Note from CM: During Advent, I have asked some of our wonderful iMonk writers to share meditations on seasonal themes each week. I have really missed hearing from our friend Lisa Dye, and I’m so grateful she was willing to send us this contribution for the third Sunday in Advent. In fact, I am grateful for each of these friends and gifted people, and know that what they share will help us prepare our lives for celebrating the Incarnation.
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Presence: The One Necessary Thing
By Lisa Dye
“He loves thee far too well to leave thee in thy self made hell, A Savior is thy God.”
• Mountains of Spices by Hannah Hurnard
• • •
In some cultures, saving a life requires permanent responsibility for that life. Recently, this unwritten law transcended cultural lines and imposed itself at my house.
The first week in May, on a cold evening after work, I was busily stowing groceries when my husband burst in from the barn carrying a small box from which emanated a chorus of weak mews. “Here, Mama, take care of these babies.” The babies were four feline neonates, eyes still closed, shivering from cold and hunger, their average weight only five ounces each. Doug had just sawed a hole in his barn wall after hearing their cries. Their biological mom, a stray from parts unknown, died in the loft a couple of days previously. I improvised an incubator with towels and a heating pad and sent Doug to the pet store for tiny bottles and a big supply of kitten formula.
To make a long and meandering story short, we thought we’d drawn the pet line in the sand after Jack, our sweet and quirky Labrador, arrived three years ago. Instead, there ensued weeks of bottle feedings several times a day and a small fortune spent in premium cat food, litter and vet visits. I made a few half-hearted … okay, heartsick … attempts at finding the babies homes and gave up after the grandkids all named them (Midnight, Joey, Frost and Stacey) and Annabelle sobbed, “Grandma you can’t sell the cats.”
“Well, first of all, Annabelle, you don’t sell cats, you pretty much have to pay people to take them.”
So now, we are responsible. I have crunched the numbers. Doug and I are in for roughly twenty years of quadruple feline fun … oh, and roughly the amount of one year of my annual net salary over that time frame in their upkeep.
That said we have come to some peace over it. The grandkids are relieved and it seems to be our small part of God’s plan “to bring all things in heaven and on earth (even big dogs and little kittens) together (Eph. 1:10) …” I may change my mind after we put up the Christmas tree.
But the whole situation has got me thinking about what a perfect little metaphor this is to drive home the significance of Advent to me. “What,” you say, “have cats got anything to do with Advent?”
First, I have to explain that I am ambivalent about cats and decidedly a dog person, so there is no desperate reach on my part, to convert any anti-cat people by extolling their virtues. In fact, the babies are a bit on my nerves as I write this … clamoring to sit in my lap, walking across my keyboard and alarming me with breakage in other rooms. Nevertheless, I have an explanation. Let me change tracks a bit.
Advent (from ad venire in Latin, meaning “to come to”) begins the Church’s liturgical year. It is a season celebrating the expectation of Christ’s coming, both literally a second time to Earth and in a spiritual sense into our lives and hearts. Parousia is the Greek version of this concept. In a previous essay, I noted a somewhat different nuance in the Greek. In addition to a promise of coming, it is Presence, in an unceasing way. Christ has come. Christ is here now. Yet, Christ is always yet to come.
Really, when you think about this, Presence is the crux of Christmas and all of Christianity. Presence is the manifestation of Christ being sent and the fruitfulness of our expecting him. Presence is God with us. Presence is the most necessary and vital aspect of his plan to bring all things in heaven and earth together, under one head, Christ. Without Presence, it all falls apart and we each go to our little hell.
Two times in my life, I had the expectation of someone close to me coming to accompany me at important events. I felt a joyful expectation when I thought that person was still coming, but when the moment arrived and the person did not, I felt abandoned and alone. There were other emotions too, but the essential realization was one of being left.
This is what I thought about during the many times I sat bottle feeding handfuls of feline fluff during the quiet of midnight and marveling at my tiny kittens’ fragile, but tenacious will to live. I could have sent them nice thoughts from my warm house to the cold wall of the barn and hoped they figured out a way to make it. I could even have regularly placed bottles of formula out in the barn, but it wouldn’t have been enough. No, their lives depended on the advent and parousia, first of my husband coming to rescue them from their concealment in the barn wall and then on my sitting with them to feed and care for them in an unceasing way. Their lives depended on presence.
Presence is the needful thing for relationship and for union and communion. That is the beauty and mystery of what we see in our Triune God. Father, Son and Holy Spirit are the complete, perfect, infinite and eternal picture of Presence, Submission and Self-giving among one another. It’s into this family that Christ comes to invite us.
My midnight contemplation amongst cats is making me look at every relationship, spiritual, human and animal with an eye toward the importance of Presence and a desire to facilitate communion. Here are some observations:
Presence is the remedy for need and emptiness, of which there are too many and too much to list or describe in detail. But in human and temporal terms, we can generally see that sickness, poverty and loneliness do not go away without the presence of someone coming to heal, to feed and to comfort. Christ, in human flesh, said at the inauguration of his earthly ministry, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18, 19). Christ’s Presence is the answer to the need of a world groaning in separation from its Creator.
Presence is an intervention and arrival of a new order, or rather a restored order. Human governments and institutions are flawed and broken, the result of human self-interest and separation from God. Once, on being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, “The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is in your midst” (Luke 17:21, 22). Jesus was talking about Christ’s arrival in his own person. Now, through the Church, it is possible for the culture of Heaven to be restored to earth. To the degree his people give themselves over to Christ’s love and life in their earthly bodies, his Presence will be reflected in human institutions, systems and governments.
Presence is often painful and inconvenient. It requires selflessness and submission. “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant … “ (Philippians 2: 5 – 7). The older I get, the more I am struck that the most pressing requirement in my life is flexibility. I spent most of the first half of my life trying to accomplish a personal agenda, but now I find that is not what serves God, my people or Creation most of the time. No, it is sacrifice of time, energy and personal desire in order to meet needs. This principle of Presence is personified in Christ, who left the beauty and order of Heaven and descended into the clamor and squalor of human need. He demonstrated, in every inconvenience of life, numerous sufferings, and ultimately, death, that Presence requires the self-giving and submission of a servant.
Presence requires persistence, perseverance and time. Presence requires making a decision to show up when needed, as often as needed and for as long as needed. It isn’t enough to meet an ongoing need once and declare a problem solved. It must be done over and over again. It is true in the nurturing of family relationships, friendships, work, the care of creatures and nature. It is true with the sick, the hungry and the lonely. Separations and poverties of all kinds need the continuous action that advent and parousia imply. They require continual Presence. Perhaps that is why John writes in his gospel, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:14).
Presence requires acceptance on the part of another. I remember in the first year of my marriage, my dad, whom I’d shut out of my life because of problems during my childhood, came repeatedly to knock on our door and try to repair his relationship with me. Repeatedly, I had my husband send him away and I would flee to a back room so I wouldn’t have to confront him. One day, when Dad came to the door, I tried sending my husband to refuse him again. Instead, Doug said, “Either you go out there and talk to him or I will send him away forever.” I went out and talked to my dad and it was the beginning of a journey back to renewed relationship. I had to receive him for this to happen. At first, I did it in a grudging way. Eventually, I did it in a welcoming and loving way. Now, I am sorry, especially as he is aging and in poor health, for the many times I missed with him by my refusals. All the effort and sacrifice of Christ’s coming means nothing to us if we do not receive and welcome him, not just once, but continually. Even one refusal constitutes a lack or loss of his Presence with us.
It is a fruitless venture for Christ to come always and forever knocking on a door that does not open to him. “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me” (Revelation 3:20). When we say no, we sort ourselves out of communion into smaller and smaller places and ultimately into hell. Hell in the Norse, Germanic and Saxon, means “concealed place.” It may not be so much where we are sent, but where we retreat to hide. It is a refusal of Presence, that of God and of others … and of ourselves to them. To be fair, some of us can’t help it, at least in the beginning. Maybe we’ve been hurt. I certainly was. It can feel safer to stay separate and hidden. I would venture to say that is one of the points of the Genesis story of Adam and Eve … the hell and destruction that come from hiding from God. But unless we choose, at some point, to come out of hiding, we choose Hell.
Finally, Presence, freely given and freely received, is communion. In him all things hold together. “For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross … This is the gospel … that has been proclaimed to every creature” (Colossians 1: 19, 20 and 23). Yes, this is the gospel of communion … God reconciling to himself all of creation, whether human, nature or creature. It is remedy, intervention, inconvenient service and painful sufferings, persistent arrivals and welcoming receptions. By being fully present to his Presence, we are “taken up into the Godhead,” according to Thomas Merton. By being present to his Presence, we “become Christ,” according to St. Augustine. By welcoming him, we are snatched out of concealment in cold barn walls and self-made hells and brought into the warmth and light of the family of God.
This is why we celebrate Advent. He does not leave us. He is always coming to us. He is always here.