WAY back in the 1950s, I went to see Samuel Beckett’s mystifying play Waiting for Godot. Two tramps, Vladimir and Estragon, sit on an almost empty stage, waiting interminably. Every so often, a messenger boy enters. “Mr Godot told me to tell you he won’t come this evening, but surely tomorrow.” The enigmatic God-figure never does turn up.
For me, it is a parable about Advent waiting. We do not know if God will reveal himself, when it might happen, or if we are to be left in the dark.
The secular world does not heed the Advent waiting. The season is no more than a profitable run-up to Christmas. Yet we should not consign this pre-Christmas season to the dustbin; for that is theological disaster. If we are not waiting for God, the implication is that we already possess him.
This is an insidious trap. It is so easy to feel that we have got him wrapped up in the pages of the Bible, or our private prayer, or the sacraments. We cannot bottle God up. His glory and otherness lie way beyond our understanding.
Spiritual waiting has a sound biblical pedigree. There is the psalmist with his plaintive cry: “I waited patiently for the Lord” (Psalm 40.1). Isaiah comes across with a touch of urgency: “They who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles” (Isaiah 40.31). Waiting is central to Paul’s great outpouring in the Epistle to the Romans: “The creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God” (Romans 8.19).
All this inevitably gives a fresh touch to our theology — one that demands courage, and a degree of trust. Our relationship with God is not a cosy one-to-one, a chatting round the kitchen table with an old friend. It is one that is shot through with not seeing, not having, not knowing, not grasping.
The American poet Mary Oliver speaks of this empty time. Prayerful waiting, for her, is not the uttering of elaborate words, but “the doorway into thanks and a silence in which another voice may speak”.
St John of the Cross takes a similar line: “The dark night is an inflowing of God into the soul, a means whereby God instructs the soul with the perfection of love.”
Sometimes, the waiting, the apparent disappearance of God, becomes too much. Many years ago, I experienced a personal calvary, and, in anger and disillusionment, turned my back on the entire religious world. It proved to be nine years out in the cold: a nihilistic, self-centred philosophy that brought neither peace nor hope.
Then, out of the darkness, came the first flutterings of rekindled belief, a fresh awareness of the Lord’s unfailing love. God had not absented himself from me during that waiting; I had absented myself. But, as in Francis Thompson’s poem “The Hound of Heaven”, God follows us when we run away, flees with us into the darkness, and, ultimately, brings us face to face with his glory.
The Holy One turns up in un-likely places. I have a close friend who found God in the supportive kindness of hardened prisoners, as he sat, lonely and desperate, in his cell. I recall parishioners who found God through the death of a child, a friend’s suicide, terminal illness, and marriage break-up.
So we wait, ever hopeful, for those glory-filled, divine moments that bring fire and light into our prayers and lives.
Waiting is tough, and there are no easy answers for handling it. Often, it is an inexorable grind, a triumph of faith over reason, a courageous holding on through the shipwreck of our lives.
It is reassuring to remember the mystics who so often waited in the darkness. Angelus Silenus says: “God is a pure no-thing, concealed in now and here: the less you reach for him, the more he will appear.”
For St Symeon, silence was a time of revelation. “What is this wondrous mystery unfolding within me?”
Sometimes, it helps to remember that time and eternity are interwoven. Something as simple as a cluster of bluebells, a baby’s smile, a hovering butterfly, or a kiss can bring about a renewed vision of God, who is never far away.
The German poet Rilke writes of desolate nights picturing God in the next bedroom: “If at times, through the long night, I trouble you with my urgent knocking — this is why: I hear you breathe so seldom.” The wall between us and God, he says, is very thin. “Why couldn’t a cry from one of us break it down? It would crumble easily.”
If this still does not ring true, listen to Paul Tillich in The Courage to Be (1952). He speaks of the God who is still there when our doubting prevails. “The courage to be is rooted in the God who appears when God has disappeared in the anxiety of doubt.”
So we wait in awe and wonder, with burgeoning excitement, for that Christmas moment when the divine breaks into the world, lightening its darkness, sharing its pains. As Rilke put it: “You are the deep innerness of all things, the last word that can never be spoken. To each of us you reveal yourself differently.”
May we all be blessed with a renewed awareness of the Christ-love during our Advent waiting.
The Revd David Bryant is a retired priest living in Yorkshire (Features, 11 September).