Wednesday, December 10, 2008

And the rough places plain

I know a number of my colleagues do not like the Lectionary readings for Advent Sundays this year. (They're the readings appointed for use at liturgy, and very often Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans, and some Methodists and Presbyterians will be reading the same readings on the same day, the world over. I think that's pretty neat, actually.)

I love them.

The reading this past Sunday from Isaiah 40 always evoke the celestial music of G. F. Handel's Messiah for me -- the lyrics for which, of course, are lifted from passages like this one. The tenor sings "Comfort ye my people" to get things going. He continues with "Every valley shall be exalted," and is followed by the chorus breaking forth with "And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed." Eventually the alto sings "O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion" and just before the end of the first section of the Oratorio, the soprano sings "He shall feed his flock like a shepherd."

And these are just the pieces setting words from Isaiah 40 to music.

Geographically, I'm located in a region that's not all that far away from where the people originally the recipients of this sacred story lived. Many of those people were nomads, and these days I'm "commuting" to work so much, I'm feeling a bit nomadic myself. Anyone who's ever traveled by land in these parts knows the values of good roads, and how difficult the going gets when the roads get rough.

So, I hear the echoes of Handel's Messiah when Isaiah 40 is proclaimed at Mass, and especially these days, the parts about every valley being filled in, mountains being made low, and the rough places plain.

Most of my travel of late has not involved being on roads, but even when traveling by air, a smooth ride is preferable to a bumpy one! (See my post of a few days ago, "Taken for a ride," for instance!)

We are enjoined by the voice of the prophet Isaiah: "In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD,/ make straight in the desert a highway for our God." (Is 40:3) This admonition is echoed in the Gospel reading (Mk1:1-8) appointed for this past Sunday as well (which also quotes Isaiah): "A voice of one crying out in the desert: 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.'"

These days, while living here in a desert land, I'm more and more convinced the desert that's referred to here is our interior desert, which is so often filled with spiritual rough places: lots of serpentine valleys and craggy mountains.

Those of us who are Christians have a God who is with us: Immanu El (literally, the with-us God). If I'm to have the eyes to see the presence of Immanuel in the midst of us, I need to prepare the way of the Lord interiorly. I need to fill in the valleys and level the mountains and make the rough places plain.

Prejudices, contempt prior to investigation, resentments, fears, shame, anger, bitterness, arrogance, stubborn refusal to acknowledge mistakes (even in the face of overwhelming evidence) -- the list could go on and on -- constitute the spiritual wadis and other obstacles which need to be smoothed out in order to prepare the way of the Lord. It's no small task, especially in my case.

After all, I have a powerful intellect located in a broken brain. That's a dangerous combination, especially when considering the spiritual life!

Those character defects are what prevent me from being able to recognize the hand of God at work on the ends of the arms of those about me. They blind me from seeing the action of God carried out by people my brain would have me believe are inferior, less-than, inadequate, fraudulent (amazingly, everything I've thought about myself, actually -- projection is an amazing phenomenon, eh?).

They deafen me to hearing the voice of God speaking tenderly to the Jerusalem which is my soul that "her iniquity is pardoned" -- which voice much too often comes from the throats of people whom I judge harshly, thereby giving me license to ignore. Those character defects harden my heart against a love with which God attempts to surprise me, but which I am unable to accept because it isn't occurring according to *my* plan and purpose.

Here in Iraq at the moment the desert is beginning to come alive with green, growing things because the temperatures are downright chilly and because we've been having rain. It's been fascinating and awesome to see from the air a landscape which only two months ago had been unremittingly gray and monochromatic burgeon into a lush emerald patchwork.

It's so amazing that it really did distract me from the terror of cavorting around in an aircraft seemingly piloted by a crew determined to get me to barf.

So, if this harsh and unyielding and dangerous terrain can be transformed into a land -- that at least for a season -- produces a rich harvest, then perhaps there's hope for my internal desert. Just maybe my interior wasteland of stony hillocks and barren slag heaps and sere arroyos can become a garden of rich spiritual delights. For the rough places to be made plain in my soul, I first have to recognize the truth of their condition, and ask for -- and accept -- help to prepare the way of the Lord.

That's what Advent is about for me this year, here in Iraq.

Blessings and peace to one and all,

Fr. Tim, SJ

View My Profile

No comments:

Powered By Ringsurf