November 29th is Madeleine l’Engle’s birthday. She’d have been 92 this year. She made a big deal of her birthday, she said, because it was so easy for her own day of celebration to get lost between the communal celebrations of Thanksgiving and the start of Advent. “I may be a grain of sand on the shore but I am a named grain! And my name is known!” Madeleine’s assertions of the reality of self against the general and inevitable cultural juggernauts cruising through November into December were sign posts for me: “This way to a seat on the side of the road. This way to get out of the way and off the road and look over the terrain and get some perspective.”
The week before Advent, my husband’s family had a week of gathering together over Thanksgiving in a lovely big, rented house midway down the Outer Banks, and we drove 9 hours to get home again afterwards. When I woke up on Sunday morning I had trouble remembering it was the first Sunday of Advent. I really didn’t want to haul myself out of bed and go to church, but I felt I was quite close to making a mistake if I didn’t stick with my interior discipline of starting the new church year in community. So I prepared myself and went to church.
The sermon made it into the exclusive category of the top ten worst I’ve ever heard (a list that currently has four empty slots at the bottom, since I can only remember five other worst sermons right now. When I forget the sermon it drops off the list. And yes–I have a list of the top ten best sermons I’ve ever heard, and that one currently has seven empty slots.) The service felt like a set of discrete actions trying to get organized. But more distressing to me than the poor execution of liturgy and the very bad sermon was the sudden feeling of isolation and loneliness that overtook me somewhere between the sermon and reciting the Creed. As I began to say the ancient words–“We believe–” a door blew open in my heart and a strong, cold, winter’s wind blew across my mind, altering my inner landscape from indoors comfortable to the out-of-doors unknown.
Not even in Advent am I immune to the problems of going to church. Every Sunday I encounter the 21st Century cultural problem of balancing between my individually named self and merging into a communal body of believers. I find the balance is not gained by giving more attention to one than the other. So, feeling exceedingly lonely, I stopped speaking, sat still in the service, watching and listening, letting my feelings rise and then recede. During the Offertory, I suddenly remembered Madeleine and thought of her birthday perspective, her insistence on drawing aside from the crowd (or congregation) to feel and assert the value of her own name. The preparations of Advent draw me away from my solitude at home and into communal rhythms, but unless I find my balance in going between one and the other, I get none of the expected comfort of family and I have no shared pleasure in anticipation or religious ritual that seems to be culturally expected in church, of church-goers. The shared rhythms of Advent and Christmas point up for me the seeming contradiction of isolation, self separated from other selves, even as we all say or sing the same words and move in unison.
In the late 1970s, for several years I lived close enough to NYC to go in for a day. In those years, I always went in to visit Madeleine during Advent. I would go on a Wednesday, and Madeleine and I would first share the Wednesday noon healing service in the Cathedral, and then share lunch at the Green Tree restaurant across from the Cathedral close on Amsterdam Avenue. The first year we did this, while we were waiting for our food to be served, some frustration or concern of hers made her say with vigorous and cheerful irritation, “Right now I think it would be best for Christians if all the churches in the world burned down at once!” I had felt that way before, and understood her without needing to ask why she felt that way just then. We shared a perspective from our different places without the distraction of personal details.
This past Sunday, as I sat through what I hope will be the worst sermon I’ll hear in the new church year, and then sat through an unexpected heart-freezing chill of isolation in the midst of communal joy in the signs and songs of the new Advent season, I was blessed with a clear (unexpected) focus on the sight and smell of the Green Tree’s rich Hungarian goulash and then the blunt, energetic sound of Madeleine voicing her frustration with some systemic ecclesial (read: clergy) self-centeredness. The memory made me laugh quietly, right there during the service; Madeleine had repented somewhat of her drastic judgment, even before lunch was over. “Well, that’s not a practical approach,” she said. “Think of the mess we’d have in cleaning up before we could begin over again,” she said. “We’re never free just to walk away and start something new somewhere else. No one ever made a clean break and a new religious approach at the same time. Trying it only amounts to littering the religious and cultural landscape as you drive on your merry way.”
Being Christian today involves even fewer assumptions to be taken for granted than Madeleine and I were willing to make thirty years ago, about the church and the life of faith. The frustrations for everyone involved are probably no greater, but I notice today that ecclesial types feel a greater risk in acknowledging real problems in the church and doing anything real about them. Naming difficulties in being Christian, or being the church anywhere, seems too close to giving ammunition to the parascientists and other aggressive, antagonistic atheists. This, I think, is to define ourselves by their beliefs and complaints. When Madeleine l’Engle claimed the distinction of being named and known by name, she was asserting the power of creation, not just the fact of individual value.
Churches in general don’t trust the power of creation–it’s too wild and unexpected if it’s really creative power at work, after all. But creative power can’t be completely denied or controlled. The wildness of Advent is more real than all the propriety of its liturgy and symbolism. When I was overcome by loneliness in the midst of the congregation, I knew longing for an awareness of the sort Madeleine proclaimed–that my name mattered among all the other names, not more than all the other names. Being in a congregation lets one feel the difference as real and abiding and transformative. I don’t have to fix things. The best of being in the presence of God is being in the presence of God. When I hold myself apart and separate as a church member–not feeling belonging or wanting to belong–I miss this experience of inner transformation entirely. This doesn’t make sense to me, but the surge of creativity and Life happen ahead of–and in spite of– the rational stuff in church.
I notice that I came to this intuitive sense of reality and Presence during a church service with a terrible sermon, and emptiness in the liturgy and disconnection between ritual, symbol and voiced expression of belief. What came before clergy, theology and tradition, and exists before and without our choice, is the Wholeness that is both wild and provided for all of us, when we come together. That Wholeness is still available to us, coming as we move between our individual lives and our shared life in congregation.
Madeleine l’Engle emphasized celebrating her name and her birth day within the larger celebrations of Thanksgiving and Advent, illustrating how the particular gives meaning to the general, and the general sustains and cultivates meaning for the particular. This amounts to knowing and celebrating one’s own life in the context of gratitude and the goodness of the future. “The irrational season,” is her description of Advent. I can sit and wait with that for four weeks.