Perils of the night

On a very old website of mine, I hosted the text of some writing I’d done in college–twelve years ago, that was what passed for my professional portfolio. I happened to be looking at the site today and I found that one of the pieces I’d uploaded was a meditation I’d been asked to write for a Wednesday evening Advent service at St. David’s, the church I attend when I’m in Cullowhee.




I’ve copied the meditation here, under the read more. I was nineteen when I wrote it, halfway through my second year of college.

Reading it over this morning for the first time in over a decade, I felt a bit breathless. It just so happens that I’ve been more than a little preoccupied with themes of shame and judgment lately. If I didn’t know that writers frequently write things that are wiser than they are, I would be tempted to think I was much smarter 14 years ago than I am now. In some ways, I probably was.

My favorite thing about the Advent service that year was hearing the Collect for Aid Against All Perils for the first time, read out in a dark sanctuary lit by candles:

“Lighten our darkness we beseech thee O Lord, and by thy great mercy, defend us from all perils and dangers and this nigh, for the love of thy only son our savior, Jesus Christ.”

Every time I read that, I think about the scene in Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising where Will and Merriman have to battle the powers of the Dark in an old church around Christmas.

The build-up to Christmas, to say nothing of the holiday itself, is a conflicted time for me, as it is for a lot of people. But this is my favorite part of it.

Advent Meditation for 12 December 2001
by B. N. Harrison

When I stepped into the sanctuary last Wednesday night I was surprised and almost cowed by the severity of the surroundings; the extremely dim light; and the general atmosphere of solemnity. I came to St. David’s—and to the Episcopal church—last March. I was raised Baptist, and the pageantry that attends the liturgical seasons here fascinates me. It was only a few months ago that I realized Advent was anything but a word to describe the four weeks before Christmas; if I realized that Advent had themes I assumed they referred to joyful anticipation of the birth of Christ. The darkness of Advent—both literal and thematic—took me by surprise.

When I was a child my mother wielded the concept of God the way other parents wielded wooden paddles. Even now, my instinct is to recoil from the idea of judgment, because I so keenly remember a time when its inevitable verdict proclaimed me hateful and unlovable. When I was told that judgment was a theme central to Advent I wasn’t surprised to find that waiting emerged alongside it. If anything, I felt, was worse than judgment it was prolonged or deferred judgment analogous to another familiar pain from childhood: “You just go to your room till I figure out what to do with you.” Thinking about judgment still makes me want to get into my bed and hide under the covers, battling nausea.

We are taught to fear judgment by our parents and in some cases by our early church experiences. I was so beholden to this thinking that last spring I felt that I had to make a choice between giving up on religion altogether or finding a church that didn’t force me to decide between God and my self-respect. When I found St. David’s I could not find the God of my childhood there, and judgment, as I had always understood it, was also absent. When it came time to write this meditation I decided to think about judgment as a God of infinite love might use it—a God I had heard about all my life but did not believe in before I came to St. David’s. I came to realize that judgment is not a weapon, or a punishment, but a mirror; it invites us to behold a standard, and then see ourselves in light of that standard. The standard is not, as I always assumed, the glorious perfection of God which makes men and women wretched and worthless in comparison. The standard is, rather, the ultimate realization of the potential with which we were created—our birthright from God. When we are judged we are asked to consider where we are—and then where we might be—and whether we might live a fuller life as a more realized creation.

I shy from judgement because I was taught to associate it with cruelty and pain. However, we as humans shy from judgment, not because we fear the judgment itself, but because we have an instinctive fear of the transformation that judgment brings about. Coming to a full understanding of judgment means internalizing the notion that we can be something more than we are, and rearranging our lives, loves, and self-concept to reflect this eventuality. Yet we resist this process of transformation because we are comfortable and familiar with ourselves as we are. We do not want to become better. We do not want our spiritual life wed to our physical life. We do not want wholeness, we do not want holiness. We are like the obstinate toy soldier that C. S. Lewis writes about in Mere Christianity:

Imagine turning a tin soldier into a real little man. It would involve turning the tin into flesh. And suppose the tin soldier did not like it. He is not interested in flesh; all he sees is that the tin is being spoilt. He thinks you are killing him. He will do everything he can to prevent you. He will not be made into a man if he can help it.

We are called to be transformed creatures not because Christ receives a feather in his cap for ever man or woman who turns to a higher life, but because we have a duty to live as fully and well as possible so as not to shame the gift of life.

Percy Shelley states in The Necessity of Atheism that naturally no one wants to believe in the perfectibility of man because that would imply a responsibility for man to work toward perfection. The pain of transformation is like the flow of blood into a hand or foot that has fallen asleep; it is useless without blood, but we cannot feel it so we don’t bother ourselves about it. But as soon as the blood comes back to make it useful, to make it our hand again, we start to howl. Inertia is the most powerful force in the universe, and holds as much sway over our spiritual lives as our physical lives. We are complacent in our bonds and that is why we create doctrines for ourselves like the inherent and insuperable corruption of man; we want to relieve ourselves of the responsibility of striving. If you want a sense of how silly this is imagine a caterpillar refusing to turn into a butterfly. God’s goal for us is a higher life that we do not have the sense to want for ourselves. He gives us the mirror of judgment to remind us of the kind of butterfly we can become.

Early this fall I had a conversation with a friend that initiated me to the pain of transformation. I felt as though I was being carved open—he was showing me a way out of a pain to which I had clung for so long that I had mistaken it for part of my identity. The idea that there might be a way out terrified me; I didn’t want to leave my familiar self behind. Marge Piercy writes about the pain of “stretching the muscles that feel/ as if they are made of wet plaster/ then of blunt knives/ then of sharp knives.” She knows the glory of becoming a new creature, that the agony of working atrophied muscles causes you to “glow, [to] thrive on the street/ like a neon raspberry.” Judgment is the identification of the muscles that have atrophied; moving them around is the beginning of birth pains for our spirit. The heavy foreboding of the judgement season is Mary’s lying in wait for the birth of Christ—a soul-rending but temporary pain that will usher a new creation into existence.

The waiting inherent in Advent is not passive waiting; it is a time to understand what judgment has revealed to us and to decide that we will allow the birth of our highest self to take place. It is an invitation to begin the process of transformation with Christ who chose to be made flesh and live a life of change and growth and arrive at the ultimate of human potential. We are in hibernation now but we can wait and prepare for the Birth with as much anticipation and joy as dread for he pain to come—all the while understanding that the pain is temporary and the transformation—the high life to which we are called by God through Christ—is eternal.

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