Stuck in Traffic: An Advent Lesson in Waiting

Photo by Nabeel Syed on Unsplash

There are few things in life I despise more than being stuck in traffic. I hate the anxiety I feel knowing I’ll be late for or perhaps entirely miss an event. My fears are not unfounded: My father-in-law went on an errand one year a few hours prior to our family Christmas dinner. An overturned semi blocking all lanes of the interstate resulted in him as a no-show for all the holiday festivities. It’s known in family lore as “the year Grandpa missed Christmas.” Among the evils I hate about traffic jams are the unnecessary burning of fossil fuels, the unnerving fear that I may soon need to go to the bathroom, and – what may be hardest for me – the very idea of “wasting time.”   

For many of us, the many months-long pandemic feels like a horrifying kind of traffic jam on a global scale. Just about everything to some degree has stopped at least for a time: our work at the office and our children’s school attendance; our workouts at the gym and matinees at the movie theater; concerts, reunions, conferences, and events of every kind. At times, even Mass itself seemed an impossibility. Being “stuck in traffic,” literally or figuratively, can seem like the worst of all possible outcomes.

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But perhaps there’s another way to look at it. After all, “getting stuck” has a silver lining, a potentially powerful saving grace: It reminds us that we are not in control. If nothing else, the pandemic we continue to live through teaches this lesson whether or not we want to take it in.

In a sense, Advent is the season of the Church year that does the same thing. The four weeks of expectant waiting for the Christ child invite us to welcome that sense of “not yet but in the fullness of time” into our faith lives and challenge us to trust in “the slow work of God.”  As Christians, we wait not just for the baby in the manger, which was a historical event in the distant past; we wait for that time when we can recognize God’s presence in all things at all times and in all places. I have found a few spiritual practices to be especially helpful in cultivating this sense of hopeful anticipation that keeps God in the driver’s seat and my own shortsighted need for control under wraps.

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The power of Scripture

One of the great things about being Catholic is that we are never alone. We are part of a faith tradition that spans millennia, so the waiting and hoping that we do today is inherited from those who waited and hoped for God throughout salvation history. When I remember this sacred heritage, praying with the Hebrew Scriptures becomes especially powerful. These ancient texts provide countless verses that help me transform my negative attitude toward the idea of “being stuck” into a more positive understanding of waiting as a way of participating in a “holy longing” for God’s presence as my ancestors have done through the ages. The Book of Psalms (27: 13-14; 62: 5; 130: 5-6) and Isaiah (8:17; 40: 31; 64: 4) are my personal favorites.

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Presence vs. absence

When I am stuck in traffic – or stuck in a situation in which I impatiently wait for some future development – I often think of my experience as one of “absence.” Being isolated into a small vehicle behind miles and miles of unmoving machinery feels very much like a “lacking.” I’m not where I want to be, I can’t do what I want to do, I won’t get to those I wish to see when I’d like. This “absence” of all I long for can feel very empty and barren. But when I remember that God is always “present,” not absent at all, the space in which I wait becomes filled with sacred possibility.  

Centering prayer has been a helpful practice for me when I’m tempted to think that “not yet” is the same as “nothing at all.”  When I meditate quietly, breathing in the silence of hopeful expectation, and return my focus to a sacred word or phrase, I am reminded that there is a substance to my waiting. The phrases I like to use most are simple ones, like “Holy God” or “Peace of Christ.” God is present in the generative emptiness of my surrender to him. There can be a powerful experience of grace in the waiting, and Advent is an ideal time to begin or recommit to this form of contemplative prayer.

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Taking action

Another fruitful Advent practice is service to those in need. While this is a great thing to do any time of the year, by using Advent to focus on others who wait – for food, shelter, physical or emotional healing, even just a kind word or gesture – our own waiting takes on a greater purpose. It unites us in solidarity with the longing of the rest of the human family.  Since the pandemic and related social distancing requirements make direct service to those in need more challenging, this year my own Advent commitment is to advocate for humanitarian assistance for those in Yemen and Syria whose suffering has been made even more dire by COVID-19. In serving and advocating for those less fortunate, we are reminded that we are all in this together and none of us is in the driver’s seat, so the only logical response is faith in God’s timing.  

If I never again show up late to an appointment because I was stuck in traffic, it will be too soon. I could happily live the rest of my life without the impatient blaring of car horns, budding sense of claustrophobia, and disconcerting empathy I feel for those with “road rage.” But it’s also true that waiting is its own profound blessing. It reminds us that we are not in control, which opens us to God’s active presence in our lives in new and life-giving ways. Advent is a time of sacred longing that invites us to put God back in the driver’s seat every day of the year.