our attention, in dreams, in mystery?