For about the fourth year in a row, I was already a few days into Advent before getting new candles for our family wreath. This year I arrived at the craft store on Wednesday of the first week of Advent only to be told by the salesperson that I was “one hour too late” to buy the pre-packaged rose and violet tapers—someone had just grabbed the last set. I could barely contain my frustration as my son Ben and I walked back and forth through the long aisles to find some white pillar candles and violet and rose ribbons to wrap them in. The hassle seemed to be sapping what little strength I had, and certainly all of the peace.
In the same way, I have been hard-pressed to settle into a rhythm of prayer to “prepare my soul” for Christmas. The devotions seem to be something extra heaped on top of me at the end of the day; I struggle to keep my eyes open and focused on the prayer book. Despite my best efforts, my large family and a full-time job are taking all of my energy. The treasured time of silence and watchful waiting is eluding me.
And so, what am I to do? It is too late to do my shopping in November, too late to begin again. Am I to remain stuck and frustrated for the rest of the season? Here, as is so often the case, the saints are a great help and consolation to me. They teach me a way forward.
Take Saint John of the Cross, whose feast we celebrate on December 14. A 17th century Spanish priest and Doctor of the Church, John was a confessor and confidante of Saint Teresa of Avila. A spiritual poet of the highest order, he wrote his most famous poem, “The Dark Night,” after he was abducted by his own disgruntled Carmelite brothers and imprisoned for six months. In a narrow, cold cell, separated from all earthly comforts, John’s heart began to sing:
On a dark night, Kindled in love with yearnings—oh, happy chance!— I went forth without being observed, My house being now at rest.
In darkness and secure, By the secret ladder, disguised—oh, happy chance!—
In darkness and in concealment, My house being now at rest. . . .
The entire poem unfolds into an allegorical love story: the soul steals out to meet Christ, her lover, and, under the cover of darkness, she is embraced by him. The language is so deeply stirring that one might wonder how such things could be written by a half-freezing, half-starved celibate man. But, just so—here in this desolate place, John discovers that one thing only is important: union with God.
In another century, an ocean away, mother, convert and religious foundress Elizabeth Ann Seton, makes the same point. In the final years of her life, Elizabeth went through her own dark night. She who had endured the death of her husband and two beloved daughters, who had suffered poverty and the rejection of her family after her conversion to Catholicism, who struggled to lead a new religious community in the Maryland countryside, now began to feel the first touches of the tuberculosis that would eventually end her life. In a moment of undeniable spiritual aridity, her heart cried out:
“Alone on a rock this afternoon, surrounded by the most beautiful scenery, adoring and praising Him for His magnificence and glory, the heavy eye could find no delight. The soul cried out, ‘O God! Give Yourself! What is all the rest!’ A silent voice of love answered ‘I am yours.’”
Again, one thing alone is necessary—to seek God, indeed to plead for his presence with all one’s heart. Where John’s plea is elegant poetry, Elizabeth’s is all-American directness. But in the expression of both is the unmistakable prayer that God be all.
And what is the source of the single mindedness of these saints? We have only to continue reading Elizabeth’s account above to understand it: “Then, dearest Lord, keep me as I am while I live; for this is true content—to hope for nothing, to desire nothing, to expect nothing, to fear nothing.” In the same way, John of the Cross speaks of “the nothing,” that is the source of spiritual union. “Now that I ask for nothing, I have all without asking.”
Both saints point to the acknowledgement of our nothingness, a poverty of spirit, as the starting point. They teach us that dependence on God alone must be the basic condition of our lives.
This helps me.
I am struck by the fact that acknowledging nothingness is not something that I do, a new devotion or practice, but rather a fundamental attitude before my Creator. To “desire nothing, to expect nothing” does not mean reducing or repressing our natural God-given desire for all that is good. It means to depend on God for everything. And, in this nothingness, I am not wasting time being scandalized by my own poverty, but simply offering it to him over and over again. My inability to cope, my lack of planning, my over-busy days—the entire mess can be His.
And so, in the spirit of John of the Cross and Elizabeth Ann Seton, I am coming before Him this Advent with nothing. And maybe, finally, this is what Advent is about. Elizabeth’s barren womb, John the Baptist’s desert cry, the shepherd’s confusion, and Mary and Joseph in that cold stable—all of them point to the truth of the matter: the whole, poor world is waiting for Jesus to come.
LISA LICKONA, STL, is Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology at Saint Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry in Rochester, New York, and a nationally-known speaker and writer. She is the mother of eight children.
This reflection was originally published in 2019.